The UK needs to take the electrification of oil and gas platforms in the North Sea “seriously” to reach its climate goals as output is forecast to rebound, according to one analysis, potentially offering up a sea of job opportunities for low-carbon technologies.

Research from Norwegian consultancy Rystad Energy suggests oil and gas production on the UK continental shelf will remain “significant” for decades to come.

After a small decline over the next several years, Rystad projects output to rise and peak at 2.09 million barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2035, up by about 25% from the 1.64 million boepd expected this year.

Emissions under spotlight

As production increases so will emissions and the UK’s are the highest among the region’s producers, reaching 13.1 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019, according to its own emissions data.

Extraction emissions account for 10.1 million tonnes of CO2, with flaring making up the remainder.

In comparison, Norway’s total emissions from oil and gas production last year reached 10.4 million tonnes of CO2 and Denmark’s 1.4 million tonnes.

Setting Norway as an example, Rystad said it expects that 60% of Norwegian continental shelf production will come from electrified offshore platforms by 2025.

In addition, when it comes to emission intensity, the UK’s 21 kilos of CO2 per boe is also behind Norway’s impressive 8 kilos per boe.

While Denmark has the highest intensity in the region with 27 kilos of CO2 per boe, this reflects “its low production levels compared to its infrastructure energy needs” Rystad said.

The global intensity average is 19 kilos of CO2 per boe.

North Sea emitters: CO2 emissions Photo: RYSTAD ENERGY

UK net zero goals

The UK has set a goal to reach net zero emissions by 2050, but in order to reach its ambitious climate goals, the country will need to take “serious steps towards decarbonisation of its production by electrifying its infrastructure via renewable sources of energy, thus moving away from carbon-intensive gas turbines and diesel generators on offshore platforms”, Rystad said.

“There is significant room for improvement when it comes to reducing carbon intensity on the UK continental shelf,” Rystad’s upstream analyst Olga Savenkova said.

“We already see that priorities are shifting toward greener solutions from both sides of the decision-making process, and many operators and investors are now including an additional carbon cost in their capital allocation decisions,” Savenkova said.

Research shows that, while the initial capital investments for using renewable power generation offshore will be higher than traditional power generation solutions, this additional cost will be partially offset by lower operating costs and carbon price savings.

In addition, the absence of energy-generation equipment on platforms will reduce topsides weight and manpower requirements, as well as noise and vibration.

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Through electrification, Rystad said oil and gas fields’ own use of hydrocarbons will also be reduced, and the problem of fuel deficiency for power generation for mature assets will become obsolete.

Challenges

Shortly after announcing the results of the 32nd lease round earlier this month, the UK government launched a policy review of its future offshore oil and gas licensing regime as part of the net-zero emissions target.

This may result in emissions-reduction obligations being incorporated into the scoring system for future licence applications, Rystad said.

Already several major operators in the UK —– as well as some smaller players — are conducting feasibility studies targeting platform electrification across the Central North Sea and West of Shetland.

But as research progresses, low-emission design will become part and parcel of new field development plans.

“An associated risk here is that high-carbon-intensity developments may struggle to meet sanctioning requirements and late-life producing assets may face permanent shutdown earlier,” Rystad said.

“As a result, companies will end up with stranded assets if they don’t take timely emissions reduction measures.”

Electrification ‘an opportunity’ for wind farm developers

An important technology for achieving the net zero target is carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), which, according to Oil& Gas Authority (OGA) estimates, could remove more than 130 million tonnes of CO2 per year from UK emissions.

Another important one here is hydrogen, which could replace fossil fuels in power generation, heating and transportation.

To support UK’s net-zero plans, the OGA is already releasing historic seismic data, spanning a time period from the 1960s to around 10 years ago, that could help operators and organisations identify potential carbon and hydrogen storage sites in the North Sea.

Nevertheless, Rystad said “the final important building block in the UK continental shelf’s comprehensive approach toward energy transition is offshore wind”.

Development of offshore wind clusters near oil and gas production hubs can create significant opportunities for green electrification of production platforms.

At the same time, access to lower-cost electricity directly from offshore wind farms for oil and gas operators creates commercial opportunities for wind developers to expand.

“The installed capacity of global offshore wind was 27.6 gigawatts last year, 35% of which was in the UK,” Rystad estimates.

“The country’s installed offshore wind capacity is set to rise to 10.4 GW this year from 9.7GW in 2019 and will surge to almost 38 GW by 2030, close to the government’s target of 40 GW,” it said.