So far the only offshore province in the world without FPSOs, the Gulf of Mexico may soon become an interesting area for Norwegian offshore suppliers. All hinges on American authorities approving FPSOs - floating production, storage and offloading vessels - for deployment in the Gulf of Mexico. Given Norway's long maritime tradition, it was natural that Norwegian businesses helped "maritimize" the offshore industry in the mid-1980s.
The Petrojarl I, designed by Aker Maritime, is the granddaddy of all 70 FPSOs now in service or under construction worldwide. Launched by Golar-Nor Offshore and today owned by PGS, Petrojarl I has sailed from oil field to oil field - 10 so far -extracting fluid, much like a thirsty mosquito. PGS expects to get another 15 years of service from it. Six newer FPSOs are currently in operation off Norway while others owned by Norwegian companies are in service off West Africa, in the South China Sea, in British waters and elsewhere. This is the kind of equipment that can reach areas of the Gulf of Mexico so far beyond the reach of pipelines and other existing infrastructure, and thus squeeze a profit out of remote or otherwise marginal real estate in the Gulf
As development of the Gulf has proceeded into deeper waters, the oil companies have embraced tension-leg platforms and spars for much of the work. But nearly 40 Gulf prospects have been identified in water more than 1,500 metres deep, where FPSOs might be more practical. Assuming that the US Minerals Management Service (MMS) approves the use of FPSOs - a decision expected in late 2001 - many such fields will end up in the marketing sights of Norwegian floating-technology experts. They include Aker, ABB and Kvaerner as well as Navion, the production contractor and offshore-loading specialist. "We have invested quite a lot in designing FPSOs that would be suited for the Gulf of Mexico, so when that market opens up we will be prepared," says Jon Erik Reinhardsen, executive vice president of Aker Maritime.
James R. McCaul, president of International Maritime Associates, says 25 per cent or more of the Gulf's deepwater prospects are likely to be exploited by FPSOs or FPSOs in combination with dry tree units. As candidate fields, he cites Shell's Baha field at 2,375 metres, Kerr-McGee's Ponza field at 1,625 metres and Unocal's Ponza field at 2,055 metres. FPSO design has come a long way since Petrojarl I. Norwegian technology companies now offer purpose-built FPSO configurations for large fields and small-vessel concepts that can be easily adapted to a range of assignments. Chris Oynes, regional director of the MMS, says a detailed environmental impact report has concluded that FPSOs entail no more risk of oil spills than other production systems. He also says that if the MMS allows FPSOs it will probably be on the condition that they are double-hulled.