National Geographic : 1977 Apr
sea has wrought dramatic changes onshore. Long-term effects promise to be profound. Windfall revenues from North Sea oil will help bail Britain out of its dismal economic fix. Oil may well make Norway, per capita, the richest industrial nation on earth. Oil is revitalizing-some say it is ruining-the Highlands and northern islands of Scotland Moreover, anticipated oil riches are firing serious Scottish independence movement. Giant Platforms Stud the Sea But we have left the politics and the eco nomics back on shore. Now there is nothing but the agitated sea and this mammoth steel island coming up fast just ahead. Charlie is one of four platforms in British Petroleum's Forties field. Its four steel legs, pinned to the seabed 420 feet below, hold three decks and a drilling derrick 75 feet off the water. Some 225 feet higher, a towering flare burns off natural gas coming up with the oil. Standing as tall as a 30-story building, Charlie straddles the waves. We stop to let off crew at Charlie, the con trol platform for Forties field, then fly on to Alpha. As I hop onto the helicopter deck, a cold, rainy gust pummels me back a step. The sea bellows, and that great orange flare above me roars like a giant pilot light. I dash for the stairs to the main deck. They are perforated steel slats and give a diz zying view of the sea far below. They are slick with oil. I have been told that guardrails will keep a man from being blown off the plat form, but right now I don't believe it. Forty-five-knot winds like these stop some of the work, explained David Erskine, plat form superintendent, a few minutes later. But not until the speed exceeds 60 knots-ap proaching hurricane force-do offshore veterans consider the weather really rough. "In all of December we were able to unload our supply boats on only 12 days," Erskine said, checking his log. "For the month, we had seven days of 60 to 70 knots, and another nine of plain gale." The platforms, he told me, are designed for the 90-foot waves and 110-knot winds that the North Sea produces. "But when it gets to blowing 80 knots, you can't help hoping the designers got their numbers right." The business of this platform is to drill wells-as many as 27, angled off in different directions-and pump the crude oil to Cru den Bay on the Scottish coast through a 106 mile underwater pipeline (map, page 525). As I walked the decks of Alpha, I saw mighty cranes able to lift 145 tons of pipes off a sup ply boat and stack them in tidy piles. I hurried past generators, some painfully noisy, that produce 10,600 kilowatts of electricity. Again and again I gazed up at the brilliant flare that warmed and lighted the top deck like a tiny sun. Eventually the natural gas that fuels this flare will be liquefied at the platform. But now, for safety, 20 million cubic feet is burned off each day. Converted into DRY DOCK 1 DIAGRAMBYJOHNW. OTHERS NATIONALGEOGRAPHICARTDIVISION Built on the way to work HOW TO CONSTRUCT a very large, very strong production facility to rest on the bottom of the North Sea? Solution: "Condeep." This Norwegian design begins in dry dock (1). As the 19 concrete tanks are built, the dock is flooded and the struc ture floated to sheltered waters (2). Construction continues (3), and platform support towers are added (4 and left). The rig is nearly sunk so barges can cap the towers with the platform (5). Raised again, the 700-foot-high Condeep is towed to sea (6). Finally it is sunk to the bottom (7) to drill for petroleum, and then to siphon and store it. ___14.