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Norway's field of dreams

Equinor has had to dig deep to get Aasta Hansteen underway, in more ways than one

The Aasta Hansteen gas field has faced a challenging development as the first Norwegian Sea deepwater project -perhaps even comparable to the journey of the trailblazing 19th century Norwegian feminist after which it is named. But its operator believes these are worth overcoming due to the field's potential to open up a major new European exploration area.

Located some 300km west of Sandnessjøen, far from other fields and in an area known for harsh weather conditions, Aasta Hansteen faced a range of logistical obstacles before starting production last December.

Operated by Norway's Equinor and partners including Austria's OMV, Germany's Wintershall and US independent ConocoPhillips, Aasta Hansteen is the deepest field development on the Norwegian Continental Shelf (NCS). It is also the first in Norway to use a "Spar" platform-a floating installation with a vertical cylindrical hull anchored to the seabed. It is the largest in the world at a weight of 70,000t.

Investment costs for development of the field are expected to amount to around NOK 37.5bn ($4.4bn), and initial production is slated at 23mn m³/d. Recoverable resources at Aasta Hansteen, are estimated at 55.6bn m3 of gas and 0.6mn m3 of condensate (353mn bl oe).

"Aasta Hansteen has been a complex and challenging development project, requiring us to take new technological steps together with our partners and suppliers", says an Equinor spokesman. "The field was delayed one year due to construction taking longer than planned."

Processing problems hit the field just four days after production began in mid-December, and these were soon followed by well issues that impacted on between 5.5mn m3/d and 18mn m3/d, Norwegian transmission system operator Gassco said at the time.

Then in April, a gas leak occurred in connection with gas flaring that initiated a general alarm leading to production shutdown, pressure blowdown, and deluge. Norway's offshore safety watchdog, the Petroleum Safety Authority (PSA), has launched an investigation into the leak.

Pioneering project

Even before it reached start-up, the PSA said last March that it had found "several flaws" in management of the completion of Aasta Hansteen by operator Equinor (then Statoil). The agency had conducted an audit to reduce the likelihood of failures and hazardous working environment exposure.

The teething problems suggest more challenges could lie ahead for the remote field, but its stakeholders likely believe these are worth meeting due both to the field's output but also its potential in terms of learning and technology development.

The field will deliver gas to Europe through the Polarled pipeline, which has been laid at a depth of 1,260 metres, making it the deepest pipeline on the Norwegian continental shelf. As the first offshore pipeline to cross the Arctic Circle, Polarled runs for 482 km to the Nyhamna plant in western Norway, where it is processed into dry gas there before being sent on to the UK and continental Europe through Norway's integrated transport system.

"From a resource management point of view, Aasta Hansteen and Polarled together represent a major new processing and gas transportation infrastructure in a new area in the Norwegian sea. This gives opportunities for new resource developments and value creation", says Kalmar Ildstad, a development and operations manager for the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD). "We have already seen increased exploration activity in the surrounding area which we both hope and think will continue. Several discoveries have already been made".

Haaland also stresses that, now that the infrastructure has been installed, it will also be more attractive for operators to explore around the platform and along the pipeline. "This enables us to secure activity for many decades, in line with our ambitions for the NCS," he says.

That growth could prove vital for the NCS amid concerns that Norway's production could face a precipitous decline after 2025. While last year saw a higher exploration well count than 2017 (53 against 36), according to an NPD report in January, this remains below the required activity rate for reserve replacement.

"[Resource growth] is not sufficient to maintain a high level of production after 2025," NPD director, Bente Nyland wrote in a statement accompanying the report, adding that "more profitable resources must be proven, and the clock is ticking".

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