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Gas platform transforms North Sea

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Media captionThe BBC's John Moylan explains some of the evacuation procedures

A new £200m gas platform which can be reused is turning the economics of operating in the North Sea on its head. So what is working life like way up above the waves?

It stands the height of 30 double decker buses, and weighs around the same as the Eiffel Tower.

As you approach by helicopter, it looks much the same as any other North Sea installation, but this is the biggest gas platform of its kind anywhere in the world.

Greg McKenna from Centrica, the British company behind the multi-million pound investment, describes why he thinks it is so special.

Cost savings

"Most platforms are permanently installed on the seabed, they are used for a number of years, after which they are decommissioned and brought back onshore," he says.

"This platform is self-installing, which means it comes out on a barge, you put the legs down to the sea bed, you exploit the oil and gas out of the field and when the field is finished you do it in reverse and take it to the next field.

Image caption Just seven or eight people are needed to run the 9,000-tonnes facility

"And you do that three or four times, thus reducing the cost."

Officially, the platform is called the F3-FA installation and technically operates in the Dutch sector of the North Sea.

Platforms in these waters are always named after the field in which they are working.

It weighs in at more than 9,000 tonnes and stands more than 425ft (130m) above the sea floor.

Astonishingly for a facility this size, when it is fully operational just seven or eight members of staff are needed to keep it running.

Costs were not such a big issue in the heady days of the North Sea in the 1970s and 1980s, when the really big fields were discovered.

Companies could afford to invest in dedicated, expensive, stand-alone facilities, knowing that they would quickly cover their costs.

But industry experts say the easy oil and gas has now been found.

What is left is in smaller reservoirs that can be harder to tap into, so the economics of operating here have changed.

The F3-FA field is a case in point. It was discovered in the 1970s and lies around two miles directly below the platform.

But it has changed hands several times over the years. None of its previous owners felt it was economic to exploit.

It is now expected to yield gas for the next four to five years. When it is empty, the platform will have been paid for and will move on to another location.

That is good news for the UK too. It means that important energy resources are not left in the ground, but are used to keep the lights on.

The UK is now a net importer of gas. Much of it comes from unstable regions around the globe, so making the most of our home-grown resources will be increasingly important in the years ahead.

So, how much oil and gas is left out here on our doorstep? Production peaked back in 1999, and has been falling ever since.

Mike Tholen, commercial director of the industry body Oil and Gas UK, says: "The good news is that we have produced something like 40 billion barrels of oil and gas.

"There could be another 24 billion still to come, so there's a lot of work and a lot of opportunities still in the North Sea."

Mr Tholen says the North Sea could still be supplying up to half of the oil and gas we need as a country in 10 years time.

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