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Corpus Christi, TX – Analysis: From Big Foot to Bluto, Gulf of Mexico set for record oil supply surge

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas
Sun Oct 27, 2013 9:10pm EDT
By Kristen Hays and Terry Wade

(Reuters) – The Gulf of Mexico, stung by the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history in 2010 and then overshadowed by the onshore fracking boom, is on the verge of its biggest supply surge ever, adding to the American oil renaissance.

Over the next three years, the Gulf is poised to deliver a slug of more than 700,000 barrels per day of new crude, reversing a decline in production and potentially rivaling shale hot spots like Texas’s Eagle Ford formation in terms of growth.

The revival began this summer, when Royal Dutch Shell‘s (RDSa.L) 100,000 barrels per day Olympus platform was towed out to sea 130 miles south of New Orleans – the first of seven new ultra-modern systems starting up through 2016. It weighs 120,000 tons, more than 200 Boeing 777 jumbo jets.

The Gulf Of Mexico’s growth will bolster the United States’ emerging role as the world’s top oil and gas producer, a trend led by advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that unlock hydrocarbons from tight rock reservoirs in places like North Dakota’s Bakken and the Permian of West Texas.

Rising domestic production and the start of natural gas exports may transform the economy and realign geopolitics as U.S. reliance on foreign oil declines.

The resurgence in the Gulf is occurring even though the U.S. government imposed stringent safety and environmental rules after BP Plc‘s (BP.L) Macondo spill. Foreign countries from Brazil to Angola have also aggressively courted Big Oil to invest in developing their offshore fields. And the shale boom has diverted billions of dollars in capital onshore.

The deepwater Gulf, considered the most technically challenging offshore oil patch, remains alluring even as other areas struggle. Brazil attracted only a single bid this month for its once-touted Libra field, yet global companies still compete fiercely for the right to drill in the Gulf.

“A barrel of discovered oil in the Gulf of Mexico is difficult to beat for value anywhere else, even with the increased costs of doing business,” said Jez Averty, senior vice president of North American exploration at Norway’s Statoil (STL.OL).

Huge finds over the last decade – in what engineers call “elephant fields” that can produce for 25 years or more – are lifting growth in a basin some companies once abandoned, fearing it was drying up or its resources were beyond reach.

“This is still one of the premier oil and gas regions in the world and that’s why we’ve never left,” said Steve Thurston, vice president of Chevron Corp‘s (CVX.N) North American exploration and production division.

Even after decades of production in the Gulf, government estimates have shown that 48 billion barrels could still be recovered.

LOWER TERTIARY

The area of the Gulf of Mexico where most of the new infrastructure will start up is in an ancient geological trend in its deepest waters 200 miles or more from shore known as the Lower Tertiary, estimated to hold 15 billion barrels of crude.

Appraisals in the Gulf’s Lower Tertiary have shown fields that could have half a billion barrels or more of oil, like Exxon Mobil Corp’s (XOM.N) Hadrian, estimated to hold up to 700 million barrels, or Anadarko Petroleum Corp‘s (APC.N) Shenandoah, which tests this year showed could hold up to three times more than initial estimates of 300 million barrels.

The potential bounty of massive deposits that can produce for a quarter century or more is what keeps players coming even though a single well that bores tens of thousands of feet through thick salt and rock to strike oil – or a dry hole – can cost $130 million or more.

By contrast, an onshore well costs about $8 million to drill – but may only produce a trickle of oil for a few years.

Chevron’s Jack/St. Malo project, which will tie a platform to the ocean floor 7,000 feet below the surface and tap a reservoir 26,000 feet deep, costs $7.5 billion.

It may become the biggest such platform in the world after shipping out later this year, with the ability to double its initial 170,000 bpd capacity. It will be followed next year by Chevron’s second new platform, Big Foot, to be secured to the sea floor by 16 miles of interlocking metal strands, or tendons.

In addition to projects by Anadarko Petroleum Corp (APC.N) and Williams Cos (WMB.N), private equity firm Blackstone Energy Partners will join the game. In 2015, Blackstone’s partner LLOG Exploration aims to start up Delta House – named for the boisterous fraternity in the film “Animal House” – less than 10 miles from BP’s plugged Macondo well.

