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Saturday, 13 May 2017

If Scotland had it's time back...

If you've ever had a conversation with someone who's political mind wasn't quite made up, you might have had a conversation, like I do most days, where Scotland's present & future prospects are often viewed through the prism of missed opportunities.

"look at the state of the UK's debt. £4.8 trillion! How did we ever manage to get diddled this badly?"

"Aye, I know, it's a scandal."

"How can a country that has had Oil & Gas to sell for the last 40 years be in debt!?"

"Squandered it, Obviously."

"Look at Norway, £500bn in the bank and rising! Why couldn't we have done that?"

"60 million people in the UK is a lot more than 5 million in Norway though"

"True, but 98% of the oil is in Scotland, isn't it? That's 5 million, no? Practically the same"

"Aye, I suppose it is. Och, buts it's too late now, if Scotland was going to be independent, it should have done it 30 years ago. There's no point now, it's almost all gone" 

Let me tell you, as someone who's worked offshore for the last 20 years, that's not a conversation I had just last week or even last year. That conversation, or  analogues of it have been repeated many, many times over the last 20 years or so, back when I first started my career in the late 90's.

It's hard to convince someone who doesn't understand the dynamic of oil & gas of the nature of oil reserves depleting, but simultaneously being found. They usually hear "Oil production / Revenue decline" and assume, wrongly, that it's running out. For a long time, I waited for the dreaded announcement, that the end had come, the oil rigs were going to get decommissioned & that was going to be that for North Sea oil. But it never came. It's still not came. Sure, the Brent Delta made the headlines as the Pioneering Spirit effortlessly hauled it away to Hartlepool, but by and large, the doors are still open (platforms still producing) & the customers are still coming.(Pipelines still pumping)

I would eventually realise that like any business, oil companies wait for the right time to produce reserves they haven't yet tapped. Sometimes it involves the Government offering a Tax incentive, other times it involves carried-wells, farm-ins or joint licenses. And every so often, it occurs because new infrastructure is built to make it cost-effective.

The UK's Oil & Gas sector is at its busiest nearest to the existing pipeline networks, Forties, Flotta, Sullum Voe, SAGE, CATS, Norpipe, this list isn't exhaustive & to labour my point, I'll provide a map showing UKCS oil & Gas infrastructure.

That there are lots of fields in close proximity to the existing pipeline infrastructure isn't a coincidence, Oil & Gas reservoirs found closer to existing pipeline facilities cost less to develop & get to market. Those further afield requiring larger investment are riskier propositions and sometimes need even bigger proven reserves to justify building the infrastructure.

This complex network of platforms, risers & pipelines has taken over 4 decades and billions of pounds to build and at the present moment, still produces significant volumes of oil & gas. If left to their own devices, these platforms would and indeed eventually will be decommissioned but its in no-ones interest, neither the Companies that operate them, nor the government of the day to see that happen sooner than it needs to.

I started this post with the intention of addressing an oft repeated anecdote about Scotland missing the boat when it came to Oil & Gas. Yes, Norway has done well, Yes, we SHOULD have done the same, we didn't and it's a source of bitter disappointment to many, even those who voted no in 2014.

We can surely all agree, however, that in the 1970's, Scotland & Norway were in almost identical positions. Skilled & educated populations of some 5m people, vast mineral wealth waiting to be tapped, it's hard to argue that wasn't the case & I doubt many would.

If you were however to argue that none of that matters now, that Scotland had it's chance in 1979 & blew it, that the halcyon days of the North Sea are gone or going, I would have to sadly, agree with you.

But what if Scotland was given a Second chance? What if Scotland had it's time back?

I'm not talking about travelling back in time to un-rig the 1979 referendum, I'm talking about the Atlantic basin,

Over the last year, a remarkably large reservoir of oil was found West of Shetland by the company Hurricane Oil. This in itself is great news for the oil industry, but what it means for Scotland is a genuine second chance at putting the wealth of our country to better use than it has for the last 40 years. 

Hurricanes finds can be likened to the Forties find by BP in 1970. It was the building and establishment of the pipeline infrastructure in 1975 that subsequently allowed other companies such as Philips, Conoco, Chevron, Shell, HESS, Amoco, BG & lots more to explore & develop the other licensed oil & gas fields in the North Sea. The rest as they say is history - record volumes of oil & gas flowed ashore, producing billions upon billions of pounds in not just oil revenue, but ancillary revenue such as income tax, VAT & everything else that a booming economy brings.

As a mature Oil & Gas province, the advent of building a brand new oil & gas network will be a trite challenge. We have the skills, the people, the know how and the benefit of hindsight whereas 40 years ago we had to rely on  American skill & labour to get much of it underway. Its widely acknowledged that many oil & gas majors are viewing Hurricane with great interest, given how transformational to the North Sea Industry their finds appear to be. As history as shown with BP's success with the Forties, establishing infrastructure early nets you a usage tariff that you benefit from for the life of the pipeline.

In reality though, it won't be the Oil Industry asked to reflect on what they've learned looking back at the last 40 years. That question is better off being asked of Scotland itself.

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