LIVES IN THE OIL INDUSTRY - Oral History of the UK North Sea Oil and Gas Industry
The Project :: Related Activities :: News Update :: Publications :: Sponsors :: Home
Oral History
Postgraduate Study in Oral History
Contact us

Origins | Programme | Interviews
Personnel | History of UK North Sea Oil and Gas Industry

The Project: Brief History of the UK North Sea Oil and Gas Industry

Long dismissed by many as a potential source of oil or gas, the North Sea has, over the last four decades, become the centre of one of the world’s most productive energy industries. Gas was first found in quantity in the Groningen area of The Netherlands in 1959. This was followed by the first British discovery of gas in the West Sole field, off the coast of East Anglia, by the BP jack-up drilling rig Sea Gem, late in 1965.

The excitement of the first British North Sea gas was overshadowed almost immediately when, only days later, on Boxing Day, the Sea Gem capsized with the loss of thirteen lives. This was an early reminder of the danger of the North Sea as an environment to work in.

The British industry in the Southern North Sea grew rapidly in the early years. The deepening economic crisis in the UK meant that there was enormous pressure on the industry to get gas, and later, oil flowing. For the oil and gas producers, there were great profits to be made. British self-sufficiency in oil and gas, hitherto an impossible dream, was becoming a possibility.

Indeed, as exploration and investment moved further north, it became clear that there was oil to be found in great quantities. However, it was not until 1975 that a small entrepreneurial American company, Hamilton Brothers working in the Argyle field, brought the first British oil ashore, to followed very soon after by BP in the massive Forties field.

Discoveries of oil grew in number as more companies, British, European and American, took out leases on sectors of the North Sea. By the mid-1980s there were over one hundred installations. Through extraordinary technological innovation and human effort – and sacrifice – millions of barrels were being produced every day. An oil and gas bonanza had occurred.

While the early years of the industry were set in the political context of a Labour government, some of whose members wanted the maximum possible control of the new resource determined to have direct control of the new resource, it was the market-led Thatcher government that oversaw the growth years of the 1980s.

By the early 1980s Britain had become a net exporter of oil, and by the mid-1990s of gas.

Two of the key centres of the industry have been the Great Yarmouth/Lowestoft area, centre of operations for the Southern North Sea gas industry, and subsequently, Aberdeen, now regarded as the oil capital of Europe. Among other centres to have been central to the success of the industry have been the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland. The development of the Flotta and Sullom Voe terminals was critical to the success of the northern fields.

Concerns that safety was not a high enough priority in the race for oil and gas, was apparently confirmed by the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988. In this, the worst disaster in the North Sea, 167 men died.

The destruction of the largest and most prolific platform on the North Sea led to a major public enquiry under Lord Cullen and to a major review of safety procedures and standards.

During the 1990s, like the rest of the world, the North Sea was vulnerable to the fluctuation of world oil prices. Nevertheless production grew and peaked around 2000/1. Now, the North Sea is regarded as a mature province on a slow decline. However, thanks to ever more sophisticated technology, important amounts of oil and gas could be drawn for anything up to 50 years. New discoveries are still being made and the industry is now well established west of Shetland in the Atlantic.

In Lives in the Oil Industry our purpose was to document in audio form the human experience of this vast industry.



This page last modified: Monday, 12-Jun-2006 15:23:22 BST

Website maintained by: Hugo Manson
Department of History · University of Aberdeen · Aberdeen AB24 3FX