Maersk’s new generation drill rigs boost North Sea hopes

Maersk’s massive XLE4 rig is on course for deployment before the end of this year and could herald the leap forward in rig technology that the North Sea so desperately needs. Nnamdi Anyadike investigates.


Maersk XLE drill rig

As the oil and gas majors move into ever deeper and harsher waters, the task is on for rig and offshore equipment providers to design more robust rigs. One company, Maersk Drilling, is leading the way with its fleet of three state-of-the-art XLE jack-up rigs - named Intrepid, Interceptor and Integrator, and a fourth known as XLE4 which will be delivered before the end of this year.

Camilla Størup Ugilt, communication partner for strategy and stakeholder relations at Maersk Drilling, confirmed that delivery was on schedule. “It is correct that our 4th XLE jack-up rig is scheduled to be delivered from DSME in Korea at the end of the year,” she said, adding: “The XLE4 is our last rig on order, and no further rigs are planned at the moment.”

However, it will be enough, she says, “to cement Maersk Drilling's position as an industry leader in the North Sea, with the most advanced jack-up drilling rigs in existence.”

Enhanced features

The XLE4 is based on the design of the three existing rigs, but will have several modifications and incorporate enhanced features to improve efficiency, safety and onboard logistics that will make it the largest and most advanced jack-up rig in the world. 

"Maersk Drilling also has four new ultra deepwater drillships in its fleet."

These include dual pipe handling to maximise uptime and drilling efficiency, multi machine control, and the ability to operate all year round in the North Sea in water depths of up to 150 metres. The XLE4 can also accommodate 180 people in comparative comfort, compared with 150 people on the other XLE rigs.

In addition to the four XLE jack-up rigs, Maersk Drilling also has four new ultra deepwater drillships in its fleet, including the Valiant which is currently in the Gulf of Mexico under a three-year contract with Marathon Oil and ConocoPhillips. The Valiant can operate in water depths that exceed 3,500 metres and maintain a fixed position in waves of up to eleven metres.

Record North Sea depth

In the North Sea, the Maersk drillship Gallant has drilled to an even greater depth. In August, the company reported that at a total depth of 5,941 metres, it had beaten the record for the deepest well ever drilled on the Norwegian continental shelf.

The drilling depth was achieved through the use of a 15,000 per square inch (psi) rig, which Maersk adapted in order to drill a reservoir section where predicted pore pressures are well in excess of 15,000 psi.


The Gallant has been drilling the Solaris ultra high-pressure, high-temperature (HPHT) well, which “is one of the most challenging wells in the North Sea,” according to Sadi Ozturk, assistant rig manager on the Gallant. Before the end of the year, Maersk is expecting to have commissioned another jack-up rig, called the Highlander, at the Maersk Oil operated Culzean gas field in the UK Central North Sea. The 122 metre, harsh-environment jack-up was transported from the Jurong Shipyard in Singapore this summer and underwent a naming ceremony in northeast Scotland at the end of August.


The $4.5bn Culzean field is an HPHT project for which development approval was granted by the UK Oil & Gas Authority last year to Maersk Oil and its co-venturers, JX Nippon and BP (Britoil). The gas/condensate field has resources estimated at 250-300 MMboe. This is expected to be sufficient to meet 5% of total UK demand when it reaches peak output in 2020-2021. Production is expected to start in 2019 and continue for at least 13 years, reaching a plateau of 60,000-90,000 boe/d. Maersk Oil CEO Jakob Thomasen said: “Culzean is the latest in a series of large investments by Maersk Oil in the North Sea where we are active in Denmark, Norway, and the UK.”

2020 vision

Maersk Drilling’s chief commercial officer Ana Zambelli says the new drilling technology is the differentiating factor for customers when oil prices are so low. Offshore installation manager Craig Fraser adds: “It’s a demanding industry. Clients want performance and the oil market demands that even more. Our clients are always challenging us to improve and I believe that while they always demand more, they get a high-end product.”

"Five years from now, its drilling rigs will have been fully digitalised."

The company has set great store by its new rig technology and is working towards what it describes as its ‘2020 strategy’. Five years from now, its drilling rigs will have been fully digitalised with the aim of reducing operating costs, increasing uptime and unlocking currently inaccessible resources from underground. One of the key tools in the digital transformation, says chief technical officer Frederik Smidth, is sensor technology. 

“Maersk Drilling has access to large amounts of data that we actually do not put to any operational or commercial use...We can exploit those sensor-related opportunities much more extensively,” he says.

Sensors can be used for a wide variety of tasks including improving a drilling operation and creating a much more efficient and cost-effective maintenance regime. Smidth points out that Maersk Drilling – like other drilling contractors – is under immense pressure to both cut costs and offer new technologies for its customers. Maersk’s pioneering projects include remote drilling. The company has set up a demonstration project in which the driller’s cabin is separate from the rig. Smidth believes that given the right conditions, it might even be possible to situate it on an onshore location several hundred kilometres from the drilling rig.

Cutting costs

The bottom line for Maersk, as it is for other companies, is to drive down costs. Senior commercial advisor Erik Schou has been prominent in the build-up of Maersk Drilling’s activities in Norway since 1992. He describes the incentive that underpins Maersk’s move in the direction of enhanced drilling technology. “Between 1986 and 1991, most drilling contractors were fighting for their lives in a severe industry downturn,” he says. “But Maersk Drilling was one contractor that emerged from the crisis even stronger than it was before. Maersk Drilling identified a window of opportunity. The Norwegian market was dominated by floaters and a jack-up market was non-existent. This provided an opportunity for us.”

The first jack-up rig, Gallant, was built specifically for the entry into the Norwegian market. Other rigs were then developed for use in Maersk Drilling’s commercial campaign in Norway in the beginning of the 199s.  

By then, Maersk had created a new market segment – the Norwegian offshore jack-up sector. Its innovative jack-up rigs made it less costly to operate offshore Norway. Schou believes that there are similar technical opportunities between the 1990s and today’s oil price downturn.

But, he adds: “Success was not guaranteed when Maersk Drilling made the decision to venture into the Norwegian jack-up market. These were rough times, with a tremendous oversupply of drilling rigs. We cannot copy the strategy from the eighties and nineties. But it is nevertheless important to remember that even in the years between 1986 and 1991 we managed to analyse the situation and take advantage of the openings that emerged in the market. We will have to do that once again.”