BP marks five decades in the North Sea

Last edited: 8 October 2014

Licence P.001 for exploration in the UK North Sea was awarded to BP in September 1964. Fifty years later, BP is not only finding more oil and gas, but also extending the lives of existing fields. BP Magazine looks back on this tale of exploration and discovery

In the early 1960s, the oil and gas industry had never encountered an environment with such severe weather conditions as the North Sea. But the prize offered real potential for the energy security of the UK and Norway. When BP found natural gas in the Southern North Sea in 1965, it sparked a revolution that would change the energy landscape of Northern Europe.

BP’s first major discovery of oil came five years later in 1970, when it struck the giant Forties field, 180 kilometres (110 miles) east of Aberdeen, Scotland. Its 2.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves turned the North Sea into a globally significant oil and gas region. BP’s engineers immediately set to work building a series of connecting pipelines, as well as terminal facilities to transport, process and store this energy resource.

North Sea oil first reached shore in November 1975 through the newly-built Forties Pipeline System. Queen Elizabeth II started the flow of oil by pushing a symbolic gold-plated button in BP’s Aberdeen control centre. The next 15 years were a time of excitement and great opportunities. During this period, BP – or one of its heritage companies – started up more than 15 fields in the UK North Sea and four in the Norwegian North Sea.

As platform design became more sophisticated and investment in bold and ground-breaking technology spearheaded several world firsts, BP explored farther and deeper. In the early 1990s, BP opened up the area to the west of Shetland (WoS) with the discovery of Foinaven and then Schiehallion. Schiehallion, in particular, delivered a number of firsts for BP: deepest field development, first purpose-built floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) asset, and shortest-ever build cycle.
BP has produced more than five billion barrels of oil equivalent to date
BP and partners are investing more than £7 billion over the next five years
BP employs nearly 4,000 people (with agency staff) in the region

New century, new opportunities

Despite a tough investment climate at the turn of the millennium, BP continued to break new ground with technologies to maximise recovery from giant, and increasingly complex, fields. As well as bringing onstream previously undeveloped discoveries, BP began unlocking potential from existing fields, such as Magnus and Valhall. BP’s presence in the Norwegian sector had also grown as a result of a merger in 1998 with another operator, Amoco – the biggest merger in corporate history at the time.

Over the next decade, BP would invest in two major projects in the Norwegian sector: Skarv and Valhall’s redevelopment, as part of $16 billion of new investment in a number of exciting North Sea projects.

Between 2011 and 2013, BP sold a number of non-strategic North Sea assets in order to focus on a smaller number of higher value assets with long-term growth potential. Today, BP remains one of the region’s leading operators and the largest investor. It is refurbishing and renewing some of its oldest assets and facilities, such as Magnus and Sullom Voe terminal, while three of the biggest UK field developments are well under way: Clair Ridge, Quad204 (Schiehallion), and Andrew/Kinnoull.

A lot may have changed over the past five decades, but what has remained consistent is BP’s long-term commitment to the North Sea.

“I remember” – staff recall the early days

Robert Davidson was one of the first medics on the Forties Alpha platform

"We had film shows each evening, a daily supply of newspapers, and a much-sought-after mailbag."
- Robert Davidson
“I flew out in late 1974 with the first offshore installation manager as part of a small team of BP staff who would gradually take over responsibility for the installation. Already onboard were the BP Forties Project team and several hundred construction workers.

Although I was a medic, my main duties for the first few months involved controlling the population movements to and from Forties Alpha by helicopter, ensuring that everyone had a bed and that the installation manager could locate and control the onboard population in the event of emergencies.
Life on the Alpha consisted of 12-hour work shifts with accommodation in four or six-berth cabins. The restaurant facilities were excellent and we had film shows each evening, a daily supply of newspapers, and a much-sought-after mailbag.”

Mike Quigley, operations technician, worked on Schiehallion from start-up in 1998

"My youngest son is now working on the same project as I did."
- Mike Quigley
“FPSOs have their own unique features, which make life much different from conventional fixed-leg installations – they pitch and roll with prevailing weather conditions.

The best thing about it was the people. Some guys preferred to go to their cabins and watch television on their own once they finished their shift. I enjoyed reading, going to the cinema, or the odd trip to the gym, as well as socialising, as the ‘craic’ was usually good.

I’m really excited about the new developments for the fields, mainly because my youngest son is now working on the same project as I did, so I’ll have an interest in it for a few years yet. I’m 62 now, so will be looking forward to hearing the stories of the new vessel.”

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