Lawson Petrie on Brent Charlie platform
Lawson Petrie on Brent Charlie in the 1970s. Photo: Lawson Petrie

Back in the 1970s, Lawson Petrie was working on one of the biggest and most complex engineering projects of his time: the construction of one of four vast platforms in the Brent oil and gas field in the North Sea.

“We were pioneers,” says Lawson today of his work building Brent Charlie, which stands as tall as the Eiffel Tower. “We had to think on our feet and find our own way forward. It was like building a huge Lego set for the first time.”

Lawson went on to spend most of his career working on the Shell-operated Brent platforms in the outer reaches of the North Sea. His different roles tracked the life cycle of a field that since 1976 has produced around 10% of the UK’s oil and gas and around £20 billion in tax revenue.

Lawson retired at the end of 2015. But his youngest son Nairn followed in his footsteps, working for Brent’s project design team in Aberdeen. Nairn is a pioneer of a different kind. He helps to shape the final stage of the Brent cycle - the decommissioning of the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta platforms. 

“Brent will be the biggest decommissioning project in the North Sea in terms of effort and scale, which makes it unique,” says Alex Kemp, Professor of Petroleum Economics at the University of Aberdeen. “This knowledge will help oil and gas companies around the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to Australia’s Bass Strait.”

Decommissioning in the UK Continental Shelf alone could cost the industry up to £45 billion pounds in the period to 2050, according to Kemp’s estimates, creating many new business and career opportunities. Aberdeen University, for example, plans to offer the world’s first Master's degree in decommissioning in 2017.

“I may be sitting at a desk all day but I feel the aura of the Brent legacy,” says Nairn, 34, in the family’s home in a quiet residential district in the Scottish city of Dundee.

His father adds: “I’m proud that my lad will be working on dismantling this huge beast that I helped build. It’s about time for it to retire.”

Family traditions

Growing up in Dundee, Lawson expected to follow the family tradition of shipbuilding. His father had worked as a rigger in the local shipyard. His grandfather drilled holes for the rivets holding together the steel plates of battleships.

At 16 years old, Lawson started work as an apprentice designer in a local shipyard. But it was the beginning of the UK’s energy boom and he soon saw opportunities in the oil and gas industry.

In 1978, Lawson joined Shell as a design engineer. By 1985, he was the resident engineer for the Brent field. But the highlight of his career was working as the main project engineer on the redevelopment of the Brent Charlie platform in the mid-1990s, helping to extend its life beyond the expected 25 years.

“It was the biggest offshore brownfield project in the world at the time and it effectively turned an oil field into a gas field,” says Lawson.

The redevelopment of the Brent Charlie platform lasted three years. Lawson worked in two-week shifts. He lived offshore during huge storms that could last for days, including one memorable time when the platform was hit by a 30-metre wave. “We had to stay locked in as this huge structure shifted in the storm. I still remember that shunting sensation,” Lawson says.

The work was often hard and physically demanding. Lawson remembers inspecting equipment in Charlie’s concrete legs. He would climb down a vertical ladder for about 10 minutes carrying a radio, a gas detector and breathing apparatus in case of an emergency. It was noisy and hot.

The family found a routine but felt Lawson’s absences. At one time, Nairn worried his parents would separate because Lawson spent so much time offshore. “I drew a portrait of myself and slipped it into his bag so that he wouldn’t forget me,” he recalls.

It took some time for Nairn to follow in his father’s footsteps. After leaving university, he managed a local sports shop. Then, Lawson encouraged him to apply for a role in Shell’s design team.

“Working in retail is all about budgets,” says Nairn, who is the Lead Engineer for Cost Control for the Brent decommissioning project. “I took that experience and brought it to Shell.”

Most recently, Nairn and the rest of the design team helped Shell decide on its recommendations to the UK government for removing all four of the Brent platforms’ topsides, the part visible above water.

The government has already approved the lifting of the Brent Delta topside in a single block.

Lawson is impressed. “When we were building Brent, I always imagined that it would be dismantled piece by piece,” he says. “It’s amazing to think that one vessel can lift the whole structure. That’s Star Trek territory.”


By Jo Wrighton

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