Most investments in oil these days are split between the booming unconventional fields like the Bakken shale and the quickly recovering offshore exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. But shale fields are not the only ones seeing some unconventional approaches.
Reuters reports that offshore oil exploration could see a dramatic change in the coming years as producers look to move operations from the massive semi-submersible platforms dotting the Gulf to automated processing plants sitting deep beneath the water along the seabed.
Other next frontier
After more than a century operating either onshore or in only the shallowest waters, the move into regions like the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico marked a major advancement in oil and gas exploration.
The ability to operate safely under hundreds or thousands of feet of water came only with difficulty. And now, engineers are looking to move all of the complex machinery involved in compressing oil and natural gas for transport via pipeline into a structure that can operate under these same pressures.
“We know they work one by one, wells, the manifolds, the oil boosting systems, the separations system, produce reinjection system, seawater injection system, compression, now we have to put it together,” Statoil’s Bjoern Kaare Viken, subsea chief at Norway’s Statoil, told Reuters. “It’s not impossible but it has never been done. Our plan is to install the subsea factory by 2020.”
Boosting safety, along with profits
The movement from semi-submersible production platforms to subsea processing plants offers a wide range of potential benefits, however.
Offshore oil exploration suffers from a wide range of dangers, from the unpredictable tempests of the North Sea and the looming hurricanes of the Gulf, which can be avoided completely be moving to the ocean floor.
Just as importantly, as the Arctic emerges as an increasingly attractive target for oil exploration, moving below the surface gets the equipment away from the ice floes common in those frigid waters.
The biggest danger of operating at the depths that new offshore exploration is seeing is that equipment must operate under immense pressure from the water above. But Aker Solutions’ subsea head Alan Brunnen noted that this can also be an advantage when it comes to more efficiently pumping out oil and gas.
“This means you’re squeezing out more, an extra 5-10 percent, possibly more or less, depending on the specifics,” Brunnen told the news source. “And compared to having a semi-submersible platform in deepwater, there is a saving somewhere between 20 and 50 percent on the capex, depending on how deep it is or how big the platform would be.”
The developments are still several years off, as technologies still need to be perfected that will allow for power transmission farther than 100 kilometers, but many expect major developments by the end of the decade.
Objections in the Arctic
Safety at offshore oil rigs has taken on added importance in the past few years, first with the 2010 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf, but more recently with the difficulties Royal Dutch Shell has faced drilling in the waters off Alaska.
The Interior Department announced early this month that it plans to investigate the company’s operations, after its drilling rig, the Kulluk, ran aground on an island in the Bay of Alaska.
Some waters have been opened up in recent years by receding ice at the North Pole, but seasonal shifts still threaten any large-scale oil developments, making many environmental and safety groups skeptical of the prospects for the region.
However, Reuters reports that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic could hold as much as 90 billion barrels of oil, as well as 1.7 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas.