Offshore decommissioning – where do the biggest challenges and opportunities lie?

In case you missed the latest edition of Offshore magazine, our MD Richard Vann penned his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities within offshore decommissioning.

Read the article in full here….

The number of offshore assets reaching their end of life, globally, is rising, meaning decommissioning projects are a real eventuality for many operators. Drawing upon over 35 years of working throughout the decommissioning discipline, Richard Vann advises the key considerations plant owners should therefore make as they look to the future…

Decommissioning is an inherently hazardous exercise, which requires meticulous planning, experienced management and an extremely defined skill-set, if it is to be executed safely. If that exercise is being carried out in a remote offshore location, exposed to the elements, with added access difficulties and limited options, it’s no surprise that the challenges are magnified further.

That isn’t to say the challenges cannot be overcome of course. As is the case with any complex undertaking, they simply need to be anticipated, acknowledged and addressed, if the project is to unfold with maximum respect for safety standards, the environment and operators’ budgets.

Here are 8 key considerations to make when embarking upon an often-necessary decommissioning route map:

  1. Establishing a decommissioning mindset

In some countries, decommissioning is still viewed as a ‘necessary evil’ – it doesn’t help to produce a revenue-generating asset, as a commissioning exercise would, so organisations often fail to dedicate the level of time, skills and resources truly required. But there cannot be any temptation to cut corners, as this could put lives, the environment and the commercial integrity of the project, at risk.

  1. Assembling a competent project team

For one of the first times in the history of the decommissioning profession, there is a risk of demand outstripping supply – an issue now being felt on a global scale. The question of who is available to undertake the work is therefore one of the largest challenges currently faced by the industry – especially when it comes to tackling offshore assets.

Great care and attention should therefore be taken to assemble a competent supply chain including decommissioning expert and contractor (people who understand the world of decommissioning inside out), as well as offshore oil and gas specialists – nobody knows these assets more than the operators who have worked on them their whole lives.

  1. The logistics of the project

Comprehensive planning lies at the heart of every successful decommissioning project, but the challenges are undeniably greater – especially from a logistics perspective – when working offshore. As is widely known, getting people to and from a platform in itself is a hazardous process. Therefore, where possible, personnel movements should be planned so that return trips are minimised.

Add to this the physical constraints of getting large plant to an offshore location, and the job is harder still. There will inevitably be limitations regarding the equipment that can be used, so specialist knowledge is required to understand exactly what is possible, how this will affect the programme of works (including timescales) and how to move forward with safety at the forefront of all decision-making.

  1. Bringing assets to a ‘known state’

If the asset has already been mothballed, this poses many potential difficulties – some structures will have only been partially cleaned, for instance.. Offshore structures will also degrade much faster than a similar asset on an inland location, due to their exposure to the elements. This adds to the difficulties associated with establishing their ‘known state’ and understanding the potential pitfalls that lie ahead.

When first arriving on site, it is therefore imperative to assess the level of residual product, any loss of containment and the structural integrity of the remaining assets.

  1. Respect the role of technology

Drones can often provide a helpful inspection aide both on- and offshore. They can be flown over an installation – and in some cases deep into specific structures – before people need enter any vessels or work at height themselves. The convenience and safety benefits associated with this clever use of technology should not be underestimated.

As always, the pilot will assess the weather conditions prior to sending a drone in, and admittedly the window for a safe flight may be far more limited when working offshore. But it is far better to lose a drone than for a person to suffer even a minor injury on-site.

  1. Varying regulatory frameworks

Demolition professionals undertaking assignments on an international scale will inevitably be presented with varying legislative standards. It could be argued that this makes it difficult to ensure compliance when faced with differing levels of regulatory stringency, but the stance on this should actually be obvious.

There should never be a safety scale, e.g. where the degree can be ranked as ‘very unsafe’, ‘unsafe’, ‘almost safe’, ‘quite safe’ and so on – safety is an absolute and non-negotiable standard. So, whilst criteria and attitudes may fluctuate from country to country, the baseline reference point should be best practice. Generally, this is driven by the legislation and codes adopted by EU nations.

  1. Waste management and disposal

Decommissioning experts are now adept at delivering projects with ~100% material reuse and recycling rates, to the point where such high environmental standards are now becoming the norm. Consideration should therefore be given to the waste management programme for offshore works, especially because there is the added – yet manageable – challenge of transporting materials (including hazardous substances) back onshore.

  1. Cost

The number of asset owners that favour a solely cost-led rather than quality/cost-led approach to decommissioning, is thankfully dwindling – supply chain selection criteria is now far more multifaceted than simply bottom-line impact. This isn’t to say that financial parameters won’t be encountered, but if they risk compromising EHS standards, works must stop immediately.

Richard Vann is managing director of RVA Group – a specialist project management and EHS organisation that has completed more than 770 complex decommissioning, decontamination, dismantling and demolition projects worldwide. With over 35 years’ experience in the sector, he is past president of the Institute of Demolition Engineers and the Institute of Explosives Engineers. A notable commentator in this field he was also the keynote speaker at the World Demolition Summit 2017 and session chair in 2018.