All in the family: the Brent pioneers
Forty years after the huge Brent oil and gas field started operations, one family’s story reflects its history…and the birth of a new industry.
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.”
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.
Watch: Lawson Petrie, former project manager for the Brent oil and gas field, shares his memories of Charlie
Duration: 01:35 minutes
[Background music commences, reflective]
[Lawson voice over]
“The first time I went on to the Brent platform, the flights were delayed and there was fog. We just dropped in through this fog bank, and as you were tracking on towards the platform, you see this huge, huge structure just looming out the water.”
Archive footage. British Airways helicopter taking off followed by front view from below of airborne helicopter. View of Brent structure as seen from pilot’s cockpit viewpoint inside helicopter. The helicopter is then seen through the metal lattice of the tower structure on the platform followed by a wide aerial view of the platform. Aerial close up of wording painted on the platform: BRENT CHARLIE BLOCK 211/29.
[Lawson voice over]
“So we went into the flotel office to find out where we going to be sleeping and were told to go to the recreation room”
Archive footage. A group of workers wearing orange boiler suits disembark the helicopter. They make their way down a flight of stairs. Interior of recreation room where a number of workers wearing regular clothing are seated.
“And here there was this man of about 55, sitting smoking a big King Edward cigar. Now, these big King Edwards, they're about probably...9 inches long, a good inch thick. And he's smoking this King Edward cigar and licking an ice cream cone. And I was sort of...What have I done to come here? This is the sort of people I'm going to be working with.”
[Lawson voice over]
“Then we went on to this installation and you're seeing pipework, 30-inch pipework, 900 pound flanges, monstrous control valves. The process looked very, very complicated - was complicated.”
Archive footage. Pan shot of large elements of white pipework. A platform worker is viewed between two pieces of large pipework.
A platform worker wearing protective clothing is seen welding, producing a shower of sparks. Behind him there is a row of flanges alongside which another worker is tightening a valve with a wrench.
Two workers stand on either side of a large piece of machinery and rotate it.
“But to the untrained eye it was horrendous, and you sort of say...How the heck am I going to get my head around this?”
[Lawson voice over]
“It was incredible. It was the nearest I've seen to the pyramids in water.”
Archive footage. Aerial view of the illuminated platform at night time
[Lawson voice over]
“And again, bearing in mind the technology was designed by lads using 1960s technology, minimum computers. The guys that designed these platforms were incredible engineers.”
Archive footage. Two workers in a control room. One gets up and walks to a panel on which three buttons are illuminated and a ‘low level gas’ button is flashing. Close up of a thumb pressing a red button. At a desk surrounded by technical equipment, a technician talks on the phone, followed by a close up view of a computer printing lines of text. A technician seated in front of three computers gets up to retrieve a print out.
“I think the word is gobsmacking. I had never seen anything like this in my life before.”
Archive footage. Aerial daytime view of Brent platform, it pans out wide.
Background music ends
Shell outro sting
Text ©SHELL INTERNATIONAL LIMITED 2016
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.
Lawson Petrie and his son Nairn outside the family home in Dundee
“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
More In Inside Energy
How the 24,200-tonne Brent Delta platform was lifted and carried to an industrial recycling centre more than 700 kilometres away.
It took an abandoned nuclear missile silo, a vast underwater laboratory and a lot of hard work. But the US space agency boldly went where it had never been before: the North Sea.
You may also be interested in
The final step in the lifecycle of any oil and gas project is to prepare facilities for shutdown in a safe, environmentally responsible way.