In just a short amount of time the UK subsea industry has grown to be recognised as a leader in the energy industry, with oil and gas companies around the world looking to the UK for guidance, assistance and inspiration, as Alastair Birnie, chief executive of Subsea UK explains. “The subsea industry in the UK started in the late 1970s when it was recognised that platform based drilling wasn’t necessarily the only option in terms of exploration and production, particularly in the North Sea, where there is a very unique geography and geology. For example, there are a large number of reservoirs, many of them with very high volumes of resources, but they are spread far apart in inhospitable conditions, meaning that to install an entire infrastructure with the various platforms and associated equipment required an enormous investment.
“As a result of this it was obvious that a far more efficient and effective way of conducting E&P operations was to put the equipment on the seabed and carry out the work underwater,” he explains. “Naturally this required a host of new technologies and equipment and new methods of working, not only related to installation and operation of the equipment but also how to ensure it remains effective and well maintained. So, it was really these requirements that led to the evolution of the UK subsea industry, which in many cases was the first to tackle such challenges effectively. This has been extremely successful to the point where at present almost half of all production from the North Sea UKCS comes from subsea developments and operations. In short, we have come from essentially an embryonic market sector some 30 years ago, to one that is dominant throughout the global industry as a whole - in fact, over 30 per cent of all goods and services supplied to the subsea sector worldwide are supplied from the UK, which is something that we are very proud of at Subsea UK.”
As Alastair states, the UK subsea sector is very much dominant in the global energy market, and he feels that this is in no small part due to the amount of knowledge that lies within the UK and the resultant drive for innovation that this produces: “Of course we had the money, the understanding and the capability to be the first to undertake many of the pioneering subsea challenges, but beyond that we also have the knowledge base to be able to continue to project ourselves internationally as an industry. It is no exaggeration that if you look at the UK today I truly believe that we have by far the largest concentration of subsea literate people in the world, and by that I mean that they understand the key issues and challenges, understand how to deal with any risks that are involved, and have the desire to continue to innovate and remain at the leading edge.”
Of course, in terms of the development of technology to overcome such challenges it naturally helps that the North Sea oil and gas sector is a demanding environment to work in, and as Alastair explains, it provides an excellent proving ground to work globally: “The North Sea does not necessarily have the deep water aspect of many of the current oil and gas regions but it certainly has some very challenging weather and environmental conditions to tackle, particularly in regions off the West of Shetland and in the more northern areas. If we can be successful there we can work effectively anywhere in the world. To really be successful in harsh areas such as this you have to be efficient, and this is where UK industry as whole plays a crucial role. Performance drives the UK subsea sector rather than price, so that although what clients receive from UK subsea companies is not always the cheapest it is without doubt the best quality and from competent and highly skilled people, and I think that when you mix competency and efficiency together in the right way you really have a world-beating and very powerful combination. That is the fundamental premise that the UK subsea sector is built on.”
It is clear that Alastair is very passionate about promoting the industry, and in his role as chief executive of Subsea UK he heads an organisation that is responsible for championing the UK subsea sector and acting for the entire supply chain by bringing together operators, contractors, suppliers and people in the industry. “Essentially Subsea UK is a national industry body that supports the subsea sector both at home and overseas by demonstrating its skills and unique capabilities to various sectors of the energy industry,” he says. “This involves us travelling around the world to existing and growing markets such as Brazil to meet clients, companies and organisations and to show them just how capable we are. Together with this we work with potential investors to help them evaluate and understand investment propositions in order to increase business for the sector, and then we are involved with a lot more of the traditional work in terms of focusing on skills, training and recruitment and safety. Really, it is our job to support the home-grown industry in whatever way we can and help people to fully realise the potential that we have here.”
When looking at the effect of such campaigns it is clear the Subsea UK is having an excellent effect, as the UK subsea market has garnered the respect and acknowledgment of the global industry in recent years, with many leading companies approaching UK based companies for all of their subsea requirements. “There is absolutely no question that the UK subsea market has a great deal of respect and an excellent reputation worldwide,” says Alastair. “Not only does it have a strong presence in the market but more importantly, particularly in the current climate, it is a key part of the UK and international economy.”
As with any industry, there are always certain challenges that are present, some of which have been amplified in the current climate, and it is Subsea UK’s role to ensure that the UK market remains strong. “Fortunately for us the market has been growing here year-on-year, and in the last three years we have seen very significant growth,” Alastair comments. “But we have to make sure that we retain our competitive edge in the UK and that we do not allow ourselves to be in a position where we become less effective or efficient. As with all parts of the energy industry, the problem of attracting skilled personnel is a challenge that we regularly look to address, with the main problem being that so many people don’t realise that there are a large number of jobs present in the UK offshore sector as a whole.
“Of course, alongside the more traditional problems of investment and skills, the industry has faced a number of very important issues in light of the Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico,” he continues. “Since that time the onus for all of the major oil and gas companies has been on focusing on what is happening subsea and ensuring it is being carried out correctly and in the best way possible, to the point where there has been incredible scrutiny on the part of various organisations and the national governments on all parts of the sector. What has been great news for the UK subsea sector is that our government has been very supportive of the energy industry, has total faith in our abilities throughout the UK, and believes that we have a very safe and very strong sector that can continue to achieve the best results throughout the industry.”
Bearing this last point in mind, thoughts turn to the future, and as his tone suggests, Alastair is very confidant that the UK subsea sector can continue to maintain its leading position globally, as well as be involved in a number of new and exciting developments. “Something that is particularly interesting at the moment is the interest that the subsea sector is receiving from the growing renewables market. Many of the leading contractors are approaching our member companies looking for assistance in all number of areas involving their new projects and installations, which is a real recognition of the reputation of our market.
“Ultimately, I think that the future will be extremely positive. Far from diminishing in the current economic climate the UK subsea market has grown some 50 per cent in the last three years and it is my belief that it will continue to grow internationally and be a key contributor to the global economy. At Subsea UK we see a great future for all of our member companies, whether they are involved with managing the integrity of existing fields, managing decommissioning or new field developments, or tasked with the continual development of innovative technology. The most important message that we try to get across is that it is a great industry to work in and one which will continue to play a vital role for the foreseeable future.”Subsea UK
Alastair Birnie is chief executive at Subsea UK, the champion for the UK subsea industry. Acting for the entire subsea supply chain by bringing together operators, contractors, suppliers and people, the organisation represents a sector that employs some 40,000 people and provides over £6 billion worth of services and products to the energy sector.
For further information please visit: www.subseauk.org