All around the world, offshore oil and gas facilities are coming to the end of their lives. In the North Sea, decommissioning is expected to be required on 349 different fields before 2025, and on the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) alone, around 100 platforms and 7,500km of pipeline are due to be decommissioned.

The process is required on every site in the North Sea, but it is infamously high-risk and high-cost, costing both operators and the UK Government millions on every site that reaches the end of its life, while offering almost no returns. Carrying out decommissioning effectively and efficiently is therefore a real necessity going forward.

The University of Aberdeen has found what it believes to be the answer – a Master’s degree in decommissioning. The training of individuals in all aspects of the process has the potential to significantly reduce costs, as well as the environmental impact of decommissioning. David Vega-Maza, senior lecturer in engineering and MSc in Decommissioning coordinator at the University of Aberdeen highlights its potential.

Elliot Gardner: Can you tell us more about the course and how it came to be?

David Vega-Maza: This is a Master of Science (MSc) degree in offshore decommissioning. We cover the legal, business and economics, biological science, and engineering aspects. We’re trying to tap into all these different facets because decommissioning is a truly multidisciplinary subject matter. You cannot decommission a platform or pipeline without taking into account the environmental and regulatory aspects, or the possible contracts and business plans, and obviously all the technological and engineering solutions.

The origins of the course came about three years ago. We thought it was time to take a look at decommissioning from a different perspective. There are some misconceptions to overcome. It’s more complicated than just the scrapping of an offshore installation. People working within the various aspects of decommissioning got in touch and told us that there’s a knowledge gap here.

And there was no single MSc programme in the whole world talking about this very hot topic. So that’s what we created. We started last year, so we’ve just had the first cohort of students through, who are now finishing. The University of Aberdeen is working together with Robert Gordon University (RGU) to deliver a flagship offering from the northeast of Scotland, in Aberdeen – a teaching experience.

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Decommissioning has only just appeared on people’s radars in the last few years. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s a combination of factors. At the base level, we simply have to do it. Our assets in the North Sea, and of course elsewhere in the world, are old. Many of them are approaching end-of-life. There are laws in place that say you have to remove them once they are out of service. You have to decommission them.

It’s always been the case, but some companies weren’t really thinking about it. Then suddenly many of these 30-40-year-old platforms came to end-of-life all together.

I don’t deny that the oil and gas price downturn was also a factor. Many of these installations were no longer economically viable. So these companies thought that now might be the time to look into decommissioning their facilities.

Decommissioning is a high-risk, high-cost aspect of the industry. How important is it to have individuals trained specifically in decommissioning?

It is high-risk, especially in terms of cost. In the UK there’s a tax relief system to aid in the cost of decommissioning. The government therefore clearly wants to reduce costs. Many of these decommissioned installations will get between 40%-70% tax relief. At the end of the day this is taxpayers’ money.

There are different ways of reducing the cost but the preferred option is with technology, know-how, and with lessons learned. This isn’t just our opinion; this is what many offshore companies think too.

Obviously we have great engineers and experts who could do a very good job of reverse engineering a well, but they might not be aware of the additional factors, for example the business plan. A business plan for decommissioning is totally different and incomparable with the business plan for a normal production facility. You’re not looking to maximise profit or production, you want to reduce the cost of something that doesn’t give you any money back.

What’s the advantage of training someone up with a Master’s degree, rather than hiring someone who has trained without the industry?

Around 80% of our students on campus and 90% online are actually people with a great deal of experience in the oil and gas industry. Vast numbers of them are engineers, but we also have members from geology and environmental science.

These are people who have been working in offshore, and they see this as an opportunity. They want to learn more about decommissioning and feel their current experience isn’t necessarily enough.

The course is available to everybody, but it’s a great programme for people who want to carry on with their own development, who want to learn something else to keep up with current opportunities.

What was initial interest like for the course? What about next year?

The interest in the first year was very high. We’ve also seen an increased interest from internationals, especially from Beijing, as well as people from Brazil, from South East Asia, and from the Gulf of Mexico.

I have to be honest, for national students so far the second year intake is slightly lower. It could be that the oil and gas price is a bit higher now, or some people might believe that decommissioning is off the radar now. Which I actually think is incorrect. Decommissioning has to happen whether the conversation is picking up or not. But still, the numbers are very positive. It is normal for the second year to slow down slightly, especially with decommissioning being less in the media.

My impression is that it’ll stabilise and we’ll have a healthy number of students every year.

What’s the response been like from the industry?

We have had a very positive response from industry. Many of the people delivering lectures for the course are externals working in decommissioning.

But there still needs to be a change in culture from the industry. There needs to be an understanding that decommissioning requires experts. That’s why this MSc is important – it’s contributing to that change.

You’ve mentioned that decommissioning is a worldwide issue, but do you feel that your proximity to the North Sea is an advantage to the course?

Absolutely. Without this proximity I don’t think we’d be able to provide the course.

We work in academia, so we try to provide academic answers to problems through research. Our university is the focal point of a new national centre of excellence for decommissioning, with multi-million-pound investment from the Scottish Government and our own university.

We are lucky, the industry is here, and we work with them. Many offshore companies are with us in Aberdeen and without them, without their guidance and the contribution of the experts delivering part of our courses, the Master’s would not be anywhere near as interesting or successful certainly.