Petrobras probes beneath the pre-salt

The name Petrobras these days invokes thoughts of large, pre-salt discoveries, for good reason. Since announcing the Tupi pre-salt find in 2006, the Brazilian operator has made giant strides in developing and refining the technology needed to find and produce the oil hiding beneath the salt layer. And more R&D is on the horizon, as Jennifer Pallanich reports.

One of the main drivers in Petrobras' innovation strategy is to extend the company's existing limits of the oil & gas business, of which the presalt is the most important element, says Carlos Tadeu Fraga, executive manager of Cenpes, the Rio-based R&D arm of Petrobras.

‘We have a clear vision,' Fraga says. One of those visions, he says, is to move certain topsides functions below the waterline, such as processing. Aside from subsea installations and processing, Cenpes is aiming its research at better imaging to see what the reservoirs hold and achieving better recovery levels, among others, he says.

As Fraga says, the investment is sizable, but so are the potential returns of the pre-salt area. Petrobras has logged a serious number of discoveries in the deepwater pre-salt region offshore Brazil over the last few years. The first, and most famous, large find was Tupi, now renamed Lula, which holds an estimated 6.5 billion boe of recoverable resources. Cernambi, formerly Iracema, holds an estimated 1.8 billion boe of recoverables. The Brazilian company also reported finds at Carioca, Bem-te-vi, Caramba, Guará, Jupiter and Iara.

Petrobras is producing 100,000b/d from its pre-salt area and plans to reach 1.08 million b/d within the decade. The company is relying on vast sums of R&D dollars to make it possible. Petrobras is partnering with a number of companies to keep the technology R&D pipeline humming.

Fraga says Petrobras and its research arm, Cenpes, are most interested in longterm intellectual relationships when it comes to R&D partnerships.

Investments by Petrobras and its partners ear-marked for the pre-salt R&D effort reach a dizzying $73 billion through 2015, or as José Formigli, Petrobras pre-salt manager, said in Houston during the Offshore Technology Conference, $40 million per day. In its Santos Basin pre-salt plan earlier this year, Petrobras said it expects to shoulder 74% of the investment.

In December 2007, Petrobras was behind the creation PROSAL, or Technology Program for the Pre-Salt Reservoir Production Development, as a multi-disciplinary program to monitor the development of pre-salt technologies.

In April 2009, Rio do Janeiro Federal University (UFRJ), partnered with Petrobras, opened the Corrosion & Nondestructive Assay Laboratory at Alberto Luiz Coimbra Post-Graduate & Engineering Research Institute (COPPE) to inspect materials and welding. Investments by 2011 in this program were expected at R$30 million.

In July 2009, the service companies started getting into the act, with Baker Hughes signing on to open the Rio Center for Technology in the UFRJ Technology Park in 2010 to carry out R&D on E&P technologies focused on the pre-salt area. In September 2009, Petrobras, UFRJ and Schlumberger signed a contract for the construction of an international research center for pre-salt technologies at the UFRJ's Technology Park next to COPPE's Ocean Lab, and Schlumberger inaugurated its geo-engineering research center in 2010. In December 2009, Halliburton and Petrobras inked a deal for research into three projects: technologies to determine contamination in bottom hole fluid samples; well production behavior simulations in the laboratory; salt and CO2 formation cementation.

In all, Fraga says, seven companies have set up or are setting up R&D centers on the campus of UFRJ: Schlumberger, Baker Hughes, Halliburton, FMC Technologies, Brazil's Usiminas, Tenaris Confab, GE, Weatherford and Vallourec & Mannesmann. Usiminas is focused on materials research for pre-salt production.

Also, Cameron is setting up an R&D center on the Unicamp campus in São Paulo, and IBM has inaugurated its Natural Resources Solutions Center in Rio. Cenpes itself recently doubled in size and is ranked as the largest technology center in the southern hemisphere.

‘We are creating a hub,' Fraga says. ‘It's booming activity.'

All of that R&D talent is aimed at various challenges of drilling and producing in the pre-salt region. Regarding reservoirs, Petrobras wants improvements in reservoir characterizations, enhanced oil recovery and rock fluid interaction. In terms of drilling, issues involve high-angle wells, deviation into the salt zone, well integrity, penetration rate in the microbial carbonate reservoir, and new alloys to reduce costs of well materials. Production issues include flexible risers in 2200m of water, flow assurance and scaling control. FPU issues include mooring in 2200m of water, interactions with the riser systems and CO2 processing. Some efforts are focusing on more ‘blue sky' goals like laser drilling (OE June).

Other R&D efforts are in the field of gas injection. In November 2009, Petrobras began testing the injection of CO2 at high pressure in an onshore field to test whether this technology could be used in the pre-salt fields in the Santos Basin to boost recovery levels.

Also in November 2009, Petrobras and BG Group created a JV aimed at building an onboard natural gas liquefaction unit for use in the Santos Basin. The unit is intended to outflow natural gas produced in the pre-salt layers.

In May 2011, Petrobras and Japan Oil, Gas & Metals National Corporation signed an agreement for a technical feasibility study on flexible pipes for pre-salt oil production. Under the deal, a Japanese consortium including Furukawa Electric will develop a flexible pipe design for offshore oil production in ultra-deepwaters in the pre-salt cluster. The study is scheduled for completion in December 2014.

In June 2011, GE announced its recently acquired Wellstream business had won a contract worth over $200 million from Petrobras for flexible pipe and subsea equipment services to support pre-salt projects. As a result, GE plans to build a dedicated 55,000m2 logistics base in Niterói valued at $90 million. As well as dedicated warehouses, de-washing and flushing stations, the new facility's loading and handling equipment will include capacity to store 140 reels, to handle loaded reels with 300t, and to berth installation and commercial vessels simultaneously with 8.5m draft and 220m in length. The facility is expected to begin operations 3Q 2012.

In November 2010, Petrobras signed contracts for eight FPSO hulls destined for installation in blocks BM-S-9 and BM-S-11. Those join two other pilot projects planned for the Lula Nordeste and Guará accumulations. In all, Petrobras plans to have 13 production units operating in the Santos Basin presalt cluster by 2017, including the already producing Lula Pilot.

Off-taking of oil from the Santos Basin pre-salt cluster developments will be done initially by shuttle tankers while gas will be transported by pipeline to the Monteiro Lobato Treatment Unit, in Caraguatatuba. Studies are under way for the installation of a FLNG facility in the region. OE

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