Why is the UK government spending £25bn dismantling oil platforms?

An oil rig, taking up space. Image: Gary Bembridge/Wikimedia Commons.

As North Sea petroleum moves towards the end of its lifespan, the UK taxpayer is to spend some £25 billion in the next five years to pay nearly half the cost of removing the offshore infrastructure.

This might sound like the right thing to do, but as I have argued before, it is probably not the best use of public money. The environmental benefits of decommissioning are questionable. If we instead spent the money on, say, building more renewable energy, it would create jobs for longer and you would generate carbon-free power for your trouble. Others might not share this view – my point is it’s a debate we’re not having.

I have repeatedly asked the relevant government agencies to outline the motivations that support the current plans. They have never given me straight answers. My latest move has been to submit a request for information to the government’s Department for business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

Environmental bluster

In my request, I once again expressed my concerns about value for money. I said my previous requests had been met with a stock response that offshore operators have to decommission installations at the end of a field’s economic life, and that in accordance with UK and international obligations this has to be safe, efficient and cost-effective to the taxpayer while minimising the risk to the environment and other users of the sea.

This, I told them, says nothing about the reasons behind the policy – neither the primary environmental motivation nor anything to do with society or economics. I asked for the environmental basis underpinning the policy.

I received a reply from the director of decommissioning at the department. It says:

The UK’s international obligations on decommissioning are governed principally by the 1992 Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic (the OSPAR convention) and in particular decision 98/3 on the disposal of disused offshore installations.

The UK is indeed one of 15 parties to the convention, all of them countries in western Europe. Paragraph 2 of decision 98/3 stipulates that disused offshore installations can’t be dumped or left “wholly or partly in place” at sea.

The competent authority can allow exceptions, but it’s quite narrow – covering certain concrete infrastructure; the base of large steel structures; and some other installations that are very damaged. It leaves little scope for what I am suggesting.

The response says that:

We seek to achieve effective and balanced decommissioning solutions which are consistent with international obligations and have a proper regard for safety, the environment, other legitimate uses of the sea, economic and social considerations as well as technical feasibility …

[The decommissioning process] entails an assessment of the environmental impact [by the operator, and] … it is one of the factors that influences the final decision [by them on whether to go ahead] … Ultimately if leaving the infrastructure in place would not have a significant detrimental effect on the environment then an operator may make a case to decommission in-situ.

None of this says anything about overriding environmental benefits in removing these structures. Decision 98/3 is silent, and none of the government reports I have read address them either.

As for the operator’s environmental impact assessment, it is not their job to consider the taxpayer’s options. It is for the government, and it’s not happening.

How does this therefore amount to the government achieving a balanced solution? Where is the evidence that the legislation is providing a positive outcome? If it can’t be provided then the legislation is not appropriate and should be challenged – however well intentioned it may be.

The response also informs me that a joint industry project called INSITE is aiming to “enhance scientific understanding of the effect of man-made structures on the North Sea and thus support decision-making [by operators]”.

I am familiar with INSITE and have met with the project manager and discussed the programme. INSITE is undertaking some first-class science but its very existence and government funding only serves to demonstrate the lack of evidence that supports removal.

The money question

The department’s response also addresses the cost to the taxpayer, which is being spent in the form of tax relief for operators who are decommissioning. It says:

North Sea operators have paid over £330bn of tax since the 1970s at tax rates significantly higher than onshore companies, therefore allowing tax relief on decommissioning ensures a fair tax system that gives companies good incentives to maximise economic recovery.

What is that justifying or explaining? Because oil and gas companies have paid due taxes on eye-watering profits in the past, the government can use taxpayers’ money for future decommissioning costs?

The response refers to these as an “unavoidable cost for industry”. Well plugging and abandonment is unavoidable, but asset removal? Witness the rigs to reefs programme in the US.


The response says the government and industry are working on reducing decommissioning costs by 35 per cent. But why spend the money in the first place? If a large proportion of costs can be removed, surely that would be a better incentive to maximise petroleum recovery?

The UK, it concludes, remains committed to OSPAR and decision 98/3 and “there are no proposals to change the decommissioning process in operation”. The taxpayer, in other words, will be running up this huge bill to follow legislation without anyone having to demonstrate the case for it.

It is time that decommissioning policy be hastily re-examined in the UK. The government needs to commission a full evidence-based report into the environmental, social and economic benefits, comparing them to other options such as building more green energy stations and even spending the money on things like health or education.

The ConversationIf I am proven right about which will come out on top, the UK should renegotiate terms with OSPAR. Blindly going ahead with this policy is wrong. It is time to think again.

Tom Baxter, Senior Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, University of Aberdeen.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.