More than 1500 delegates descended on New Orleans in early November to hear some of the oil industry's leading technical experts discuss the status as well as the future of deepwater plays around the world.
The draw was a record for the annual Deep Offshore Technology conference, titled this year "Deepwater Reality-Ultra-deep Potential".
Setting the tone for the conference during its opening session Jean-Francois Giannesini of the Institut Francais du Petrole, likened the industry's current technical readiness to enter ultradeep water to the early 1990s.
At the beginning of the decade, he said, operators were forced to answer some specific questions before moving into waters beyond about 1,000-ft deep. Most important of those questions were two: do opportunities exist there and is the necessary technology available to exploit those opportunities?
With positive answers to those questions, a decade ago the industry moved into depths then thought to be extreme. Now, according to Giannesini, those same questions must be answered again about waters as deep as 12,000 ft. And, he says, thanks to technological leaps made in just the past few years, the answers are once again yes.
And that means that during the next decade the industry can expect to make progress in ultradeep waters with the same astonishing speed as it saw in the 1990s as it made production from the once unheard of water depths of 7,500 ft a reality.
As expected, several technical themes dominated the presentations, including most prevalently, flow assurance, dual gradient drilling and industry cooperation.
Flow assurance was an especially hot topic as the fear of hydrates increases with ultradeep water locations since production must flow further through near-freezing water to host platforms, increasing their opportunity to form. As Giannesini put it, "Flow assurance is cash assurance and hydrates is a nightmare" for the deepwater producer.
Dual gradient drilling, a method for combating the dilemma of drilling in deepwater through formations whose fracture gradient and pore pressure are within fractions of a pound of each other, was the theme of several papers.
Notable for their absence, though were representatives of the three US-based projects working on the technology once known commonly as "riserless drilling" even as their projects were regularly discussed.
Closely aligned to the issue of dual-gradient drilling, indeed a technology that some advocates claim could possibly replace riser-less drilling systems as a solution to the pore pressure-frac gradient problem, is under-balanced drilling.
It was discussed indirectly by a number of presenters and Louisiana State University's Dr. Burgoyne presented a paper done with Weatherford suggesting the use of under-balanced drilling technology in dual-gradient drilling.
One of the trickier requirement of moving into waters where operating expenses increase with depth and an issue raised by nearly every speaker was that of industry cooperation to avoid costly and time-consuming duplication of effort.
And while many JIPs have been formed within the industry (most notable DeepStar, which one delegate suggested should now be named UltradeepStar), speakers were quick to point out a fundamental problem exists with the concept of sharing technical breakthroughs, including the conflicting goals of sharing information while protecting intellectual property.
Despite the challenges presented, having essentially conquered the technical challenges of deepwater production, the mood of the delegates seemed one of confidence when discussing operating in depths beyond the magical 10,000-ft mark.
Indeed, Baker Atlas' Allen Larson may have summed up the general mood of the conference as he talked about the industry's ability to work at extreme depths. "Things we once thought were ridiculous," he said, "now seem quite feasible."
Rick von Flatern, Offshore Engineer
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)