CoTE Focus: Offshore & Subsea Technology

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A significant innovation at the Gastech exhibition is a series of free-to-attend theatres dedicated to delivering knowledge, education and awareness of technological innovations in natural gas. At the next Gastech in South Korea in March, these Centres of Technical Excellence (CoTEs) will feature over 60 seminars at which industry leaders will showcase their latest developments. In advance of these seminars, Gastech News has asked them for their views on key industry trends. Here, we examine their replies on the theme of offshore and subsea technology – focusing on oil/gas separation equipment, the prospects for marine CNG, and what the oil and gas industries should be doing to address skills shortages.

The inexorable growth in demand for oil and natural gas is expected to continue for several more decades. Yet there are many who agree that the days of “easy” oil and gas are over. Increasingly, the oil and gas industries have had to reach out into new frontiers, be they unconventional sources like shale, resources in deep water, or oil and gas deposits in Arctic regions, where harsh climatic conditions often combine with deep water to create the ultimate challenge.

Because of the many challenges presented by offshore and subsea environments, advances in technology have been vital to the increasing sophistication of operations in these sectors.

For Mika Tienhaara, CEO of ASCOM Separation, “It has been very exciting to see how companies have implemented subsea separation equipment over recent years to achieve improved overall solutions.” Though he adds: “There is still much potential in the performance of technology that is now in development and/or qualification. With the many potential field developments – both green-field and brown-field – there are tremendous gains to be had in recovery rates, revenues and reduction of overall project costs by using separation equipment as part of subsea boosting solutions.”

Unconventional solutions: David Stenning, President and COO of Sea NG, sees the most exciting development of the past decade as being the rise of unconventional gas and oil production:

“Horizontal fracking has clearly changed the entire energy industry,” he says. “The result is relatively low cost natural gas in North America and this low cost gas is impacting world markets with the ultimate result of lower cost natural gas world-wide.

“The next innovation will be to take this relatively low cost natural gas and transport it at lower cost. Industry is working hard to find lower cost ways to ship natural gas, especially by sea. Sea transport of natural gas is dominated by LNG which has high front-end capital costs and the need for a very large reservoir.

“For regional markets there is a less expensive and simpler way to transport natural gas – using compressed natural gas (CNG) ships. These ships have recently received international classification approval and several projects are under consideration. Compression is much simpler than liquefaction and much less expensive.”

Will CNG be a game-changer? There has been talk of gas transportation by CNG ships for decades, but Stenning is convinced that this is a technology whose time has come. “The advent of CNG ships will be the technical ‘game-changer’ of the next decade,” he believes. “They will allow the development of smaller offshore gas fields and provide a less expensive and simpler way to ship gas in regional markets like the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Far East.”

There has been increasing interest in exploiting oil and gas resources in Arctic environments, which clearly magnify the challenges of offshore and subsea operations. Do we have all the necessary technologies to conduct operations in the Arctic effectively, efficiently and safely?

“I had the privilege as a young engineer to participate in the design and construction of the early exploration drilling platforms in the Beaufort Sea,” says Stenning. “My view is that the technology exists but it will require new thinking, new designs and new operational procedures to safely drill and produce in the Arctic seas, especially in the deeper waters.”

In the Arctic “subsea is key”: “We see in our work with a variety of oil companies and the joint technology developments/qualifications done or ongoing for subsea applications that subsea is key to unlocking the hydrocarbon reserves in Arctic areas,” says Mika Tienhaara. “For subsea there are already many references and much experience has been gained. However, I believe that there will be challenges to the flow assurance and transportation that will require further thinking and new solutions.”

A lot of prominence has been given to the skills shortages faced by the oil and gas industries, as qualified and experienced engineers retire. Is this a particular problem in the offshore and subsea sectors?

“The boost of activity throughout the 2000s has created the need for a lot of skilled workers in the industry in most areas and positions,” says Tienhaara. “With current activity levels in exploration and production, there is a need for more skilled workers within oil and gas in general.

“Field developments are continuously increasing in complexity – deeper waters, harsher conditions, more complex reservoirs and well stream fluids and so on – which also means that risk assessment and safety issues need to be well planned and taken care of.”

Looking ahead to Seoul: With the Gastech Conference and Exhibition now less than a month away, our two experts are as enthusiastic as those we have spoken to for previous articles in this series about the usefulness of the event.

“ASCOM Separation has a lot of experience, knowledge and technologies in the separation of gas and liquids,” says Tienhaara. “It is natural for us to meet the people of this industry at a venue like Gastech, which we think is well recognised.”

Stenning for his part believes that “the people looking for LNG solutions are exactly the people who we have to connect with to see if CNG is a better fit for one or more of their projects”. He adds: “We look forward to the day when marine CNG is a major topic at Gastech.”

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