Finding New Offshore Support Vessels for the Arctic

By Trent Jacobs 28 Feb 2014

Today, only a handful of exploration and drilling operations are underway in the Arctic Ocean. But over the coming decade, offshore activity in this new frontier is expected to heat up, and when it does, the industry will need a new fleet of ice-class vessels to successfully develop subsea fields that are covered in ice most of the year. Alexander Brovkin, facilities and logistics manager at the Chevron Arctic Center, presented a paper at the recent Arctic Technology Conference in Houston, Texas, that outlined the inevitable scarcity of marine support vessels designed for Arctic operations. “Taking a look at the Arctic Circle, you have activities happening all around the whole perimeter of the circle, and all those activities will require a significant marine support effort,” he said.

But when Chevron developed a list of icebreakers available to assist drilling and exploration activities during the summer months, the operational season for the frigid Arctic, it could identify only 10. Of those, the majority were built more than a decade ago when offshore regulations, especially for the Arctic area, were less stringent. “We obviously do not have enough icebreakers to support industry activities into the next 10 years,” Brovkin concluded.

To meet growing demand, the industry will have to build new vessels that are designed to carry out multiple tasks, in addition to ice management. Companies will also have to justify the high cost of building something that can only work in the Arctic for 120 days out of the year. Brovkin said that operators will want larger icebreakers with more comfortable accommodations, higher fuel efficiency, and lower emissions compared to the short list of those available. Chevron’s concept for an offshore support icebreaker could cost up to USD 250 million to build, which Brovkin said would induce the vessel’s owners to require a company to agree to charter them for as long as 10 years. “If you have this vessel for a number of years,” he said, “then you have to think, how I am going to use this vessel in the off-season?”

Using an ice-class vessel year round may be easier said than done. There have been successful examples of icebreakers used in the Baltic Sea during the winter to escort merchant vessels and then used in the Arctic during the summer months to support oil and gas exploration. However this scenario might not play out for new build Arctic vessels as the demand for their use in the offseason lags behind supply. The seasonal use of a vessel that might cost a quarter-billion USD is among the chief barriers keeping operators from cutting steel for a new fleet and must be addressed to justify the capital expense of a new build program. As Brovkin pointed out in his paper, identifying work opportunities outside of the Arctic exploration season for a new generation of ice-class support vessels will be a key requirement to justify and advance a new build program.

Trent Jacobs is a Technology Writer for the Journal of Petroleum Technology.