The first North Sea oil field to come on stream in the UK is experiencing a new lease of life.

It was christened the Argyll field. Then it was renamed Ardmore. Now, after another parental change, it is Alma.

The first oil field to come on stream in the UK sector of the North Sea is having a new lease of life, a testimony to pioneering, technology and the unique contribution made in inhospitable waters by the oil industry.

Argyll ushered in Britain’s oil age 37 years go. Hamilton Brothers, headed in the UK by Bob Dyke, a crusty oilman, discovered the field four years earlier in 1971 but problems posed by a fractured reservoir, the water depth and transporting the oil ashore by tanker rather than pipeline produced considerable delays.

It was an age of change. Opec producers had, at a stroke, made the North Sea an economic proposition by forcing up the price of oil. By 1975 the world price was running a $12 a barrel, petrol cost the equivalent of 16p a litre, inflation was running at a heady rate of 25pc and the miners had just won a 35pc pay rise.

There are many more old North Sea fields in line for the Argyll treatment – around 340 it is estimated if all the small ones are included. The government has mixed and matched new exploration territory with old and in an effort to maintain the exploration and discovery momentum and extend the life of an oil bearing region that at one stage ranked among the world’s top five producers.

The UK has slipped to 19th place this year as the Government and the industry attempt to repair fences damaged by last year’s tax increases and only partially mended this year. Malcolm Webb, chief executive of Oil & Gas UK, the industry trade body, says there has been a “constructive engagement” with the government over the past year and hopes it will result in “targeted action” to encourage more investment.

Production and exploration slumped last year – oil and gas output by 19pc to an average of 1.8m barrels a day – amid uncertainty about prospects, the contentious tax raid by the Treasury, the fall-out from the Gulf of Mexico disaster and a changing of the guard.

The pioneers, BP, Shell, ExxonMobil – with the world as their oyster – have been selling out as the chances of any more major discoveries fade and the North Sea is catalogued in oil parlance as mature.

Smaller, second generation companies are now picking up their well worked assets cheaply and banking on technology to squeeze more out of partially exhausted reservoirs. The government would dearly like to see them generate a ‘second wind’ in the North Sea but may have to settle for a strong breeze.

Total production so far has topped 41bn barrels of oil and gas and the industry is currently contributing £11bn a year to the Treasury. Oil & Gas UK estimates another 15bn-24bn is recoverable although the Energy Department is more optimistic and feels the total could range up to 35bn.

Development costs will be considerably higher than Forties, Brent, Ninian and the other big first generation discoveries, although a high oil price will continue to provide protection, at least for the explorers. The next five years will be crucial with Oil & Gas UK estimating the industry needs to find £44bn to finance a whole series of new projects.

The era of self-sufficiency disappeared a decade ago but Mr Webb believes the North Sea can still be meeting close to 50pc of the UK’s oil and gas demand by 2020 even if the 15pc target for renewable energy is met. He feels there is enough potential to justify long-term investment of £82bn to keep oil and gas flowing for another 40 years.

Alma, Forties and Beryl are examples of how that ‘second wind’ could materialise. Argyll had 270m barrels of oil in place when it started but had produced less than a third in 17 years before being closed down on economic grounds.

Argyll reappeared as Ardmore in 2003 with Tucson and Acorn as lead investors using different drilling techniques to increase production but within five years after producing 5m barrels the field was rendered uneconomic and the operating licence surrendered to the government.

The Energy Department’s policy of recycling old licence areas to generate interest and opportunity for the newcomers has produced a rush. One of them, EnQuest, picked up the Argyll territory and saw ‘hidden’ potential from sophisticated seismic readings with the result that chief executive Amjad Bseisu believes he can recover another 20m-25m barrels from untapped parts of a complicated reservoir. He is looking for a repeat performance in other parts of the North Sea and now has Kuwait’s Foreign Petroleum Exploration company on board as a partner.

The government is banking heavily on enhanced oil recovery techniques to slow the rate of decline in output and is looking at new ways to encourage more players while the industry seeks more incentives.

There is more technology potential. Carbon capture and storage technology could provide another addition to production if successfully adapted to power stations. Carbon dioxide gas shipped to North Sea would be injected into oil reservoirs to force out more oil and provide the North Sea with another lease of life.