Delta House will pump oil from the Marmalard and Bluto fields, namesakes of characters in the movie.

CLEAR AND STABLE RULES

Three years ago, some analysts thought the post-Macondo Gulf would have fewer players as stricter regulations and higher operating chilled activity, particularly for smaller companies.

Producers must now provide more detailed plans for offshore operations, submit to more frequent inspections and prove they have access to a rapid-response system to cap a gushing well. More than 4 million barrels of oil poured into the sea for 87 days after the Macondo well blowout killed 11 men.

High costs have given some companies pause. Even as BP began appraisal drilling at its self-described “giant” Tiber field this August, a month later it canceled contracts to build a second platform at its Mad Dog field. BP says it wants to move forward on Mad Dog 2 “with the right plan.”

Many others are pressing ahead full steam.

“It hasn’t scared us away,” John Hollowell, Shell’s top deepwater executive for Shell Upstream Americas said, noting deepwater is one-third of Shell’s growth platform, alongside natural gas and unconventional areas like onshore shales.

Hess Corp (HES.N) Chief Executive John Hess has told analysts the company, which operates one oil and gas platform in the Gulf with another on the way next year, also aims to increase its exploration in the deep waters.

“It’s a core area for us and now that Macondo is behind the industry, it is an area where we intend to start investing more, assuming we get the returns that we expect,” he said.

Companies say the Gulf is still the best deepwater basin to set up shop – with high profit margins, reasonable per-barrel costs and a predictable legal and regulatory system.

Operators can bring in their own workers rather than employ a certain number from the host country, as they do in Brazil – where just finding enough qualified workers is a hurdle.

Gulf operators also do not have to brace themselves for sudden changes in royalty requirements or possibly be blocked from bidding on drilling rights, as has happened in Angola.

To get in the Gulf of Mexico’s door, they put in the highest bid when the government leases drilling rights.

“All you have to do is show up at the lease sale,” Statoil’s Averty said.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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Shell’s Olympus on Its Way to U.S. GoM Mars Field

Shell’s massive Olympus tension leg platform (TLP) set sail from Ingleside, Texas on 14th July, for a 425 mile trek to its final home on the Mars Field in the Gulf of Mexico.

For 10 days, tugboats will transport the over 120,000 ton platform to the location where work will begin to secure the platform in place. The Olympus TLP will be moored to the seafloor by tendons grouped at each of the structure’s corners and will float in approximately 3000 feet of water.

The Olympus TLP is Shell’s sixth and largest tension leg platform and will provide process infrastructure for two of Shell’s deep water discoveries, West Boreas and South Deimos. The project also includes pipelines that will be routed through West Delta 143C, the recently installed shallow water platform.

The Olympus TLP is expected to start production in 2014, producing at a rate of 100k boe.

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Gulf of Mexico: Shell Invests in GoM Stones Project

Royal Dutch Shell plc (Shell) today announces a final investment decision in the Stones ultra-deepwater project, a Gulf of Mexico oil and gas development expected to host the deepest production facility in the world.

This decision sets in motion the construction and fabrication of a floating production, storage, and offloading (FPSO) vessel and subsea infrastructure. The development will start with two subsea production wells tied back to the FPSO vessel, followed later by six additional production wells. This first phase of development is expected to have annual peak production of 50,000 boe/d from more than 250 million boe of recoverable resources. The Stones field has significant upside potential and is estimated to contain over 2 billion boe of oil in place.

“This important investment demonstrates our ongoing commitment to usher in the next generation of deepwater developments, which will deliver more production growth in the Americas,” said John Hollowell, Executive Vice President for Deepwater, Shell Upstream Americas. “We will continue our leadership in safe, innovative deepwater operations to help meet the growing demand for energy in the US.”

The Stones field is located in 9,500 feet (2,896 meters) of water, approximately 200 miles (320 kilometers) southwest of New Orleans, Louisiana, and was discovered in 2005. The project encompasses eight US Federal Outer Continental Shelf lease blocks in the Gulf of Mexico’s Lower Tertiary geologic trend. Shell has been one of the pioneers in the Lower Tertiary, establishing first production in the play from its Perdido Development.

