A Guide to UK Subsea Capability for the Oil and Gas Industry

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The UKTI Looks at the subsea industry.

Subsea development has become a worldwide norm for offshore oil and gas fields. This is especially true of mature offshore provinces like the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS), where more than fifty percent of production now comes through subsea wells. The UK subsea industry acquired its world-leading capabilities, firstly, in the development of the UKCS and subsequently in other locations that have proved even more challenging.

This journey has seen the UK subsea industry progress from working in water depths of tens of metres to thousands of metres, in every corner of the world, often in the face of severe climatic conditions and mounting economic pressure. In our times, the offshore fields still available tend to have complex reservoirs, inaccessible locations and marginal economics. This calls for creative, cost-effective solutions that are also safe and environmentally benign. Subsea solutions score high in all these areas.

The trend towards subsea development continues, but the UK industry is not following this trend – it is leading the way. UK subsea companies are taking the global industry deeper: colder: cleaner: safer.

It should not be surprising to anyone that the UK has attained such a pinnacle of excellence in subsea engineering. Subsea wells tied back by seabed flowlines were used to produce the UK’s first oil in 1974. The North Sea went on to become the largest market for subsea production, with almost all the hardware needed, including subsea well heads, flexible flowlines, control umbilicals and control systems, being designed and produced in the UK. However, while the lessons of history are important, the UK subsea industry is nothing if not forward looking. The major subsea projects of the future will be in West Africa, South East Asia, South America and the Gulf of Mexico – all places where the UK’s subsea companies are already doing business and where their skills will be increasingly needed.

The ‘pre-Salt’ projects, offshore Brazil, give an indication of the challenges to be faced. These include: complex reservoirs, requiring careful data acquisition and interpretation and cutting-edge well engineering; ultra-deep water mooring for the floating production units; logistics for the gas offtake – pipelines in water depth of more than 2km, over a distance of 300km, with associated problems of paraffin deposition, hydrate and scaling control; high pressure and CO2, which have implications for riser and wellbore materials specification.

UK contractors and suppliers can take these and other issues in their stride. The UK has an all-round design engineering and project management capability in the oil and gas sector that is unequalled anywhere. And UK companies further along the supply chain are extremely able to supply the equipment and services that will be needed.

Many of the subsea technologies in general use today were developed for the North Sea. The high levels of expertise gained in that environment make Aberdeen, especially, a centre of excellence for subsea contracting with many global companies running part, or all, of their international operations from there. Over half the commercial remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) used in the global offshore industry were designed and built by a UK company, including workclass ROV systems that can operate down to 3000 metres on ultra-deep drilling programmes. UK companies were also responsible for revolutionising horizontal drilling technology, being first to deploy multi-well production templates, the original underwater manifold centre, and intelligent riser systems.

The UK designs and manufactures a very wide range of high-technology underwater electronics, cameras, sonars and sensors. Developing new technology for the ongoing subsea challenge is a core activity of the UK industry. UK centres of excellence are devoted to the research of new subsea technology, materials engineering and asset management. The UK is developing tools for intelligent completions, HP/HT optimisation, fluid and sand management, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and mini-ROVs.

Wider issues being addressed by the industry, along with academic partners, include improved seismic resolution, reservoir characterisation, exploration and downhole logging techniques. New production technology is targeted at minimising operating costs and maintaining safety and environmental performance, with novel methods for brownfield infill drilling, asset integrity, inspection, repair, debottlenecking and decommissioning. Innovative solutions include the use of low-cost lasers to detect gas leaks, tools for conducting wireline operations in highly deviated wells, flammable gas sensors, a counter-flow pig, precise subsidence monitoring using GPS and new wet-welding techniques.
The new technologies and techniques being devised by the UK subsea industry will be critical in the finding, extracting and transporting of offshore oil and gas. In future, many subsea developments will be platformless. The UK industry’s track record in pushing the limits of the possible in subsea tie-backs means that oil and gas can now be transported along the seabed over very large distances, allowing production from remote locations, even under ice sheets, direct to shore. UK companies are pioneers in this new era of ‘subsea to beach’.
Over 800 companies form the UK’s subsea oil and gas supply chain, employing 40,000 people, generating revenues in excess of US$9.5 billion with exports accounting for over 50 per cent of products and services by value. This directory provides details of some of those companies. They are among the best in the world and exemplify the key UK strengths of Innovation, Reliability, Adaptability, Sustainability and Knowledge.

Thanks to the UKTI.