The nations of the Persian Gulf may have enough oil and gas to meet global demand for hundreds of years. But the story of our time has been the rise of diverse offshore petroleum sources, from the North Sea in the 1970s to the waters of West Africa, South America and Australia in more recent years. There are more players in the game than ever before.
Today, oil executives in Houston, London and Paris as well as Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta and Lagos can all spin the globe knowing that vast portions of the watery world are within reach of their exploration and development departments. The reason for their expanding horizon is new technology - a surprising amount of which is Norwegian.
Three decades after that initial offshore boom, Norway's own oil and gas are flowing at a record clip. The country ranks third in export volume, after Saudi Arabia and Russia. But Norway's emphasis has begun to switch from the export of petroleum to the export of world-class technology and engineering services. The firms profiled in this magazine already help oil producers worldwide conquer the deep waters, complex geology and stormy economics that have characterized the industry of late.
Their technological innovations - topside, subsea and downhole - have already made the world a smaller, more manageable place. And their new ideas keep coming.
Norway, you see, considers its continental shelf to be a big, cold, watery laboratory. The first experiments had mostly to do with size. Soon after Phillips Petroleum discovered oil in the Ekofisk Field, in 1969, it towed out a concrete tank that could store up to a million barrels of oil between offloading operations. It was the largest maritime project ever mounted. Then Phillips put in the longest subsea pipelines in the world. But both feats were quickly overshadowed.
With its conventional steel-leg platforms, Ekofisk lost the limelight in the mid-1970s to jazzy developments in the Statfjord and Gullfaks fields. There, oil platforms were being perched atop vast, concrete gravity-base structures whose design and construction constituted one of the most remarkable chapters in industrial history. The new era of thinking big - which reflected the elephantine size of the discoveries below - reached its peak when Shell towed the Troll A platform to its place of business off Bergen. A reinforced-concrete behemoth rising 472 m from the seabed, Troll A (now operated by Statoil) is still going strong and will provide much of the gas that Europe requires in the next century.
Norwegian companies shared their hard-won know-how in gravity-base structures by helping to plan, build and operate Petro-Canada's Hibernia platform in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. The Canadians called in the Norwegians because Hibernia had to be bulky enough to withstand the impact of a six-million-tonne iceberg. When they followed up with a leaner development scheme in the nearby Terra Nova field, Norwegian contractors were ready with the critical subsea equipment. By then, they were already thinking small.
FPSOs (floating production, storage and offloading vessels) and their associated subsea technologies came naturally to the Norwegians. It was Golar-Nor Offshore that had touched off the "maritimization" of offshore operations with its Petrojarl 1 production ship. As with the gravity-base concept, the versatile FPSOs grew to their logical extreme in Norwegian waters, where the economic effect of each new technological element was maximized in a systematic way. Some of the lessons were costly, but the international oil companies and Norwegian technology suppliers that took part all gained priceless new skills that would prove marketable the world over.
By now Norway's oil technology laboratory was operating with brio, but giant new discoveries, it seemed, were fewer and farther between than before. Attention thus turned to making the most of highly dispersed small- to medium-sized reservoirs in deep and ultradeep waters, and to maximizing the productive life of the great fields already being exploited. The recovery rate in the ageing Statfjord field is expected to near 70 per cent as a result of such efforts. Another challenge is to turn highly fractured geographic structures with thin or spotty reservoirs into worthwhile property. The global petroleum industry is clamouring for precisely the talents that Norwegian technology companies are perfecting: 4-D seismic services, virtual-reality reservoir simulation and downhole sensor technologies as well as wellstream separation-and-reinjection systems designed to rest on the seabed or even inside the well. Increasingly, Norwegian companies are teaming up with internationally-minded specialists whose skills and products are complementary.
The fruits of their labours can be seen wherever nations are exploiting offshore resources. Angola, Nigeria, China, Australia, Canada, the United States and Brazil are just a few places that have benefited from North Sea lab work.In the Gulf of Mexico alone, some 218 fields have been discovered in water depths between 800 m and 1,600 m. Forty-five of them are deemed "significant", meaning they contain reserves in excess of 100 million barrels of oil equivalent (boe). Many more prospects have been identified in even deeper waters of the Gulf. Throughout the region, Norwegian technology is well established.
Despite their international outlook, Norwegian equipment and service companies still have plenty to think about at home, where an estimated 76 percent of reserves remain in the seabed. All eyes are on the push into the Barents Sea, where conditions are extreme and the distance to market unprecedented. First off the drawing board will be Statoil's Snow White gas field. Norway's hard-won expertise in subsea production and long-distance flow technology allowed Statoil to design a subsea-to-shore installation that will be invisible from the surface. That will make it an aesthetic wonder, to be sure, but Snow White is also intended as an operational and economic boon whose engineering ripple effect will be felt oceans away.
Norwegian technology companies are the products of three decades of experimentation and profitable enterprise in the most demanding offshore laboratory in the world. Oil is what they have been hunting all those years. But their portfolio of ideas, equipment and services is a resource in itself for the increasingly diverse global offshore community.