“Beware of Greeks bearing Gifts”, or “When can you Trust Science?”

Attributed to: Jim Rae, Principal,
Scientia et Sagacitas Limited, Aberdeen, UK
(a totally independent consultancy practice)

When Virgil wrote these original lines, he wasn’t intending a slur on the Hellenic people. Rather, he was warning us of the dangers of accepting apparent generosity at face value.

As a committed campaigner for the natural environment, I have had to stand and defend my corner many times in a career which has spanned two lengthy periods in the oil and gas sector, laterally in the decommissioning space for over 20 years. Call me jaded, but I am very suspicious of the motives of “big oil” when it comes to sponsoring and supporting research, or contracting academics to evaluate particular operations. More, of that to come in next month’s column.

But let’s start with a simple proposition. The better scientific information and understanding of ecosystems you have, theoretically, the better informed your decisions can be. This is the cornerstone of OSPAR Decision 98/3, the international agreement that guides decommissioning activities in the North Atlantic Region, including the North and Celtic Seas and the Western Margin. Basically, the concept is that empirical data is gathered to provide the basis for Operators to develop the case for their favoured decommissioning solutions. These are then scrutinised and approved by the host nation and then submitted for international scrutiny by interested parties (the OSPAR signatories), if they contain any proposals other than a clear seabed, the fundamental presumption.

The interesting bit is who commissions the research and how independent is it? Recent announcements have trumpeted the continued funding of the INSITE programme, an initiative with the stated aim of “increasing understanding of the influence of man-made structures on the North Sea”, with a clearly stated second objective of “improving decision-making”. Phase 1 commenced in 2015, hosted by Oil & Gas UK and sponsored to the tune of £2.4M by 8 oil companies, this would appear very laudable. As a former academic, I fully respect the independence of thought and deed expected of researchers, whose first loyalty is to their scientific or technical discipline. But I always have a nagging doubt about the influence and motives of the funders, especially when they are large corporations and vested interests with a trackrecord of deception and deceit. Beware, the “forky” tongue!

In 2010, INSITE’s clearly identified predecessor, LINSI (The Living North Sea Initiative) was floated with the stated intention of “exploring new opportunities for restoring a healthy and rich North sea ecosystem through alternative approaches to decommissioning” – translated into layperson’s language, “find a justification for leaving behind as much as possible”. Dress it up as “rigs-to-reefs” and put in a sweetener that resulting cost savings in decommissioning works would be channelled into a fund for other environmental initiatives. At the time I was advising two UKCS Operators and counselled caution. Firstly, the motives of this initiative were being questioned by genuine environmentalists on the basis that there was no scientific nor technical basis for adopting such a strategy. Secondly, it was clearly an attempt to reduce the decommissioning bill, albeit well-intentioned on some sides, but less so on others. The aim of some of the funding participants was thinly veiled as “good citizenship”, when in real terms the objective was to set a precedent in the OSPAR jurisdiction that could then be rolled out in other regions of the World. If you could persuade the guardians of the North Sea, to whom other less-developed regulatory regional jurisdictions deferred in terms of maturity, then the reduction in costs would be on a massive scale, all for the injection of a relatively small contribution to an “eco-fund”. Cynical, or what? It suffices to say that one of the key individual movers in LINSI was a Shell executive based in The Hague, with a dubious job title including the buzz-words “sustainable” and “strategy”.

So onwards to 2018 and we find Phase 2 of INSITE (Phase 1 delivered a large volume of empirical data that is in the public domain, though fairly generic in nature). A 5-year programme funded to the tune of £1.75m by the oil and gas industry. However, now NERC1 and CEFAS2 (administered by DEFRA3) are primary participants in this programme which will drill down to a greater level of granularity in a number of areas. All sounds good. And I have no doubt many marine researchers receiving funding will do a fabulous job of researching the selected topics. For not a moment do I question their academic integrity, nor their scientific capabilities and I’m sure the resulting reports will be first-class.

But this is when we come back to motives again – the oft-quoted “hidden agenda”. Just as I am suspicious of the motives and wider objectives of the “industry partners”, there is a new odious undertow sweeping through the general currents of marine research, as it applies to decommissioning of installations. Simply put, money! Now we have a new kid on the block, joining the oil majors, who has big “skin in the game”. The UK Government has already secured some £12.9Billion of tax funds from the industry for decommissioning, but has emptied that sweetie jar to a large extent in other areas. Through the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA) it has publicly set an arbitrary target of 35% savings in decommissioning expenditure to reduce the level of tax reliefs outgoing from the Exchequer. The paymasters of NERC and DEFRA (CEFAS), the UK Treasury, is now looking for viable reasons to reduce decommissioning costs by limiting workscopes. What if we could come up with a good scientific reason not to bother clearing up large tracts of the seabed? Maybe the OSPAR presumption to do so can be challenged on the very cornerstone of the principle under which it was established and that drives it – empirical scientific evidence.

So, for all you conspiracy theorists out there, we now have a “perfect storm” alliance of industry and Government seeking to use scientific research outcomes to save money and set new international norms on the expectations of decommissioning. You dont have to look far to find evidence of previous track records of deceit and treachery with either party, do you? History is littered with examples of dubious behaviour. I, of course, am a firm believer that no scientist would knowingly sell-out their discipline, but I am very suspicious of the motives of their capitalist funders and political masters, when it comes to “massaging” the outcomes to create a corrupted perception, all in the name of scientific evidence!

I leave you to make your own conclusions and to examine your own drivers on the environment and the World our children will inherit. Short-term monetary gain, can perhaps lead to long-term ecological pain.

Next month we will further explore the relationship between the scientific community and “big oil” when we look at the role of “Independent Review” in the process of developing execution strategies for decommissioning programmes.

Bet you can hardly wait?

1. The National Research Council – the UK’s leading public funder of environmental science

2. Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science

3. Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

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