Oil industry fears tighter rules for huge platforms

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IF THE Brent Spar caused trouble, the oil industry says, wait for Ninian. The Ninian field, operated by Chevron, is nearing the end of its productive life, and the question of how to remove its central platform is under serious consideration. It weighs 250,000 tonnes, the same as the Canary Wharf complex and three times as much as the Houses of Parliament. "It's going to be a major problem, that one," says a spokesman for the UK Offshore Operators Association (UKOOA).

The oil industry is worried and not a little angry that the Brent Spar affair could lead to a tightening of the rules on decommissioning, which it thought had been settled by international agreement. Sir Ian Wood, chairman of John Wood Group, the biggest oil services company in Britain, says: "I'm extremely worried. We must protect the environment, but we must be very careful highly emotional theological arguments do not take over."

The consensus is that there will not be a repeat of the specific problems of Brent Spar, which is a storage container rather than a platform. But the sheer size of the platforms means the oil companies will be dealing with demolition on an unprecedented scale.

"How do you chop through a 3-metre-diameter steel leg 75 metres under the water when the structure it is supporting weighs 45,000 tonnes?" asks Neil Chapman, public affairs director of Amoco UK.

This is one of the questions Amoco has asked the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology to answer as part of a pounds 5m study on how to dispose of the North West Hutton platform. This will probably stop producing within three years and could well be the first of the 53 big North Sea platforms to be removed.

Mr Chapman admits that when the platform was installed, Amoco gave scant thought as to how it would get rid of it. "You can say in hindsight that you've got to look at the problems of extracting these platforms, but at the time all we worried about was how to develop the field." Amoco, like other oil companies, set money aside to pay for decommissioning - but did not start to consider the technical issues until four years ago.

Platforms installed from 1998 will have to be designed for total removal. But oil companies fear that pressure from foreign governments and Brussels could mean the rules change so this applies to existing platforms.