Decommissioning - Relative Effects of Alternative Management Strategies (DREAMS)

Lead Research Organisation: Plymouth Marine Laboratory
Department Name: Plymouth Marine Lab


Large amounts of hard infrastructure, such as rigs, were installed in the North Sea following the discovery of exploitable oil and gas in the 1970s. Following public outcry about attempts to dispose of the Brent Spar at sea in the 1990s, regulations were introduced that require oil and gas structures in the sea to be removed at the end of their useful lives. Much of the infrastructure in the North Sea is now at the end of its useful life, at least for the purposes for which it was installed, and is to be decommissioned. A large proportion of the cost of this is borne by taxpayers.

Other approaches to decommissioning are possible. Elsewhere in the world redundant infrastructure has been left in situ to support wildlife or to limit seabed disturbance, relocated to form artificial reefs, repurposed to sequester CO2, and so on. The presumption of removal has held back consideration of alternative possibilities in the North Sea. At the same time, debate about alternatives is polarised, and there is a tendency to focus on individual cases rather than the whole North Sea (eco)system.

The North Sea is a productive sea that, in addition to providing food, supports many industries other than the extraction of oil and gas. A large expansion in the amount of infrastructure being installed for wind generation is underway and planned to continue. Consideration needs to be given to what happens to this at the end of its useful life. Other man-made structures are also in the sea, such as wrecks, which provide havens for some species.

The purpose of the DREAMS project is to bring together all available information about the effects of man-made structures on the marine ecosystem, and on the benefits that ecosystem provides for humans. This information will be analysed and combined with ecosystem models, to examine how different possible approaches to decommissioning lead to different outcomes. In particular the project will highlight trade-offs, where action taken to deliver one objective damages our ability to achieve a different objective. The overall aim is to provide comprehensive information to support decisions, representing a shift from individual, narrowly focused studies to a "big picture" research endeavor, designed to feed into addressing large social challenges and illustrate how marine science can underpin the provision of wide-ranging benefits to society.

The research will involve the collection and analysis of large amounts of information concerning the effects of man-made structures in the sea. Results from analyses will be combined with state-of-the-art ecosystem models to examine how different approaches to decommissioning lead to different outcomes, and what those outcomes mean for people.

Planned Impact

Current international rules require the complete removal of offshore assets, with some limited scope for exemptions. Given the massive costs that are required for this, and the fact that ~90% of offshore installations in the UKCS are set for complete removal from the sea, there is an obvious question: is this the best way to go deal with making the redundant offshore infrastructure safe? The DREAMS project addresses this, and by providing an objective analysis of how the multiple trade-offs involved will have far reaching impact upon a diverse range of beneficiaries, including policy makers, environmental managers, and wider society. The project outputs will place the UK as an international leader in the use of science and ecosystem modelling to improve understanding of the interactions between management actions and the regulation of key ecosystem services, scale-dependence in the underlying processes, functional diversity at different trophic levels and the impact of stressors on the marine environment. It will also provide vital data for, and improvements to, UK marine monitoring and modelling to explore the impact of environmental change on the structure, function and services associated with marine ecosystems across scales.
The research and outputs generated will primarily be of direct relevance and benefit to UK and European policymakers and environmental managers working towards the management of decommissioning within a framework for sustainable exploitation of the UK and Europe's seas. These include those working within OSPAR, BEIS and DEFRA, Marine Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales, as well as the JNCC, UNEP, UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and others. By using already well-established links with these organizations and developing these further, targeted outputs will be disseminated to policy beneficiaries to help describe and weight the trade-offs associated with applying different management strategies to decommissioning at the North- Sea scale, ensuring a common currency and, therefore, a smooth transition of robust science between the scientific and policy communities.
The aim is to provide objective independent information to inform what is, at times, a polarised debate. As well as informing those who must make management decisions, we hope to inform those who are involved in the debate, such as Wildlife Trusts, NGOs, Greenpeace, WWF, British Ecological Society, Sea Watch Foundation, Fisheries Regional Advisory Councils, energy companies and those involved in the decommissioning industry.
The novel, whole system approach employed in DREAMS will also be of benefit to a wide range of organisations and networks with an interest or involvement in marine monitoring, resource management, marine planning, fisheries, aquaculture, energy provision, licencing, predicting ecosystem change, conservation and food security. The programme will consolidate a range of data sources to provide these organisations and networks with clean, rationalised datasets that are of meaningful and add value to their activities.
There is a wider public interest in the research of DREAMS. UK shelf seas are a source of food and energy that is susceptible to environmental change with subsequent socio-economic implications. Decommissioning is an emotive subject. This wider public interest includes educational institutes that often require societally-relevant, novel issues to provide context to the science curriculum. DREAMS will demonstrate to wider interest groups the shift from individual, narrowly focused studies to "big picture" research endeavours, designed to feed into addressing large social challenges and illustrate how marine science can provide wide-ranging benefits to society.
Methods for engaging with stakeholders are described in the DREAMS Pathways to Impact.


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Description ICES WG BIODIV 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Working with international colleagues to develop practical indicators for marine management. Latest report: ICES (2018) Report of the Working Group on Biodiversity Science (WGBIODIV), 5-9 February 2018, ICES Headquarters, Copenhagen, Denmark. ICES CM 2018/EPDSG:01. 82 pp.
Latest meeting online - agreed new ToR for next 3 years. Manuscript being finalised for publication.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019,2020,2021