Ultra-deepwater discoveries are playing a crucial role in replacing global oil and gas reserves, and operating companies are constantly confronted with new challenges to ensure these are discovered, appraised, and developed safely and efficiently.

Subsea safety systems are critical in delivering safe, compliant, and efficient operations in all subsea applications. Today’s subsea operations require superior functionality, performance, and reliability because of the deeper waters and higher pressures and temperatures. With this in mind, certain tools have been developed using an integrated design and qualification process, which ensures that equipment meets the highest performance criteria.

Performance under pressure

Fifteen years ago, 1,524 m (5,000 ft) of water was considered deep by the upstream oil industry. However, with new technologies, numerous operators today are successfully drilling in water depths of 1,830 m to 3,050 m (6,000 ft to 10,000 ft) and beyond, with more companies joining in the exploration for hydrocarbons at these increased depths.

The deeper the exploration, the more expensive the project. Therefore, large reservoirs have to be targeted to have the biggest impact on global reserves. If the volumes of hydrocarbons are significant enough, then it is well worth the investment. With the success of oil and gas discoveries in areas such as the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), Brazil, and Africa, the expectations for finding large reservoirs by drilling in deeper water are even higher.

While the rewards can be extraordinary, increased drilling activity in these water depths can be challenging because of the increased safety requirements and a limited offshore workforce with enough experience.

Subsea safety systems and extensive training programs can help to overcome these obstacles.

Recent offshore incidents in the GoM and Brazil spotlighted the need for more stringent safety requirements. For companies that breach regulations, governments are imposing large fines and even preventing drilling operations from occurring.

There is a need for safety systems to help reduce these risks. Organizations such as the API and the ISO are establishing standards for the design and qualification of subsea safety products, providing third-party credibility.

Although there is not a one-size-fits-all industry standard, individual companies set their own requirements and decide what standards safety systems must comply with. Going through ISO or API provides credibility and shows clients that subsea safety equipment is qualified and meets high standards.

Variations of standards and challenges are the result of well conditions and areas of deployment. Rigs in the GoM must deal with hurricanes, which can shut down operations and cause operators to move the rig off location. Volatile weather in the North Sea makes drilling and completion operations particularly hazardous as a result of the rig’s movements, while Brazil and Africa tend to have calmer waters.

What has long been labeled as “the crew change” also has become a serious concern for the industry. The oil bust of the 1980s and subsequent peaks and troughs help explain the demographic shift in the industry. As crude prices plummeted, companies laid off workers and, in many cases, stopped hiring.

These layoffs and hiring freezes have left an age gap in the industry’s work force. Oilfield workers are now retiring in large numbers, leaving their tasks to a younger generation with less experience. Operators should therefore look for a subsea safety company that has highly trained multidisciplinary staff allocated to project delivery and execution as required.

Reliable subsea solutions

A subsea safety system’s main objective is to allow hydrocarbons to flow in a safe manner. This enables oil companies to obtain valuable information for field development and complete or intervene in wells prior to production. In emergency situations a subsea safety system needs to quickly and safely stop the flow of hydrocarbons and disconnect at the seabed, allowing the rig to move to a safe location.

Every project’s needs are different. Operators are not only looking for systems that respond quickly and safely to emergency situations but also systems that require equipment with commercial benefits such as rig time savings or improved production. Smaller service companies tend to have more room for flexibility, providing operators with the advantage of custom-tailoring their tools based on their own needs. With the continuous development of downhole completions and subsea infrastructures to accommodate deepwater production, developing a range of subsea safety tools for well operations is important to cater to evolving market needs.

These tools provide well control functions and disconnect capabilities during well installation, workover, intervention, and well test operations. The landing string assembly is a critical component in the protection and safety of personnel, the well, and the rig, and it provides the capability for safe, low-cost well reentry for future well intervention and workover.

Highly trained personnel are a necessity for operating safely in these challenging conditions. In-depth awareness of a client’s requirements and needs means that subsea staff can provide the most effective technical solutions to ensure that deepwater well installation, workover, and intervention operations are met in a cost-effective and timely manner. Operational feedback is a critical aspect in continually improving the industry’s understanding of system integrity and reliability and helps eliminate failures that could lead to unnecessary downtime. With operational costs in deep water at approximately US $1 million per day, avoiding downtime is important to minimize costs for operators. Therefore, system monitoring and tracking of the equipment during the operation itself are becoming the standards, enabling us to better understand the system’s exposure while preventing failures from occurring during the operation.

Subsea safety companies place great emphasis on safety performance. They want to deliver high standards in the industry and are looking for ways to develop tools that can continuously improve the safety of the operations and enhance the commercial viability of subsea developments.

The future of the subsea market

Subsea is a long-term, high-growth market with demand set to increase in developing and mature locations. There will be a continued focus on identifying safe drilling locations in deep water and an increase in importance in subsea safety systems and equipment used.

But in shallower waters, subsea activity also remains high. For several years it has been predicted that North Sea activity would go into decline. However, the shift from major oil companies to smaller independent operators has kept activity high, as these companies are active in developing and investing in smaller fields.

Deepwater areas in the GoM, South and West Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, and frontier areas within Europe and East Africa continue to be focal points for both the short and long term.

Subsea safety companies continue to invest in product lines around the world to meet customer demands. The global prospects indicate a very positive outlook for the subsea market, with increasing opportunity and investment potential for the future.