A LEADING industry figure has branded as “ludicrous” an academic’s suggestion that oil platforms should be left in the North Sea when they reach the end of their working life.

Tom Baxter, a senior lecturer in chemical engineering at Aberdeen University, said in a paper for the Options for Scotland think tank that the rigs could be cleaned up, made safe and left where they are.

He said it would offer better value for money for taxpayers, and claimed current decommissioning rules could do more harm to the environment than good.

Under the rules – which include the Petroleum Act 1998 and the Ospar convention governing the North Sea – oil and gas firms mostly have to remove installations when they are no longer in use.

The cost of decommissioning is shared between the firms and the UK Government, which has been giving the oil companies tax breaks for years. Baxter said taxpayers could pay a final bill of between £20 billion and £30bn.

Baxter said the money saved by leaving the structures in place could be redirected into green energy, such as solar, tidal or wind power.

However, Professor Alex Russell, who chairs the Oil Industry Finance Association, said the idea “beggars belief”. Speaking exclusively to The National, Russell said: “This wouldn’t be allowed on land, so why should it be allowed in the North Sea? It’s completely unacceptable.

“The Scottish Government needs to take control – responsibility for the North Sea should be devolved 100 per cent to Holyrood.

“The fact of the matter is that, over the years, Westminster has taken more the £300bn in tax from the North Sea and this has been squandered by London.

“Scotland has been robbed. Why should Scottish taxpayers have to foot the bill for decommissioning? The oil companies should clean up their own mess.

Baxter said the motivation for offshore architecture removal was environmental. He said: “If, as many believe, the most pressing issue of our time is global warming, then it may be much more beneficial for the environment, society and the economy if the architecture was left clean and in place and the money saved directed into green energy and emissions reduction.”

Baxter said a growing number of experts now argued there was little environmental benefit from removal.

He went on: “Indeed, some of the decommissioning activities will do more environmental harm than good. This is due to seabed disruption of marine colonies built up over 30 or so years.

“Furthermore, the removal process itself is very energy intensive, with consequent harmful combustion gas emissions contributing to global warming. If the architecture is left in place, it will naturally continue to reef, providing an environmental positive.”

Dr Lyndsey Dodds, head of marine at environment group WWF Scotland, said: “Given the very generous tax-breaks and incentives the oil industry has received over the years, the idea that it might be allowed to wriggle out of its internationally agreed obligations to clean up its mess is unacceptable.

“Having made hundreds of millions of pounds in profits, the polluter should now pay.”

A spokeswoman for the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Offshore oil and gas operators must decommission installations and pipelines at the end of a field’s economic life.

“This is done in accordance with UK and international obligations and is delivered in a safe, efficient and cost-effective manner for taxpayers, while minimising the risk to the environment and other users of the sea.”