Huge Drillship Nears Completion for New Scientific Project

Abstract: The Integrated Ocean Drilling Project officially kicks off on October 1, but its main coring unit, the Chikyu, won’t be ready until mid-2005; meanwhile, the U.S., Japan, and the E.U. line up for co-equal participation.

Analysis: Petroleum industry folks may not have heard much about it so far, but they'll take note a lot more about the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) in the next few months and years--particularly after October 1, its official start date.

For both geoscience and the energy industry, the IODP promises to be a big deal for the next couple of decades and beyond.

Basically, the IODP is a new international venture to advance and promote scientific research, information technology, and education about the earth's geology--particularly the vast, virtually unexplored portion upon which the oceans lie. The IODP is the successor to the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP), a decades-old international oceanographic research initiative funded mainly by the U.S. government, although the European Science Foundation Consortium for Ocean Drilling, Germany, Japan, and the U.K. are all full members. The ODP's operational lifetime comes to an end on September 30, though much post-operational work remains to be done.

Since its beginnings in 1986, the ODP has been one of the most successful and pervasive activities in the geosciences, having spawned a number of revelations about the earth's physical makeup that not only have furthered knowledge of the earth sciences, but have benefited the offshore petroleum industry, as well. The IODP, however, will be even more aggressive.

When fully operational in 2008, the IODP will be significantly larger than the ODP, with an operating budget of more than $160 million a year, which is three times the size of the ODP’s fiscal 2002 budget.

But a lot of things must come together before the program gets fully underway.

In the first place, completion is nearing on a huge, $540 million, dynamically positioned drilling vessel, built at a Japanese shipyard, that ultimately will take cores from deep below the ocean floor, working exclusively for the IODP during the next 10 years or more. It will be owned and operated by Japanese organizations. Called the Chikyu (“earth” in Japanese), it is a massive 690-ft. (210-m) long, 125-ft. (38-m) wide drillship that, when fully outfitted with drilling and laboratory equipment, will displace 57,000 tons. The Chikyu will be one of the world’s most advanced drillships when it goes into operation several years hence. The ship’s drilling equipment will have the capacity to handle a drillstring of up to 39,370 ft (12,000 m) long. With a riser and BOP attached, it is designed to operate in water depths of up to 13,120 ft. (4,000 m). Without the riser/BOP, it can drill core holes in up to 23,000 ft (7,000 m) of water.

In addition to the drilling facilities, the vessel’s quarters will accommodate both the drilling and ship’s marine crews, as well as up to 50 scientific personnel. It also contains a four-story laboratory deck outfitted with the latest scientific and research equipment. The hull portion of the ship already is undergoing sea trials offshore Japan, where its dynamic positioning system is being evaluated. When that’s completed, it will return to Japan so the drilling systems can be installed. More sea trials will follow, after which the ship will embark on a training cruise prior to beginning full-scale IODP operations in mid-2005.

For its part, the U.S. is finalizing plans to lease an existing, light riserless drilling vessel to do coring work that does not require subsurface pressure control. Meanwhile, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) also plans to lease an existing, riserless deepwater drillship that would be refitted and readied for IODP deep-ocean coring beginning in early 2005.

The overall program will be co-led by the NSF and a Japanese organization with the unwieldy title the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science, and Technology (MEXT). The cost to each involves purchasing IODP Participation Units, which are defined as the total cost of the annual operating expenses ($160 million +) divided by a number divisible by three. The U.S. and Japan already have taken two-thirds of the Participation Units.

Meanwhile, the European Community is seeking membership and attempting to create a framework within which some 15 E.U. member nations can combine forces as a single unified one-third member of IODP. An E.U.-sanctioned organization is working toward this goal.

Interestingly, a number of non-coastal E.U. countries are involved. One in particular is Switzerland, which hopes to continue its research into documenting phenomena that can be applied toward studies of ancient ocean floors and marine sediments that were and will be studied in the Alps. In fact, Swiss scientists have been part of many ODP cruise legs since its 1986 inception.

Participation in IODP by Canada, however, is under some doubt. Apparently, it would have bought Participant Units in the E.U. third. To this point, attempts to seek funding from several Canadian foundations apparently have failed. But a new funding proposal reportedly is being readied. Of course, with much offshore oil and gas activity already underway offshore Eastern Canada, and with renewed interest in exploring Arctic seas and offshore Pacific coast, it would be in Canada’s national interest to be included, and it no doubt will find a way to participate. Australia and China, among others, also are interested in being among those buying participation in the E.U. third.

But of all the countries participating in IODP activities, Japan’s growth will be the greatest in the transition from ODP to IODP. For one thing, providing the drillship and rising to an equal partnership in the program with the U.S. gives Japan a unique opportunity to grow the number of Japanese marine geologists, geophysicists, and other scientists. For another, Japanese private and state scientific organizations are vitally interested in subsea mineral resources around the Home Islands, and early IODP coring and geophysical research will take place in that area.

With such added international character and flavor, the IODP will be watched more closely by both the U.S. Congress, which funds the NSF, and by the U.S. scientific community, who called most of the shots, as it were, on the kinds of research carried out during the ODP. Effectively, under the new framework, they will now be co-equals with their counterparts in Japan and, apparently, the E.U.. So, it appears that much more diplomacy--and a whole lot more committees--will be needed to manage IODP activities than might have been necessary in the ODP days.

One area of planned IODP research upon which both the U.S. and Japan agree, however, is a major emphasis very early on coring and deep-sea geophysical investigation of accumulations of undersea methane hydrates. The coastal E.U. nations also will be interested in that area, as well.

But where does the petroleum industry figure into all this?

As with the ODP and its predecessor during the 1960s-70s--the Deep Sea Drilling Project--oil and gas interests will be reflected in the IODP’s ongoing activities.

All of the potential industry benefits are too many to list here. However, there are a few salient examples. For instance, in addition to better understanding of methane hydrates, which present not only a new and potentially huge source of hydrocarbons but also a potential geohazard for deepwater offshore oil and gas operations, the industry will benefit from deeper understanding of the role of microbial activity in petroleum systems, as well as the role climate and sea level change plays in the distribution, magnitude, and quality of petroleum systems.

Progress in geophysical imaging within and below basalts and experience in drilling through thick basalts also may provide the industry with tools useful for exploration along volcanic rifted margins.

And while oceanic crust underlies more than 60% of the earth’s surface, nobody knows much about its composition. However, the IODP plans to study the structure, physical properties, and alteration history of the lower two-thirds of the oceanic crust, among other studies. The technological developments required for geophysical imaging of deep crust and for drilling and logging in the high-temperature, high-pressure environments found there should be of vital interest to the oil and gas industry, as well. Improving borehole stability and core recovery in such deep-hole environments continues to be a concern for both the industry and academia.

Additional benefits should result in the development of a new array of tools for use both by science and industry in deep-ocean imaging, as well as ultra-deep resource development.

So keep an eye out for news about the IODP. The managers have vowed to fast-track knowledge gained from its various missions in more widespread media release, rather than wait for specific conferences and far-off issues of scientific journals. That, alone, may help speed up the technology transfer benefits.