Sunday, November 20, 2011

LNG market grows, uncertainties persist

Discussion at London liquefied natural gas conference driven by US shale gas production, Japanese tsunami’s affect on nuclear power

By Bill White

Researcher/writer for the Office of the Federal Coordinator
Driving much of the discussion at a liquefied natural gas conference in London were two relatively recent events that have rattled how the global LNG industry views its short-term future.
The events help explain the unusual LNG pricing trends of late, underscore some of the volatile dynamics of supply and demand, and amplify the uncertainty forecasters have of their own predictions.

The first event was the rise of U.S. shale-gas production over the past five years, sweeping aside the world’s biggest gas market — North America — as an LNG customer. Companies mistakenly targeted billions of dollars for construction of new gas liquefaction capacity and U.S. import terminals. The lack of U.S. customers cast adrift that new LNG production, which needed to find a new destination and did so in Europe, helping soften short-term and spot LNG prices there. The continued rise of Lower 48 shale-gas production also has engrossed the LNG industry in a guessing game: Will the United States export some of its new-found gas bounty as LNG?
Event two: A tsunami stifling nuclear power production at Japan’s Fukushima plant last March. This boosted short-term LNG demand in Japan, raising prices there and diverting to Asia spot shipments that had been aimed at Europe.

Two currents at congress

Shale gas and Japan were two currents flowing through presentations at the LNG Global Congress held in London during the last week of September. I was invited to present on Alaska natural gas and to learn the latest developments in an industry undergoing rapid change.
A key message from the conference is that the spectacular expansion of LNG supply and demand worldwide should continue over the next decade, although LNG traders, analysts and consultants offered no consensus on the exact timing and details of that growth.

The LNG conference covered a breadth of other topics, from the rise of Qatar and Australia as gas liquefiers, to China’s energy appetite, the prospect of U.S. LNG exports, whether North America’s shale-gas revolution will be replicated elsewhere, and how a wider Panama Canal and a new technology called floating LNG might be game changers for the industry.

Optimism about LNG

Conference attendees gushed optimism about the LNG industry, while mumbling uncertainty about how exactly the future will unfold.
Alaska helped pioneer the world of LNG exports when the Nikiski liquefaction plant opened in 1969 to supply Japanese utilities with natural gas from the new Cook Inlet discoveries. Alaska since has been eclipsed as an exporter by Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Trinidad & Tobago and, more recently, by such countries as Qatar, Yemen, Russia and Norway.
People attending the conference were generally aware that Alaska is about to exit the game, with the last LNG shipment expected to leave the Nikiski plant this fall.

Why Alaska would drop out just as Japanese demand is spiking did puzzle them, however. They didn’t understand that the historic Cook Inlet fields are petering out. I explained that some Alaskans hope the state can re-enter the fray within a decade by exporting North Slope gas from a resuscitated Nikiski plant or a new mega-plant at Valdez, if a proposed pipeline from the Slope gets built.
Here’s a snapshot of themes discussed at the conference.
Supply and demand

The LNG market has been defined for decades by long-term contracts between LNG makers and buyers of the gas. LNG makers needed these 20-year-plus deals to underwrite the huge upfront cost of building plants to liquefy gas — superchilling it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit transforms methane into a liquid that is more compact and economical to transport via special tankers.

But thanks to their rapid expansion in recent years, the world’s LNG exporters now have far more capacity to liquefy natural gas than is needed to fulfill current demand. This imbalance has given rise to short-term contracts and spot sales, which last year comprised about 20 percent of the LNG volume traded. That’s roughly akin to the percentage of oil under short-term and spot deals, said Kasper Walet, principal with Amsterdam-based energy consultant Maycroft. But he noted that these spot and short-term deals, while 20 percent of the LNG trade, comprised just 2 percent of all natural gas movement. Most speakers said they expect long-term deals to continue to characterize the industry.

