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As momentum grows behind small pools development, the OGTC and Crondall Energy are pioneering a project to design and demonstrate the technology necessary to realise a low-cost, flexible and normally unmanned installation. Wireline caught up with them to learn more about the ‘Facility of the Future’.

One of the key components of the UK Government’s Maximising Economic Recovery (MER) Strategy is the development of so-called “small pools”. These marginal discoveries – defined as those containing technically recoverable resources of 50 million barrels of oil equivalent or less – are individually small, but collectively represent almost 3 billion boe and around £140 billion of value. Many are located close to potential tieback facilities and/or within range of extended-reach drilling from existing infrastructure. Others lying further away from existing infrastructure could require new, stand-alone solutions to unlock economic development.

Successfully delivering MER, and the longer-term blueprint of Vision 2035, will require new thinking and new innovations to unlock these resource pools.

The Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) has taken on a major role in co-ordinating these activities. In addition, the Technology Leadership Board (TLB) led the Small Pools Work Group, supported by groups like the National Subsea Research Initiative (NSRI), while Oil & Gas UK’s Efficiency Task Force (ETF) has examined the potential for new efficiencies in subsea installations that can be achieved through co-operation, simplified design and standardised equipment.

Aberdeen’s Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) has also been pivotal. Various enabling technologies have been identified for further investigation, including mechanical hot taps, mechanically connected pipelines and spooled pipeline products. For more remote developments, solutions such as subsea storage, unmanned production buoys and smaller, more flexible floating facilities are being explored.

“There are unlikely to be one or two techniques which will be applicable everywhere. We’re going to have to develop a portfolio of technology and applications that you can pick and mix from a toolkit that will then help you or facilitate economic development of that pool.”

About a buoy

In support of these technologies, the OGTC launched the ‘Facility of the Future’ initiative this summer – a wide-ranging project to develop lower-cost, reusable, smart facilities that can be operated remotely from onshore control centres. These will harness automation and technology to reduce the requirement for people to work in the hazardous offshore environment, while creating new, skilled jobs onshore.

The core of this initiative is a multi-partner study led by Buoyant Production Technologies – a subsidiary of FPSO and subsea specialist Crondall Energy –  to develop a stand-alone floating facility concept that will expand on the capabilities of normally unattended installations (NUIs), which have typically been used to develop shallow-water gas fields in the southern North Sea. The effort is co-funded by the Technology Centre and a cohort of industry partners including Premier Oil, Total E&P UK, Lloyds Register, Siemens, Wärtsilä, Ampelmann and BW Offshore.

OGTC solution centre manager for small pools, Chris Pearson, explained the impetus for the initiative: “There are unlikely to be one or two techniques which will be applicable everywhere. We’re going to have to develop a portfolio of technology and applications that you can pick and mix from a toolkit that will then help you or facilitate economic development of that pool.”

The Facility of the Future represents an exploration and demonstration of what that toolkit may look like, and includes work to investigate remote control and automation, processing facilities, removing water-depth limitations and how to achieve minimal manning in oil storage and offloading.

In the case of the Crondall-led study, OGTC project manager Niki Chambers added: “This project is about expanding the envelope of what a NUI is, and enabling the findings to be fed out to all the companies that use these solutions.”

The intention is that these outcomes will be applicable not only to a specific type of installation, but will play a key role in demonstrating the viability and reliability of NUIs in general, in the North Sea and beyond. “The project isn’t just for one technology, the intention is that the learnings from this can be applied to all different solutions and could be applied to brownfield, or even fixed platforms,” she added.

Blueprint for the NUI and subsea tieback. Credit Crondall Energy

Floating new ideas

The study centres on a concept dating back to around 2014, when Crondall began working on designs for smaller, lower-cost floating facilities aimed at clients with marginal or smalls-scale field developments. Managing director Duncan Peace explained: “The challenge – particularly given the relatively high prices in the supply chain at that stage – was that it was difficult both commercially and technically to find a solution that worked for these smaller developments on a stand-alone basis. We also found that clients were looking at subsea developments, but they were missing some capacity or functionality, and were looking to augment some of these tiebacks.”

Leveraging technology designed by its Buoyant Production Technologies unit, Crondall set about exploring how these cost reductions could be made. “Conceptually what we did was to look at something that was smaller and lower in capex, but crucially was unmanned so that we could reduce opex,” Peace said. “This would fit in between a subsea development and a full facility standalone floating production unit.”

