The most notable thing about Snøhvit's offshore installation, now under construction 140 km north of the rocky European mainland, is its invisibility. The fishing crews, Arctic geese and walruses that pass by won't notice a thing, because Statoil designed Snøhvit with no fixed platform and no production ship - nothing at all, in fact, to mar the eternal Arctic seascape.
The plan calls for a 21-well production system (supplied by ABB) to hum away on the sea floor for more than a quarter of a century, capturing 5.67 billion cubic metres of natural gas and condensate each year while emitting almost no harmful materials into the water. The piped wellstream will flow along the seabed for 160 km to a gas liquefaction plant on the previously uninhabited island of Melkøya, from which Statoil personnel will control operations. When production starts in 2006, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) carriers will call at the island regularly to pick up liquefied Snøhvit gas for the European and North American markets.
With development costs estimated at US $6.7 billion (NOK 46 billion), Snøhvit is the largest industrial project in the history of northern Norway, if not all of the Arctic. It is also the first true offshore development in the circumpolar region.
"I consider Snøhvit a milestone project," says Finn Roar Aamodt, Director General of the Norwegian Oil Industry Association. "Not only is the gas field very big - among the 10 biggest in all of Norway - but the development solution is environmentally-friendly. Snøhvit could also be the cornerstone for further development. The Arctic regions hold more than 25 % of the world's remaining petroleum resources, and Snøhvit is an important first link in developing them."
After having suspended exploration in the Barents Sea for nearly three years to assess the environmental and social consequences of Arctic development, the Norwegian government reopened much of the sea for drilling in December 2003. Petroleum and Energy Minister Einar Steensnæs said new discoveries in the Snøhvit region would be particularly welcome, since they could be developed as satellites.
Located at 71 degrees N latitude, the Snøhvit area already encompasses gas discoveries named Albatross and Askeladd. The water depth ranges from 250 m to 345 m, and the nearest town is Hammerfest. Several large gas and oil finds have been made in the eastern half of the Barents Sea, controlled by Russia.
Mother Nature Need Never Know
In keeping with its location in a fragile ecosystem that is rich with marine life, Statoil has given Snøhvit an unprecedented environmental profile. Not only will liquid emissions be next to nil, but every year 700,000 tonnes of CO2 from the wellstream will be removed at the land plant and piped back to the field for storage below geological cap structures. That will nearly halve Snøhvit's generation of greenhouse gases and rank the effort as the second-largest CO2 sequestration project in the world, after Statoil's Sleipner field in the North Sea. Statoil has also taken pains to cooperate with the fishing industry at Snøhvit. One result is that all structures on the seabed can be overtrawled harmlessly.
The 160-km step-out from Melkøya is some 60 km longer than the current record-holding tie-back, which connects Shell's Mensa development in the Gulf of Mexico to a host platform. Snøhvit's 27-inch-diameter pipeline, with associated fibre-optic cables and high-voltage power lines, has captured global attention for its audacity. But Statoil has long been a leader in developing the multiphase booster technology that makes long-distance transportation of unprocessed hydrocarbons and water both feasible and economical.
"Multiphase technology is a valuable expertise that we can take with us as we internationalize," says Ingve R. Theodorsen, director of Statoil's research centre. "The technology can be put to use elsewhere in the far north. I can easily imagine a subsea development with multiphase transport in the Stokmanovskaya gas field on the Russian side of the Barents Sea."
The world is often said to be getting smaller, and that is why Snøhvit's time has finally come. The field was discovered in the early 1980s, but at that time there was no way to get the gas to market economically. The intervening years have seen the evolution of liquefaction plant technology that can reduce gas volume 600-fold and of LNG tankers with vast spherical tanks that can ply the world's oceans in safety.
Statoil won the confidence of northern Norwegians early on. They see a huge boost to the local economy and no threat to the fishing that has sustained them for uncounted centuries. "We have been waiting for this, working for this, dreaming about this for 18 years," Hammerfest Mayor Alf Jakobsen told the Reuters news agency. "Now it's finally going to happen."
Nearly half of Snøhvit's output is contracted to buyers in the United States, while Spain and France account for most of the rest of the production. Statoil's commercial partners in the project are Petoro, Total Norge, Gaz de France Norge, Norsk Hydro Production, Amerada Hess Norge, RWE-DEA Norge and Svenska Petroleum Exploration.
That makes seven partners altogether. Hi-ho!