Prime minister Harold Wilson referred to 3 November 1975 as the dawning of a new revolution. It was on that day that the Queen pushed a gold-plated button at BP’s Aberdeen control centre, and began the flow of British North Sea oil.
Well, almost. The oil had, in fact, been flowing for a while already, but nobody let that spoil the celebrations. Her Majesty called it a day of “outstanding significance in the history of the United Kingdom”.
The oil everyone was getting so excited about was coming from the Forties oil field in the British section of the North Sea. In 1970, two and a half billion barrels of recoverable crude oil was discovered in the sandstone rock thousands of metres below the sea.
BP tapped the reservoir and built the Forties Pipeline System, connecting the oil field with Aberdeen 110 miles to the west.
The discovery must have seemed like poetic justice. Just two years before the inauguration, Britain was forced to ration electricity after the oil-producing cartel, Opec, imposed an embargo on the West. The Guardian wrote somewhat ruefully at the time, “By the end of the decade, we can snub our noses at the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries”.
However, almost as an afterthought, the paper tempered its zeal, conceding that “By Opec standards we are not much to worry about with only 2% of the world oil reserves”. Forties production peaked in 1979 at around half a million barrels a day.
In 2003, BP sold its 96% stake in Forties to Apache for £812m – a deal akin to ‘selling the family silver’, as some pundits put it. And indeed, the deal turned out to be a good one for Apache. The company based out of Texas found another 800 million barrels, extending the oil field’s life by 20 years.
Today, production at Forties has greatly diminished from its peak in the late 1970s, yielding closer to around 40,000 barrels a day.