The peculiarities of exploration in the Caspian Sea require constant innovation, resulting in novel solutions and a lot of hard work. But as Selwyn Parker reports, the rewards are worth the effort.
Kazakhstan-based Kazmortransflot (KMTF) recently took delivery of the Barys, a specialised multifunctional vessel it ordered to transport cargo in the shallower waters of the northern Caspian.
Unique in the region, the Barys has a draught of just 4 m, despite a length of 113 m and a width of 21 m. Even with such a low draught, the vessel can carry up to 5,000 tonnes.
That’s the kind of workhorse that is needed in these inland waters, lying well below sea level. And as exploration hots up once again in the region, KMTF is making sure it is ready for current and future contracts. The group has two more of these multipurpose vessels on the way.
With production of about 6M barrels of equivalent oil a day, the Caspian is becoming one of the busiest regions in the world for the offshore support industry. After a few years of uncertainty, there is now more upstream activity than has been seen in a long time; these include the big project at Azerbaijan, located 100 km east of Baku in the largest oil field in this sector of the Caspian Basin, Lukoil’s gas plants in Uzbekistan and higher production in the offshore Kashagan field in the Kazakhstan zone. These major projects, among others, are driving demand for every kind of technical support.
As well as being one of the busiest hydrocarbon-hunting regions, the Caspian is also one of the most challenging. Bounded by Kazakhstan to the north-east (where the most promising and accessible reserves lie), Russia to the north-west, Azerbaijan to the west, Iran to the South and Turkmenistan to the south-east, this elongated sea stretches for nearly 1,200 km, is 430 km wide and, at an area of 386,420 km, is larger than Japan.
The water freezes periodically, which makes life difficult for offshore rigs, while being so remote from export markets increases transport costs.
To make things even harder, the Caspian’s underwater topography varies greatly, posing thorny technical problems for the industry. Although the mean depth is just over 210 m, the deepest part is 1024 m below the surface, while the shallowest – in the northern Caspian – has an average depth of around 6 m.
The sea’s complex geology also presents serious challenges for drilling crews. The bottom of the northern Caspian dates back at least 541M years, while the seabed in the middle Caspian is a hydrocarbon hunter’s nightmare because parts of it are still moving.
Perhaps because of these challenges, veteran operators have developed a special expertise in the region. And the resumption of activity has come as a relief to offshore support companies such as Dubai-based Topaz Energy and Marine, for which the Caspian has long been a stronghold. As chief executive, René Kofod-Olsen pointed out earlier this year: “We believe the worst of the downturn is now behind us. While 2018 will be challenging, the number of projects being commissioned is increasing.”
Topaz has turned to its advantage the well-documented oversupply of offshore support vessels in the downturn. As prices for idle vessels fell, the group snapped up ships on the cheap, updating its 100-strong fleet which now boasts an average age of about nine years. “We are constantly optimising our fleet, divesting aging and non-strategic tonnage to focus on mid- to high-end offshore support vessels (OSV),” explained Mr. Kofod-Olsen, in the annual report for last year. “These are more versatile and can address a wide range of our client’s needs,” he noted.
In 2017, even though oil prices were still in a slump, Topaz was brave enough to splash US$115M on two subsea vessels commissioned from the Vard yard, the Norwegian-based group with nine ship-building facilities worldwide. Further highlighting the renewed activity in the Caspian, on the back of a US$500M contract in Kazakhstan, the group ordered from Vard the construction of 15 new module-carrying vessels designed for shallow river systems.
Not to be left behind in terms of innovation, Kazakhstan’s KMTF has just put to work three Damen-built, low-draught tugs that will undertake work such as towing, anchor dropping and handling, and navigational assistance in the shallow waters of the Kazakh section of the inland sea. As KMTF’s chief executive notes: “The distinguishing feature of these tugboats is the increased demand for capacity at limited depth, which [requires] limited dimensions.”
Known appropriately as the Shoalbuster 2709, the tugs are 27 m long, with a beam of 9 m and a draught of just 2.6 m. Although the Shoalbuster is far from the biggest tugboat in the world, it can carry a 5.5-tonne crane and boasts a bollard pull of 41.2 tonnes.
As you might expect in shallow waters, there is a premium on dredgers. In response, Van Oord, the Netherlands-based specialist, has deployed a Damen-built 60 m long CSD 650 custom suction dredger in the Caspian. Named the Ural River, the vessel was modified for special duties; originally designed for sheltered water, it was given a bow to make it suitable for coastal operations and was equipped with extra tanks that enable it to operate without support for long periods in remote locations.