Japan needed 110 billion cubic feet of additional LNG this year after Fukushima, and it got about 48 billion of it on the spot market, buying from Algeria, Egypt, Yemen and Nigeria, said Frederic Deybach, an LNG executive with European energy conglomerate GDF Suez.
The imbalance will end soon, as demand catches up with the capacity to supply LNG. When? The presenters’ estimates ranged from 2012 to 2015.
Key unknowns

Here are key unknowns that make this future so hard to predict:
Will low coal prices tilt China and other emerging Asian economies away from natural gas for future fuel supplies?
Will Japan and Germany phase out nuclear power and need more natural gas (as well as coal and oil) to make electricity, and if so, how quickly will the phase-outs occur? Will the world economy double-dip into another recession, or even triple-dip?
Will geopolitical events disrupt LNG supply, as they did this year in Libya, a gas exporter, and could do in unstable Yemen, another LNG exporter?
After 2015, start-up of new liquefaction plants — particularly in Australia but also in Papua New Guinea, possibly Canada and other locations — probably will ease any worries about LNG supply shortages for several years.
But timing is everything. If capacity comes on slow and demand rises fast, expect to see LNG prices rise, several speakers said. Prices could fall if liquefaction capacity gets built faster than demand rises.

Andre Mernier of Belgium sees a bright future in Asia for LNG because of its geology and geography. Geology — not enough of its own gas reserves and generally too distant for gas deliveries through pipelines. Geography — lots of need for electrical generation fuels in coastal population centers, where deliveries can be made easily. Mernier is secretary general of the Energy Charter Secretariat, a group with 53 member countries that upholds international laws to ensure the smooth flow of energy between exporters and importers.
Deybach of GDF Suez, said much of the expected new demand for LNG imports to 2020 will come from nations “where demand uncertainty is greatest.” These importers include developing nations in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
Ship charter rates soar

The LNG fleet has expanded rapidly in recent years, from 195 ships at the end of 2005to 360 ships at the end of last year, according to the International Gas Union.
That expansion hasn’t been fast enough, said Walet of consultancy Maycroft. Most tankers are sailing under entrenched contracts. The few available for short-term hire are demanding premium rates.
The rate for chartering an LNG tanker last year averaged $41,000 a day. That price jumped to $80,000 in the first half of this year, particularly after Japan’s Fukushima disaster boosted that nation’s short-term need for gas, Walet said. Claire Wright, principal gas analyst with Lloyd’s List Intelligence, said some spot-shipment rates have reached $100,000 a day.
Chris Meyer, a European LNG consultant with Poten & Partners, said shipyards are busy building tankers, and that day rates will fall within 18 to 24 months, after the new boats get launched. About 60 new ships have been ordered, Wright said.

Hot commodity

Worldwide demand for natural gas last year rebounded from the drop in demand caused by the 2008-2009 global recession. Overall demand leaped 7.4 percent, with LNG demand up 21 percent, said Hideomi Ito, natural gas analyst for the International Energy Agency. (LNG tends to be a niche product desired by places like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that lack the option of pipeline deliveries. As was mentioned, less than 10 percent of the world’s gas consumption involved LNG last year.)
Growth in gas demand should slow over the next five years to perhaps 2.4 percent a year, Ito said, with LNG demand growing faster than that because it would help fuel hotter economies such as China and India.
Christof Ruehl, chief economist for BP, said European demand for LNG might even fall next year although he expects it to grow over time.

China’s big appetite

Natural gas comprises 4 percent of China’s energy needs now, Ruehl said. Coal provides 70 percent. China consumes less than one-tenth the amount of gas that Europe uses.
But China is just getting going as a natural gas consumer, Ruehl said. By 2030, China will consume far more energy than today, and natural gas will supply 9 percent of it. Within 20 years, China will consume as much natural gas as all of Europe consumes now, he predicted.

China will get about half of its gas in 2030 from domestic production, particularly tapping shale and other unconventional reservoirs, and it will import the other half via pipelines and LNG tankers, Ruehl said.
Ito noted that China has been investing furiously to secure new supplies. These investments include developing conventional, shale and coal-bed methane resources within China; securing long-term LNG-supply contracts with Australia, Qatar and Papua New Guinea; opening of an almost 4 billion cubic feet a day pipeline from Turkmenistan in late 2009 (expected to reach full capacity next year); and building a 1.1 bcf a day pipeline from Myanmar that should start in 2013.
Ito said China’s total gas demand could rise from about 10 bcf a day on average last year to 25 bcf a day in 2015, with LNG sating some of that growth.

