The discovery of exploitable North Sea oil deposits in the 1970's and the arrival of the oil industry boosted the whole area's economy.
Lying 22 kilometres off the coast of the Moray Firth, the Beatrice Field is the closest inshore oil filed in the UK. It has been operating since 1976 and three platforms extract oil from over 2,000 metres below the firth's seabed! The crude oil is carried by an 81 kilometre pipeline to the Nigg oil terminal in the Cromarty Firth for processing and tankers export it around the world.
A number of North Sea oil reserves could not be developed until new technologies made this possible. The Captain field lies 60 kilometres north of Fraserburgh. It utilises a wellhead protector platform and a Floating Production Storage and Offloading vessel (FPSO). The use of FPSOs will mean that in the near future, the Ross Field, also in the outer firth can be developed without the need for conventional production platforms.
Seismic survey work is currently taking place in the outer firth, investigating new oil and gas reserves that could be developed in the future. There are some concerns that the intense frequency sounds used in this work can injure or disturb fish, seals and cetaceans. Government guidelines are applied to minimise disturbance from these surveys.
As the inner Moray Firth is one of the few sheltered areas around the North Sea, a number of oil-related industries are based here. The oil rig and pipeline fabrication yards at Ardersier, near Nairn, and at Nigg in the Cromarty Firth, as well as rig inspection businesses and oil industry training facilities provide vital local jobs.
Oil spills can have disastrous affects on marine life. Birds are often the most obvious animal to suffer, but otters are also very vulnerable as their fur clogs up with oil and they cannot keep warm. If they eat or swallow the toxic oil they may also get sick. The risk of an oil spill is always present wherever oil is produced or carried by tankers and pipelines, but the oil and shipping industries are attempting to minimise these risks. As accidents can happen, especially when new technologies are being introduced, the firth has an oil spill contingency plan. There is also concern for the Moray Firth Dolphin population in the event of an oil spill, consequently guidelines have been drawn up to help protect the cetaceans.