The intense agitating power of the Azipods can actually help break ice from underneath
The Arctic North end of Russia is believed to hold as much as a quarter of all the world’s oil deposits – an utterly monstrous economic prize, hidden in one of the toughest and least hospitable environments on the planet. Getting to this prize, and then transporting it back to refineries, is a monolithic task that requires one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of machinery man has ever built – the nuclear icebreaker. Purpose-built to the point of being almost unseaworthy on the open waves, these goliaths smash their way through 3-meter (10-foot) thick ice crusts to create viable pathways for other vessels – but fascinating new technologies could mean the days of the dedicated icebreaker are numbered.
Where there’s a well, there’s a way. An oil well, that is. Black gold. Texas tea. And some of the world’s richest reserves of the stuff are buried beneath the beds of the Berents sea, North of Russia and well into the Arctic Circle. It’s estimated that this area holds somewhere around a quarter of all the oil reserves in the world.
But it’s an area that gets no sun at all for at least one day every year, and which is so cold that the sea itself freezes over with 2-meter (6.5-foot) thick ice for more than two thirds of the year. When it’s not frozen over, there’s 12-meter (40 foot) waves to deal with. It’s one of the world’s most extreme environments; inhospitable doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Getting resources like oil and natural gas out of the earth – and safely back to shore – would be prohibitively expensive, if the prize wasn’t worthwhile. Where these sorts of quantities of fossil fuels are concerned, however, all bets are off and just about any expense can be justified.
… and the expense we’d like to take a look at today is the nuclear-powered icebreaker – a vessel whose sole task is to smash its way through packed sea ice and clear a path for other ships to follow in.
It’s a specialist job that boats have been designed to tackle since the 1830s – and it’s interesting to note that while today’s enormous icebreakers generally use nuclear power to generate the immense thrust needed to power through the ice fields, in other ways the design hasn’t changed too much for nearly 200 years.
- Weatherwatch: Trade traffic in Arctic waterways is increasing (guardian.co.uk)
- Fatal Fire Aboard Russian Nuclear Icebreaker (gcaptain.com)
- The Lone Icebreaker: U.S. Sovereignty in the Arctic (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Reversing U.S. Retreat from the Arctic (mb50.wordpress.com)
BP Plc, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Cairn Energy Plc are among companies that may be asked to provide information on drilling in the Arctic to the U.K.’s Environmental Audit Committee later this year, the Sunday Telegraph reported, citing Committee Chairman Joan Walley.
- MPs to quiz oil giants BP, Shell and Cairn Energy on Arctic drilling safety (telegraph.co.uk)
- Guggenheim Partners announces Arctic investment fund (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Now Russia’s Joint Venture With BP Is Spending $10 Billion To Find Oil In The Arctic (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Is the Industry Ready to Drill in the Arctic? Stena Drillmax Ice Nears Delivery (mb50.wordpress.com)
The company, half-owned by BP and Russian billionaires, said in a statement Wednesday that up to $10 billion will be spent on building infrastructure at the fields and a pipeline that will link them with the export pipeline.
Russian oil companies have been drawing up plans to move to the oil and gas-rich Arctic as mature fields in Western Siberia are getting depleted.
Scheduled for delivery in March 2012, the most recent addition to Stena Drilling’s fleet will be the industry’s first ice class +1A1 dual-mast ultra deepwater drillship for arctic conditions. But is the industry ready for offshore arctic drilling?
Based in part on Stena’s proven DrillMAX design, the new drillship, now under construction at Samsung Heavy Industries in South Korea, represents the company’s most ambitious project to date. According to Tom Welo, Managing Director of Stena Drilling, the project was conceived to meet the evolving demands of the industry. “Increased global demand for oil has encouraged energy companies to focus more on exploration,” he says. “And since many of the most promising fields are increasingly found in deepwater and harsh environments, including the arctic, we saw an opportunity to build a drillship to reflect the market.”
Tom Welo, Managing Director, Stena Drilling. Photo: Alexander Wardwell
Welo acknowledges that DrillMAX ICE represents a significant investment for the company and so far, the drillship has not secured a contract. “Any newbuilding project built on spec is a risk, but in our view, the greater risk would be to sit still,” he says. “We anticipate continued growth in this segment, and want to strengthen our position as a leading provider of drilling units equipped to operate in harsh environments.”
