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Five years on, the Macondo disaster remains perhaps the defining oil industry event of the past decade. Its effects are felt in new standards for operations, accountability, engineering and a multitude of other factors, and few areas of the sector have been untouched by the lessons of Deepwater Horizon.
Thankfully, however, these lessons appear to have been (largely) learned and recent years have seen more positive developments in the story. Houston’s recently created Subsea Systems Institute (SSI) is one such success story.
Set up using federal award funds – generated via RESTORE Act penalties paid by BP and other parties to the State of Texas – the SSI is a national research centre aimed at tackling subsea engineering and offshore energy sustainability issues. Comprised of a consortium including University of Houston (UoH), Rice University and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, as well as other partners in the DeepStar programme, the SSI’s goal is to pool resources and expertise to develop transformative technologies.
Another group, the Texas OneGulf Center of Excellence, is being led by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, backed by the other 50% of the RESTORE grant money. OneGulf will assemble a consortium of Texas institutions focused on marine science and human health to promote collaborative, multi-disciplinary research, synthesis and problem solving concentrating on the Gulf of Mexico.
The idea behind the SSI was to “create an institute that is recognised around the world as the undisputed leader in transformative deepwater technology,” UoH interim vice president for research and technology transfer Ramanan Krishnamoorti stated last June.
Speaking to InnovOil late in 2015, Rice University’s Energy and Environment Initiative executive director, Chuck McConnell, explained: “Because [Houston] wasn’t primarily affected by the spill itself but we were impacted directly by the economic impact, we put forth an idea that would identify the issues that would prevent the next spill…actually getting ahead of the curve and looking at transformative technologies, new ways of doing the work, all the aspects of discipline and best practice with the one thing in mind: never having another Macondo.”
For now, the Institute remains in its early stages. Newly appointed director Bill Maddock took up his position in September with the short-term goal of reaching out to a number of potential industry partners ahead of forming a corporate advisory board of 6-8 companies, in addition to the three main stakeholders. “Subsequently,” McConnell said, “we plan to add a number of industry participants on technical advisory committees to begin to put some meaningful projects behind each of those areas.”
Areas of interest
Not unexpectedly, one area of particular focus for the SSI will be in developing new technology and equipment for blow out preventers (BOPs). This includes, McConnell said, “The whole design, manufacturing, materials, control systems, you name it – BOPs are a critical area.”
New IT techniques and computational analysis will also form a major thrust of research. The hope here is that improved ways of mapping reservoirs and the ocean floor can lead not only to better exploration – particularly in deepwater prospects – but also to enable better production and maintain excellence in the whole extraction phase.
“We will also be looking at platform design,” McConnell added. “With the ever-increasing needs that platforms must provide for in the deepwater, we’re going to be looking at re-designs, new types of technology which can replace equipment currently on these platforms but with perhaps half the footprint, or even less.”
It is notable that these platform-based innovations will not only serve the platforms of the future, but could play a vital role in life-extension operations on the platforms of today – an area of renewed focus in the current low-price environment.
Another SSI statement outlines further interests in early kick detection and wellbore monitoring.
McConnell said that the consortium would be issuing its first round of preliminary RFQs soon into the new year, and SSI stakeholders will work together to identify the most pressing areas of technical focus. From here, it is hoped that the group can develop pathways for cutting-edge technology right the way through to commercialisation.
“Most of our focus will be on the areas of technology which are typically identified as Technology Readiness Level [TRL] 1-3,” he continued. “The industry advisory board will allow us to progress these ideas – not just embryonic ideas and writing a paper, but to actually drive to do pilots, demonstrations and field testing.”
This type of support is all the more important given the current climate. McConnell noted that “industry has become less and less interested in TRL 1-3 because it’s hard to show the payoff to shareholders. Most of the technology industry develops now is what I would call incremental change to existing tech, but not transformative.” If the SSI can leverage federal funding to incubate ideas in an academic environment before rolling them out for trials or use by companies, it will alleviate some short-term financial strain whilst preserving the long-term goals of horizon research and technology. After all, he conceded, “It’s very difficult for industry to have a long-term R&D strategy when you’re also being nipped every quarter for earnings. That’s the challenge for industry and it’s getting more difficult every day.”
Despite its key areas of interest, the Institute’s capabilities are not limited purely to new equipment. “We also have the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice, and a lot of the policy decisions that go along with effective offshore operations, as well as the technology road-mapping and deployment to make impact, will also come into question and hopefully we recommend the right policies to be considered to enhance E&P in an effective and safe way,” McConnell explained.
Likewise, technology transfer – another vital maxim for the energy industry in 2016 – has a role to play, not least thanks to the calibre of SSI participants. “The Johnson Space Center has some rather unique and amazing testing capabilities, that are likely to be leveraged for the ultra-deepwater environments that we’re looking at,” he said. “For many of the challenges we’re looking at now, testing equipment doesn’t exist! We may help to develop some transformative testing procedures, as well as the equipment.”
“Cool ideas are a dime a dozen,” he said. “What we’ve got to do is find those applicable opportunities that are going to have relevance and impact.”
And that impact could be great: with access to a potential US$100 million in award funding over the next 10-15 years, McConnell believes that the Institute can contribute to subsea systems in the Gulf and worldwide. “This needs to be international. This needs to be something that the rest of the world can participate in. What we want to do here is make a special effort to reach out to the Statoils, the Petrobrases and the Saudi Aramcos of the world, any institutes that we can potentially collaborate with. If there’s duplication in this world, shame on us.”
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