Planning and Problem Solving in the Offshore Environment

World Energy

The energy and offshore industries have experienced enormous changes over the past 10 years, driven variously by supply and demand, geopolitical influences, advances in technology and the need to deliver value in a competitive marketplace. These changes have been instrumental in propelling the offshore industry toward new frontiers in the exploration and production of hydrocarbons. The challenges that face us today as we explore deeper water are truly exciting and present opportunities to all in the pursuit of safer and more efficient products and services.

In every offshore operation, risk is a major issue that must be addressed. Risks arise from a broad array of factors, ranging from project complexity down to such specific concerns as weather, sea conditions and mechanical breakdown. The greater the risk, the greater the potential cost for all involved. Reducing risk is essential for the success of an offshore project and can be accomplished in many ways -- most profoundly, by being prepared. The effort put into planning and testing while onshore can save many times its cost in time lost correcting mistakes offshore.

Planning is an exhilarating activity, but one that wise men approach with humility. Dwight D. Eisenhower once commented, "In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." Eisenhower understood that our plans never encompass reality adequately; the conditions we encounter, whether in battle or in offshore operations, will never conform perfectly to our conceptions of them. And this insight should guide the planning process.

As part of the planning process, we attempt to identify potential problems and either eliminate them or develop solutions for them should they occur. Problems can occur at all levels of an offshore project, from the most general to the most specific. Problems that occur at higher or more general project levels are typically more costly to fix. Good planning thus isolates higher-level issues as much as possible from lower-level activities, so that specific problems with technical or operational details can be solved without disrupting the grander scheme. It is in this part of the planning process that an experienced contractor can provide highly valuable assistance to a field operator by identifying potential problems, devising solutions and developing flexible approaches to respond to the unexpected.

The harsh offshore environment requires special equipment and personnel to carry out project tasks. The consequences of unexpected occurrences range from small, low-impact malfunctions to catastrophic failures costing millions of dollars. The need to be prepared for these events is paramount and begins at the most basic levels of organizations that are tasked to provide solutions.

The examples that make up the remainder of this article illustrate the value of planning that both anticipates problems and recognizes the need to respond to the unexpected. The examples focus on applied technology solutions, training, and research and development, while providing a brief look at future innovations and solutions.

Riser Recovery

A recent occurrence illustrates the severity and complexity of the unexpected challenges that face our industry in deepwater exploration. During deepwater drilling operations, a riser separated at the midpoint in a total water depth of 5,400 feet. Only the string of drill pipe running from the floating drilling rig to the seafloor inside the riser prevented the tower of riser joints from toppling. The lower end of the drill string was jammed in the blowout preventer (BOP) just above the seafloor. The situation was critical. There were no readily available tools or procedures to address the problem, and the solution entailed a high-tech approach to deal with heavy loads in a remote location. Downtime costs were significant for the operator, as were the potential costs of lost equipment.

In every emergency situation, availability of resources to minimize the "time" impact is very important. The ability of an engineering group to design and fabricate a tool for riser recovery must include the commitment to work around the clock to implement the solution. In this case, close communication and cooperation among all involved parties, including Oceaneering's Intervention Engineering group, were instrumental in creating a solution and emergency intervention plan. The riser recovery tool was fabricated and delivered in four days. After fabrication was complete, the tool was load-tested to 700,000 pounds and air-freighted to southeast Asia.

The recovery operation involved a complex sequence of carefully controlled tasks and maneuvers. The riser recovery tool was lowered to the underwater work site from the offshore rig, where a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) positioned the tool in the area of the separated riser at the 2,600-foot level, approximately midway between the surface and the seafloor. The ROV then fitted the tool onto the riser flanges, hydraulically closed the upper and lower clamps, pulled the clamp halves together and secured each clamp with a large pin. The ROV then cut the tool deployment lines and disconnected the BOP control lines from the riser.

The next tasks involved removal of the drill string, which remained jammed in the BOP. To begin this procedure, the ROV operated a rig torque tool to unbolt the riser from the top of the lower marine riser package (LMRP) just above the seafloor. With all the bolts removed, the rig lifted the riser about eight feet above the LMRP, exposing the drill pipe. The ROV then deployed a diamond-wire cutting tool and cut through the drill string. The drill string was then recovered to the surface, followed by the recovery of the riser sections held together by the riser recovery tool.

Once the drill string and riser were recovered, a special section of pipe was lowered and secured onto the LMRP by the ROV. The rig released the LMRP and recovered it to the surface. The rig then lowered a tool onto the severed drill pipe protruding from the top of the BOP, allowing a thermal cutting device to be dropped through the center of the drill pipe to sever it below the BOP. The BOP was then disconnected from the wellhead and raised to the surface, completing the recovery of the equipment.

