Brae, Oiltown ZE2, is booming

by Tom Morton -

Brae, not Lerwick, is Shetland’s oil town, or village. And it has of late profited considerably from activity at nearby Sullom Voe.

The changes in Brae’s fortunes can be most obviously measured by the new Co-op - several times the size of the old shop next door, which will now be demolished, and was initially the home of Thuleknit, a knitwear factory. The new store, which opened at the end of April, is a glittering temple to rural retail delights, Britain’s Most Northerly Repository of hot French bakery products and much else.

The new Co-op has not been delayed quite as much as Total’s multi-billion pound Laggan-Tormore gas pipeline project, with its associated gas treatment and distribution plant at Sullom Voe. But issues with storage space and parking meant the Co did not quite open its doors in time to capitalise on the busloads of workers employed by Petrofac and other sub-contractors on the project. Petrofac has just made a further £70m payment to cover damages to Total for the delays, bringing their Laggan-Tormore losses to £500m. There is still some snagging work underway, and so still a few workers on the gas plant buying baguettes and brie.

There are still a few gas plant workers busily buying baguettes...

At peak Petrofac, buses were parked outside both the Co-op and the Brae Garage (now also massively improved and extended) as shelves were raided for beer, wine, and sweeties, ordered newspapers were picked up, thousands of lottery tickets bought and hot snacks stuffed in pockets for the weary journey ‘home’ to the accommodation barges at Scalloway and Lerwick. Or even, for a brief period, a two-ferry trip to Saxa Vord in Unst.

Meanwhile, dozens of hired vehicles, many of them none-too-carefully thrashed pick-up trucks sporting the orange rooftop light compulsory for access to the gas plant site, rattled up and down the A970. The Moorfield Hotel cast a stark white reflection onto the waters of Sullom Voe, its bedrooms set aside for Total workers, its legendary ‘residents only’ unlimited evening buffet the subject of some jealousy from those unable to gain access.

Elsewhere, the signs of profits for local businesses have grown obvious over the past five years: The Sizzle Sisters takeaways at Voe. The massive rebuilding and expansion of the Brae Garage and its own very popular shop. The vans belonging to ‘Shetland FM’ - not a radio station, a facilities management company running the Sella Ness accommodation units. The booming B&Bs, hotels and eateries, notably the restaurant at Drumquin. A packed Busta House. And Frankies, of course, the fish and chip shop with a worldwide reputation and peak time queues for mussels, haddock and those amazing southern fried chicken pieces.

Busy. Things were very busy. But Brae and the North Mainland of Shetland has lived with Sullom Voe and its associated developments, the building work, the incoming workforces, the temporary accommodation and the consequent social implications, since 1938, when the RAF began basing flying boats there. The 1970s, when on the back of North Sea oil boom over 7000 workers came to the isles for the construction of Europe’s biggest oil terminal, saw the real klondyke conditions. Not only the two massive, purpose built ‘workers villages’ at Firth and Toft, but initially the old car ferry Rangatira and dozens of caravans and semi-waterproof croft houses containing men from all over the UK. And then permanent housing projects to provide accommodation for the long, oily haul.

Frankies, the fish and chip shop with a worldwide reputation and peak time queues for southern fried chicken pieces

Petrofac’s gas plant construction wasn’t on the same scale, though the main difficulties faced 40 years ago - weather, peat, weather, more weather - meant that the contract jumped from £500m to at least £700m, plunging Petrofac into crisis. Dwarfed, nevertheless by the £3-4 billion the entire Laggan-Tormore project is costing. And the rest. This was not, unlike the original oil terminal contract, a ‘cost plus’ deal. It literally didn’t matter how much money had to be thrown into Shetland to get Sullom Voe ready for handling Ninian and Brent crude. It was all about time and energy security, as far as the Thatcher Government - with a controlling share in BP - was concerned. The cash really didn’t matter; all that time ago, some of the men on site were earning up to £1000 a week, including overtime.

That’s why, today, there is a large empty gap between oil terminal and gas plant, leading to what remains of Orka Voe. Nobody really knows what’s in there, but confirmed stories indicate that every conceivable piece of equipment, from trucks to drums of waste and worse, was dumped, bulldozed, compacted and covered with peat. As Scott Shedden of Hillswick said:

“Machinery was disposed of. You’re talking Land Rovers, you’re talking buses, fridges, whole accommodation blocks. In those days it was cheaper to throw it down the tip than ship it back south. Huge reels of brand new copper wire, still with the wrapping on . Still there to this day.”

There were other issues, during the five-and-a-half years it took to get Laggan-Tormore gas flowing into Shetland and then on to St Fergus. Five-and-a-half years that saw the rise of fracking and the price of oil, tracked by natural gas, go into freefall. Total sold off a fifth of Laggan-Tormore to SSE last year, and Petrofac had to throw extra workers by the bargeload and cruiseliner at the project just to get it finished.

There’s no question that some workers caused occasional friction locally. There was confrontation, drunkenness, and a few scuffles. Some of the men shipped up from Scotland were on minimum wage. Gone were the days of the gold-dripping ‘bears’ of Sullom Voe.

But on the whole the local community has welcomed the incoming workers, along with the jobs and economic benefits brought home to Shetland.

“The gas plant is a significant in terms of oil and gas developments,” says local councillor Andrea Manson, “and we can only hope it will attract other companies and other projects. There’s plenty of land in Delting that could be used for oil and gas related developments.”

Fellow councillor Drew Ratter agrees:

“The importance of the oil industry in general to the various communities from Brae and further north can’t be overemphasised” he said, “and the construction and development of the gas plant has already done a lot for local jobs and for our service businesses. The fact that we are now in a downturn in the oil industry obviously means that the ongoing effect may be a bit less than hoped for - for a while at least - but it secures ongoing, long-term activity at Sullom Voe, and for that we must be thankful”.

"The importance of the oil industry in general to the various communities from Brae and further north can't be overemphasised." - Drew Ratter

But as the oil price continues to fall and gas prices (which do not vary so much due to a different system of market reporting) follow, what does the future hold for Brae and points north? The decision not to bring oil from the Schiehallion field into Sullom Voe caused ripples of fear last year, and the announcement that 260 jobs were to go at the terminal couldn’t really be compensated by the vague figure of “around 80 dayshift jobs, slightly less on the nightshift, mostly Shetland based” for the gas plant’s permanent workforce.

BP has ‘postponed’ its £500m gas sweetening plant, and a proposed 120 bed hotel to be built at Roebrek for BP workers has bitten the dust after planning permission was refused. Refurbishment of the oil terminal must go ahead, and workers will need accommodation for that, but as Steven Christie of BP said last year:

“Given the current business conditions being faced by our industry… we are reviewing our accommodation requirements for shift workers at SVT.

“As a result, the decision has been taken not to proceed with the hotel occupancy agreement at this time. We are now reviewing all of the available alternative accommodation options. We remain committed to having a rotational workforce comprising domiciled and non-domiciled employees at SVT, and to engaging with staff on alternative accommodation options as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, the new Co-op is doing a roaring trade, Shetland FM has moved the ‘zebra stripe’ accommodation barge Sans Vitesse to Sella Ness to cater for BP workers engaged on upgrading the plant and with hopes that eventually, the new gas sweetening plant will go ahead. And things are still flourishing at Frankies.

In fact, I’m just off for some freshly-caught scallops in garlic butter. With chips of course.

Posted in: Oil and Gas