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Platform-less deep-water development could become reality

Innovation is in Petrobras’s DNA, so dreams of a platform-less offshore environment may become reality within a decade

Petrobras is on the cusp of transformation. By 2020, Brazil's state-controlled oil company - once a mid-table producer - will lay solid claim to a place near the top of oil's premier league, pumping a projected 6.42 million barrels of oil equivalent (boe) a day.

This remarkable change in fortune is not just the result of the discovery of enormous reserves trapped within the country's offshore pre-salt play - present estimates are in the region of 50 billion barrels of oil, 15 billion barrels of which is believed recoverable.

Nor is the transformation attributable to divine intervention, although few in Brazil argue with former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's 2007 claim that the Tupi discovery (now known as Lula) proved God is Brazilian.

A crucial driver - arguably the key factor - of Petrobras's success is its long-standing commitment to technological innovation and the company's willingness to invest heavily in new technologies. Carlos Tadeu da Costa Fraga, the director-general of Cenpes, Petrobras's research and development (R&D) arm, firmly believes that innovation is part of the company's DNA.

This commitment may not be genetic, but it's a long-term strategy - although not a new one, Petrobras established Cenpes in 1963. By the mid-1980s, Cenpes's work was at the forefront of Petrobras's push to become one of the world's leading deep-water operators. "We decided that we needed to be able to operate in 1,000 metres of water. We succeeded," Fraga says. "Then we moved to 2,000 metres. We succeeded. We have succeeded at 3,000 metres, too.

"But now, we are changing the concept. Instead of targeting specific water depths, we are targeting breakthroughs, technologies that may be applied five to 10 years from now. We are working towards changing the standard for deep-water production."

Such innovation - which covers every aspect of the exploration and production (E&P) cycle - does not come cheaply. The sums Petrobras is channelling into R&D are substantial. Fraga says: "On average, between 2008 and 2010, we spent $900 million a year. This year, we are on course to spend around $1 billion. After this, we are looking at $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion a year."

In part, the sums reflect the massive challenges pre-salt E&P presents and the vast array of new tools, techniques and equipment needed to tap the play. The main pre-salt fairway lies about 200 km offshore, in water depths ranging between 2,200 metres and 3,000 metres. The pre-salt's microbial carbonate reservoirs are reasonably pressured, removing one potential set of problems, but they lie about 6,000 metres below a 2,000 metre-deep salt cap.

The salt layer was one of the first huge obstacles to overcome. While it is low density, the salt cap's highly complex structure distorts seismic waves, making accurate imaging and interpretation difficult. It turned out that the answer was not in developing new, complex technology, but in getting the numbers right. The key to penetrating the salt cap lay in pure mathematics. With the right algorithms, Cenpes's researchers were able to remove distortions from the data and peer through the salt layer, opening up a new oil province.

A continuing process

This alone is a significant achievement - and one that will help open pre-salt plays in other parts of the world - but Fraga is modest about the breakthrough: "It's part of a continuing process. We have been working on seismic algorithms since [opening] the Campos basin, but having the very thick layer of salt did introduce another layer of complexity to our work. But it is continuous, this work. It is just part of our day-to-day routine."

Opening up the pre-salt and developing its enormous potential offers a unique chance to break new technological ground and change industry practices. But Cenpes is not working alone. It has sealed more than 100 co-operation agreements with Brazilian universities and research institutes, and set up agreements with almost every large, international offshore supplier to develop, test, commercialise and refine the raft of new technologies needed to maximise the potential of the pre-salt's resources.

At the opening of Cenpes's expanded research campus at Rio de Janeiro earlier this year, Fraga said: "For every one of our researchers, there are another 10 working [to solve technical problems] at the institutions [across Brazil]." Schlumberger, Halliburton, FMC Technologies, Baker Hughes, Siemens and GE are among the players that have set up their own R&D units in co-operation with Cenpes at its campus. The work covers a broad spectrum of disciplines and is likely to ensure Brazil's technology base is one of the best in the world.

Fraga is clearly excited by the opportunities such broad-based collaboration presents. "Co-operation is vital to innovation," he says. "In the world we live in, with push-button access throughout societies, you must co-operate. And it is important to remember, too, that the sources of bright ideas are not just inside your organisation, they are outside."

He adds: "It is a win-win situation. We want to bring innovation to Brazil. We have many possibilities and no significant obstacles. We have a nice economy, and a good set of universities and academic institutions. Operators are investing a lot of money here and we have the pre-salt resource. So why not? Why not move to make Brazil one of the most important hubs of innovation in the world?"

"Why not?" could well be Fraga's mantra. His sights are now set on a goal that could very well revolutionise offshore production. "We have a vision that in the near future - maybe one decade from now - we may operate in a platform-less environment," he says. "We want to move to the sea floor."

Petrobras is already taking steps towards this - as part of a project with subsea specialist FMC Technologies, it will soon install the world' first subsea oil-water separator at the Marlim field, in the Campos basin. Marlim has been in production since 1991.

The subsea separation, pumping and water re-injection system, developed by Petrobras and FMC, will be installed at a water depth of 900 metres. It will receive the production stream - a mixture of oil, gas, water and sand - and will first separate the gas from the liquids. Then, the heavy oil will be separated from the water. The separated gas will be added back to the oil stream to aid its lifting to a floating production unit, while the separated water will be pumped back into the reservoir to further enhance production. "It will be a very important milestone and it is a good example of the road ahead," Fraga says.

The Marlim subsea unit is part of Cenpes's broader strategy of adapting traditional topsides equipment for subsea use. Ultimately, Fraga and his colleagues hope to develop a full suite of equipment and technologies that will allow a wholly subsea full-field development.

And Fraga sees no reason to doubt that such a project would need to be restricted to shallower water either. "Installation is possible right now at 3,000 metres, so we have been talking about [projects in those depths]. We need to develop a proper device for installation in deep water. It has to be compact, reliable and cost-effective. The equipment needs to be able to operate for two decades without significant intervention."

Reliability is key

Fraga admits that, for the concept to be viable, ensuring reliability is the main obstacle to be overcome. With topsides installation, inspection and maintenance work is a simple matter. Subsea installations - especially at depths that preclude human intervention - require a far higher level of reliability and robustness. "Reliability is key," Fraga says. "It does not make sense to have a device on the sea floor requiring constant maintenance or inspection."

While he is aware of the difficulties his team and its partners face, Fraga is confident they can meet the challenge. "We researchers," he says, "we are here to come up with good ideas and to change completely the way things are done. We are not paid to ask why. We are paid to ask: 'Why not?'"

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