This complex deepwater project reveals how a well-planned operation based on the right technology solutions can minimize the effects of even severe, unexpected problems. It also illustrates a step change in the key technologies used. Today's ROVs represent an improvement over the vehicles of 20 years ago that is comparable to the advances in computer capabilities that have occurred over the same time period. We take today's technology for granted; but not that long ago the ROV was a novelty on an offshore rig, plagued with mechanical breakdowns that greatly exceeded productive, in-water time. Now it is not uncommon for an ROV to remain underwater at crushing depths for weeks while performing critical-path tasks for oil and gas operators worldwide.

Planning for the Unexpected

Businesses everywhere develop plans to guide all of their activities. Among other things, these plans address the wide spectrum of resources required to safely provide high-quality, timely products and services. This general planning philosophy applies more urgently to operations conducted in hazardous environments, including the marine oil and gas industry.

In this context, a problem is something that intrudes from the outside to disrupt normal, planned activities. Solving a problem means getting rid of it or past it, like curing a disease. Viewed this way, problems typically are unexpected. It may be beneficial, however, to consider problems as endemic to our business activities and processes and to anticipate them more directly as we plan our operations. By thus enhancing our planning processes, we will also likely improve our ability to respond to problems as they occur.

The way the ROV is used in offshore operations today offers a fine example of this type of enhanced planning. The ROV has become an essential deepwater tool providing reliable services for a wide range of both routine underwater tasks and emergency interventions. Deepwater oil and gas exploration and production have driven ROV technology to new levels. ROV capabilities continue to expand as ROV operators confront new underwater challenges daily.

The following address specific occurrences where problems that arose from seemingly routine operations and equipment jeopardized exploration and production (E&P) operations. Each of the projects utilized an ROV as all or part of the solution. Each response illustrates the benefits of long-range planning enhanced by situation-specific problem solving under critical-path circumstances, as well as close interface and information exchange with the various manufacturers of the equipment involved.

Connector Removal. In 4,500-foot waters, a connector became jammed onto a wellhead, preventing tie-back of a production riser to the surface. The ROV-deployed tools designed to remove the connector made a complex series of cuts, allowing the connector housing to be removed and recovered, all without damaging the wellhead.

This solution, mobilized in a short time frame, saved the operator from the potential of drilling a new well -- virtually millions of dollars in extra cost. How do you plan for something like this? It begins by recognizing the connector as a potential problem point. With that knowledge, a project plan can be designed with sufficient organizational and operational flexibility to respond to the potential problem effectively.

Ball Valve Repair. A production manifold ball valve failed to operate in 2,000 feet of water. It was determined that the worm gear assembly inside the ball valve was broken and required replacement. Using a variety of remote tools and procedures, the faulty worm gear assembly was removed, a new gear was installed and the ball valve was reassembled and tested.

When a valve of this type breaks in an onshore facility, it is a simple task for a technician to replace the inner workings. Now, imagine that technician wearing a pair of goggles that totally eliminates depth perception and introduces silt, debris and lighting backscatter into the line of vision; using tools secured to the ends of six-foot poles to perform each task; and being suspended on the end of a flexible cord. This will give you some idea of the difficulty of performing this task using an ROV. The skill of ROV pilots in conjunction with more advanced tools and engineered solutions has aided the ability of operators to perform more complex tasks using remotely operated vehicles.

Barrel Recovery. A pipeline was to be installed through an area littered with hundreds of 55-gallon drums containing unknown substances. A set of hydraulically actuated barrel clamps, suitable for ROV deployment, was designed and fabricated to facilitate efficient and safe recovery of the barrels.

In this case, the use of an ROV provided an added safety benefit by isolating personnel from potential toxic exposure at the work site. Because employees are removed from potentially hazardous environments, enhanced safety is an automatic byproduct of virtually all ROV operations.

Subsea Well Emergency Power. The power conductors in a subsea umbilical failed, leaving a subsea well in 5,400 feet of water in jeopardy of being shut in. A temporary umbilical termination was fabricated, deployed and installed remotely from a multi-service vessel (MSV) stationed over the underwater work site. The temporary umbilical provided power from the MSV to the well for three months while a permanent replacement umbilical was manufactured.

There are few alternatives when the source of power for a subsea tree fails many miles from the host facility. Fortunately, through the combined use of an MSV and work-class ROV system, a temporary fix was provided that avoided substantial production losses.

Subsea Coupler Replacement. A coupling was damaged in a tubing hanger, preventing a drilling vessel from completing the well. A drilling vessel was delayed as a result of the damaged coupler. A remote operated tool was designed to remove and replace the damaged coupler. The underwater operation took place in West Africa in nearly 4,000 feet of water.

Planning for deepwater contingencies and repairs usually involves the installation of interfaces to subsea equipment that allow an ROV to access failed components and more easily perform the repair tasks. As with the ball valve repair discussed earlier, the subsea coupler replacement was not a planned, routine activity but an emergency intervention and required a high level of ingenuity to provide a situation-specific solution to the problem.

