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.

 
 
 
 

The public supports stronger tenant rights. The government needs to act

How terribly kind of you. Image: Getty.

More than half of the population (53 per cent) do not think that renting privately works fairly for tenants, according to a recent report from the IPPR.

It is easy to see why. Limited protection from eviction, rising rents and poor conditions all impact on the public's perception of the sector. Hardly surprising then that 61 per cent of people do not think that the sector provides tenants with a long-term, stable home and 59 per cent say it does not provide affordable homes.

As part of our research, IPPR conducted focus groups across the country with tenants and landlords, aiming to understand more about people’s experiences of the tenure and what they would like to see done to reform it.

Through our in-depth conversations with tenants we found that many remain very concerned about the insecurity of private renting, worrying about having to move at short notice and putting them off complaining about repairs or poor conditions for fear of appearing as a nuisance. The high cost of rents, fees and deposits contributed further to this insecurity and caused hardship for a number of those we spoke to.

Experiences with poor conditions were commonplace, as were difficulties in getting landlords to complete repairs. Moreover, tenants often did not feel at home in the sector, with limits placed on them by landlords – preventing them from decorating for example – making them feel as though they didn’t have control over their home.

From the landlords’ perspective, many were concerned about welfare reform, which made them reluctant to let to those in receipt of housing benefit; reforms and reductions to tax relief on private landlords, which had reduced their income; and the legal system, which many felt was too slow in the rare cases where a tenant was not paying rent, exposing them to many months with no rental income.

Our research also found that tenants and landlords share some key issues. They both lack knowledge on their rights and responsibilities, undermining their ability to exercise them and meaning that tenants cannot assume lawful treatment by default.

They both felt the other party had greater power in the system. Tenants feel that they lack power in the system as a whole, resulting in mistrust, while landlords have expressed frustration at a lack of power in key parts of the process, principally at the end of a tenancy.


Finally, both tenants and landlords have limited trust in the system and the ability of government to reform it, demonstrating that reforms will need to build confidence in the sector if they are to be successful.

However, it was not all doom and gloom. We also found support for reform amongst landlords. Many recognised the impact a lack of security had on tenants, particularly those with children, and expressed a willingness for extra security to be offered to renters.

The government is making positive, though tentative, steps in reforming the sector – banning letting agency fees, consulting on the introduction of longer tenancies and exploring court reform. But, as in so many areas, this important area of domestic policy risks being starved of attention in the face of dealing with Brexit.

Failing to address the issues with the private rented sector would be a major own goal for the government given the widespread support for reform: 72 per cent of the public think government should be more involved in improving and regulating the private rented sector. Moreover, analysis conducted by the housing charity Shelter has shown that in marginal constituencies, private tenants make up a significant block of voters.

That 4.7m households have limited access to a stable home, are more likely to suffer poor conditions and lack control over their home are fundamental issue of justice. But as our work has shown, tackling these issues wouldn’t just ensure that the sector was more just: it would be hugely popular with tenants and the wider public, too.

Darren Baxter is a research fellow at IPPR.