Photo: THE RIG; Source: PIF

Breathing new life into oil rigs

While it is expected that a day will come for the offshore oil and gas infrastructure to be retired at the end of active service life, does this have to be the end for these giant beasts of the sea? This year, many eyes have been opened to the idea that these oil rigs could get a new lease of life by being reimagined and rehabilitated into something new, like art.

At the end of its lifecycle, the offshore energy infrastructure is withdrawn from use and put through a decommissioning process. Some companies like the U.S.-based Chevron and Malaysia’s Petronas opt for rigs-to-reefs projects when possible, where decommissioned rigs are submerged into the sea to create artificial reefs. This has already been done multiple times and enables cost savings and reuse of offshore platforms that otherwise would become scrap metal and material. These projects are believed to be beneficial for the marine environment.

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However, the awareness about the possibility of reusing these industrial structures has been further raised by a decommissioned North Sea platform, which embarked on its transformation into a large-scale public art installation in 2022.

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This retired North Sea platform was part of a project called SEE MONSTER, which was brought to life by NEWSUBSTANCE Collective. It was first announced in October 2021, when it was revealed that the town of Weston-super-Mare was selected as one of ten locations across the country to host this flagship, national arts and culture installation

However, the actual transformation of the 450-tonne platform, weighing the same as three blue whales or 65 African elephants, did not start until July 2022, when it arrived at its destination to take up its new lease on life. Transported on a flatbed barge as large as a football pitch to the Tropicana and lifted by a crane over the seawall onto pre-constructed legs, the retired North Sea giant was turned into SEE MONSTER and enhanced with multiple bells and whistles, including renewable energy, sparking discussions about making use of such things in the future.

During the time this art installation was open to the public, visitors were able to “pass behind the thrashing cascade of a 12-metre waterfall and under the shimmering scales into the cavernous underbelly of the beast,” find “hidden routes” within the “wild garden” to discover and explore the rehabilitated structure’s “new approaches to a more sustainable and greener future,” as underlined by NEWSUBSTANCE.

Even though SEE MONSTER closed its doors after eight weeks of welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors onboard and returned to its decommissioning cycle, there are many such structures, which are either at the end of their service life or nearing it, that could be put to use in similar projects.

“SEE MONSTER has been one of our most ambitious projects to date and what a journey it has been! A genuine world first in reuse and one we hope provides a blueprint for the future,” said NEWSUBSTANCE

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Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) released a report in November 2022, which outlined that the decommissioning in the UK was expanding fast, predicting a surge in activity over the next three to four years. Based on the report, the sector is expected to continue growing as other emerging offshore energy technologies, like offshore wind farms, also require the service.

At the time, OEUK underscored that around 2,100 North Sea wells are in the cards to be decommissioned over the next decade, which is around 200 per year, at an average cost of £7.8 million per well. Due to this, about £20 billion is anticipated to be spent on decommissioning North Sea oil and gas installations in the next decade.

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With over 75 per cent of total decommissioning spend estimated to be within the central North Sea – stretching from Yorkshire to the northern tip of Scotland – and the northern North Sea – covering an area north of Scotland and east of Shetland and Orkney – this certainly provides many opportunities and options for reuse of this North Sea infrastructure in different ways, perhaps even more art installations similar to SEE MONSTER.

Putting retired oil rigs to use

Some other countries have already come up with creative ways to put these oil rigs to use once they retire from active duty and are no longer needed for black gold extraction. One of those worthy of being mentioned, when considering projects of reusing the old to create something new is the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum and Education Centre, which is dedicated to the offshore oil and gas industry. This museum is housed on a retired jack-up rig set up in the Galveston harbour and located next to the Strand National Historic Landmark District.

Prior to retiring, the Ocean Star jack-up rig carried out operations in the Gulf of Mexico from 1969 to 1984, drilling over 200 wells during its active service life. It was purchased in 1995 by the Offshore Energy Center (OEC) and opened as a museum in 1997, following refurbishment. It is designed to be a self-guided facility with videos, information, and interactive exhibits throughout, which takes most visitors about 1.5 hours to tour completely.

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Another example of reusing oil rigs is Saudi Arabia’s THE RIG, which is a tourism project inspired by offshore oil platforms. It was announced in October 2021 by the country’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and is planned to be located in the Arabian Gulf.

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Spanning an area of more than 150,000 square meters, this “extreme park, an entirely new playground of adventure,” as described on the project’s website, is expected to feature a number of touristic attractions, including three hotels, 11 world-class restaurants, helipads, and a range of adventurous activities such as extreme sports and live shows.

“Offshore platforms were created for discovery. THE RIG takes that legacy to the next level. This is the ultimate living laboratory for pioneering new thrills, extreme sports and adventure. Climb aboard and experience the future of adventure,” as highlighted on the official website.

There are other examples of these decommissioned rigs being given a new purpose and lease on life, such cases include movies and TV series, where these offshore structures are used to film different scenes. One such case is Amazon Prime’s new supernatural thriller, titled The Rig, which is set on an oil rig off the Scottish coast in the North Sea.

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This upcoming six-part thriller is expected to hit the screens on 6 January 2023, promising to take its viewers on a gripping adventure with a group of offshore workers stationed on the fictional Kinloch Bravo oil rig in the North Sea. As their plans to return to the mainland get spoiled, the crew will be forced to confront a mysterious fog and unknown forces as “bonds are broken, allegiances formed and generational fault lines are exposed.”

Several movies have been made so far, which make use of offshore gas or oil platforms and some of them have even been based on a true story, like Deepwater Horizon (2016). As the title suggests, it was based on the Deepwater Horizon tragedy from 2010, which killed 11 offshore workers, caused billions of dollars of damage and made lasting impacts on the environmental landscape in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some other honourable movie mentions include The Thing Below (2004); Sector 7 (2011); Norway’s Pioneer (2013); and The Rig (2010). The last one was shot entirely on the oil rig known as Mr. Charlie, which is recognised as the first submersible and fully transportable drilling rig in the world to drill offshore wells. It is now used as a museum and training facility in Morgan City, Louisiana, which showcases another good example of the reuse of retired oil rigs.

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