Vortex Induced Vibration (VIV) Strake Installation. Vortex induced vibration (VIV) is a natural phenomenon that occurs when water passes by vertical structures in the water column. This vibration has been determined to cause fatigue damage to vertical structural members, such as tendons and steel catenary risers, under high-current conditions, such as those created by the loop current in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. To protect two major deepwater-production facilities, a program was initiated to install specially designed strake assemblies on key vertical members to eliminate or dampen VIV.

Using a vessel, work-class ROV and special remotely operated installation tool, more than 1,300 VIV strake assemblies were installed on tendons for two tension leg platforms (TLP) last year. A total of 80 days was planned for the installation portion of the project, which in fact was accomplished in 65 days. Proper planning, involving close operator and contractor collaboration, was a major factor contributing to the success of the project.

Planning for the Expected The choice between dealing with a problem in an onshore environment or dealing with it offshore is typically an easy one to make. Yet there are still occasions when more could have been done in preparation for offshore operations. When problems that should have been resolved onshore occur during the offshore phases of a project, we may assume that the wrong decisions were made in the planning stages. Contractor involvement early in the planning stages of a project reduces the chances that interface issues will become problems offshore. The following examples illustrate how effective planning either avoids offshore problems or facilitates their solution when they occur. We could call this planning for the expected.

Umbilical Distribution Box. Oceaneering designed an umbilical distribution box (UDB) to distribute power, hydraulics and control signals to multiple subsea trees in a large underwater development project. A unique feature of the UDB is its ability to be used in a daisy-chain configuration, allowing multiple control tie-in points with a single main control umbilical.

In a recent project, 22 UDBs were installed in 4,500 feet of water, providing at least this many potential control tie-in points for subsea trees and/or the flexibility to expand the control network by adding additional in-field control lines. In this application, early planning and involvement of the contractor was essential. Failure to identify current and future requirements for the field development would have been a costly mistake.Mobile Offshore Production Systems. The mobile offshore production unit (MOPU) Ocean Legend currently produces approximately 50 thousand barrels of oil per day off Australia's northwest shelf. Beginning production in May of 2001, the Ocean Legend was a result of more than two years of planning and engineering. While far from a deepwater unit (the water depth is about 150 feet), the Ocean Legend is an excellent example of an offshore project properly planned and executed. Oceaneering worked extensively with the field operator and partners not only to ensure successful construction, installation and startup of the MOPU, but also to create appropriate organization, procedures and infrastructure to facilitate effective response to any problems during the production phase.

Simulation Testing. Advances in computer technology now allow simulation of operations using real-scale 3-D models of equipment in hazardous environments. Computer simulations can provide considerable cost savings in the fit of and access to subsea equipment on a general arrangement basis. Computer simulation can precede and be used in conjunction with onshore testing and integration, saving significant time and money during offshore operations. It offers an ideal planning and testing tool for the early identification of potential problems that would add greatly to installation costs if they went unrecognized and occurred unexpectedly offshore.

Remote Workover and Control System (RWOCS). A subsea tree requires temporary power and control in both planned installation and unplanned intervention scenarios. In these situations, an ROV can be used in conjunction with a RWOCS to provide essential power and control signals from a vessel of opportunity. In deep water, miles from host facilities, the provision of these services can save an operator from shutting down production for extended periods of time.

Planning for the Future The pace of technological advances and the constant increase in the use of energy require that we plan for the future as a society, as an industry and as individual companies. Plans for the future should reflect existing strategies and incorporate all aspects of our respective markets. Research and development, collaboration, personnel resources, training and technology exchange all play key roles in choosing a path for the future.

R&D: Subsea Pig Launcher. Research and development (R&D) encompasses our efforts to stay ahead of the market and technology curves. Change is inevitable, and the ways we adjust to change will ultimately determine our success in the market. Adjusting to change has its costs, of course, but so does failure to adjust. R&D spending is always risky and demands our best analytical planning efforts, guided by a sound vision for our future. Some companies have enormous resources for R&D, while others must rely on subsidies or collaborative business arrangements to accomplish their objectives. In any case, R&D is an important consideration on every scale and will assist companies in evolving to meet market demands.

Reducing the cost of field development is a universal goal within the oil and gas industry. One way to cut costs is to reduce the number of production pipelines. A typical subsea oil tie-back may connect two pipelines back to the host platform to create a loop, thus providing a path to launch a cleaning pig from the platform and return it to the same location. A subsea pig launcher eliminates the requirement for one of the two pipelines by providing a means for deploying pigs from the subsea end of a single production pipeline. Development-phase planning is essential for the use of this equipment, however, because a subsea interface must be installed near the production tree during the construction phase to provide a connection point for the subsea pig launcher.