Australia — boom towns, boom nation

Australia is the Wild West of LNG — a brawny frontier toward which the industry’s future is migrating.
Alan Copeland of the Australia Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics said his nation exported about 19 million metric tons (2.5 bcf a day on average) of LNG last year from two plants. That’s about the same LNG volume Alaska would export from Valdez if that idea ever catches on.

But that volume is dwarfed by what’s planned for Australia: Seven projects totaling 57.1 million metric tons (7.5 bcf a day) at some stage of development (a combined price tag of $144 billion), plus another six totaling 44.4 million metric tons (5.8 bcf a day) proposed but not under way.
The seven projects are supposed to be done by 2016. Can Australia really pull that off? Copeland called it “a huge challenge, an enormous task,” but noted the companies involved are sticking to their start dates. Others at the conference said start-up delays are all but certain.
Still, nearly everyone expects Australia will become the world’s No. 1 LNG exporter by 2020. Last year it was No. 4, behind Qatar, Indonesia and Malaysia. Qatar exported 56 million metric tons of LNG, the equivalent of 7.4 bcf a day on average.

Australia is developing gas fields relatively close to its East Coast population center. These include coal-bed methane fields that some local farmers oppose, Copeland said. But the giant plays are in remote areas, including in deep water far off the nation’s northwest coast. Australia, through a Shell project called Prelude, is pioneering the emerging technology called “floating LNG,” where liquefaction occurs at sea rather than piping the offshore gas to an onshore LNG plant.
The rapid build-out of Australian LNG is straining the country. An LNG development called Wheatstone plans to bring 3,500 workers to a town of 800 people — raising issues of where to house them, how to feed them and what they will do for fun. Some projects have adopted a work schedule familiar to those who labor at Alaska’s North Slope oil fields: one or two weeks of 12-hour days followed by extended time off.
With coal and iron ore developments occurring as well in Australia, engineers and equipment are in short supply, Copeland said. A big winner is the average laborer, who is pulling in wages of $225,000 to $300,000 a year on remote LNG projects, Copeland said. The audience gasped when Copeland mentioned this.

U.S. LNG exports

Several speakers said U.S. exports of LNG are inevitable. The United States will have the supply, due to fast expanding shale-gas production. And if the big gap between gas prices in North America and those in Asia linger, liquefying U.S. gas production could be very profitable.
Deybach of GDG Suez noted that a race is afoot within the Lower 48 by companies positioning themselves to make and export LNG. One or two of them will win. Possibly three.
Simon Bonini, a consultant and former LNG director for Centrica, a British utility, said that of course the United States will export LNG. “I’m a firm believer that if you can have a stampede into Queensland (one of Australia’s gas hotbeds), you can have anything.”

Leslie Palti-Guzman, a New York-based analyst with political-risk consultant Eurasia Group, said at least six serious LNG export proposals are in play in the United States and Canada. If they all came together they could export 70 million metric tons of LNG, or 9 bcf a day. That’s twice the volume TransCanada and ExxonMobil hope to flow into the Lower 48 from Alaska’s North Slope. Asian utilities or governments are involved directly or indirectly in the push for North American LNG, Palti-Guzman said.
“In practice only half of that amount at best will be expected to be exported but that is still a significant volume,” she said.
U.S. projects that are finished by 2016 could “hit a window of opportunity” if Australian projects fall behind schedule and LNG demand grows as some expect, Palti-Guzman said.
She noted the opposition to exports from the U.S. petrochemical industry, which uses natural gas as a feedstock and wants a supply glut to hold down prices. But, she added, “U.S. LNG export is definitely going to happen.” The exports would reduce the nation’s trade deficit, providing political reason to allow gas to leave the country, she said.

The current price gap between North American gas and Asian LNG is about $12 per million Btu. U.S. gas can be liquefied and shipped from the Gulf Coast to Asia for about half that price, Palti-Guzman said. The economics are even better for LNG from British Columbia — as long as the price gap holds, a risky assumption, she said.
Lower 48 natural gas prices could rise by $2 to $2.50 per mmBtu if the nation starts exporting significant volume, she predicted.
Some analysts believe U.S. LNG exports, and the resulting price rise, would heighten the Lower 48’s need for North Slope gas from Alaska.