As contracts piled up, Van Oord also put to work another innovative dredger, the Modular Multi Cat 2210, featuring a remarkably low draught of less than 1 m. Chartered from Damen Marine Services, the 22 m vessel was rushed into service to support one of the marine contractor’s bigger dredgers.
In another illustration of the challenges posed by the Caspian Sea - in this case its remoteness - the Modular Multi Cat was built in sections and transported by road to its future home, instead of being sailed there. “We can load the whole lot onto trucks and drive it to Kazakhstan in about 12 days,” explained Damen design engineer Freek Haagmans. “The sea route, on the other hand, would have taken about six weeks for such a vessel.”
But a dredger in a remote location is not much use without rapid support vessels. To deliver crew to the Ural River, Van Oord uses a Damen Fast Crew Supplier 1605, capable of carrying 23 passengers and with a top speed of 30 knots.
In another encouraging development, highlighting the revival of the Caspian, March saw Aberdeen-based Subsea 7 book a key contract in the region - a five-year arrangement with BP Exploration to provide subsea inspection, repair and maintenance services in two giant fields: the Azeri, Chirag and Deepwater parts of the Gunashli field, as well as in the Shah Deniz fields. The former field lies 120 km east of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city.
Supported by a Baku-based project management and engineering team, Subsea 7 includes the provision of a life-of-field support vessel, equipped with work-class and observation-class remotely operated underwater vehicles.
The long-term prospects for BP and its suppliers here could hardly be better. The oil giant and its partners have extended their contract with the Azerbaijan government until 2049, in what is a major offshore supply operation.
Projects like these require a fleet of support vessels: two high-speed crew transfer boats ferry a workforce of more than 1,000 from the shore to six production platforms, as well as to a couple of processing and utilities platforms located in the field. The fleet also includes eight supply vessels, three support vessels and three tugboats.
The supply vessels are always on the go, bringing people, food, equipment and anything else necessary to the platforms on a regular basis. To make sure that marine traffic is moving safely around the platforms, high-tech monitoring systems cover the 10,350 km2 of BP’s centre of operations in the Caspian, an area roughly the size of Jamaica.
In the offshore supply industry, reliability is everything. In this unforgiving environment, Athens-based CMI Offshore has deployed its ultra-shallow draught ice-class tug, the CM Wulf for nearly a decade. But the region is tough on infrastructure, whether based on or offshore, and after nine years of sterling service, the Wulf has been sold to Russian interests for work in the Arctic ports in the north of the country.
CMI Offshore, which owns and operates a 25-vessel fleet, plus one barge, in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, constantly updates its sea-going assets. Typically among offshore support companies, it provides vessels for drilling and production support, one flat-top barge and four shallow-draught ships for further offshore, including three of Damen’s Shoalbusters and one or two ultra-shallow tugs.
Given the wildly varying depths of the Caspian, flexibility is key to staying busy in the region. CMI Offshore can deploy three shallow-draught ferries – that is, less than 1.5 m draught – capable of 30 knots.
In the Caspian, it always seems to come back to shallow draught vessels.
The remoteness of the region presents special, but not insuperable, difficulties for the offshore supply industry, as Damen proved with the transport of the Modular Multi Cat for the Van Oord group.
First, you have got to get the vessels there. As Topaz Marine explains: “Due to the nation’s geography there are significant physical barriers to entry, which makes it difficult and costly to mobilise equipment into the region.”
Normally, offshore supply vessels can only be sailed or towed via the Volga Baltic or Volga Don rivers and their respective canal systems, both of which present seasonal restrictions. For instance, they usually freeze over between November and March.
On top of that, a vessel designed specifically for service in the Caspian may be ruled illegal for the journey from the shipyard to its intended destination. It is not all red tape though; restrictions often apply due to the depth of the canals and/or the capacity of the locks and bridges. Further complicating matters, Russia may slap on hefty extra charges and fees if a vessel has been modified or flagged in any other country. Along the way, other governments may insist on a range of inspections, authorisations and approvals, plus an imaginative range of fees.
As Topaz has noted: “These restrictions represent high logistical and financial barriers to entry and have led to the offshore supply vessel market in the Caspian region becoming highly concentrated, with only nine OSV suppliers.”
Because of its vast potential however, the Caspian is a region that no oil major can ignore. In late April, BP and SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company, signed a new 25-year production-sharing agreement, under which they will go hydrocarbon-hunting in another area, the so-called North Absheron basin, lying about 135 km north-east of Baku.
Previously unexplored, the basin is definitely not in shallow waters; depth ranges between 400-600 m, with anticipated reservoir depths of about 3,500 m.
If BP strikes oil there, it looks like the industry will have to dust off its deep-water vessels.