2017-06-08 05:55:02
Digging the Graveyard of Oil’s Past

Moored off the port of Rotterdam, Netherlands, Pioneering Spirit looms so large that it is difficult to recognize as a ship. The crew of 450 is dwarfed by the cranes and pipes that dominate the sprawling layers of decks.

For decades, Edward Heerema, head of Allseas, the Swiss-based energy services company, dreamed of building a giant vessel to install oil platforms offshore. But the Pioneering Spirit has found another purpose: dismantling oil fields in the British North Sea.

With oil prices dropping sharply in the last two years, Mr. Heerema said he was now just focused on finding enough work to meet his payroll. “I can’t say how long it will take to pay for itself. Maybe 10 years, maybe 30 years,” he said of the ship.

The British North Sea was once a crucial source of oil for the world. At its peak in 1999, it produced about 2.9 million barrels of oil a day, more than Kuwait or Iraq at the time.

Since then, production has generally been in a long slide as oil fields discovered decades ago are exhausted and high costs discourage new exploration. Its diminishing fortunes have been cemented by the rise of renewables and the push for cleaner alternatives to oil.

“It is one of those signs that we may be at a tipping point,” said Anthony Hobley, chief executive of Carbon Tracker, a nonprofit group that studies the investment risks of the shifting energy landscape. “We may well be at that critical point in history where people will say that this is the point where the oil industry reached its peak and began to decline.”

This spring, the Pioneering Spirit headed to the Brent field in the North Sea, a major oil and gas trove named after the Brent goose. The field helped define the business, giving its name to Brent crude, the global price benchmark for oil.

After 40 years of production, the field is nearly pumped out. And a group of four platforms in the field — giant rigs that stand around 1,000 feet tall and weigh a combined million tons — are gradually being shut down.

This spring, the Pioneering Spirit transported one platform to its final resting place, a shipyard in Hartlepool in northeast England where it is being dismantled and sold for scrap. An industry in itself, this so-called decommissioning process creates jobs and profits along the journey.

Discovered in 1971, the Brent field was one of several major finds that turned the North Sea into a world-class oil region. Companies like Royal Dutch Shell, which operates the Brent field, and Exxon Mobil, its co-owner, focused their investments in the West, after a wave of nationalization in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The North Sea is a vast operation, with more than 300 fields scattered across 95,000 square miles. Shell built four giant platforms in the Brent field, called Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta, capable of withstanding giant waves and hostile weather.

Shell must safely dismantle these monsters and plug more than 100 wells below them. The company estimates that the process will last a decade and cost billions of dollars, some paid by British taxpayers.

Such exercises will be increasingly common in the North Sea and other oil regions. Around 100 platforms are expected to be dismantled in British waters over the next decade.

Shell figures that hiring Pioneering Spirit to cart the platforms to shore where they can be dismantled is cheaper and safer than busting them up at sea. “The biggest risk is putting people on helicopters,” said Alistair Hope, Shell’s project director, referring to the usual means of transportation to offshore platforms.

The oil companies do not want a repeat of the mid-1990s. Back then, Shell’s plan to sink a piece of Brent equipment, called Brent Spar, in the ocean depths caused a bruising fight with environmental groups led by Greenpeace and prompted stricter regulation.

Delta, the first platform to be taken apart, consists of what is known as a topside, a kind of offshore petroleum factory and hotel with accommodation for more than 160 people. The platform rests on concrete legs that weigh a combined 300,000 tons.

In late April, Pioneering Spirit lifted the ungainly structure off the legs and carried it off like a spider grasping prey. Shell wants to leave the concrete stumps, which contain some oil, in place at sea, saying they pose minimal risk to shipping routes and have less chance of polluting the environment that way.

Once Brent Delta reached the port in Hartlepool, the platform became the property of Able UK.

In the mid 1990s, Peter Stephenson, Able’s owner, bought an old shipyard, capitalizing on the industrial area’s decline. When the financial crisis struck, he took advantage of cheap steel prices to invest £28 million in facilities, like a reinforced dock to bear the weight of the platform.

As Able workers break apart the rig, Shell will continue to watch over the process, to make sure that hazardous or polluting material like asbestos or small amounts of remaining oil are handled properly.

Workers will strip off anything valuable, like brass valves or other metal equipment. Larger pieces will gradually be cut loose and brought to the ground. They will most likely be sold to steel mills, which melt scrap to make new metal.

Mr. Stephenson, 70, has squeezed a fortune of an estimated 430 million pounds out of unwanted properties over the last six decades. At 19, he started out buying a broken front loader, a machine for scooping dirt into trucks — then fixing it and hiring it out. He later moved into demolition.

In recent years, Able has dismantled ships for the United States Navy, as well as the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau. He recently began buying idled coal-fired power plants, breaking them up for scrap and redeveloping their sites.

Mr. Stephenson sees value in everything.

He has turned the living quarters of a scrapped BP offshore platform into a makeshift motel and office for workers of drilling rigs that come into the yard for maintenance. A helicopter deck is being cut up for bridging material.

The future of energy is represented, too. A torpedo-shaped device discarded by General Electric was a prototype for a machine that generates electricity from ocean waves.

As the Brent Delta platform moved through the channel, a group of Mr. Stephenson’s friends, family and associates ate roast pork and stuffing, ham and peas pudding and other regional fare in a white tent pitched by the water. Winning a big job is a lift for a region that has been hit by the decline of some mainstay industries like the recently shuttered Redcar steel plant visible in the distance.

“This proves the northeast can still do stuff,” said Marcus Walker, a project director at Coolsilk, a local real estate investment firm.

Mr. Stephenson says the Brent contract will preserve or create up to 50 jobs. His company makes a practice of hiring and buying locally. A catering company called The Old Butchers Sandwich Shop provided food to guests and workers on the yard.

“There have been a lot of peaks and troughs over the last few years,” said Heidi McCullagh, who runs the catering company. “When a contract comes in, you have suddenly got a queue at the door.”