SUBSEA IS DEAD. LONG LIVE SUBSEA

I am getting on a plane tomorrow for the first time in over two years, going to Aberdeen for Subsea Expo – which begins on Tuesday – for maybe the last time. It would be an end of era, at least for me, but that era actually ended earlier this year when Subsea UK officially changed its name to the Global Underwater Hub.

(As an aside, I am sure that branding specialists would shake their heads at this alteration – the name is too long, does not really say what it does or who it represents and when shortened becomes GUH or when re-ordered ‘ugh’. Probably part of the UK government’s ‘global Britain’ bullshit. Not great in my mind.)

The disappearance of SSUK is sad, because I was there in the beginning nearly 20 years ago as a consultant to the then Department of Energy which was trying to formulate a plan to make the most of the UK’s extensive subsea expertise. My great friend David Pridden, the first SSUK CEO who applied for the job on my instigation and who sadly died nearly five years, was surprised to learn when he took on the job that ‘subsea’ did not even exist as a word in the Oxford English Dictionary. Even I was surprised at this as the word had already been in the title of my rag (aka Subsea Engineering News) for two decades. I think that it was seen as a hypenation, ie sub-sea.

I believe that David lobbied successfully to have the word included in OED at some point. But it appears to be an anachronism now as the UK’s energy world moves towards the energy transition and away from the oil and gas technology that drove the North Sea from the mid 1980’s onwards. There has always been a subtle distinction between ‘subsea’ and ‘underwater’, at least in my mind. I always used subsea in terms of production systems and all related technology. Underwater was everything else that was used or took place under the ocean surface, so rovs, seabed location systems and sensors, oceanography, marine science et al. I am not for a second saying this right, but only how I viewed it. But when Statoil dubbed its future seabed production complex ‘the subsea factory’ I knew that I had been on the right track all along.

GUH, under the same leadership team headed up by Neil Gordon as SSUK before, says that it sees the UK’s underwater sector growing from £8bn to £45bn (no time frame given yet). I hope that all of those who were part of the SSUK world do not think that their businesses are going to rise by more than 500%. I am sure that this increase is based on including a whole bunch of new business sectors under the GUH banner, eg floating wind, marine renewables, the underwater parts of offshore hydrogen production, some aquaculture and other portions of the so-called ‘blue economy’.

I am sorry if I seem cynical, but lumping in other existing businesses under the GUH banner is like the government announcing new spending programmes which have actually already been announced, but just given a new moniker or tag. It is not true wealth or job creation. It might well be job protection as many who work in the current offshore sector could become redundant without re-training or re-positioning. This is not to say that there will be no growth, but did anyone else notice the report from the Office of National Statistics this week which said that the renewables sector had not grown since 2014?

It would also be important to ensure that this exercise is not seen as greenwashing or bluewashing as many have accused the oil super-majors of doing. ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as BP and Shell, have been targeted as amongst those who are talking, but not doing much walking or significant spending.

To be clear, I personally do not agree with some environmentalists who want to scrap oil and gas production now. The renewables sector is not yet capable of meeting all of our energy needs. It might be in 20 years time, but let’s not let hypocrisy get in the way of environmental politics. All of those mobile phones, laptops and electric cars need to be powered.

The other sad part of excising ‘subsea’ from this trade sector body is that it all of those marvelous and talented subsea production specialists will lose the banner under which they all displayed their wares. Even the SUT name is more generic than subsea which works for them in the new era.

And, of course, have a look at the Subsea Expo conference programme. The plenary session includes folk involved in offshore wind, Royal Navy, the Marine Energy Council and Salmon Scotland. Not a hydrocarbon in sight. Alas, alas…

(NB: As I said at the beginning of this missive, I will be in at Subsea Expo all day Tuesday and Wednesday. If you would like to have chat, you can reach me on my usual email address: steven@keltd.co.uk.)

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