Subsea Robbery

One fact that is almost wholly unappreciated outside of the oil business is the obligingly shallow nature of places like the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea. To landlubbers, the sea looks pretty much the same anywhere and, since it gets dark and eerie much below 40m depth, what does it matter? In some cases, the shallowness can have useful effects, such as enabling causeways to be built between islands in places like Orkney and Eilean nan Siar, but mostly, it’s just sea, isn’t it?

Students of paleogeography have unearthed (unsead?) some interesting history in that the North Sea was once much smaller and some 10,000 years ago, it was possible to walk from Yorkshire to Jutland, provided you splashed across the combined Humber and Rhine at some point. En route you would have passed a chain of highlands that are now being called the Dogger Hills.

Location of the Dogger Hills

As ice age snows melted, sea levels rose and the lower-lying parts flooded. Evidence that the area was inhabited are dredged up by fishermen on a daily basis. The last to submerge were the high Dogger Hills, which now lie submerged 18m-60m below the surface. The Geology of the Dogger Bank notes “a buried relief at an average level of 3 m below the sea floor was discovered. Most likely this relief represents a former glacial landscape covered with soft sediments.” So a drowned world exists out in the North Sea.

Curious as this is, you may be wondering what all this has to do with the price of cheese. Let’s imagine that the UK Govt felt threatened by Scottish independence. How could they secure a better share of the North Sea oil billions that would otherwise fall to Scotland? Well they already did that once in 2000 when the Blair government shifted the agreed maritime boundary where Scots jurisdiction ran to put 6,000 sq. km into England. If you head due East from the Forth, you actually run into England.

An evil-minded Westminster might consider a little land reclamation. With the sea bed barely a building height below the water, it is not inconceivable that an island of several sq km could be reclaimed by a ring of rock ‘seerapp’ armouring, within which sundry landfill materials could be dumped to create dry land. Its official purpose, being 100 miles closer, would be to provide close support for North Sea installations and act as a base for the many offshore wind farms being contemplated for the area. With supply bases, helicopter and rescue facilities and even a tanker and pipe terminal, it could be a business in itself.

But its covert purpose would be less obvious. At that latitude, it should be under English jurisdiction, which makes it part of England. In turn, that would cause a redrawing of the equidistant boundary that caused so much fuss when first drawn in 1999. Because it would actually steal considerably more North Sea bed than the original grab. In fact, it would place England as the dominant benefactor from North Sea oil and gas, even if Scotland would still dominate the Norwegian and Celtic Sea.

The "Dogger Effect" What if the English Reclaimed Dogger Bank?

If all this sounds implausible, then consider what similar investment has done to turn three rocky islands called Macau into one of the fastest growing (literally) places in the world as it passes 28 sq km in size by filling in large sections of the Pearl River estuary.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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4 Responses to Subsea Robbery

  1. Angus McLellan says:

    A cunning plan. And if hadn’t been for those meddling kids it might have worked. And the framers and signatories of the UN Law of the Sea, in particular article 121 played a part too. And to avoid any doubt, that nice Mr Blair had the UK sign up.

    On the other hand, artificially expanding Rockall to the extent that it could sustain life would alter the EEZ. Mind you, that’d be an awful lot of trouble to go to when the grown-up thing to do would be to have a three- (Scotland, Faroes, Iceland ) or four-way (add Ireland) condominium over the Rockall Bank.

    Apropos of nothing – I am really only writing this down so that Google preserves it for the ages – I came across a picture of the MV Jean Charcot in Leith Docks, as you do. The caption said “research/fishery protection vessel”. And in other pictures the words “FISHERY PROTECTION” were clearly painted in big letters on the hull. There’s even a video on Youtube of the Charcot doing what looks to be a boarding drill (on a very calm day for up near the Faroes) with the Faroese fishery protection ship Brimil. Well, it wasn’t our boat, so whose was it? Apparently it was owned by Hays Shipping in Aberdeen and leased out to the EU for fishery patrols off Newfoundland in the summers and did survey charter work the rest of the time. The EU seems to be using the Icelandic Coast Guard’s trusty old patrol ship Tyr now, so I guess the Charcot was surplus to requirements. It was, after all, nearly as old as me. It was sold recently and now seems to be on its way to Brazil after a refit at Grangemouth. Not bound for the breakers yet then. Apparently it was once used by Jacques Cousteau, or so lots of websites say. If true that would presumably have been when Charcot belonged to the French research organisation CNEXO (the predecessor of today’s IFREMER). From Leith to Brazil, via the Faroes, Aberdeen, Newfoundland, Grangemouth and Jacques Cousteau. It’s a small world.

    • davidsberry says:

      Much appreciate your informed comments and supplementary info. The whole Rockall issue is equally thorny but not as a direct Scotland-England issue.

      • Angus McLellan says:

        I don’t know if you’ve seen this before, but there was a paper written on the maritime border here which explains the various rules that have been used to delineate these and offers some arguments for and against the different options.

        It’s not transparently obvious that the Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundaries Order 1999 changed the continental shelf definitions in any case. If you look at the list of “relevant” UK legislation and documents on the UN Law of the Sea website – here – it doesn’t sho up there. So far as the UN are concerned, unless I’m missing something, the continental shelf internal boundary on the east coast remains the line of 55 degrees and 50 minutes North. That might seem improbable, but we are talking about the people who managed to devolve responsibility for Antarctica …

  2. davidsberry says:

    A most interesting set of observations for which I am very grateful. The concept that the UN could still be holding an opinion contrary to that of HM Gubmint is one for Scots to investigate. Clearly the EU will have a role here but, since it’s back-peddling furiously over the possibility of such boundaries becoming relevant, we won’t get much clarity from them any time soon.

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