Collaboration: Wireline SILS. A successful strategy when expanding into new market sectors is to focus on opportunities where a company already offers its base products and services. When a company attempts to go farther afield and enter markets outside of its traditional areas of focus, collaboration with another company with complementary expertise may offer a sound strategy. Deepwater well intervention was such an area for Oceaneering, requiring both subsea intervention and downhole capabilities. By joining with a downhole partner in a structured and cooperative manner, we were able to develop a successful product and service, drawing the best skills from each participant.

The result is the Subsea Intervention Lubricator System (SILS) for light well-intervention services from an MSV. SILS represents a collaboration between two companies -- one providing project management, subsea services and engineering, and vessels; the other providing down-hole engineering and wireline expertise. This cost-effective service for the oil and gas industry meets the goals and objectives of both companies collaborating in this project.

Personnel Resources. No area of corporate planning is more important than the strategies we develop for future staffing and leadership. Our industry requires highly specialized personal and professional skills from our employees to meet the needs of our customers, the demands of the offshore environment and continuing advances in technology. Our employees are vital, valuable resources, and replacing them is a real challenge. To maintain the level of excellence our industry requires, we must attract new employees with the mindset, training and education we require. By participating in local and national programs designed to address our industry's needs, we help ourselves while supporting many worthy academic institutions interested in placing their graduates.

The Marine Advanced Technology Education program (better known as MATE), funded by the National Science Foundation, acts as a bridge between the marine industry and educational institutions. The MATE charter is to provide marine technicians with the right skills to enter occupations in their chosen field.

One method MATE employs to generate interest in ROV operations is the annual ROV competition, most recently held at the Kennedy Space Center in 2002. The competition involves student teams from high schools and universities across the country, exposing them to the exciting world of underwater robotics and the value of teamwork in a high-tech environment. The next ROV competition will be conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in May of 2003.

Training. Graduates of technical schools or colleges should have the basic tools available to begin pursuing a career. From this point, the choices for continuing education include on-the-job training, returning to a formal scholastic environment and attending in-house training provided by the employer. In many cases, the skill sets required by an employer are so specialized that in-house training becomes a necessity. This is the case with remotely operated vehicle systems. Formal education generally covers the basic requirements for electronics and hydraulics. The training required to operate and maintain an integrated electro-mechanical system designed for water depths to 20,000 feet is best provided by an in-house program that includes technical, operational and safety aspects of offshore operations. Using state-of-the-art computer systems and software, employees not only master the intimate details of a custom-designed remote system, but also learn to operate the equipment in very realistic simulated conditions.

Technology Exchange. In the search for new sources of energy, we encounter greater technological challenges as water depth increases beyond the two-mile mark. We find that what we learn can be applied to other hazardous environments and industries. Conversely, we can benefit from the technology other industries have developed. This process can be termed technology exchange.

Oceaneering has pioneered the application of knowledge and technology developed in the underwater environment to operations conducted by astronauts in the U.S. space program. Tools developed for either application could become interchangeable, providing the user benefits in development costs as well as reliability, which is critical in both environments.

Conclusion: Plans and Planning A plan is a roadmap for achieving an objective. As a representation of real-world conditions, it may or may not be an accurate depiction of the terrain we will encounter. Planning is a learning process that continues until the objective is reached or abandoned. As Eisenhower's comment suggested, we need to understand the limitations of our plans and appreciate the value of planning. A poor plan may conceal from us the true nature of the conditions we face, but a good planning process generates new knowledge and insight to guide us through unfamiliar territory. This enhanced planning incorporates the skills of problem solving as a means of adapting to the unexpected.

At Oceaneering, we apply this concept of enhanced planning to a wide range of activities, as illustrated by the examples described in this article. It provides a framework that keeps us prepared to respond to customer needs for both long-term project execution and short-term emergency problem solving and intervention. Internally, it contributes to our philosophy of continuous improvement by helping us see more clearly the reality of the present circumstances.

To overcome the challenges we face, we must adapt to a world that is changing around us. To excel in our endeavors, we must find new ways to provide solutions to our problems. Planning plays an important role in realizing possibilities through practical solutions, now and in the future.

As chairman and CEO of Oceaneering International Inc., John R. Huff leads one of the largest applied technology companies in the world, providing solutions in harsh environments. Prior to joining Oceaneering in 1986, Mr. Huff served as chairman and president of Western Oceanic, an offshore drilling contractor. He has served as a past director for NOIA, IADC and the U.S. Coast Guard Foundation.

Mr. Huff currently serves on the boards of ABS, Keppel Offshore and Marine, Suncor Energy and BJ Services. He has been a recipient of several awards, including the 1998 ASME Rhodes Petroleum Industry Leadership Award. Mr. Huff is a registered professional engineer in the state of Texas and has a civil engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology.

John R. Huff
Chairman and CEO of Oceaneering International