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Lessons From the North

Today’s Arctic exploration efforts are possible in part because of the hard work of geoscientists in the past – stories that will be shared at the upcoming Arctic Technology Conference. Photos courtesy of Chevron Arctic Center
Today’s Arctic exploration efforts are possible in part because of the hard work of geoscientists in the past – stories that will be shared at the upcoming Arctic Technology Conference. Photos courtesy of Chevron Arctic Center

Been there, done that? Not many have in the Arctic.

Pioneers in Arctic exploration and development will discuss their experiences during the Arctic Trailblazers panel discussion at the upcoming Arctic Technology Conference, Feb. 11-14 in Houston.

Gus Cammaert
Gus Cammaert

“Our panel will be concentrating on learnings from Arctic pioneers, so you should expect some unique and personal perspectives on what a handful of seasoned Arctic veterans have to say on some key issues,” said Gus Cammaert, who will serve as moderator for the panel session.

Cammaert is associate professor of Arctic engineering at Delft University in the Netherlands.

“The emphasis will be on lessons learned rather than specific technical issues, and how we can best move forward with this information,” he noted.

Panelists scheduled to participate are:

  • Richard Glenn, executive vice president-Lands and Natural Resources, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, Barrow, Alaska.
  • David Dickins, ice/oil spill expert, Chevron Arctic Center, Calgary, Canada.
  • Brian Wright, senior ice/concepts adviser, Chevron Arctic Center.
  • Kevin Hewitt, geotechnical/ice, Chevron Arctic Center.
  • R.J. Brown, director, R.J. Brown Deepwater, Houston.
Technological advances have helped make the Arctic more accessible today than it was for the “pioneers” – but it still presents enormous challenges for today’s explorationists.
Technological advances have helped make the Arctic more accessible today than it was for the “pioneers” – but it still presents enormous challenges for today’s explorationists.
Way Up North

Brown had formed his company, R.J. Brown & Associates, when he got a contract from Panarctic Oils to design and install a gas pipeline from the Drake Field on Melville Island in the Canadian Arctic.

Panarctic was a Canadian government-sponsored exploration company created for Arctic drilling. It conducted an exploratory program and discovered the Drake Point gas field in 1969-70.

By 1976 it had drilled a number of good wells in the area and estimated marketable gas at as much as six trillion cubic feet (Tcf). The company put total gas reserves in Canada’s Arctic Islands at 17 Tcf and oil in place at 1.6 billion barrels.

But no one had any idea if production could ever leave the area – if a pipeline was economically feasible or even possible.

Brown and John Bomba, senior principal engineer for R.J. Brown Deepwater, discussed the pipeline project, which took place in 1976-77.

(Bomba will serve as co-chair for the “Pipelines and Export” technical session at this year’s ATC.)

The Drake Point project “was a totally interesting job,” Brown recalled.

“We were way up there – we were five degrees north of the Arctic Circle, about 300 nautical miles,” he said.

To begin the project, Brown created a full-model simulation of the staging area and worked out how to install the pipeline. Although natural gas eventually was pipelined, this was as much of a demonstration project as an operational one.

“This was a test pipeline to prove that a well could be drilled and produced,” Bomba said.

“That was actually the first installation under the ice,” Brown recalled. “Everything had to be airlifted from Point Rea to Point Drake.

“It was an area that was never totally clear,” he added. “There was always ice cover.”

A Lot of Hot Air

In their description, Brown and Bomba made ice sound like concrete. Water was poured or injected to make a base for drilling rigs, to create a working surface, to establish support. Work was conducted in fall and winter months.

To create a landing strip for planes and airlifts, “they had to make a combination on-the-island, on-the-ice runway,” Brown said.

“Now they’re using these ice roads. Maybe they’ve figured out how to get up there with trucks,” Bomba added.

A special tractor vehicle was used to get and move flown-in materials and equipment. Leaving a tractor out too long could result in worse problems than freezing.

“If you left it there too long, it would start to sink. The ice would start to deform,” Brown explained.

Flowlines were made up and bundled in a tent onshore then pulled to the Drake 76 well site on an ice island. From there connections were made in what Brown described as a remote, driverless, “deflect to connect” process.

Installation took place in the winter, when air temperatures could reach -50 degrees Celsius.

The pipeline bundle consisted of two six-inch insulated and heat-treated lines, additional control and hydrate suppressant lines and an annulus access, all in an 18-inch casing. That casing was put into a 24-inch casing with a three-inch methanol line for growing a protective permafrost bulb.

A trench was opened in the ice for the pipeline installation. Naturally, it would freeze over.

“We would have to cover the ditch with plywood,” Brown said, “and blow hot air in under that to keep the channel open.”

Unique Expertise

The pipeline project included many industry firsts and established practices and approaches that are still used today, according to Brown. However, every project in the Arctic will present its own unique challenges, he noted.

“All of it is very site specific. This was a spot, luckily, that had shelter. It didn’t have icebergs coming through,” he said.

Cammaert agreed that conditions and challenges will vary for Arctic resource development, depending on where and when the work takes place.

“The considerations of remoteness, terrain, lack of infrastructure, et cetera, are unique to each Arctic project,” he acknowledged.

“Through reference to specific projects by slides and films, there should be some interesting discussions on these topics” during the Arctic Trailblazers panel session, he said.

The number of specialists needed for Arctic exploration indicates how different it will be from oil and gas work in other frontier areas.

Cammaert said the discussion will feature “a fascinating mix of expertise on our panel,” including:

  • Native traditional Arctic experience.
  • Escape, evacuation and rescue operations.
  • Floating structures in ice.
  • Technology for artificial islands.
  • Execution of Arctic pipeline projects.

“Each expert will no doubt give his view on the skills that have been needed in the past,” Cammaert said, with a look toward future requirements. In addition, questions from audience members and audience interaction will be encouraged.

“I hope the panel session will be provocative, and provide some new perspectives on issues such as new risks that should be anticipated, what new solutions should be applied to past problems, and how the environment and remoteness should impact the design of future projects,” Cammaert said.

“One especially interesting topic that we hope to bring up,” he added, “is how can we best cultivate the next generation of Arctic pioneers.”

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Emphasis: Arctic Exploration