On one occasion, around five years ago, I visited the Piper Bravo offshore oil platform. Bravo was built and installed to replace Alpha, which suffered a series of consecutive failures that led to an explosion and the complete destruction of the platform on 6th July 1988. That horrific night, 167 people lost their lives and countless family members lost their soul, a loss that is still felt and understood throughout the North Sea even today.
On Bravo, if you’re new to the platform, you’ll be inducted through the safety systems and ultimately given an outside tour. Part of that tour is perhaps the most poignant sight that can be witnessed offshore in the North Sea, and that solemn sight is a marker buoy signaling where Alpha used to tower into the sky.
If anything good can be scraped from such a tragedy, it was the outcome of the Cullen Inquiry. The North Sea, thankfully and with a lot of credit to more stringent safety regulations since then, has avoided a repeat of that fateful night in 1988 and has moved on to lay claim to being one of the safest areas in the world to live and work offshore.
Maintaining that status in a post-Brexit world may prove problematic.
Strategically, the United Kingdom has just changed forever following the Brexit vote which will see a schedule laid out for a full exit of the UK from the European Union. With that exit, the strategic supplies of oil and gas – gas in particular – now flow entirely from what are effectively nations the UK has no real influence over.
War in Europe, unlikely as it may seem, would see energy supplies disrupted with no levers to influence direction or amount. And no matter how remote the chance is of war in Europe revisiting our shores, the UK will have to form contingencies for energy shortages.
Fracking has been big news in the UK, with permission to go ahead having been recently granted in Yorkshire. The only logical outcome to mitigate energy supply concerns from the point of Brexit onwards is to quicken the pace of onshore fracking wells, and to achieve a pace that can significantly increase oil reserves and production in a short period of time would require a gradual de-regulation of health and safety standards across the UK sector.
So, following de-regulation or devolution of standards, which appears to be incrementally happening with streamlined cost initiatives offshore anyway, the fracking boom can and will go on its merry way. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing I’ll leave to you to decide, because I don’t want to be divisive.
The second likely mitigation is to open up and actively encourage the Atlantic frontier, including the shallower and calmer estuaries of Scotland, to drilling activity. Is this achievable? Yes it is, but it’s challenging, so the oil price would have to be right to justify the pipeline infrastructure, or a nationalised oil company would have to be formed to take the reigns and give direction to private oil companies.
Or both scenarios could happen, because in a world where you’ve annoyed too many politicians you probably don’t have an awful lot of people you could reliably call a true ally.
But whatever comes of this mess, the most important thing is that safety standards cannot be diminished to the point where lives are put at risk again.
Piper Alpha should NOT be forgotten. Ever.
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