New British International resumes offshore oil ops

 - September 19, 2006, 12:46 PM

It was bound to happen eventually. British International (BI), the company that rose from the ashes of what was once North Sea operator British International Helicopters, is back on the energy-support map. This month it will start flying Shell workers out to an economically promising but politically controversial gas field known as Corrib, 62 miles off the northwestern coast of the county of Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. Eschewing the trend toward employing new-generation types such as the Sikorsky S-92 or Eurocopter EC 225, BI will take one (maybe two) from its fleet of elderly S-61N workhorses.

BI’s return comes six years after its management bought out the non-oil support contracts left over from the Canadian Helicopter (CHC) purchase of several North Sea operators–British International Helicopters (Brintel), Bond and Norway’s Helikopter Service.

Since then, the firm has been active in police operations in South Wales. (The official company name is Veritair, the original police contractor run by Julian Verity.) It operates the scheduled service between Penzance and the Scilly Isles in southwest England and supports the British armed forces in Devon, England; Scotland; and the Falkland Islands.

However, COO and operations director Tony Jones said the company always intended to return to the offshore sector and made plans after a five-year moratorium expired last May. “This was our first opportunity and we grasped it with both hands,” he said.

“Our initial objective was to establish the company on a firm footing: now we are able to look at further growth and move into more aggressive markets. We’ll certainly have a serious look at new offshore opportunities as they emerge–both in the North Sea and abroad.

“The S-61 is ideal for this contract. We will be flying crews, but, in the main, Shell will be using it as a flying truck for delivering equipment to a semi-submersible. If the job progresses to one of large-scale people-moving, [Eurocopter] Super Pumas and the like will have a role to play.”

Exploitation of the Corrib Field has yet to get off the ground because of Shell’s controversial proposal to refine the gas onshore rather than at sea. Coastal residents and environmental groups fear pollution as a result of surplus gas and possibly toxic byproducts being pumped into the Irish Sea. Shell maintains there would be no pollution risk. A gas terminal at Bellanaboy Bridge, County Mayo, which is vital to bringing Corrib gas ashore, has recently received planning permission after an appeal.

Said Jones, “We will be starting work in April or May, using an S-61N from our own fleet, with a second on standby from Donegal Airport if required. Our contribution to the Corrib operation will involve four or five trips a week to a semi-submersible rig. If it goes well, production could start in about a year.”

Enterprise Oil, which was taken over by Shell, owns the exploration license. BI will provide flight crews and engineering, while airport staff will provide all the support and handling services. It also manages a fixed-wing service between Donegal and Aberdeen. “Obviously, if the field ramps up toward full production, we will recruit more staff locally and set up a proper operation. At that point, Shell will probably want to go out to tender again.”

Military Projects

As well as the military and Scilly Isles contracts, BI has assisted Lufttransport with its scheduled service to the Lofoten Islands, off the Norwegian coast. However, Jones concedes that some work that BI was targeting has failed to materialize. It hoped to make more of the growing trend toward outsourcing military support contracts (known as COMR–commercially owned military registered) but the market has cooled in the last couple of years. With funding needed for front-line activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, other military budgets have been put on hold.

“Since about 2000 the majority of COMR projects just haven’t happened–at one stage there was a move to replace all the army helicopters working in Northern Ireland. A competition was initiated but it was then withdrawn when the political system there eased. The Ministry of Defence was also looking at replacing all its Gazelles but if there isn’t a budget, the idea doesn’t progress.”

However, BI is looking forward to returning to the fray, and Shell will be relieved at the prospect of real competition returning to the region. The 1999 realignment left CHC to compete with just Bristow Helicopters, a potential cartel arrangement the oil companies regarded as highly undesirable. To avoid this, in 2004 BP awarded a 10-year contract to Bond Offshore Helicopters, sister company to Bond Aviation Services, which had diversified into air ambulance work during its own North Sea moratorium.