Panama Canal

Palti-Guzman said expansion of the Panama Canal will help U.S. LNG exports to Asia.
LNG tankers traversing the Panama Canal can sail from the U.S. Gulf Coast to Asia in 22 days, shorter than a trip around South America or Africa, she said. Proposed LNG projects in British Columbia would hold a travel advantage, however: an eight-and-a-half-day trip to East Asia, she said.
Right now, only 6 percent of the LNG fleet of under 400 ships can squeeze through the canal, and none of them try, said energy consultant Walet.

But when the Panama Canal expansion is done, scheduled for 2014, 80 percent of the fleet will fit through the canal.
“It should be a real game changer,” Walet said.
The canal will transform how LNG flows around the world. In particular, diverting a cargo load in the Atlantic over to Asia will become more cost effective.
Shale gas globally?

Can the U.S. shale-gas revolution be duplicated elsewhere in the world?
Not easily, several speakers noted.
The United States is the perfect setting for shale gas. The country has lots of independent producers and service companies. A skilled labor force exists. Regulators generally understand gas production. Technology such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are easily disseminated and improved on. The pipeline network to move production to market is vast.

China is estimated to have even greater shale-gas resources than the United States, but it falls short of the U.S. on know-how, competitiveness and market structures, said Madjid Kubler, owner of energy analyst Team Consult. Germany falls far short of China, he said, particularly on competitiveness and the regulatory/social environment for accepting unconventional gas development.
Will floating LNG sink or swim?
A new idea that many are watching to see how fast and how well it catches on is called floating LNG.

Shell is the first mover with this technology, approving a FLNG vessel to be built in South Korea and deployed to the company’s $10 billion Prelude development far offshore Northwest Australia. Shell estimates the field will start up in 2016, with 3.6 million metric tons of annual output (processing about 500 million cubic feet a day of natural gas).
A company called Flex LNG is involved in a smaller proposal off Papua New Guinea — an onshore field with offshore liquefaction, unlike Prelude where the entire operation will be offshore. Other projects are envisioned, including a couple more off Australia’s coast.
The attractions: FLNG fields could be developed more quickly for less cost, with no long-distance pipelines, fewer environmental challenges and less bureaucratic red tape ... if the concept proves itself.

The actual cost of building and operating FLNG units is unproven. This is causing some in the financial industry to wait and see, some speakers said.
But Wouter Pastoor, business development vice president with Flex LNG, said the technology is custom-made for small and medium-scale LNG production — 2 million metric tons a year (260 million cubic feet a day) in production or less, a bit more than the peak output from the ConocoPhillips/Marathon plant at Nikiski that is closing. This will let smaller countries and smaller fields get into the LNG business, and smaller volumes are easier to market, he said.
However, he noted that FLNG is “a novel idea whose risk profile is being defined.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Even Cuba Understands What's to Gain from Off-Shore Drilling


