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Industry-wide approach could give North Sea new lease of life

Published:  27 April, 2016

NSRI (National Subsea Research Initiative) has called on the industry to come up with a collaborative approach to unlocking the potential of small pools of hydrocarbons in the North Sea.

This could pave the way to recovering 1-1.8 billion barrels of oil which currently cannot be exploited economically. The accumulations of hydrocarbons in these reservoirs represent around 5% of UK reserves or 20% of future UK production, which could deliver a potential $19billion in capex, $16bilion in opex and a return to the Treasury of $8billion in revenues.

Dr Gordon Drummond, project director of NSRI, said: “Without some form of intervention, small pools will remain locked in and MER (maximising economic recovery) will not be realised. Only by recognising their national strategic importance and taking them together as an industry asset, will we be able to exploit them in an environment where conventional market dynamics have failed.”

There must be a willingness for all involved 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 maximise economic recovery, says NSRI.

Dr Drummond added: “Solving the small pools challenge could 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 maximising economic recovery from the North Sea.”

NSRI was tasked with helping to find the new, disruptive subsea technologies that could unlock these small discoveries and help prolong the life of the North Sea. A series of “hackathons”, which brought industry, technology developers, universities and research institutes together was organised to brainstorm possible technological solutions.

NSRI revealed that while the technical community believes technology forms part of the solution, the commercial structure of the industry is constraining the economies of scale needed to make the recovery of oil from these reservoirs viable.

Dr Drummond explained: “It was very clear that it is difficult to decouple the commercial considerations from the technical aspects. Access to host facilities and infrastructure, non-collaborative behaviours between operators and small operators who don’t have the finances or the will to develop these resources were identified as barriers to the development of small pools.

“Of the technical solutions discussed, some could have widespread application but, before progressing these, we need to carry out a Geographic Information System (GIS) map which details the size, location and fluid complexity of the small pools superimposed upon a North Sea map showing the ownership of and type of existing infrastructure. From this it will become apparent what type of technical solutions need to be progressed, for example tie-backs, subsea hot tapping, clustering arrangements and stand-alone facilities.”

According to NSRI, the technologies that present the biggest enablers to unlocking small stranded fields are compact FPSOs, production buoys, subsea production facilities including boosting, processing and subsea storage and enabling technologies which attain access to existing infrastructure such as hot taps and self-sufficient hook up modules.

The potential technical solutions from the hackathons were categorised into efficiency measures, near to market technologies that could be piloted fairly quickly and relatively easily, and longer-term ideas with merit.

Simplification and Standardisation of subsea components and hardware, less rigorous specifications in order to meet the shorter design lives of small reservoirs and more holistic design are efficiency measures which could go some way towards improving the economics of small pools.

Near to market concepts and technologies for floating productions units and offshore production buoys were identified as areas which need to be further explored.

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