The recently published Energy White Paper marks a new chapter for the oil and gas sector, in the context of energy transition. With £1.5 billion expected to be spent every year on decommissioning for the next ten years, the paper identifies this as an opportunity for diversification of both businesses and the energy mix in the drive towards net zero. As well as the re-purposing of offshore infrastructure for renewable or cross-sector projects, stakeholders might also be considering re-purposing technology for such projects.
In August 2020, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ("BEIS") published a report on carbon capture, utilisation and storage ("CCUS"), setting out how to identify appropriate oil and gas infrastructure for re-use. Significantly, not all offshore infrastructure will be suitable for re-use. Indeed, the viability of re-purposing (or semi re-purposing) infrastructure will depend on a variety of factors, including size and location of wells or pipelines, availability (considering the economic life of an asset), well integrity, seismicity, and potential for CO2 leakage. Therefore, asset and field specific assessments will need to be carried out to determine which infrastructure might be suitable.
Further technical guidance and business models on how CCUS projects are to be delivered practically, safely, and securely are expected by 2022, along with similar publications for hydrogen. Importantly, once more detailed information is available, stakeholders will be able to carry out economic assessments and determine if these types of new energy projects will be viable from a commercial perspective. These assessments will vary between organisations and require to be balanced depending on particular asset portfolios, corporate strategies and risk appetites.
Energy transition is now at the forefront of many corporate agendas with plans being drawn up for new energy projects by the likes of Shell, BP, Total, Chrysaor, and Equinor. Furthermore, infrastructure is already being re-purposed. Pale Blue Dot's flagship Acorn project has re-purposed the Goldeneye oil pipeline in the North Sea to transport industrial carbon offshore. Similarly, Neptune Energy and its partners are piloting an energy integration project in the Dutch North Sea involving the re-use of certain infrastructure for production of hydrogen from sea water. These ventures are also collaborating with technology companies and have plans to re-purpose tech for certain purposes (e.g. monitoring carbon levels), making operations as streamlined and efficient as possible.
The first step in the re-purposing process is to determine who owns the technology. Is it owned by the operator company, or has it been licensed for use by a third party for a specific purpose? If the former, then there are unlikely to be any barriers to use, but it may be a different story if the technology is licensed and, in many cases, the technology may be partly owned by the operator and partly licensed which may add additional complexity to the analysis. Like infrastructure, an assessment should be made as to whether the technology is suitable for being re-purposed.
Technology and software licences may include restrictions on use for a particular purpose or 'field' – for example, monitoring levels of crude oil. Where that tech is then used to monitor carbon levels, the purpose requirement may still be met given oil contains carbon. However, when re-purposing to monitor hydrogen, for example, a contract amendment or new arrangement may need to be negotiated with the third-party provider (assuming it is willing to be co-operative). The key takeaway here is that the licences need to be checked and if the scope of the licence is not wide enough then all options need to be considered and that may involve seeking to renegotiate the licence for the existing technology or acquiring new technology to replace it.
If a particular technology cannot be re-purposed, but the infrastructure can, the clear benefits in re-using the already existing assets may justify an investment in new technology to enable it. Investment was previously a competitive necessity for many companies, but it is now seen as the main driver in achieving net zero.
In conjunction with technology investment, collaboration is key. The success of re-purposing projects will require input from various industry players, technology companies and academic or research institutions and, while such new technologies may be afforded protection through intellectual property rights such as patents, copyright or design rights, organisations should consider the benefits of sharing their know-how with industry counterparts. OGTC's Tech X programme provides a platform for tech start-ups to collaborate with both service sector and operator companies. Clear and concise collaboration agreements setting out each party's obligations and who will own the outputs (e.g. inventions, know-how etc) are key to success in this area.
Re-purposing oil and gas infrastructure and the use of technology (whether new or re-purposed) are areas which have potential to make a significant contribution to business innovation and sustainability, as well as the energy transition. In light of the white paper and new OGA strategy, operator and service sector companies alike should be assessing their business plans and identifying the opportunities they wish to pursue in the short term, through the transition, and longer term. Shell and BP have both recently renewed their commitment to the UKCS in terms of oil and gas and renewable projects, underlining the continued attractiveness of the basin and the opportunities there for the taking.