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The race to the Arctic – is industry technologically ready?

06th November 2012

The dawning of a new Arctic oil rush has begun. Global energy giants Shell, BP, Exxon, Gazprom, Rosneft are ramping up efforts to venture further into the harsh and deep waters at the high north of the planet where close to a quarter of the world's untapped oil reserves are thought lay hidden. Success hinges on building safe, reliable and cost-effective operations, developing and using the right technology adapted for Arctic conditions.

The race to the Arctic – is industry technologically ready?
Melting sea ice and improved technology has opened up this exploration race to withdraw an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil

Oil and gas companies claim to be targeting the Arctic offshore as part of a so-called “all of the above” energy strategy in order to meet increases in future demand. But with this pursuit comes an increasing pressure to take every safety precaution necessary to protect this fragile and exquisite region. Only if technology is available to reduce environmental and social impacts, with high levels of safety, shall the pursuit ever be truly justified, many argue.

Melting sea ice and improved technology has opened up this exploration race to withdraw an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil. Russia is currently leading this pursuit and its state-owned companies claim to have the technology to do this and within environmental guidelines. The country, along with leading energy giants and competitors are aware that as polar exploration and development becomes an impending reality for more oil and gas companies, a firm understanding of the region’s historical data and technology is crucial. Radar, sonar and acoustic resonance information from satellites, aircraft, and underwater vessels is, in most cases, the only way to effectively navigate the ice-filled seawater and the ice-scarred ocean floor, and to otherwise successfully reach the Arctic’s weather-guarded resources.

Paving the way

The Arctic poses unique physical challenges: remoteness, ice, extreme temperatures, and long periods of darkness – environments most operators have not yet been accustomed to. Technology is the key to meeting these challenges.  Although the water is relatively shallow -- about 150 feet deep, compared with 5,000 feet in the Gulf of Mexico -- floating ice is a constant threat. It is therefore essential that all vessels used in drilling and all equipment used in clean-up be field-tested to work in cold, icy and windy conditions.

Drifting sea ice, which can damage well piping and other equipment if it moves the drillship, can be avoided if companies use icebreakers and ice strengthened vessels to protect drilling equipment. If needed, icebreakers break the ice around the drillships into smaller pieces to reduce the forces it exerts, and thereby keeping our operations safe. Shell has ice-monitoring centres in its Arctic locations. In Anchorage, Alaska, its centre combines radar images from ships and satellites to provide a continuous real-time picture of sea ice cover and movement.

Leading power and automation technology group, ABB this year won an order worth USD 35 million from the Baltic Shipyard Ltd. to supply powerful propulsion and energy efficient electrical systems for a new icebreaker vessel under construction for Russia’s state shipping company Rosmorport FSUE. The equipment will service a 25 MW line multifunctional diesel-electric icebreaker which will navigate the Northern Sea Route and the Arctic seas and rivers. It has a speed of 2 knots in compact ice field up to 2m thick and at temperatures as low as –35°C. The vessel will be delivered to Rosmorport in 2015. The Azipod propulsion system allows for energy fuel reduction of up to 20 per cent, according to ABB, an energy efficiency upgrade which may be of importance, as the amount of diesel usually required to advance through the Arctic ice is considerable.

Seismic exploration

Carrying out seismic surveys is another key part of the Arctic exploration process. Most recently, Shell conducted three years of open water surveys in the Alaskan Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea, starting in 2006. The company uses 3D seismic surveys to locate and analyse oil and gas reservoirs. These use sound waves to generate a 3D computer model of the undersea geology. Ice can distort the sound waves and therefore create an inaccurate picture. It had been thought that seismic surveying in Arctic conditions was too difficult and that ice-free conditions were needed to obtain high quality data. But Shell found that a combination of vibrating sources on the ice and microphones placed in the water below the ice and on the seabed recorded accurate information. We conducted our first successful tests with 3D seismic on ice in 2007.

Norwegian oil giant Statoil, which plans to drill nine wells during a non-stop 2013 Norwegian Barents exploration campaign, this year published a road map to prepare for activities in even harsher Arctic areas. Some of the technology highlights include work to allow for cost-effective 3D seismic for exploration prospect evaluation in ice, and the continuing development of a tailor-made, Arctic drill unit. The unit will be one that can operate in a wide range of water depths across the Arctic, and will involve integrated operations in drifting ice. Functions here will include a management system to reduce ice impact, an optimised drilling package for faster drilling and increased rig availability, and solutions to ensure that the rig maintains its position. At present no robust solution for dynamic positioning dedicated for ice operation exists, according to Statoil.

Aker Solutions’s wireline tractor serviceswas this contracted to boost Statoil exploration. The Norwegian oilfield services firm will provide well intervention services as part of plans to boost resource recovery rates in the Norwegian continental shelf. Tractor systems increase logging range and perforating capabilities in horizontal and high-angle wells, where gravity descents are no longer viable. They reduce both operational costs and HSE risk, claim Aker. Under the agreement, Aker will deliver wireline tractor services to seven of Statoil’s platforms in Stavenger in the south of Norway’s continental shelf, in addition to 16 fields along the Norwegian Sea. Statoil hopes to increase resource recovery rate in its fields from 50 to 60 per cent, according to Wolfgang Puennel, head of well intervention services at Aker Solutions.

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