Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Influence of man-made structures in the ecosystem (INSITE)

The aim of this programme is to increase understanding of the impact that man-made structures such as oil and gas rigs and offshore wind farms have on the North Sea ecosystem. It will provide robust scientific evidence to inform environmental management strategies for future decommissioning.

£5 million
2019 to 2023
Partners involved:
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas)

The scope and what we're doing

There is a major programme of decommissioning of North Sea energy installations planned over the next 20 years and beyond, however there is a lack of robust scientific rationale and a limited evidence base to support environmental management strategies for decommissioning.

This programme will address this by tackling critical gaps in scientific understanding of the role these man-made structures play in North Sea ecosystem structure and function.

The two-year foundation phase of the Influence of Man-made Structures in the Ecosystem (INSITE) research programme was funded by the oil and gas industry. This initial phase helped to establish preliminary, independent and transparent science to understand the influence of man-made structures in the North Sea ecosystem.

The projects funded under the foundation phase have advanced our initial understanding of the role of man-made structures in the North Sea ecosystem and they have highlighted critical gaps in understanding. This new research programme aims to build on the outcomes of the INSITE foundation stage and to address the identified gaps in knowledge.

Why we're doing it

The North Sea continues to have both high biological productivity and economic resource value, supporting intense human activity across multiple sectors, such as oil and gas, offshore wind, fisheries, aggregate extraction and shipping. Since the 1970s, an increasing amount of hard infrastructure (such as oil and gas rigs and pipelines, and offshore wind turbines) has been installed in the North Sea, with limited research being done to understand and assess the effect of this man-made habitat on the North Sea ecosystem.

Understanding the ecosystem effects of structures has been furthered elsewhere, particularly with the development of the US rigs-to-reefs programmes that have been supported by research in the Gulf of Mexico and offshore California. Under these initiatives, the substructures of decommissioned facilities can be lifted and placed in designated sites to preserve habitat and enhance ecosystem services. Maintenance of these reefs is funded by savings in decommissioning costs associated with recovery and disposal onshore.

The gaps in scientific understanding of the North Sea ecosystem are becoming increasingly clear from both environmental and regulatory perspectives. A robust evidence base is urgently needed to support the most appropriate environmental management for decommissioning oil and gas infrastructure, which has been in place for up to 40 years, and the installation of new offshore wind infrastructure that will be in place for the next 25 to 50 years.

It is estimated that the cost of oil and gas decommissioning will be $70 to 80 billion (until 2040), with the UK, Netherlands and Norwegian governments carrying 50 to 80% of the total through tax relief on expenditure – for example the UK government’s latest estimate of its liabilities is £24 billion.

Understanding how the ecosystem has responded to man-made, hard substrate infrastructure that has been in place for a significant period of time, and how it may respond to new infrastructure that could be in place for the next 50 years, will be fundamental to inform decommissioning decisions and ensure that the health of the North Sea is maintained.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Who to contact

Jessica Surma


Last updated: 17 October 2022

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