Flexible operational profile
At present, Stena Drilling operates four semisubmersible drilling platforms and three drillships. While these units have been active all over the world, including the North Sea, US Gulf of Mexico, South East Asia, Mediterranean, Caribbean, South America, North America & Greenland: Atlantic Front, Australia, North Africa and West Africa, the company has earned a strong position as a leading provider of drilling services in harsh environments. While similar to the company’s existing fleet of drillships, the design of DrillMAX ICE has been optimised for ultra deepwater arctic operations.
However, Welo is quick to note that once completed, the unit will be suitable for any job. “While we expect the vessel will be active in the polar region, the design doesn’t limit the drillship to waters above the Arctic Circle,” he says. “Rather, it expands the vessel’s operating parameters to almost any depth or environment.” Welo adds that the new drillship is capable of operating in water depths up to 10,000 feet.
Managing risks in the Arctic
The unit has been optimised for Arctic conditions. Six ice-classed 5.5MW azimuth thrusters, providing maximum manoeuvrability, propel the ice-strengthened hull. Below deck escapeways port and starboard side connect the aft engine rooms with FWD accommodation. Designated moon pools port and starboard allow for installation of two separate ROV systems. Anti-icing equipment protects the unit’s anchors, deck piping, lifeboat escape exits, scuppers and drains while enhanced de-icing machines keeps decks, gangways, and handrails clear. Steam heating coils warm the ballast tanks and drill water tanks and windwalls and cladding offer enhanced protection to the drill floor and dual mast derrick. “Most accidents and near-misses are related to human error, so we have worked hard to ensure the safety and comfort of our crew.”
In total, costs related to adapting the DrillMAX unit for Arctic conditions are calculated somewhere between USD 220 to 240 million. “We did consider adding icebreaking capabilities, but were concerned that the moon pool would collect ice and the cost would be prohibitive,” says Welo. “Instead, when operating in the Arctic, the drillship will have an escort of OSVs to help manage the ice.”
A relative threat
Operating in icy seas and low temperatures, which can drop to –20°C degrees in the Arctic in summer, is challenging, but Welo notes that different environments have different threats. “Operating in the North Sea is complicated by frequent storms and heavy seas and as we saw with Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf of Mexico is hardly a benign environment,” he says. “Icebergs and extreme cold certainly represent a risk in the Arctic, but there is less of a threat from heavy seas and large waves.” Still, Welo adds, DrillMAX ICE can survive waves as high as 30 metres.
While the drillships hull form is based on Stena’s proven DrillMAX design, some topside modifications were included. The drillship is likely to operate in the environmentally sensitive Arctic region, so space was created on deck for an extra six-RAM BOP, providing critical redundancy. “The additional BOP will also help us avoid delays between drilling projects related to the BOP workovers and maintenance.”
While there have been drilling operators active above the Arctic Circle for decades, most notably in the North Sea and the Barents Sea, energy companies have approached exploration in the region with some caution. To help generate more confidence in the Stena DrillMAX ICE concept, the company has worked with a broad range of key suppliers, with extensive experience in harsh environments.
For example, the drillship is equipped with DP3 station-keeping and related automation systems provided by Kongsberg for operating in ice conditions, knuckleboom deck cranes rated for -30°C conditions, and six-RAM BOPs provided by Cameron. The company conducted extensive Ice Model Testing, and worked closely with DNV to achieve ICE 10 Certification, among other notations. “Stena and DNV have worked together for decades,” says Welo. “Like Stena, DNV has extensive experience in the North Sea managing risk in harsh environments. DNV were thus natural choice to class the unit.”
With the build going well at Samsung Heavy Industries, Welo is looking forward to welcoming DrillMAX ICE into the Stena fleet. In the meantime, he says the company is in dialogue with a number of energy companies that have expressed interest in the concept. “I am confident we will secure a charter soon,” he says. “After all, DrillMAX ICE is coming out of the yard during a time when energy companies are expanding their deep and ultra deepwater exploration programmes. With this unit, we can offer the flexibility to go anywhere.”
Republished with permission, (c) 2011 Det Norske Veritas
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