An FPSO design was selected to safely develop and produce this ultra-deepwater discovery, while addressing the relative lack of infrastructure, seabed complexity, and unique reservoir properties. With an FPSO, tankers will transport oil from the Stones FPSO to US refineries, and gas will be transported by pipeline.

The launch of the Stones development is a key milestone as Shell continues to grow deepwater exploration and development in the Gulf of Mexico, having made significant progress recently on the Mars-B development project with the arrival of the Olympus tension leg platform. Shell is also in the concept selection phase for the Appomattox and Vito discoveries in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shell holds 100% interest and will operate the Stones development.

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Shell Starts Drilling at Cebus Well, Offshore French Guiana

Shell has started drilling at Cebus prospect (GM-ES-4), the third well of the current four well exploration programme in the Guyane Maritime Permit (French Guiana), Northern Petroleum, which holds a stake in the permit, has announced.

The drilling operations are being conducted with the Stena Ice Max drillship.

Northern through holding 50 per cent of Northpet Investments Limited, owns a net 1.25 per cent interest in the offshore exploration licence ‘Guyane Maritime’. Northern is in partnership with Shell (Operator, holding 45 per cent), Total (25 per cent), Tullow Oil (27.5 per cent) and Wessex Exploration (also holding 1.25 per cent through owning the remaining 50 per cent interest in Northpet Investment Limited).

Keith Bush, Chief Operating Officer of Northern stated:

“This is a new, exciting opportunity for the joint venture to further establish the oil production potential in French Guiana. We look forward to the results of this well with great interest.”

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Shell drilling rig grounds off Kodiak Island after towlines fail for 5th time

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By LISA DEMER — ldemer@adn.com

Royal Dutch Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig, re-secured to two ships with towlines early Monday, grounded around 9 p.m. in rocky water off the southern coast of Kodiak Island during a pounding Gulf of Alaska winter storm, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

A command team that includes Shell briefed reporters on the disaster with the Kulluk late Monday night.

It broke loose from a Shell-contracted ship, the Aiviq, around 4:40 p.m. Monday Then around 8:15 p.m., the second tow ship, the borrowed Alert, was directed to lose its towline to avoid danger to the nine crew members aboard, according to the command team managing the crisis, which includes Shell, the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, and contractors.

No one was hurt, the Coast Guard said.

The command team numbers about 250 people and most are now based at the Anchorage Marriott Downtown because the operation was running out of room at Shell’s headquarters in Alaska, the Midtown Frontier Building.

When the Kulluk was cut loose from its final towline, it was four miles from land toward the south end of Kodiak Island, according to a written statement sent around 8:30 p.m. The grounding is the worst development yet in a crisis that began Thursday night when the $290 million, 266-foot-diameter Kulluk first lost a towline after the mechanical failure of a shackle used to connect it to the Aiviq.

Crews struggled against worsening weather and a mobile drilling unit that was unmanned with no propulsion capability of its own. The Coast Guard evacuated the Kulluk’s 18-person crew on Saturday for their own safety as the floating rig bobbed in giant swells in the Gulf of Alaska. After that, there was no way for the Kulluk to drop anchor and avoid grounding, said Coast Guard Commander Shane Montoya.

The crew had been trying to get the Kulluk to safe harbor on Kodiak Island but the storm, with huge swells and fierce winds, proved too much, Montoya said.

In a statement issued around 6 a.m. Monday, it was being held by towlines and was about 19 miles south of Kodiak.

“The safety of personnel and the environment remain the top priority,” the command team said in the

8:30 p.m. statement, announcing that the Kulluk was again adrift. “Difficult weather conditions are anticipated to continue throughout the day. Unified Command is considering all options.”

The statement did not specify options.

“This is an evolving situation,” the statement said. “More information will be released as it becomes available.”

The National Weather Service issued a storm warning Monday for the seas around Kodiak and said the marine conditions were hazardous. The forecast was for 36 foot seas, winds topping 60 mph and rain. But the rough seas were expected to ease by Tuesday.

As of late Monday afternoon, the unified command team planned to let the vessels wait out the incoming winter storm off the southern coast of Kodiak Island rather than attempt a move to a protected harbor that would be risky in severe weather, said Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosely.

