OTC 2016: Efficient Application Key for Subsea Separation Future

Subsea separation technology holds great potential for boosting production and increasing recoverable reserves. It can also save operators money by moving some of the traditional topside processing to the seabed. But the oil and gas industry has been slow to adopt this technology due to the cost, real and perceived risk, and complexity.

However, these factors no longer pose the barriers they once did.

First, costs have been lowered dramatically, not only from supply chain cutbacks, but the ability to eliminate the size of the kit to be installed, Don Underwood, general manager of emerging technologies at FMC Technologies Inc., told attendees at the Offshore Technology Conference Monday in Houston. Underwood estimates that costs have been lowered by 50 percent or more, with the need for much of the costly subsea separation equipment reduced or even eliminated. New lower cost, compact technologies and system architectures means that giant boosting, separation, and compression manifolds are needed.

The oil and gas industry has gained more confidence in subsea separation technology thanks to the complete of five successful major projects, qualification tests completed for deeper water and tougher environments. The oil and gas industry also has been finding solutions to reduce complexity. Many companies are streamlining their technical staff, and suppliers are combining to provide broad system –level expertise. The result is simpler system architecture and cost reduction, Underwood said.

Subsea separation activity “is not as dead as you think” in the current environment. Underwood said that operators are deciding that reservoir analytics dictates they do something about boosting production. Since they can’t go forward with billion-dollar greenfield projects and can’t drill, they are looking to boost production through subsea separation.

Jeffrey W. Jones, senior technical advisor for subsea systems at ExxonMobil Corporation, said the oil patch is filled with history of companies gravitating towards brute force solutions, rather than solutions requiring more finesse, teamwork, engineering and thought.

“Sometimes it easier to stick in a multi-phase pump,” said Jones. “That’s not the most efficient answer in many cases, but it’s easier.”

The current low oil price environment has operators focused on low capital expenditure (CAPEX) projects. Given the environment, Jones advised that individual project business cases must focus on value creation either, through accelerated production and or increased recovery-involve multi-disciplinary team and use integrated simulation tools to evaluate subsea separation systems in early phase of project development.

“You can’t just look at the seabed, you have to look at the reservoir, topsides, everything holistically,” said Jones. “This is hard work, and the reason why many opt for pumps.”

Pull is needed from senior leadership to see the bigger picture on subsea processing, including separation, and how it can unlock tremendous potential in deepwater, for long-distance tieback and Arctic developments. Jones recommends the technology have a sponsor who will advocate for greater use. In many cases, project managers are not willing to take risks on new technology. Attaining the subsea factory requires vision and long-range strategy that will take project managers out of their comfort zone. To put project managers at greater ease, company executives need will need to reassure project managers that they won’t be held accountable for cost overruns or technical difficulties.

Another challenge is that separator systems must be custom designed for reservoir suitability, field layout, and topsides support. This design must take into account a number of factors such as production profile, oil density, viscosity, water depth, seafloor topography, and power requirements. To address this challenge, operators should consider qualification of components and systems over a wide range of operating conditions in order to avoid ‘bespoke’ solutions that are costly and need extensive qualification. Operators also should consider the reuse of qualification technology from previous designs where they are applicable.

Finally, improvements are needed in slug catchers, electro-coelescence, fast-acting control valves, gag polishing, de-sanding, level controls, water de-oiling, cyclonic separation, oil/water emulsion separation and water/sand measurements. Jones said industry should promote standardization of physical interfaces, equipment configuration, FEED solutions and qualification protocols. At the same time, innovation should be allowed in the market place to bring about needed technical improvements.



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