For many years, the subsea was considered the frontier for the oil and gas industry. Today, it is a mature yet still growing sector of our industry. Subsea systems have migrated from single-well tiebacks in moderate water depths to complex clusters of production and injection wells and associated infrastructure in deep water.
The industry has also developed the capability to process fluids on the seafloor with separation and boosting systems deployed and operating in several locations worldwide. A few companies are also developing subsea compression for long, offset gas fields.
Complexity is now a day-to-day parameter in the world of the subsea engineer. We are not developing these systems for fun; huge value is associated with maximizing recovery from these deep, remote oil and gas reservoirs.
What are the key challenges in the subsea? Designing, deploying, and operating ultrareliable, robust facilities; without them, we are lost. Subsea intervention is expensive, difficult, and not to be undertaken without comprehensive planning. These challenges have led us to dream of the ultimate subsea system. From my perspective, it can be summed up in one deceptively simple description: fully autonomous, self-diagnosing, self-healing facilities. Dwell on this for a second. This would not be easy onshore or on an offshore facility, but underwater?
One path to this ultimate system is an architecture that is compact and modular—a plug-and-play architecture with common interfaces that can be configured over the full life cycle of the field. Ideally, we would select a design or architecture from a catalogue of standardized component technologies that could be fit together to meet our needs. Each component’s performance would be understood, enabling fit-for-purpose designs to be deployed when required. All of this would be underpinned by diagnostics and control systems targeted at delivering the reliability and integrity required.
It is a great vision, but, today, we have a number of barriers standing in our way, not the least of which is standardization itself. There are existing standards governing subsea engineering, such as API and ISO, but we need a breakthrough on standardization of all things subsea, including material specifications, inspection procedures, tree design, and equipment interfaces.
All the drivers of standardization of subsea hardware and processes are in place: people resource constraints, higher capital costs, enhanced reliability requirements, increasing project complexity, deeper water, and longer offsets. All should drive market standardization, but the initiatives undertaken by operators and suppliers so far have failed to deliver globally standardized systems, equipment, interfaces, or tooling.
The value proposition for standardization is clear for suppliers and operators alike. Standard products cost less, use stock materials, require no additional engineering, and use repeatable manufacturing processes that improve efficiency and quality. Safety and integrity along with installation and intervention procedures also will continuously improve by use of standardized tools and training.
What are the next steps? A Society of Petroleum Engineers workshop committee is working to develop a program that will build on a 2008 initiative toward standardization. We plan to look outside our industry—to the aviation and automotive industries, for example—for lessons learned in the development of standardization. The committee’s overall goal is to improve the environmental, safety, operational integrity, and efficiency aspects of subsea production systems through the application of the appropriate amount of standardization.
Of course, I also seek progress toward my vision of the ultimate subsea system; and, with some luck and hard work, this workshop will be a key stepping stone to delivering this capability.
Paul S. Jones is the subsea manager at Chevron and a past SPE technical director for Projects, Facilities, and Construction.
He is a member of the Editorial Board of Oil and Gas Facilities.