New design for decommissioning

Louise Davis

NESSIE could bring monster benefits to oil and gas sector

A Northumberland-based marine engineer with a passion for oil & gas technology has outlined plans for a new submersible that could change the way oil platforms are transported back to shore after their useful life ends, thereby saving the UK tax payer billions of pounds over the next 20 years.

Joe Glass has joined forces with Seaways Engineering International as Managing Director (UK). The Californian company has used Glass’s experience of the oil and gas industry and his extensive marine engineering skills to help solve a problem that will cost the UK government more money to decommission end of life oil platforms than the tax that it will earn from production.

There are more than 400 North Sea oil platforms ready to be decommissioned, a job that involves taking the platform back to shore and returning the seabed back to its original state. Estimates for the cost of decommissioning and restoration varies between US$30 and US$100 billion over the next two decades with at least 75% of the cost coming from the UK taxpayer.

At present removal of oil & gas platforms is a costly process, with specialist ships such as the new Swiss-owned Pioneering Spirit rumoured to have cost in excess of US$3 billion. This vessel, now long overdue, will command huge hire charges by its owners.

Using experience to devise solutions

Glass has a wealth of experience at sea and in the oil industry. He started his career with Ellerman Lines before going offshore as a chief engineer in 1983 on diving support ships. His nautical career then took him to every corner of the globe including Australia, Brazil, the Middle East and Malaysia. In the early 1980s, while working out of Aberdeen he met Craig Lang, who now owns Seaways Engineering - a partnership that has stood the test of time and led to the pair putting their collective expertise together towards the development of a more cost effective alternative for the removal of oil platforms.

Lang's previous inventions (eg, the Apache Reelship, Steel Risers in catenary) have already reduced oil production costs considerably and his design of the multi-purpose semi-submersible (MPSS), on which the new solution NESSIE (novel extended semi-submersible) is based, is approved by Shell with several versions already in operation worldwide.

"I'm very concerned that as things stand, because we don't have an alternative operational at the moment, the tax money to decommission the platforms will be paid to foreign companies and will create jobs for thousands of foreign workers, rather than supporting UK-based shipyards and steel mills that are closing down with the loss of jobs for thousands of UK workers," comments Joe Glass.

"The solution is quite simple in operation: we've created our own submersible, which we have called NESSIE," he explains.

NESSIE is a box section semi-submersible with six columns and a gate at the aft end rather like a giant floating dry-dock. Once the vessel approaches the structure, it ballasts down, opens the gate and moves over the structure. Using accurate laser positioning to get it into the exact position, the topside unit is lifted clear and secured at the forward end. NESSIE then positions itself until the jacket is located amidships, rigging is attached and the jacket is rotated underwater to the horizontal position, where it is secured for transport to shore.

The full-size version of NESSIE (220m x 120m) is capable of handling the largest North Sea structures, while a smaller version (60m x 60m) is capable of lifting the smaller structures commonly located in the southern North Sea in a single lift.

So what’s next?

Glass has estimated that NESSIE can be built at less than 10% of the cost of the Pioneering Spirit and operated at a correspondingly lower day rate. However, the cost of further development is prohibitive and he has been actively canvassing politicians and industry leaders for support and looking to the oil & gas sector for financial funding.

The results are promising. Seaways Engineering has been approved by OGIC (Oil and Gas Innovation Centre) for 50% funding for Strathclyde University to carry out further research. This will include a desktop study to prove stability of the vessel and analyse the lifting arrangement of the jacket, a detailed animation showing the procedure and the fabrication and tank testing of a 4m long model.

Glass says: "The cost of further work is expensive and we've exhausted our research and development budget. I need either the government or a leading oil company to look at our plans and the fully working model with a view to putting in sufficient funds to enable a full size prototype to be made. Our financial target is a further £20,000 to make things happen. Ironically, this is literally a drop in the ocean compared to the benefits. The sad thing is I know this will work and I truly believe that it will save companies and the government billions of pounds in the long term.

"The other benefit is that it will slash costs and bring much needed jobs to the North East. I'd love to be able to have a fleet of NESSIEs built in the North East of England while we still have the experience and technical know-how to do it. This could be a major jobs boost for the region at a time when steel works and shipyards are closing down. The billions saved will regenerate towns and blighted areas in the North East and Scotland and help create new industries associated with decommissioning.

"I'm an engineer and I'm used to solving problems. This is probably the biggest challenge I've ever faced but I know that once the oil & gas industry sees the benefits of NESSIE, it will invest in her."

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