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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.