‘Smoke alarm for the sea’ could mark an oil and gas breakthrough
13 May 2019
A revolutionary new product developed by a leading university and industry experts could provide effective leak detection for thousands of decommissioned North Sea oil and gas wells.
Heriot-Watt University and the Oil & Gas Innovation Centre are collaborating with Sentinel Subsea to help develop the latter’s SWIFT tracer compound, which can be pumped into wells before closure.
The compound reacts with a detector-material trigger positioned on the seabed, releasing a floating beacon to the water surface, when it communicates a wanring to the base station via satellite.
Professor David Bucknall of Heriot-Watt explained that compound used in the system – characterised as a ‘smoke alarm for the sea’ – could not be a naturally-occurring substance because of the risks of triggering false alarms. However, it had to be entirely non-toxic and non-hazardous to the environment and also could not react with any of the materials and compounds in the wells already.
He added: “It needs to remain ‘dormant’ for an extended period of time, sealed within the well. We are testing materials that can last for up to 100 years by artificially ageing the compound under lab conditions.
“The position of the trigger on the seabed means it can be more readily replaced, so this will need to last for approximately 10 years.”
Oil & Gas Innovation Centre chief executive Ian Philips pointed out that, in 2017, the number of wells being decommissioned exceeded the number of new drillings. Decommissioning expenditure for the UK continental shelf (UKCS) alone was estimated to reach £15.3 billion over the next decad, he added.
There are some 11,000 oil and gas wells sited n the UKCS, with nearly 2,400 are set for decommission over the 10 year period. While there is an obligation to inspect suspended wells, there is no such requirement for those which are abandoned and no standard approach for integrity monitoring and environmental liability.
Sentinel Subsea chief executive officer Neil Gordon said the system would address the industry's paramount concerns of environmental assurance and cost reduction.
“It is vital that the North Sea oil and gas industry can ably demonstrate proactive, best practice of environmental stewardship to all stakeholders throughout the late life and decommissioning process, whilst working towards the Oil and Gas Authority’s reduction target of 35% on current cost projections,” he stated.
“Sentinel Subsea’s technology provides that environmental assurance, whilst providing the confidence for industry to adopt innovative decommissioning techniques that could make a huge contribution to that cost-saving objective. Furthermore, the early-detection offered by our technology also has the potential to significantly lower clear-up costs.”