After thirty years, still digging deep for future

Sea success:  The gas rig off Morecambe
Sea success: The gas rig off Morecambe

A ground-breaking date in the history of UK gas exploration and production is being celebrated this year.

Thirty years of pioneering gas production from Morecambe Bay, one of the country’s biggest gas reservoirs, is being recognised for its enduring contribution to UK energy.

Gas formed in rocks lying deep beneath the Irish Sea was extracted, processed and piped into the National Grid for the first time on January 9th 1985 and today it continues to heat around 1.5 million homes.

The Morecambe Bay gas fields, located off the coast of Lancashire and Cumbria, are among the biggest in UK waters – approximately the same size as the city of Birmingham.

At peak, the region produced enough gas to meet 20 per cent of the UK’s domestic demand and thanks to continuous investment in technology, skills and infrastructure, production has exceeded its original lifespan and is expected to continue into the 2020s.

In 2013, the first new gas field in 10 years, known as Rhyl, came on stream and work is currently underway on a multimillion-pound project to upgrade the Barrow Gas Terminals to ensure continued safe and efficient operations.

Graham Sheedy, Operations Manager for Centrica Energy in Morecambe Bay, said: “Our 30-year anniversary is an opportunity to reflect upon the significant contribution Morecambe Bay gas has made.

“From 1985 to the present day it has heated millions of homes and businesses, and powered major investments and innovations which have contributed to the economy and brought benefits to communities and individuals.

“The professionalism of those who work on gas production in Morecambe Bay makes me proud. Operating 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, we don’t stop during bad weather, we don’t stop in the holidays. We operate safely and efficiently for the company and the country – it’s an incredible story.

“Thanks to the pioneering spirit of the father of Morecambe Bay gas John Bains, and the hard work of successive generations, the region continues to make an important contribution to UK energy.”

Gas reserves in Morecambe Bay were first discovered by Mr Bains in 1972, after the original drilling rights to the fields were relinquished in a fruitless search for oil. The rights were acquired by British Gas and thanks to John’s tenacity and pioneering spirit, a well was drilled which revealed more than six trillion cubic feet of gas. It signalled the start of an unprecedented era in UK gas exploration and production.

Construction work on the £1.3bn onshore and offshore infrastructure needed to develop the fields started in the early 1980s and on January 9, 1985, the first gas was extracted and flowed along a sea bed pipeline to the gas processing facilities at Barrow.

Engineer Les Hall was working at the Barrow Terminals and remembers the historic moment.

“I’d started working at the gas processing facilities in the summer, we were learning as we went along”, he said. “I remember thinking at the time we were part of something big.

“The gas processing facilities were still being built, there were about a thousand people working on the site but temporary gas processing facilities had been fenced 

“The processing facilities weren’t automated like they are now, I spent the entire shift physically opening and closing valves to adjust the flow and temperature, and back in those days, we also did the odorising which gives gas its characteristic smell. Once the gas was metered and odorised it went straight into the National Grid.

“That first day was all about proving everything worked - we didn’t produce a lot of gas but we had a sense of achievement.”

Greg Wood, Spares and Repairs Engineer, added: “I remember the day as though it was yesterday. I can still feel the adrenaline when I think about it. It was all ‘seat of the pants’ stuff.

“You have to remember that extracting natural gas from our own waters had never been done before on this sort of scale; it was unprecedented and what we did in Morecambe Bay revolutionised the industry in the UK.

“To think of the amount of gas that has flowed down that seabed pipe in 30 years is quite unbelievable.”

Peter Jamieson, Offshore Installation Manager, has been working offshore for 28 years. He said: “There’ve been huge changes to the industry in the last 30 years but what stands out for me is the family atmosphere among those working both offshore and onshore. There’s a sense of shared experience which comes from working in such a unique environment.”