High Technology upon the Deep Blue Sea

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I started to get nervous only when the safety video showed the helicopter capsizing and filling up with water. I was preparing for a 90-minute flight to the Anasuria, an oil-producing ship anchored in the North Sea some 175 km east of the Scottish city of Aberdeen, to explore how new technology is changing this stalwart of the old economy.

The actors in the video behaved with faultless ease. They knew where to find the pockets on their survival suits that held their gloves and hood. They deployed the nose clip, activated the "air pocket" that provides a minute of underwater breathing when you pull or was that twist? the red knob. They dismantled the windows, climbed out, inflated life vests, hooked themselves together with the safety line, found the spray hood somewhere in the collar, and finally placed that stylish light on their heads. My chance of doing all that correctly after a crash? Zero.

My nerves were calm by the time we reached our destination, the Anasuria. Life on the Anasuria is a mix of fanatical concern for safety and boring reality. It's like going to the office at the bottom of a nuclear missile silo. Peter Thomas, the quiet, careful man in charge of the 234-m craft, has the phrase "Safety Always Takes Priority" framed above his desk and is proud that more than 60 million barrels of oil have flowed through the Anasuria without a single serious injury.

When people started pumping oil from the North Sea 29 years ago, experts predicted it would be empty by now. But the U.K. is the world's ninth-largest producer of oil and the fourth-largest of natural gas. At $30 or more a barrel, oil is sexy again. But the future of the industry depends on the new economy. Advances in mapping, sensors, simulations and process control all based on better, faster and more powerful computers make it profitable to find and exploit fields once considered too small.

Touching the big pipes that take crude into the Anasuria from four different fields up to 12 km away, I was a little awed to feel heat that an hour ago had been trapped in the earth's crust since the Jurassic era. The pipes are in the middle of an 800-ton swiveling turret in the bow. This is smart technology, too: the rest of the ship swings freely around the turret as wind and water dictate, so no money is spent running engines to keep the Anasuria precisely aligned.

In a few years, when these fields are exhausted, the ship will be towed to another site, which is much cheaper than building a new fixed platform. "A lot of technology goes into getting the most value out of the asset," says David Bostock, development manager of these fields for Shell. The crew (28 men, one woman) works for 14 days, 12 hours a day, then rotates off for two weeks. "You have a family on shore, and a family here," says Barry Campion, an operations technician. The money is good around $75,000 a year but the absences from home are hard. Campion still gets upset recalling that his mom and dad both died while he was at sea.

Flying back to Aberdeen, the night sky and sea are vast and inky black. When we reach the coastline our eyes hurt from a sea of lights from houses, cars, streetlamps. The glare is a sharp reminder of our addiction to fossil fuels. All of the Anasuria's impressive technology is devoted to feeding a bad habit that is getting worse.

Fast Forward Europe is TIME's marathon journey across Europe to chronicle the people, places and trends that are shaping the future. Read ongoing Fast Forward Europe coverage at www.timeeurope.com and watch for our year-end special issue in December