Work on the concept continued throughout the downturn in oil prices, eventually producing a deep draught floating facility based around key novel features, several of which are now patented. Crucially, the installation is based around two structures – a floating hull and a separate deck box – that can be assembled and launched independently of each other, in water depths as shallow as five metres. This allows for flexibility in fabrication and installation, and the two components can be mated in-situ offshore without the need for a heavy lift crane vessel, all of which enables developments to proceed with greater speed, less complexity and lower capex. At the end of the life, the installation can also be easily detached, towed away, and potentially re-used.

A “back to basics” approach to topsides design also saw Crondall reduce the size and amount of process equipment – saving space, weight and cost – and lay the groundwork for the smarter systems that would enable unmanned, remote operations. Flexible process equipment can be configured to export oil by pipeline or via floating storage and offloading (FSO), while gas can also be exported or reinjected. These features also help to provide the additional functionality required by more challenging subsea developments.

In the OGTC-backed study, Crondall and its partners will explore the technological and commercial requirements for deploying the facility, based on a generic field in the northern North Sea in 150m water depth, producing around 20,000 barrels of oil per day and with a low to medium gas-oil ratio.

The first phase of the project is primarily about evaluating and demonstrating to operators and the wider industry that existing technologies can enable safe, reliable NUI operation, while the second will see the project team explore the commercial and economic benefits. As Crondall project manager David Steed explained: “The scope of work is really to mature our understanding…to demonstrate what can be achieved today and what we think will be achievable tomorrow with the technology available.”

Unmanned co-operation

Identifying and evaluating these technologies has required working not only with project partners, but also with the wider supply chain. Peace added: “We’re seeing a very real manifestation of [co-operation] with sponsors, and the OGTC is doing excellent work as a facilitator to help bring some of these technologies forward. For me, one of the big themes is that this is co-operation really working and really helping to drive new solutions.”

The availability of specific expertise from project partners also aids the development process. For example, Ampelmann’s experience with crew transfer technology means that when the installation does require planned maintenance, it could be provided by a platform supply vessel equipped with a walk-to-work (W2W) system. This lowers the cost of crew transfer, avoids the need for accommodation on board the installation, and should reduce the requirement for spare parts and equipment stored offshore. It’s testament to the fact that small pools and NUIs will be enabled not only by digital and operational technologies, but by changes in how services and supplies are delivered.

“The theme is really about learning how to automate,” Pearson added. “We can do that very easily in the southern North Sea basin with gas fields which are already well integrated with offshore renewables and have low intervention rates, but not with oil. That’s the challenge, to move the technology dial and the approach, as well as the supporting systems, whether it’s HSE, emergency response, gas and fire etc. They all have to advance at the same time.”

Naturally, the OGTC is also intrigued by the potential gains in terms of big data and digital twins which, he says, “allow us to start from scratch and think about this virtual world that we can then build in a control room onshore, applying shift workers into that environment as we do a power station today.” That will also require study into how human operators interact with these systems; Pearson links this to changes seen in the auto industry, where automation has (in many cases) augmented rather than replaced personnel, enabling them to be more productive.

Crondall’s Peace also noted that: “For us that means being able to gather the data in such a way that we start to develop leading indicators of equipment reliability and challenges, so we can plan and intervene as necessary. That allows us to simplify – and in some cases reduce – the equipment offshore.”

Aspirational thinking

Small pools development of course remains challenging. Key parameters such as unit technical cost, for example, can vary tremendously depending on location, infrastructure and geology, as well as a host of other factors. Although the Facility of the Future has no specific target in mind, Crondall and the OGTC are still driven by the need to reduce costs and find new efficiencies through innovation. “We would always look to have the lowest lifecycle or unit technical cost,” noted Pearson. “That’s the aspiration, and this project is a step towards realising that aspiration.”

What is particularly encouraging is how effective the approach has proved to be. “Everyone has been really open to sharing their experiences and what they want from it,” Chambers added. “Collaboration is used a lot at the moment, but in this instance it has been working really well.”

In Peace’s view, this is perhaps because they see project as instrumental in shaping the offshore industry’s future. “The sponsors have been very enthusiastic and very keen to address that challenge because it has applications not only directly in the Facility of the Future, but a wider impact on what the North Sea is going to look like in 10, 20 years’ time.”

Under its current, two-phase scope, the project group is set to deliver findings in Q2 2019. This may inspire additional offshoot work or investigations, but the hope is to make significant progress on closing some of the major technological gaps. Some optimistic industry timelines anticipate near-NUIs (minimally manned floating facilities) within a couple of years, while Pearson believes that the first incarnations could be in place within five.

From there, the expertise honed on the UKCS could become a global proposition, as attention turns to the roughly 27 billion barrels of similarly marginal resources scattered throughout the world, according to WoodMackenzie estimates. For Crondall, OGTC and their partners, small pools are set to hold big opportunities.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2018 issue of Wireline.

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