Ride the Wave

31 March 2008 (Last Updated March 31st, 2008 18:30)

Investment in floating production systems continues to grow as they come to the fore in complex deepwater operations. While oil and gas producers go further and deeper in their search for reserves, improving the capability of technology for floating systems is a key goal for the industry. Nigel Ash reports.

Ride the Wave

Look at any industry forecast on the growth of investment in floating production systems (FPS) and it soon becomes clear that rapid growth is expected over the next decade and beyond.

Sustained high oil prices, growing global energy demand and the need to extend the reach of exploration and production (E&P) are driving this investment, which is targeted not only towards building new vessels and platforms, but also enhancing the capability of their component technology.

"Rapid FPS growth is expected over the next decade and beyond."

FPS FACILITIES

FPS facilities are growing in number around the world, notably in Asia, West Africa, Brazil and the Gulf of Mexico. More sophisticated designs for semi-submersible platforms, tension leg platforms, spar platforms, production barges and floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessels are continuing to emerge as operators look to improve efficiency, flexibility and capacity.

There are, by some estimates, over 100 projects in the planning stage, which may well require FPS technology in the future. Orders for these systems are backing up.

The most common floating systems are FPSOs. These continue to attract significant investment, as producers aim to leverage the value of a system offering storage and some production capability, as well as being particularly effective in remote and deepwater operations. Their value in unlocking smaller fields, which would not be economically viable if a more expensive platform was built, is a major attraction.

STREAMLINING OIL PRODUCTION

An FPSO takes some processes from the platform and transfers them to the vessel. This creates a leaner platform so there is a strong drive to improve the sophistication of the on-board production capabilities. The goal for technology developers is to increase the capability of FPSOs by allowing them to carry more sophisticated and compact systems. There is a positive outlook towards their efforts.

"We are very excited about the floating production market," says Jesus Pacheco, executive VP for new equipment worldwide at Dresser-Rand, commenting on the company's deal to supply Total with advanced FPSO turbomachinery for a vessel in the Pazflor Field (offshore from Angola). The $44m deal for gas compression systems will see two gas turbine and two electric motor centrifugal-compression trains.

"Our technology adds value to Total by reducing the weight and footprint of the compression system as fewer casings are required," adds Pacheco. "It also maximises gas throughput compared to competitor offerings as a result of the high efficiency of the compressors. We believe activity in the floating production market will continue to be significant."

Further innovation is taking place in FPSO data management systems. The huge Chevron FPSO vessel, newly arrived at the Agbami field offshore from Nigeria in January, can store 2.2 million barrels of oil. It is set to pump up to 250,000bpd from the field and includes the AVEVA NET Portal. It will manage the critical data from the field's operation as the vessel produces oil and pumps back water and gas to manage reservoir pressure.

Other key areas of FPSO technology development include environmental protection technology, but it should be noted that FPSOs are not always seen as the answer to deepwater operations. Future system development may see producers favour subsea technology for some applications.

Last summer, Shell opted for subsea pipelines for its Perdido field development, rather than FPSO. Had it chosen FPSO, it would have been the first such system in the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline approach was chosen despite the ultra-deepwater nature of the reserve. Shell is pursuing the concept that systems on the seafloor could reduce the need for offshore platforms. Its Ormen Lange gas field joint venture in Norway, where it is looking to install compressors on the sea floor, is another case in point.

BIGGER, BETTER FLOATING PLATFORMS

Innovation continues to push forward the capabilities of floating platforms in deepwater environments. Semi-submersible platforms are once again becoming a popular choice for ultra-deepwater fields or operations that coordinate numerous wells spread over a wide area.

"Innovation continues to push forward the capabilities of floating platforms in deepwater environments."

BP's Thunder Horse platform in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, will produce 250,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of natural gas daily. It will be the Gulf's largest producer when it begins production – which should be at the end of 2008. It has a network of 25 subsea wells and is, so far, the largest semi-submersible platform in production.

Atlantis is another of BP's fields where it is pushing the capabilities of floating technology. The semi-submersible platform handles 18 wells and is the deepest-moored platform of its kind, operating in over 7,000ft of water. "The water depths and reservoir structure make Atlantis one of the most technologically-challenging developments undertaken by BP," says Andy Inglis of BP's E&P department at the commissioning of the Atlantis platform.

Atlantis has added new technology, including deepwater ocean bottom nodes seismic acquisition (OBS) – an innovative new type of seismic sensor designed to work on the seabed in deepwater locations. It has supported the industry's largest and deepest OBS survey.

More generally, the industry continues to look at improving the capability of light deckload production semi-submersible platforms to improve their performance in ultra-deepwater locations. It also continues to develop mini-tension leg platforms (mini-TLP), though these are less appropriate for the deeper fields and impose relatively low limits on storage.

Of greater depth potential are spar platforms, which are also drawing investment. At Shell's Perdido project, for instance, a new system will cluster numerous wells on the seafloor and connect them to a spar platform – the deepest in the world. Once again, light deckload platforms are very much a focus for the future in terms of spar design.

It appears that the pace of growth, regarding the sophistication of FPS technology, is matched only by the industry's investment in these systems.