A year ago, everyone seemed to be heading north. The outlook for the Barents Sea is far more nuanced today, with concerns over oil prices and profitability.
Time to tackle northern challenges
Finn Carlsen, director of professional competence at the PSA, agrees that cost cuts in the industry could actually be good for far northern safety in the long run.
“But that does depend on the industry using the interim period in a sensible and forward-looking way. Companies, government, unions, industry associations and research teams must work purposefully to secure the benefits of a period when activity is lower than expected.”
He emphasises that the safety-related projects which have been initiated must be implemented.
“The challenges defined by the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association late last year involve communication, weather forecasting, emergency preparedness, the working environment, logistics and design.
“These must be overcome. We at the PSA expect the companies to give priority and support to this work – and take advantage of the capacity available this year.”
In addition to the needs summarised by Norwegian Oil and Gas, the PSA has established six work groups of its own related to petroleum activities in the Barents Sea. Their work will largely be done in 2015.
“Collectively, we see that our own and the industry’s defined projects occupy a very key place,” observes Carlsen. “It’s important that these are given priority.”
Faith in the far north as a cornucopia is unchanged. The NPD estimated in its overview of offshore operations in 2014 that 70 per cent of total resources in the Barents Sea are undiscovered.
The Ministry of Petroleum and Energy announced Norway’s 23rd licensing round in January 2015, embracing 57 full or part blocks. Of these, 34 lie in Barents Sea South-East.
Previously part of the area of overlapping claims with Russia, this acreage will extend petroleum operations to a completely new part of the NCS.
The deadline for applications is the 2nd of December, with awards planned in the first half of 2016.
“Barents Sea activity was otherwise relatively high in 2014,” reports Sigurd Robert Jacobsen, the PSA’s expert on the far north. “From a safety perspective, no significant incidents occurred.”
He emphasises that 2015 will be a milestone for the Norwegian Barents Sea with the planned start of production from Goliat – the first oil field brought on stream in these waters.
“However, we’re troubled that several companies which set up in northern Norway to prepare for increased activity have cut staffing or closed offices following the oil price decline,” says Carlsen.
“It’s important that the industry takes a long-term view and is well prepared for the action eventually needed in the Barents Sea.”
“Collectively, we see that our own and the industry’s defined projects occupy a very key place. It’s important that these are given priority.”
Carlsen emphasises that the PSA is maintaining the far north as one of its main priorities in 2015: “We’re working on a number of aspects and challenges related to the Barents Sea.
“Our overall signal to the companies is that collaboration will be the way to ensure prudent operation in the far north of the NCS.”
Otherwise, the PSA is working to assess challenges related to winterisation of mobile units and the availability of relief rigs, he reports.
“The regulations require that it must be possible to combat a blowout year-round. That means a relief rig must be designed for all-year use even if drilling takes place in the summer.
“Companies must take account of the possibility that a blowout could last some time. And collaboration is once again the key to this issue.
“Several operators should seek to enter an area at the same time to ensure access to a relief unit. Parallel working will also be more cost-effective.”
Carlsen stresses that the PSA expects each company to plan for collaboration in connection with 23rd-round awards, and that this should be established as early as possible in the process.
Standardisation efforts for Arctic conditions is also expanding in 2015, with ISO technical committee 67 starting work on six specific standards for petroleum operations in the Barents Sea.
The PSA takes a very positive view of this commitment, says Carlsen: “Standardisation, both generally and for the far north, is important for safety and we give it high priority.”
He is also keen to see more international cooperation in the Arctic. “Inter-government collaboration in this region will be strengthened during 2015.
“We’ will be participating actively in the Arctic Offshore Regulators Forum (AORF), for example. And we’ll work directly on relevant issues through our bilateral agreements with Russia, the USA and Canada.
The three-day Arctic Safety Summit is due to be staged in Tromsø during late October, and will open with a conference for top executives.
This session will be directed at the most important decision-makers and policy shapers who affect safe petroleum operations in the far north.
Leading industry executives, ministers and other government representatives in Norway and international players with Arctic experience will be invited to attend by the PSA.
The goal is to examine safety challenges in the Barents Sea in the context of opportunities for the area.
Day two of the Tromsø programme will be a technical session, which will include a presentation and assessment of the status for the most important safety-related projects under way in Norway.
Coordinated by the University of Tromsø, the final day will be devoted to current research and future needs for such work in relation to petroleum operations in the Arctic.
Six-pack for the far north
The PSA will be working during 2015 on some of the key challenges posed by petroleum operations in the Barents Sea. These efforts are being pursued through the following internal work groups.
This work will look at the benefits of parallel operation in a specified area of the Barents Sea in terms of sharing emergency preparedness and oil spill recovery resources, logistics and the ability to initiate a relief well if required.
Mapping ice and snow conditions
Knowledge will be acquired with PSA help about the prevalence of icebergs, growlers, small chunks of ice and snowfall which could threaten operations above the 73rd parallel. Difficult-to-detect ice in these waters poses a risk for safe drilling.
Suitable drilling units
The PSA will contribute to studying the potential risk of using semi-submersible rather than monohull units in areas where growlers and small ice lumps could threaten the integrity of drilling and well-control equipment at the sea surface.
Work will include assessing the need for various types of drilling unit and simplifying transfer of these between several continental shelves.