One year ago, the Obama administration ended it's blanket offshore drilling ban. But it replaced its drilling moratorium with a permitorium. The bureaucrats said they were allowing drilling, but they granted very few permits and it took months to issue a permit for new drilling.
While the Obama administration is not keen on producing energy domestically, the Cubans of all countries are going to use the technology developed by American companies in the Gulf of Mexico to access their energy resources less than 100 miles from the coast of Florida. When Cuba recognizes an economic opportunity that the administration does not, we should pay attention.
[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]
Even though one year has passed since the end of the moratorium, the administration is still issuing a reduced number of permits. Before the moratorium, the administration was issuing 72 permits per month and now, a full year after the moratorium supposedly ended, they are only issuing 52 permits per month.
Not only has the rate of issuing permits slowed, but the paperwork required to satisfy the administration's bureaucrats has increased exponentially. Before the moratorium, the average permit application was 30-40 pages long. Now a permit application is 3,600 pages long. This dramatic increase in bureaucratic paperwork will create some jobs—but only jobs for more lawyers and more bureaucrats. Creating more work for attorneys and bureaucrats does not help the economy grow.
The administration's byzantine permitting requirements have lead to drilling rigs leaving U.S. waters for countries that welcome energy production. Nearly 40 percent of the deepwater rigs that were in the Gulf of Mexico before the moratorium have left. These rigs could have drilled an additional 60 wells, created 11,500 jobs and generated $6.3 billion in private sector spending. Instead of realizing these positives, the Obama administration is exporting those jobs to other countries.
[Read: How Much Oil Is There?]
The economic benefits of energy production are clear. If Congress permanently lifts the moratoria on energy exploration and production in the Outer Continental Shelf, access to these vast resources would generate:
• $8 trillion in additional economic output (GDP);
• $2.2 trillion in total tax receipts;
• 1.2 million new, well-paying jobs annually across the country; and
• $70 billion in additional wages each year.
But while the Obama administration does not seem to grasp the benefits of job creation and economic growth created by energy production, the Cubans apparently do. According to NPR, geologists estimate there may be 5 billion to 20 billion barrels of oil off the coast of Cuba (between Cuba and Florida). In the past, these resources have been out of reach, but because of the deepwater drilling technologies developed by U.S. workers in the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba will be able to access these resources for the first time. A drill rig is en route from China to Cuba and could start drilling as early as November.
It's not too often that you can say that we should look to Cuba for taking advantage of an economic opportunity, but when it comes to creating jobs and lowering the cost of energy through energy production, we should pay attention. Thousands of hard working Americans are out of work in the Gulf states because the administration isn't following Cuba's example. Now is the time to get these people back to work creating energy.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Proud to be part of the industry

By Chris John

Last month, the Joint Investigation Team of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard released their final report analyzing the Macondo incident that occurred in 2010.
Within the detailed and thorough report, there were recommendations made on how best to upgrade and enhance the regulatory structure and industrial prowess for offshore drilling at the BOEMRE. In reading these, I was struck by the similarities in the suggestions made in the report and the overhauls already enacted at the BOEMRE and the additional, voluntary requirements industry has adopted.
Throughout what I still consider to be an unnecessary six-month moratorium, the oil and gas industry remained committed to the highest levels of safety by voluntarily creating and designing the Marine Well Containment Company. This is part of an effort to improve prevention, well-intervention and spill response. When it became evident that the permit process needed drastic improvement, the industry and state government officials worked with the BOEMRE to improve the efficiency of the permit review process. While we are still not happy with the pace of things by any stretch of the matter, they are getting marginally better.
Despite this slowdown, the industry is getting back to work.

For example, just last month, Chevron announced a major discovery in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico on a well it began drilling in early 2010. Also last month, BP submitted its first deepwater exploration plan since Deepwater Horizon. Its 212-page plan includes a number of measures that go above and beyond current BOEMRE requirements. This indicates BP’s confidence in its lessons learned from its detailed analysis of what led to the Macondo incident. BP’s pledge and singular focus to doing the job safely are guiding it through the next steps as it returns to the Gulf of Mexico.

Week after week, more and more companies are getting back to work in the Gulf of Mexico, and this commitment to the region underscores its importance to this country’s energy mix. I am proud to be part of an industry that is answering the call in a responsible and safe way, all while continuing to provide good, high-paying jobs that fuel Americas’ energy security.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Alaska leaders make the case for ANWR — again

Congressional hearing focuses on coastal plain as a source of jobs, energy and revenue; critic calls it ‘kowtowing’ to industry

