Subsea Expo: Tackling the UKCS' small pools

January 27, 2016

According to a recent study by the UK’s Technology Leadership Board, there are 210 “small pools” of hydrocarbons (those containing less than 15 MMboe).

While recognized, these pools, containing 1.5 billion boe in total, remain undeveloped, due to their distance to existing infrastructure, their reservoir complexity or they are uneconomic because of their size.

A bid is underway to tap these resources, with Dr Gordon Drummond, project director of the National Subsea Research Initiative (NSRI), at its helm.

On the opening day of Subsea Expo next week (February 3-5, Aberdeen), he will be discussing the opportunities and challenges. OE got a chat with Dr Drummond ahead of the event. OE is the principal media sponsor for Subsea Expo. 

What are small pools?

Small pools are oil and gas reserves of less than 15 MMboe. 

What could they offer in terms of new production to the UK Continental Shelf? 

There are currently 210 small pools with more than 3 billion boe in the UKCS. This represents 5% of the UK’s reserves. If the subsea industry and academia, led by NSRI, can rise to the challenge of economically tapping into these pools, the North Sea could have a whole new lease of life. Technology is only part of the solution, the industry must be much more receptive to innovation – there must be a willingness to work more collaboratively on multi-field applications and on access to infrastructure. Even with new technological applications, operators may still have to form clusters to work on small pools to achieve the economies of scale required to shift them from marginal to economical. 

What currently holds back these pools?

To unlock these small pools we require highly disruptive technology that radically changes the way in which subsea field developments are presently executed. For Maximizing Economic Recovery (MER) to occur with respect to small pools there is an industry structural problem that needs to be addressed as it presents a huge barrier for implementing technical solutions.

Without some form of intervention, small pools will remain locked in and MER in its truest sense will not be realized. Small pools have a national importance in terms of achieving MER and they must be considered as an industry asset if they are to be capitalized upon. Leadership must be exhibited and driven by the industry bodies acting as a catalyst to small pools development and being aware of the nation’s interest in an environment where conventional market dynamics have failed.  

It is clear that companies must change the way in which they deliver projects in the long term – there must be a willingness to work more collaboratively on multi-field applications to explore and speed up the development of near to market technologies to extend the life of the UKCS and maximize economic recovery.

Have there been any breakthroughs to help tap small pools? 

NSRI has been working closely with subsea companies across the UK to help identify the challenges associated with unlocking small pools, debate how they could be addressed and the technology required to shift them from marginal to economical.

A series of workshop events – known as hackathons - took place in Aberdeen and London to brainstorm new approaches to tackling these hard to reach reserves. The findings revealed that there is a need for standardization of subsea components and hardware and to allow for less rigorous specifications in order to meet the shorter design lives of small reservoirs. Near to market technologies for floating productions units and offshore production buoys were identified as areas which need to be further explored.

Where do you see the greatest potential in terms of technology development to unlock these pools? 

The technologies that present the biggest enablers to unlocking small stranded fields are: 

  • Compact FPSO
  • Enabling technologies which attain access to existing infrastructure such as hot taps  and self-sufficient hook up modules
  • Production buoys
  • Subsea production facilities including boosting, processing and subsea storage

In this low oil price environment there is pressure to embrace change and to adopt new technology. Companies are becoming much more receptive to new techniques and innovations that enhance performance and offer significant cost savings.

Small pools exploitation will also be dependent upon the success of the Technology Leadership Board’s mission to reduce well costs by 50%.  

Is there anything that can be done on a regulatory/fiscal level to help develop small pools?

Exploiting small pools is a challenge that the UKCS is facing because it is one of the most mature oil and gas basins in the world. It is clear that if small pools developments are to be exploited, there is a greater need for more meaningful engagement between the Government, industry and academia to help stimulate investment and increase subsea related research in the UK. 

Solving the small pools challenge would perhaps yield a reward potentially greater than predicted with regards to the domestic market. It would enable the already capable UK supply chain to export its knowledge, products and services to international markets, thus safeguarding jobs, revenue and maximizing economic recovery from the North Sea.

Dr Gordon Drummond has been involved in the subsea sector since 1994, initially offshore on diving vessels and latterly in an engineering capacity. Gordon has a first class degree in Mechanical Engineering, PhD and MBA from the Robert Gordon University. In a work capacity after returning from offshore roles he has spent 10 years with IMES group and 10 years with Subsea 7. In both organizations he has been involved with the development and commercialization of value adding Technology. He is the project director of the National Subsea Research Initiative (NSRI).

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