Groups exposed to risk, working environment
Help will be given to gathering information about working environment risk for personnel on facilities in the far north. The data will provide the basis for the PSA’s strategy and priorities in this area, and contribute to identifying research and development needs.
Challenges related to structural integrity will be studied with PSA help. Issues for the group include motion of semi-subs and monohulls in icy water, structural loads imposed by ice lumps in waves, better icing models, and crack propagation/fracturing in materials at temperatures below -20°C.
Alternative transport and evacuation solutions
The group will study alternative methods of transferring personnel to and from facilities with the aid of lifting equipment. These could be relevant when helicopters are unavailable (lengthy periods of fog, for instance) or unsuitable (because of distance, for example).
Open about enclosing
Cold in the far north increases the need to enclose areas on facilities, and the PSA is studying the potential impact of such winterisation on fire/explosion risk during a possible incident.
Biting winds and low temperatures will make the working day tougher for offshore workers in Arctic areas, and more enclosing of modules may be needed than further south on the NCS.
Although people and equipment will thereby be protected, however, such shielding could significantly increase the risk of fire and explosion.
“The standard solution for gas leaks is based on natural ventilation to ensure the best dissipation,” says Torleif Husebø, discipline manager for process integrity at the PSA.
“Even small leaks which would otherwise be ventilated away naturally could yield flammable gas clouds when modules are enclosed with walls and panels.
“We’ve accordingly initiated a study to increase our knowledge of the risks of such cladding, and which measures might compensate for this.”
Potential action includes mechanical ventilation when gas is detected. A tailored solution with some openings in the walls could yield a significant reduction in explosion pressure. And much can otherwise be done with the actual process area design.
Explosion panels which give way under pressure, strategic location of equipment, isolation of ignition sources and inert-gas/water deluge systems to cut explosion pressure are other solutions identified in the study.
“We must now see how snow and ice could reduce the effectiveness of these measures,” says Husebø. “It’s also uncertain how a fire would spread in an enclosed area, and more work is being done on that.”
Becoming well informed
New drilling-related challenges are faced as petroleum activities move further north. Polar lows, drift ice, big distances and magnetic variation will all need to be tackled.
Most drilling operations in the Barents Sea take place in the summer, observes Svein Horn. “We don’t know enough at present about how the winter climate would affect such activity.”
Work is now under way to collect information about the unique conditions which can arise in the far north with regard to drilling and well technology.
"Polar lows can appear quickly and without warning,” says Horn, who works in the discipline team for drilling and well technology at the PSA.
“They can cause serious well control challenges in critical phases of an operation. If the drill string isn’t hung off in the blowout preventer (BOP), the riser could at worst be torn off.
“We accordingly see that it’s important to have good procedures for securing a well immediately if the weather changes suddenly.”
The difficulty of predicting Polar lows is partly attributable to the lack of collection platforms for meteorological data in the Barents Sea.
A collaboration is now under way with the Norwegian Meteorological Institute to investigate the opportunities available to the industry for improving weather forecasting.
Another challenge is posed by growlers – drifting chunks of ice which can get under a drilling rig and threaten its well control equipment.
“Risers and control lines to the BOP could be disrupted,” says Horn. “Growlers accordingly pose a risk to drilling units. The long winter darkness can make them difficult to spot in time.”
A further problem is that facilities, systems and equipment can be exposed to temperatures lower than those they are designed to tolerate, he points out.
“Icing may also increase the weight on the equipment beyond the load it is meant to take. And ice falling off cranes and derricks could have serious consequences.”
Disturbances from atmospheric electricity in the ionosphere can cause magnetic deviation and thereby affect measurement of well paths. The problem worsens the further north one goes.
“Accurate data are crucial for placing the original well path, and the uncertainty increases further if a relief well must be drilled,” observes Horn.
But he adds that equipment and methods currently under development which can provide more exact directional information and thereby reduce the risk of this problem arising.
Moreover, big distances mean that drilling operations must be planned with particular care, since the rig will be far from supply services and bases.
Horn believes that these challenges can be overcome, but that climatic conditions in the northern and eastern Barents Sea remain a source of uncertainty.
Looking west to learn
Knowledge of Arctic diving has been obtained by the PSA from the Canadian petroleum industry to secure the necessary technical know-how if such operations are needed in the far north.
Valuable experience about underwater working in cold regions has been gained from oil and gas activities off Newfoundland, and PSA specialists visited St John’s to learn more in October 2014.
“Divers have been doing petroleum-related jobs in these waters since the 1980s,” says Olav Hauso, a PSA diving specialist. “Acquiring information which could confirm or deny assumed problems was important for us.”
Seabed temperatures as low as -0.7°C have been recorded off Canada in the summer.
“The Canadians have faced problems in such areas as breathing gas for divers because of their low seawater temperatures,” explains Hauso.
“They’ve accordingly adopted warming of the gas as a standard procedure. That was something we wanted to take a closer look at.”
Long distances and lack of infrastructure are among the main challenges faced by petroleum operations in the Barents Sea.
In addition, Hauso notes, a hyperbaric (pressurised) reception facility must be in place before diving can start in the far north.
This has to include a pressure chamber which divers can enter when they reach land in specially built hyperbaric lifeboats. And suitable vessels must be available to recover such craft from the sea.