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Satellite Technology to Support Decommissioning Projects

Handling offshore assets during the decommissioning of an asset’s lifecycle can be expensive and challenging. Michael Hall, Senior Geologist at Airbus Defence and Space explains how satellite monitoring services can help.

The golden age of offshore exploration, which began in the 1970s, is finally reaching a stage where ageing infrastructure must be mothballed. According to consultancy Douglas Westwood’s latest market forecast, $105 billion will be spent on final stages and decommissioning assets in Western Europe in the next quarter century; the vast majority of which will be spent on offshore surface platforms and subsea infrastructure and wells.

Pléiades Satellite Image - Oil Rig explosion "Permanent Abkatun", Gulf of Mexico © CNES 2015 / Distribution Airbus DS

This comes as no surprise to operators. Offshore assets, which are typically located in remote locations, can be particularly challenging, as they don’t allow project managers and other related personnel to oversee facilities and their potential environmental impact on a regular basis. Additionally, even after decommissioning, an asset has associated environmental and security risks that make long-term, continual monitoring a necessity for conscientious operators.

Fortunately, advanced satellite monitoring and surveying technologies can cost-effectively address some of the challenges faced during the twilight days of an asset’s lifespan.

Over the last decade, satellite providers have tailored their services to give O&G operators access to a range of high-resolution and wide-swath satellite sensors. One provider, Airbus Defence and Space, not only gives access to its satellites, but also offers value-added services and intelligence solutions, supporting each stage of the oil and gas project lifecycle.

Recent innovations have also given O&G operators the user-friendly tools that allow decision makers to quickly access timely and valuable intelligence. This allows them to face challenges and manage offshore projects that are located both at surface-level and, indirectly, subsea.

There are two key satellite types with different capabilities. Optical sensors, such as the Pléiades and SPOT satellite constellations, which take high-resolution images in great detail (down to 50cm resolution product) or cover a wide area of up to 60km. The second type is a highly-sensitive radar sensor, such as the TerraSAR-X satellite constellation, that can gather data day or night, and in any weather condition. Radar satellite technology is one of the key tools to monitor environmental implications. For example, if a subsea pipeline is damaged during decommissioning activities, radar images can detect oil leaks, in spite of the level of cloud or light conditions, by identifying the dampening effect an oil slick has on surface waves. The images can then be used to help identify the approximate location of the leak’s source point, providing crucial information for the general monitoring or emergency response planning.

TerraSAR-X Satellite Data - Oil Spills Detection in the Strait of Kerch, Ukraine © DLR e.V. 2007, Distribution Airbus DS Geo GmbH

How satellite images help

Energy infrastructure is built to last for a project’s lifetime. However, offshore infrastructure operates in extremely challenging conditions which cause corrosion and can lead to structural instabilities. This is why ageing assets require constant monitoring and maintenance to minimise the risks faced by the operator’s team and the surrounding environment.

Extending the working-life of assets in order to optimise their productivity can further elevate risk. A recently-published Lloyd’s Register whitepaper stated that up to 70% of the world’s energy production (including nuclear, chemical and petrochemical industries), rely on matured assets.

Extending the working-life of an asset can have many benefits, however. In the UKCS, most fields are in the mature stage, even though, on average, less than half the recoverable oil has been produced. Various projects are underway to access more of the remaining crude through enhanced oil recovery (EOR), which includes injecting water, polymers and gases like CO2.

Irrespective, the extended use of matured assets (coupled with tighter margins and operators’ mixed portfolios of assets which are normally at very different lifecycle stages), underscores the industry’s need to identify the most economical and flexible inspection methods.

The increased resolution and commercial availability of satellite imaging can assist in meeting this demand, enabling the cost-effective monitoring of offshore assets on a regular basis. Satellite-based monitoring has the advantage that decision makers can comfortably task image acquisitions directly from their desktop, retrieving information without having to send experts or related team members to the site. This allows managers and engineers to oversee a number of rigs simultaneously, providing valuable information about a rig’s general condition, the location of vessels in proximity and also enables the efficient planning of more detailed inspections.