It’s long been the case that Alaska’s top elected officials, regardless of party, have supported opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. ANWR
The state’s current crop of leaders again demonstrated that stance during a Sept. 21 congressional hearing that one witness panned as “political theater.”
The House Natural Resources Committee and its Republican chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, convened the hearing to discuss ANWR in the context of jobs, national energy supply and reducing the deficit with leasing and royalty revenue.
The witness list was stacked with supporters of opening the coastal plain to drillers. They included Alaska’s three-member congressional delegation, Gov. Sean Parnell, a prominent resident from a village along the ANWR coast, and a truck driver who hauls freight to the North Slope oil fields.
They said opening the coastal plain could sustain or create scores of jobs and work economic wonders for the state and nation.
Murkowski ‘insulted’
Alaska’s senators, Democrat Mark Begich and Republican Lisa Murkowski, each expressed support for opening the coastal plain.
“With gasoline prices averaging $3.65 in the lower 48 states and unemployment around 9 percent, Alaska is here to help,” said Begich, according to the text of his testimony. “We can offer relief to consumers at the pump, provide well-paying jobs in Alaska and the Lower 48 and help reduce our $14 trillion deficit.”
Murkowski focused on the Obama administration’s consideration of designating practically all of the refuge — including the potentially oil-rich coastal plain — as wilderness. Such a move, which would take the consent of Congress, would pretty much foreclose the possibility of drilling.
“I find it to be both misguided and, as an Alaskan, somewhat insulting when federal agencies continue to look for ways to lock up additional wilderness in Alaska when Alaska doesn’t want it and when the law says, plainly, ‘no more,’” Murkowski’s written testimony said.
She was referring to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effort write a new “comprehensive conservation plan” for ANWR. Murkowski argues the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 prohibits agencies from undertaking studies for new wilderness areas without congressional authorization.
“When an agency’s response to our Nation’s current debt and jobs crisis is to seek more ways to twist the law just to keep money buried in the ground, our priorities have spun out of the realm of rationality,” said Murkowski’s written testimony.
Young, governor weigh in
Alaska’s lone congressman, Republican Don Young, also cited the high price of gasoline in his testimony. It’s because domestic oil production hasn’t kept pace with demand, he said.
He gave a nod to those who fear oil and gas activity would compromise what has been described as ANWR’s pristine character.
“Let’s be honest and say that there will be some consequences to exploring and producing in ANWR,” said Young’s written testimony. “But let’s also be honest and say that if we import the oil it will arrive in the U.S. in foreign ships that sometimes are not up to our standards. And our environmental safeguards for oil production are much more stringent than theirs are. So if you are really concerned about the environment you should prefer oil to be produced here rather than somewhere else in the world. Just a few short weeks ago news broke of a deal that will partner Exxon and Russia to drill in the Arctic. Do we really trust that Russia can protect the Arctic better than we can?”
Gov. Parnell, a Republican, spoke to the committee via video conference.
“Look at the states doing relatively well in this economic downturn — they are America’s major energy producers,” he said. “And Alaska is one of those states. Yet we are held back from contributing more affordable energy to other Americans by federal regulators who want to keep federal lands off-limits to oil and gas exploration.”
Parnell told the committee the viability of the trans-Alaska pipeline is threatened by declining oil production. His goal is to boost throughput to 1 million barrels a day, well above the current level of around 600,000 barrels.
With modern technology, the governor said, the oil industry’s “footprint” could cover less than 2,000 acres of the refuge, which is nearly the size of South Carolina.
“For most of the year, the coastal plain is frozen. It has low biological activity,” Parnell said. “Experience shows that seasonal restrictions and other environmental stipulations can be used to protect caribou during their six-week calving season each summer. Appropriate restrictions can also protect migratory birds and fish. Our experience with other North Slope fields shows it can be done.”
A villager and a trucker
The U.S. Geological Survey, in a 2005 paper, estimated the coastal plain’s undiscovered, technically recoverable crude oil at 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels, with a mean of 10.4 billion.
Fenton Rexford, a member of the Kaktovik City Council and a candidate for mayor of the North Slope Borough, told the committee that people in his village support responsible development on the coastal plain.
“I am a life-long resident of Kaktovik and I intend to grow old there,” his written testimony said. “I can compare what life in Kaktovik was like prior to oil development on the North Slope to the quality of life we have today because of my personal experience.”
He said ANWR development means a continuation of modern life for villagers: running water and flush toilets, a local school, police and fire services.
The Inupiat villagers wouldn’t favor development, Rexford said, unless they were confident development wouldn’t hurt their subsistence way of life.
The committee also heard from Carey Hall, a truck driver for Carlile Transportation Systems. He said he works on the “ice roads” hauling freight to and from the North Slope.
Finding new oil in places such as ANWR is crucial, he said.
“The oil and gas industry represents the cornerstone of our business,” he said. “It is not only important to contractors and vendors such as trucking companies but to all our citizens in the state of Alaska and as a nation. It produces jobs, lots of jobs, and we need jobs.”
The critics
Two witnesses invited by the committee minority had a markedly different view on using ANWR as a tool for creating jobs and fighting the national debt.
Gene Karpinski, president of the nonprofit League of Conservation Voters, said he is fighting for permanent protection of the coastal plain. He characterized the hearing as “nothing more than political theater.”
“Drilling in the Arctic Refuge is and always will be a political hot potato that has been voted on 20 times in the past 30 years, in the House of Representatives alone,” said the written text of Karpinski’s testimony. “Over and over again, pro-drilling members of Congress have trotted out our nation’s last great wilderness place as a panacea for everything from the budget deficit and high unemployment to providing heat for the poor, relief to hurricane ravaged states, support for our troops and health benefits to coal workers.
“Through it all, every attempt to drill the Arctic Refuge has ultimately failed because of the continued strong support of the American people who see this never-ending political spectacle for what it is — a kowtow to the wealthiest corporations in the world, the only ones who will actually benefit from opening the Arctic Refuge to drilling.”
David Jenkins, of Republicans for Environmental Protection, questioned the idea of the industry disturbing only 2,000 acres. Citing the USGS, he said any oil is likely to be scattered in small pockets across the entire plain.
“Oil development would necessitate a massive spider web of pipelines throughout the area,” he testified.
Rosy job projections on ANWR’s unproven oil reserves are overblown, and even a major oil find would be unlikely to significantly improve the nation’s energy security or reduce gasoline prices, Jenkins said.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Point Thomson: Field fight over?

