Obsolete ships and offshore structures – an urgent safety challenge

Professor Susan Gourvenec

Urgent action is needed to make the decommissioning of thousands of offshore structures and ships safer argues Professor Susan Gourvenec, Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies in Intelligent & Resilient Ocean Engineering. 

The global shipping fleet numbers over 50,000 vessels and supports 90% of world trade and there are currently more than 10,000 offshore structures installed in our oceans and seas, providing energy from hydrocarbons to renewable resources.

In 2020, 70% of the world’s end-of-life ships and floating offshore structures were decommissioned on three beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan

Deconstructing ships and offshore structures at the end of their engineered life is a complex and frequently hazardous business. Although decommissioning can be carried out safely and responsibly—and there are places where it is—the reality is that it often isn’t. The International Labour Organization classifies shipbreaking—breaking down all types of vessels from luxury cruise liners to bulk carriers, floating oil and gas rigs and drilling units—as being among the world’s most dangerous occupations, with unacceptably high levels of fatalities, injuries, and work-related disease. Lack of hazardous waste management also has severe consequences for surrounding communities and the environment.

A global responsibility is being shirked

Despite the global benefit derived from offshore structures and ships during their operational lives, the risks associated with their decommissioning are disproportionately focused on South Asia. In 2020, 70% of the world’s end-of-life ships and floating offshore structures were decommissioned on three beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – a total of 446. Decommissioning on these beaches typically takes place with inadequate infrastructure, equipment, and waste disposal. Vessels arrive laden with toxic materials that, legally, should have been disclosed and disposed of before reaching the beach, and workers, communities and the environment are harmed as a result.

offshore decommissioning
Deconstructing ships and offshore structures at the end of their engineered life is a complex and frequently hazardous business. Image: Gudellaphoto via stock.adobe.com

For fixed and subsea oil and gas infrastructure in mature decommissioning areas like the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico, safe decommissioning practices and pathways have been established. However, many regions worldwide with a less mature oil and gas industry are only just facing the first wave of decommissioning and lack regionally specific infrastructure, waste disposal facilities, processes, or policies. This poses a significant safety threat and a complex stream of waste for recycling facilities.

A complex challenge requiring global collaboration

In 2019, the Engineering X Safer End of Engineered Life (SEEL) mission convened a global workshop about safer decommissioning of offshore structures and ships, with stakeholders from across academia, industry, policy makers and NGOs. The workshop mapped out critical safety issues where they are most prevalent, along with the causes and potential solutions. It was clear that the decommissioning of these assets is an engineering challenge that also involves economic, social and governance issues.

There is much that we need to understand about the conflicting drivers, motivations, and constraints of each stakeholder if we are to build the understanding and trust required to make decommissioning safer and more equitable. The complex commercial tensions and legal aspects that govern behaviours could be eased by raising awareness of the consequences that actions taken at one stage may have for those working in another.

The role of engineers

Since the workshop, the Engineering X SEEL mission has focused on building partnerships and communities, and on funding projects to tackle some of the critical safety issues that were highlighted. Projects are addressing issues such as transparency in ship recycling, a global baseline of assets to be decommissioned and infrastructure and regulatory frameworks available, regionally specific requirements for the ASEAN region, and the rights of affected communities and workers.

It is sobering that as many offshore structures have been installed in the last decade as in the previous 50 years

Improving the current situation requires skills from every branch of engineering—civil engineers to develop geographically and socially appropriate infrastructure for the deconstruction of assets and the treatment and disposal or recycling of materials; mechanical engineers to develop and adapt equipment; chemical engineers to guide on the identification and safe handling of hazardous materials; electrical engineers to develop monitoring systems to alert of dangerous conditions; and software engineers to develop tracking apps for assets, components, or hazardous materials, or for digital twins to develop safer deconstructing sequences. These and other engineers must work with other disciplines to ensure that engineering solutions meet the needs of the different regions and communities and are safe and sustainable.

The nature of the challenge may change, but not the scale.

It is sobering that as many offshore structures have been installed in the last decade as in the previous 50 years. The number is set to continue rising exponentially as we seek to meet increasing energy demands and to reduce carbon emissions.

With the essential transition away from fossil fuels comes the emerging challenge of decommissioning offshore infrastructure for renewable energy. For example, immense wind turbines blades made of composite materials cannot currently be recycled and tend to be buried or incinerated at the end of their life. Meanwhile, the steel monopiles that support the turbines are typically left in the seabed after the mast and blades are removed as they are not designed to be retrieved.

For wind power and other forms of renewable energy, it is vital that we consider how to manage end-of-engineered-life at the design stage. It is also essential that safe and responsible practices are ready where they are needed. Regions with established decommissioning industries for offshore oil and gas may not be appropriately located for the future decommissioning of offshore renewables.

The safe and responsible decommissioning of offshore structures and ships is a major and growing global challenge. The Engineering X SEEL mission is planning a second global workshop in 2022 to identify future challenges and help develop solutions. Anyone interested in this or in the wider SEEL mission is welcome to contact us.

Professor Susan Gourvenec is  Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies in Intelligent & Resilient Ocean Engineering and board member of the Engineering X Safer End of Engineered Life (SEEL) mission