The Pléiades satellite constellation’s 50cm resolution products offer the ideal imaging technology to monitor assets and the surrounding area or assist the planning of inspection activities. Striving to make satellite tasking easier and quicker, Airbus Defence and Space’s new ‘One Tasking’ service has been developed, which allows tasking of the high-resolution Pléiades or wide-swath SPOT constellations within minutes. Airbus also supplies an unprecedented guarantee to deliver only the most useful results, which further reduces organisational risks when tasking satellites.

Eventually, an offshore site’s production ceases and it enters the decommissioning stage. Satellite technologies provide cost-effective support to oversee the decommissioning process and monitor environmental implications.

TerraSAR-X Acquisition - Gulf of Mexico, United States © DLR e.V. 2010, Distribution Airbus DS Geo GmbH

According to Decom North Sea (a not-for-profit organisation working to minimise decommissioning costs), there are more than 600 offshore oil and gas operations of varying size and a network of more than 10,000km of pipelines in the North Sea. Many of these structures have been producing oil and gas for over 40 years. The number of installations, which will have to be taken out of service (and which will require effective environmental monitoring technologies and effective project management throughout their decommissioning stages), is growing at a significant rate. Satellite imaging allows the cost-effective, regular monitoring of these operations, without needing to leave the office.

Based on numerous factors, including the structure’s age, water depth, platform type, weight, weather and the applicable laws, it can take several years to decommission an offshore facility. As each country and region have their own legal and taxation regulations for the decommissioning process, coordinating a global network of resources and sites can be challenging; having the right, cost-effective tools can make a difference.

Once it has been decided if the infrastructure is to be partially or wholly removed, satellite imaging can be used to monitor the following decommissioning activities.

One Tasking’s sub-product, OnePlan, can be scheduled to take up-to-date images of each decommissioning milestone, providing practical detail to decision makers on the project’s progress.

OnePlan also gives the operator guaranteed and qualified coverage within an agreed timeframe. The service can be tasked online, allowing the selection of timeframe, dates and preferred sensors. The Airbus team ensures the client receives the right qualified coverage, which perfectly matches project milestones.

Regardless of the One Tasking service selected, the 24/7 access to the sensors, and the provider’s guarantee to deliver useful results, make satellite tasking risk-free and highly effective (which is a significant advancement to the industry’s previous ‘best effort’ approach). In addition, some satellite imaging providers have now started to provide 24/7 phone hotlines and email-addresses, to ensure operators get exactly what they need when they need it. Airbus Defence and Space has developed the 24/7 Emergency Service for the oil and gas sector, which gives decision makers access to a team of satellite tasking and interpretation specialists, who facilitate faster reactivity and ensure that the right datasets are delivered in a timely manner.

Decommissioning can involve a range of solutions; the structure may be left in situ, or have the upper part removed, or sunk to the seabed. Whatever the decision, regular monitoring is necessary to ensure the site is safe, complies with all relevant regulations and the environmental impact is minimised. In addition, satellite technology is a reliable and cost-effective tool to assist in fulfilling environmental survey requirements, such as identifying environmentally sensitive coastal areas for incorporating into a spill response plan. These remote techniques reduce the need for field surveys and allow any survey that is undertaken to be targeted to key features of interest identified from the satellite imagery.

In conclusion, when it comes to late-stage management, decommissioning and post-decommissioning monitoring of mature assets, satellite imaging has an important contribution to make. Optical and radar satellite sensors, as well as new services such as the satellite tasking service One Tasking and environmental monitoring products, allow the targeting of on-site activities, providing guaranteed, cost-effective intelligence to assist the entire process.

TerraSAR-X Acquisition - Bay of Plenty, New Zealand © DLR e.V. 2011, Distribution Airbus DS Geo GmbH

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