The North Sea has been both a steadfast friend and fierce enemy of generations of Europeans who have lined its shores and plied its stormy waters. For the peoples of England, Scotland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, the Low Countries, and France, the North Sea has been a rich source of food, a highway of commerce, and a gateway to the world. In previous centuries its waves washed ships carrying the staples of life--fish, salt, cloth, timber--that fed and protected the land-dwellers. But death too rode the waves. Roman legions, marauding Vikings, Norman conquerors, ruthless pirates-- they in their turn struck from the sea, turning a natural barrier into a causeway for invaders and immigrants who brought with them powerful ideas about religion, politics, and society.
While nations were busy trading goods, ideas, and occasional cannon fire on the surface of the North Sea, the fishermen were busy hauling from the deep its true treasure. In the fifteenth century the Dutch pioneered bulk fishing and established the North Sea as a leading source of fish to Europe. By the late twentieth century the sea was in relative decline as a fishing zone and avenue of trade and communication as the world's economy became truly global. Its last secret, however, had not been revealed. In September 1965 fresh riches in the form of petroleum deposits were discovered beneath the seabed signaling the dawn of a new North Sea commodity bonanza.
This latest treasure drawn from the North Sea proved difficult and costly to exploit. Tapping oil and natural gas reservoirs beneath 100 meters of stormy water and 2000 meters of rock presented challenges that pressed the frontiers of technology, venture financing, and human endurance. A sketch of the steps involved in extracting petroleum from the North Sea will illustrate the challenge facing the offshore industry, while also providing a brief description of what is meant by "offshore petroleum activities."