Field fight over?

Alaska, Exxon have ‘resolution in principle’ on Point Thomson, Sullivan says

For Petroleum News

A top Alaska official signaled strongly Aug. 15 that the six-year fight for control of the Point Thomson oil and gas field might soon be over.

Dan Sullivan, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, told a legislative committee the state and ExxonMobil, the Point Thomson unit operator, have reached “resolution in principle” on terms to settle the legal conflict.

“We believe that this is a resolution that advances the state’s interests,” Sullivan told the Senate Resources Committee, meeting in Anchorage. “ExxonMobil now is discussing the provisions of the settlement with other working interest owners of the unit, who are also the other litigants in the current lawsuit.”

Terms of the settlement remain confidential, Sullivan said.

He noted the matter is more involved than simply the state and ExxonMobil reaching a deal, as the Point Thomson WIOs also are working out “internal commercial terms between themselves.”

Sullivan’s remarks are the most significant sign yet that the struggle over the rich but undeveloped field is coming to a close, heading off what easily could be years more litigation between DNR and the major Point Thomson stakeholders. Besides ExxonMobil the major players include BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

Alaska economic development boosters are anxious to see the legal cloud lifted from Point Thomson, as it contains roughly a quarter of the North Slope’s 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Many believe that all the gas, including the Point Thomson reserves, are needed to make a North Slope gas pipeline a viable project.

A settlement also conjures intriguing possibilities for how the field’s considerable endowment of oil and other hydrocarbon liquids might be exploited. Full-blown development of these resources could generate a boomlet of industry activity on the Slope.

Private briefing offered

DNR began taking firm steps to break up the Point Thomson unit and reclaim the state-owned acreage in 2005, during the administration of Gov. Frank Murkowski.
The state’s beef is the lack of any production to date from Point Thomson, despite its discovery decades ago in the late 1970s.

The field is located along the Beaufort Sea coast next to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The oil companies went to court to block the state’s effort to break up the unit, and today the case rests before the Alaska Supreme Court.

In recent weeks, DNR and the oil companies have filed heavy legal briefs, suggesting that no out-of-court settlement was near.

Yet the two sides have been negotiating for a year or more, with Gov. Sean Parnell and ExxonMobil executives stating publicly they wanted to settle the dispute.

Sullivan offered to brief legislators on the settlement terms “in a confidential setting.”

