Arctic Platform to Resume Drilling This Month

Abstract:
Anadarko's potentially game-changing North Slope structure survived last year's "Hot Ice No. 1" coring operations and a nine-month all-weather shutdown, so the outlook for licensing it for use in all environmentally sensitive areas gleams brighter than the midnight sun.

Analysis:
Anadarko Petroleum, et al., are sweeping the mothballs out of their Arctic Drilling Platform up on Alaska's North Slope and plan to quickly finish the methane hydrates coring program they started there last year but had to shut down prematurely due to unusually warm weather.

Apparently, however, the rig could have continued "turning to the right" even after spring's arrival, which came in April last year, several weeks earlier than usual.

And that's actually good news for Anadarko, despite the delay, since the one-of-a-kind drilling platform they're using to drill the "Hot Ice No. 1" core test well apparently has proved that it may indeed represent the future for drilling in environmentally sensitive onshore areas not just in the Arctic, but globally, as well.

The platform, the intellectual property rights of which belong to Anadarko, remained on location at the well site--through last year's spring thaw, during the brief summer and fall periods, and on into the current winter--without any apparent effect on the frail, flat tundra-above-permafrost surface characteristics typical of the area's topography. That's important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is extending, if not eliminating altogether, the cold weather drilling window enforced by law in the North Slope region. That period begins when there is a minimum of 12 inches of frozen ground with 6 inches of snow covering it. At some 45 days or so in length, this short period, which appears to be getting even shorter thanks to the effects of higher average global temperatures, already severely limits North Slope exploration activity.

The Hot Ice core test is part of a three-year project (now extended for perhaps another year) by Anadarko, Maurer Technology Inc., Noble Engineering--all based in Houston--and several oilfield service companies, including Schlumberger and Paulsson Geophysical. The industry companies joined with the U.S. government in an effort to delineate how methane hydrates deposits on dry land might be produced economically from beneath Arctic permafrost. If tests such as this one prove such recovery to be viable, it likely would become more widespread in Arctic regions. Most hydrates experts believe onshore recovery would precede development of much larger deposits on the floor of the world's oceans, where ice-entrapped gas exists in prodigious quantities but represents equally massive technological and financial challenges (see Romancing the Ice, Rigzone, 9-15-02).

Kicked off officially in 2001, the project carries an $11 million estimated price tag, which is shared 50-50 between the companies and government organizations represented mainly by various units of the Energy and Interior departments, including three of the DOE's national laboratories. Non-fiscal participants include the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Maurer Engineering's Tom Williams, project manager, says the well last year was drilled to the top of the potential hydrate zone at about 1,400 ft (427 m) before operations were suspended. A number of cores were taken. These currently are being analyzed in various industry, government, and university laboratories.

This year, drilling is expected to resume on January 29, deepening the hole to as much as 2,600 ft (793 m), followed by completion of several hydrate zones for production testing and vertical seismic profiling. This should take about 20 days, Williams said, after which decisions about further drilling/coring and production testing will be determined.

In any case, the Arctic Platform rig could prove to be a game-changing technology, since it operated flawlessly last year and proved it fulfills all basic requirements for Arctic drilling. It also survived tremendous climate changes--all alone--without breaking a sweat.

The platform is a lightweight aluminum, 100-ft2 (30.5-m2) modular structure that when assembled provides 10,000 ft2 (930 m2) of deck space, serving as the base plate for the drilling rig, which, in the case of the Hot Ice No. 1, is a small coring unit. The deck also supports related machinery and pipe racks, and holds compartments for drilling consumables like bulk mud, fresh water, and fuel. Much like an offshore piled platform, the unit's modularized housing and other living space units are stacked atop the platform deck to accommodate personnel. All emissions are scrubbed, and specially designed channels leave the entire platform runoff-free. The individual modules can be moved over ice or tundra on all-terrain Rolligon vehicles whose balloon tires exert a surface pressure of only 7 psi, posing little threat to Arctic land. Both platform modules and rig components also can be transported by helicopter.

The platform rests on steel supports, or "legs," which are coarsely threaded, allowing them to be screwed into ice and permafrost to elevate the entire platform 12 ft (15.3 m) above ground level. This is high enough to allow wildlife to graze or pass beneath, as well as to cancel any threat to frozen tundra from heat generated by rig engines, and the like.

While the existing platform was designed to handle the methane hydrates coring rig, which has a very shallow drilling depth capability, larger versions could be built to accommodate bigger, deeper-drilling rigs. Anadarko, which has a patent pending for the platform, is said to be negotiating for licensing of adaptations to other operators, some of whom intend to use it for Arctic operations and others who might bring it to bear in other environmentally fragile areas, such as coastal wetlands and mountainous areas such as those found in the Western U.S.

Currently, producers drill North Slope wells with large-scale, winterized land drilling rigs, but only after they build "ice roads" on which to transport rig components to well locations just prior to the drilling season. They obtain fresh water for icing these roads by pumping it from the shallow lakes and ponds that abound in the area. At the well locations, they lay down gravel or ice pads upon which the heavy rigs are reassembled. When the spring thaw approaches, the ice roads melt, leaving few options for moving heavy rigs about. Additionally, the gravel well pads can damage tundra and permafrost and must be removed if no production is found. Safe to say, most conventional Arctic operations are extraordinarily expensive.

Specialists with Anadarko, which holds substantial working interests in a number of North Slope oil fields as well as considerable undeveloped leases, designed the Arctic Platform to cut such costs substantially. The company's Operations and Planning Group, led by Dr. Keith Millheim (Ph.D.), developed it as a solution to three challenges. First, it would allow the company to operate beyond the winter season. Second, it would give them access to areas where water for ice roads may be scarce and where steep grades make it difficult to set a conventional rig. This would include parts of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) that, unlike the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), are open to exploration.

Finally, the Arctic Platform rig would reduce the environmental impact on tundra, which is a must for continued conventional Artic exploration, particularly since Alaska's winters have warmed by at least 8 degrees F since the mid-1960s, according to scientists with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Williams said the existing platform, though inactive and left to the ravages of the North Slope environment for more than nine months, has not moved at its location, and that deck elevation remains at 12 ft. What's more, he noted, since the raised position of the platform prevented it from casting a permanent shadow, the tundra beneath it continued to spread naturally during the short growing season.

Meanwhile, a study of Arctic tundra is being conducted by the U.S. Energy Dept. and the State of Alaska to determine whether the original requirements for winter operations in force for more than 30 years are too conservative, given that drilling activity--as separated from geophysical and production operations--during all that time apparently have left the fragile North Slope ecosystem no worse for the wear. This is important to operators, of course, since such proof could result in a longer drilling window.

That includes Anadarko. However, it might also mean that Arctic Platform-mounted rigs could one day become the rule, rather than the exception, at least along the northern coast of Alaska and Canada.

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