Industry kits out for the future

Written by
Russell McCulley

Published
03 May 2019

03 May 2019 • by Russell McCulley

Innovation: Swiss company ANYbiotics recently tested its ANYmal autonomous inspection robot on a North Sea process platform — just one of the many technological innovations targeting the oil and gas industry Photo: ANYBIOTICS

Latest technological innovations and developments on show as oil and gas sector gathers in Houston for OTC

Russell McCulley

London

3 May 2019 14:47 GMT Updated 3 May 2019 14:48 GMT

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As tens of thousands of delegates from the international oil and gas industry gather in Houston for the Offshore Technology Conference, they will find themselves among friends and familiar faces on the exhibition floor.

But it would be a mistake to think that all is business as usual.

The offshore upstream industry is understandably cheered by what appears to be the end of an especially punishing stretch and there is a noticeable sense of optimism these days at events such as OTC.

But the pressures brought on by the downturn — chiefly to keep development and operating costs down — have not gone away and are unlikely to do so no matter how the oil price fluctuates.

Efficiency is the industry mantra and it influences every decision about what gets built, how day-to-day operations proceed and what technology projects get funded.

The industry is also under intense pressure to demonstrate that it is serious about reducing emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

A warming planet has focused public attention on climate change and, despite retrenchment in the US and elsewhere, the long-term trend is towards tougher emissions regulations and greater scrutiny of polluters.

Hitting the Paris Agreement targets is an enormous challenge — after flattening, CO2 emissions began to climb again in 2017, according to the International Energy Agency.

The challenge is compounded by the fact that energy demand is rising and expected to grow for decades to come.

Cleaner production

Lean but safe upstream operations, cleaner energy production and efficient oil and gas recovery all rely on the sort of technology under discussion in OTC’s technical sessions and on display in its exhibitors’ booths.

These technologies show just how far the industry has come in the so-called energy transition.

As 2018-19 OTC chair Wafik Beydoun points out, a good 40% of the conference agenda this year concerns such non-traditional topics as renewable energy, alternative fuels, emissions reduction and the technologies enabled by digitalisation, including machine learning, robotics, predictive analytics and more.

Digitalisation is not new to the business — seismic and subsurface have long relied on high-power computing for analysis and interpretation.

However, big data is transforming aspects of the upstream industry where it may have had limited impact before.

Digital technologies are also bringing oil and gas more in line with the automated processes and connectivity associated with what has been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution.

This is evident in the way floating production systems are being designed and operated.

There is more emphasis on simplified designs that make use of standardised solutions where possible.

Digital twin technology is enabling more efficient monitoring and maintenance of offshore assets, both new and retrofits, while reducing the number of people needed onsite to run them.

Predictive analytics help operators make better decisions about making repairs, reducing costly downtime.

Service companies are doing their part, developing new tools and techniques to help keep production flowing as much as possible during maintenance and repair activities.

Much work is going on below the water line as well. The downturn hit the subsea business hard, with orders for subsea equipment and umbilicals, risers and flowlines falling 50% from 2014’s record highs, according to Oslo-based oil and gas consultancy Rystad Energy.

Subsea is on the upswing, however, Rystad reports, and is expected to outperform other oilfield service segments over the next few years — good news for many of the companies that form the bedrock of OTC.

Resurgence

Spending on subsea equipment for ultra-deep-water is expected to lead the resurgence over the next five years, with activity picking up this year and intensifying in 2021 as a wave of floating production, storage and offloading systems gets under way in Brazil and development of the Stabroek block off Guyana picks up pace, Rystad says.

Operators are looking to longer and more challenging subsea tie-backs to access fields that they once might not have considered developing for technical and economic reasons.

The hurdles are coming down, thanks to innovative research and development in the subsea industry that addresses flow assurance challenges and seeks to improve recovery rates.

And as drones and autonomous systems are taking on more inspection duties on the platform, keeping workers out of harm’s way, specialists in subsea robotics are developing underwater robots that reside on the seabed, continuously inspecting assets, gathering data and sending it back to the surface.

It is not much of a stretch to imagine these robots one day having the ability to interpret the data themselves and intervene if a problem is indicated.

The people behind such innovations are natural problem-solvers and innately curious about how things work — and how they could work better.

Those traits are welcome in the offshore oil and gas industry which, despite some remarkable achievements, still has much work to do as it addresses the world’s growing energy demand and equally urgent calls for it to be cleaner and affordable.

OTC has long provided a platform for discussing the challenges, sharing ideas among peers and showing off the kit that keeps the industry humming.

As the event enters its sixth decade those objectives seem as relevant as ever.

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