No big deal? What?

After venturing recently somewhat off piste, I thought I would return to the heart of the matter – subsea engineering. It is quite interesting how quickly some technology innovations and ideas have gone from the realm of the Grimm Brothers, ie fairy tales, to mainstream thinking.

To wit, Chariot Oil & Gas – that well known (!) operator with lots (!) of subsea experience – has been evaluating its Anchois gas find, about 40km off the Moroccoan coast in just under 400m of water. The reserves are not enormous. Any development would be based on 300bcf in the first instance with another 100+bcf that could be added easily and some other nearby finds that could add up to possibly 1tcf. Considering that just the other day PTTEP made a find off Indonesia of at least 2tcf, this remains a moderate prospect, although it could be important in the context of the Morrocan energy scene as a feeder for a power plant that is currently being fed by coal and oil.

Anyway what I found of interest is that Chariot rather nonchalantly has talked about a ‘subsea-to-shore’ concept based on ‘proven industry standard technical solutions and equipment’. Wow. I hadn’t realised that subsea-to-shore was in any way standard. I decided to try to remind myself of how many such project there have been. We begin with Snohvit and Ormen Lange in Norway and then add in a bunch of projects off Egypt, some by BG and some by BP, and there is Total’s Laggan-Tormore in the UK. I struggled to remember any others, although there might be another that my ageing brain has forgotten.

I suspect that Chariot has looked at what has been done off Egypt – at West Delta Deep Marine and the BP finds at Rosetta et al – and thought it could do that. I am not saying that it can not. But just remembering the challenges associated with all of these projects, particularly the pair off Norway, it might be a bit casual to consider any subsea-to-shore concept standard. The production equipment side might not be very challenging, but the shore approach and pipelining might be more so. We watch with considerable interest.

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Another recent project announcement – for Anadarko’s Mozambican deepwater gas-to-LNG development – mentioned in passing that the subsea hardware award was a continuation of a 25 year relationship between Anadarko and FMC, now TechnipFMC. That is quite a good run and rather good biz for FMC. I recall an OTC presentation by the US indy, recently acquired by Occidental after Chevron took a shot, in which one of its senior engineers said, to paraphrase, that every time it had need of subsea equipment, it went to FMC and said encore, please, or rather we will have what we had last time. That might be a simplification, but probably not far from the truth.

There is rather more to this story than meets the eye. If one ventures back 25 years, it was a time when the subsea hardware market was much more balanced with Vetco and Cameron looking more like equal participants in the bidding game. It would also be around the time that Shell was developing the Mensa deepwater gas tieback. For those with long memories, they might recall the debacle surrounding the so-called split xmas tree which separated early on after deployment and had to be retrieved. It might not have seemed to be a great time for FMC, but look what happened afterwards.

Shell US never took the split tree failure as a typical hardware incident and continued to give FMC most – and maybe all – of its subsea hardware contracts. Anadarko had a long series of projects that also went to the FMC and Statoil also began doling out a significant portion of its contracts to the company as well as I believe did Woodside. So it might well be around that time that FMC stretched its lead over its competitors to be the clear market leader for what now seems like decades.

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Don’t know how many of you have seen the documentary ‘Last Breath’ on Netflix. It was quite fixating – the story of how back in 2012 a North Sea diver (Chris Lemons) found himself stranded on the sea bottom after the dsv Topaz lost its dynamic positioning system and his umbilical was torn away. He survived at least 30 minutes in 100m of water despite, in theory, having no more than five minutes of oxygen in his emergency tanks.

While watching this drama unfold – some of the images were original and some were dramatised while the interviews were contemporary – and being a journalist at heart, my mind immediately raced ahead to issues that popped in my head. The first – which has a bit of context with the Deepwater Horizon accident – was how a triple redundant computer system totally failed, leaving the vessel floundering in the water and putting a man’s life at risk. It was the same point discussed by Bil Loth and myself vis a vis Deepwater Horizon as we were in Houston preparing for one of our subsea engineering courses just prior to OTC. This was a triple redundant bop system – how could it totally fail?

The second issue came to mind after watching the dsv crew do a hard reset of the computer network and was able to get the DP system back on line. It launched its rov to try to find the diver, but did not know exactly where to look. I immediately thought ‘doesn’t the diver have some sort of beacon or transponder so he could be located ASAP?’ Obviously not.

So the questions now to be asked seven years later are: have DP systems been improved so that a catastrophic computer failure can not occur and do divers now have some sort of location device so that they could be found if, God forbid, they became detached from their systems underwater. Certainly much has has happened with bop systems in the aftermath of the drilling catastrophe. It would be good to know what, if anything, has happened with these other two issues.

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