It is estimated that around 200 small pools contain more than 1 billion barrels of oil equivalent (boe) in the North Sea.
These pools may be marginal, but they have the capacity to stimulate the much-needed economic recovery of the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS). For years the potential of these fields has remained locked. As the downturn continues and the price of oil remains stagnant, more pools will earn themselves the unenviable ‘marginal’ tag because of the high costs involved in developing them.
What’s the answer? Most engineers would look at a traditional subsea route, reverting to a cut and paste culture when the solution does not have to be that complicated. The solution is a structure in its simplest form: the minimum facility platform.
In designing these platforms we start from scratch, looking at the bare minimum of what is required to operate the platform safely and efficiently. Minimum facility platforms are already in existence on the UKCS so the concept is not new, but many exploration and production companies cannot see beyond traditional subsea options. Yet stripping back platforms significantly reduces capital expenditure and operating costs.
These platforms minimise the risk to personnel. There seems to be a school of thought that unmanned platforms are not as safe as manned platforms, when the opposite is true because personnel spend very little time on them. The goal-setting approach of the UK safety regime should support this idea and should not be used as an excuse not to embrace minimum platforms.
There have been studies where the total installed cost of the platform in 40 metres of water emerged in the region of £9m, in comparison to traditional subsea tie-back projects where each tree, control system and wellhead easily costs £4m. The facts aren’t just on paper; at Ramboll Oil & Gas, engineers have been designing minimum facility platforms for environments from the Gulf of Mexico to the Danish and Norwegian sector of the North Sea for decades.
The only thing that differs between the two solutions is the water line. Minimum facility platforms offer everything that a subsea solution does, but it is built on top of the water. These aren’t a silver bullet for small pools, but they must be considered by exploration and production companies as part of their solutions mix. Marginal fields, which are so described either as a result of geographic remoteness or the difficulty involved in developing, are essential to revitalising the North Sea and dragging us out of the downturn.
But the costs associated with subsea projects, which seem to be spiralling out of control, make development of small pools unpalatable.
There is a danger that these projects will remain on a shelf gathering dust – and indeed will only increase in number because of lower-for-longer oil and gas prices and inflated subsea costs – when the solution exists and is simple. For the future of the UK North Sea, this cannot be allowed to happen.
We need to take a fresh look at how we approach the whole issue of marginal field development, and not just the engineering approach. We need better collaboration between commercially focused operators.
Dialogue will allow plans to take shape, but operators must take action and work together to get oil and gas out of the marginal fields and back to the beach through regional or hub development plans. If we are all agreed that the ultimate aim is to see the UK North Sea recover then we need to stand united, not alone, in our commitment to delivering it. ■
From Adjacent Oil & Gas 4, August 2016