The ecology of infrastructure decommissioning in the North Sea: what we need to know and how to achieve it
Fowler, A.M.; Jørgensen, A.M.; Coolen, J.W.P.; Jones, D.O.B.; Svendsen, J.C.; Brabant, R.; Rumes, B.; Degraer, S.
As decommissioning of oil and gas (O&G) installations intensifies in the North Sea, and worldwide, debate rages regarding the fate of these novel habitats and their associated biota—a debate that has important implications for future decommissioning of offshore wind farms (OWFs). Calls to relax complete removal requirements in some circumstances and allow part of an O&G installation to be left in the marine environment are increasing. Yet knowledge regarding the biological communities that develop on these structures and their ecological role in the North Sea is currently insufficient to inform such decommissioning decisions. To focus debate regarding decommissioning policy and guide ecological research, we review environmental policy objectives in the region, summarize existing knowledge regarding ecological aspects of decommissioning for both O&G and OWF installations, and identify approaches to address knowledge gaps through science–industry collaboration. We find that in some cases complete removal will conflict with other policies regarding protection and restoration of reefs, as well as the conservation of species within the region. Key ecological considerations that are rarely considered during decommissioning decisions are: (i) provision of reef habitat, (ii) productivity of offshore ecosystems, (iii) enhancement of biodiversity, (iv) protection of the seabed from trawling, and (v) enhancement of connectivity. Knowledge gaps within these areas will best be addressed using industry infrastructure and vessels for scientific investigations, re-analysis of historical data held by industry, scientific training of industry personnel, joint research funding opportunities, and trial decommissioning projects.