Early Monday morning after a night adrift for the Kulluk, crews tethered it to the Shell-contracted Aiviq, a massive ship 360 feet long, as well as the Alert, a 140-foot Crowley Marine Services tug normally under contract to Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.  The Alert was diverted from its work as part of Alyeska’s five-tug oil spill prevention and response fleet escorting oil tankers in Prince William Sound but the other tugs can handle the duties with no reduction in tanker traffic, Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan said.

Since the crisis began Thursday, the Kulluk has lost towlines to various ships at least five times, including on Sunday when it broke free of two ships, the Aiviq and another Shell-contracted vessel, the Nanuq. The $200 million Aiviq early Friday lost power to all four engines, which then were repaired and fully restarted by Saturday. The Aiviq was specifically built for Shell’s controversial drilling operations offshore in the Alaska Arctic. It is owned by Edison Chouest of Louisiana.

On Monday, crews were able to use a grappling hook to take up the loose end of a long line that was still attached on the other end to the Kulluk. Another line had been attached as a backup and was floating on a buoy and secured at the other end to the Kulluk. That was not one of the lines that broke on Sunday, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said.

But the Kulluk lost both lines.

Shell began exploratory drilling this fall in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas under sharp criticism from environmentalists and some Alaska Native groups. The critics say Shell is ill-prepared for challenging work in harsh conditions, and that government regulators have failed to require the latest and best technologies.

In Shell’s case, its unique oil spill containment dome was damaged during testing, and another drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer, experienced a series of problems. It dragged anchor in Dutch Harbor, suffered a small fire in its smokestack and was cited by the Coast Guard for safety and pollution control issues.

“We’ve got a pattern of failures,” said Carl Wassilie, a Yup’ik Eskimo who coordinates a grass-roots group called Alaska’s Big Village Network and helped organize a protest Monday outside the Frontier Building, Shell’s Alaska headquarters. “I’m saying no, there’s no way that I can see any feasibility of drilling in the Arctic, especially with the extreme conditions that we’re seeing, not only with Mother Nature right now but also just the technical aspects of the failures that we’re seeing with the fleet.”

Shell responded that it has backup plans that kick in when problems emerge and that the actual drilling operations this year proceeded safely.

“Flawless operations remain the goal,” Smith said earlier on Monday. “But being a responsible operator also means putting contingencies in place when operations do not go as planned. We have done that.”

That includes calling in other vessels during the Kulluk emergency, he said. Shell now has four vessels on scene, and the Coast Guard brought in a cutter, the Alex Haley, the buoy tender Spar, as well as helicopters. On Monday, the Coast Guard flew a small crew to the evacuated Kulluk to inspect the towlines but they reportedly didn’t stay on long.

The Kulluk left Dutch Harbor the afternoon of Dec. 21 under tow by the Aiviq, headed to the Seattle area for off-season maintenance. The weather forecast for the next few days was typical, even a bit tame, for winter along the Aleutian chain and into the Gulf of Alaska: Winds of 17 to 35 mph, seas of 7 to 15 feet.

“Toward Kodiak Island, there was nothing of real significance,” said Sam Albanese, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “It was a pretty benign forecast.”

But by the afternoon of Dec. 25, the outlook had shifted from a prediction of more gale-force winds to a near storm at sea with winds topping 50 mph, he said.

And that’s what hit the Kulluk and the Aiviq last week.

By Saturday night, the winds were near hurricane force, the Coast Guard said.

Still, traffic along the busy shipping lanes through the Gulf of Alaska that connect Asia to North America continued during the heavy seas and storm, the Coast Guard’s Mosley said.

“We have ships coming through this area daily,” he said.

Over the past week or so, no ship captains alerted the Coast Guard that they were diverting course along the Aleutians or around Kodiak Island to avoid the rough seas take refuge in a safe harbor, he said. Ships typically keep the Coast Guard posted if they detour.

But a ship towing a heavy, conical rig like the Kulluk, with a derrick 160-feet tall, has a far more difficult task than one propelling only itself.

The Kulluk was designed for extended drilling in Arctic waters. It has an ice-reinforced, funnel-shape hull to deflect moving ice downward and break it into small pieces.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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