“Thank you, commissioner, I think that we would probably seek to take advantage of that offer because I think ... it is a material step forward,” replied Sen. Joe Paskvan, a Fairbanks Democrat and committee co-chairman.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, asked Sullivan whether it was “fair to say that the state and Exxon are through negotiating and that negotiations that are taking place now are between Exxon and its partners. In other words, we made sort of our last best offer.”

Sullivan: “I think it’s fair to say.”

During the court proceedings, some friction emerged among the Point Thomson working interest owners, with Chevron, BP and ConocoPhillips complaining that they had been shut out of the negotiations between the state and ExxonMobil.

Deal timing unclear

ExxonMobil was measured in its response to Sullivan’s remarks. The company provided this statement via e-mail to Petroleum News and other media outlets:
“We’re aware of the State’s testimony on August 15, 2011 at the legislative committee hearings. We remain committed to working with Governor Parnell’s administration and the other working interest owners to finalize a settlement.

“Settling Point Thomson litigation and securing necessary local, state and federal permits is imperative to maintain the pace of Point Thomson development.”

The question naturally came up at the legislative hearing as to when a settlement could be finalized.

“When would you anticipate that the deal would be official and could be made public?” Paskvan asked Sullivan. “What’s the timeline on that — is that 90 days, 45 days?”

Sullivan replied: “You know, Mr. Chairman, I really don’t know. Our interest would be soon. In some ways those discussions right now are ... the timeline of those, we’re not necessarily driving that anymore.”

The other committee co-chairman, Republican Sen. Tom Wagoner of Kenai, said he’s been involved with the issue of Point Thomson development through three administrations, and he congratulated Sullivan on getting this far.

“I know it’s been a real battle that started with the Murkowski administration and went right on through,” Wagoner said. “Well, it’s very, very essential to the completion of the large pipeline.”

“Sen. Wagoner, we’re not, it’s not over yet,” Sullivan said. “As you know, anytime you work on settling litigation it’s never easy. You never get fully everything you want.”

What sort of development?

Sullivan noted that, while Point Thomson gas is considered important for a North Slope gas pipeline, the field also is rich in petroleum liquids, and production of those liquids could help stem the oil throughput decline on TAPS, the trans-Alaska pipeline system.
While construction of a gas line appears far from imminent, with no project yet confirmed, ExxonMobil itself created an incentive for wrapping up a Point Thomson deal as quickly as possible.

The company has pledged to begin production of 10,000 barrels a day of natural gas condensate, a liquid hydrocarbon, from Point Thomson by year-end 2014.

Already, the company has drilled two wells at Point Thomson, having obtained special permission from DNR in 2009 to sink the holes on two of the unit’s 31 leases. ExxonMobil and its partners proceeded with the drilling as part of a strategy to hang onto the field, which is worth billions of dollars.

But the Nabors 27-E rig used to drill the wells has been demobilized, and ExxonMobil would appear to have a tight window now for installing facilities to produce the condensate by the 2014 deadline.

A 22-mile pipeline also must be built to connect the remote Point Thomson field to the Slope’s existing pipeline network.

Of course, the deal now on the table between DNR and ExxonMobil might feature a whole new development scenario.

“The settlement is focused on the development of the Point Thomson unit which contains both hydrocarbon liquids and gas and we believe that the settlement of this litigation should help advance the strategic goals of filling TAPS and commercializing North Slope gas,” Sullivan told legislators.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

10 Things That Must Change

10 Things That Must Change
By Doug Kass

This blog post originally appeared on RealMoney Silver on Aug. 3 at 8:25 a.m. EDT.
It is said that confidence is contagious and so is the lack of confidence. And these days, this statement applies directly to our Representatives' rancor and overall behavior over the past month in Washington, D.C.
A domestic economic recovery on a slow trajectory path is exposed to policy mistakes and external shocks (e.g., geopolitical, oil spike, etc.). It is now clear that confidence has been sufficiently eroded, in part, by the Washington circus -- and this has, in part, served to undermine growth and has jeopardized our equity markets.
I have written extensively about investors' consternation toward our country's politicians. Over the past few weeks, in "My 'Fast Money Halftime Report' Recap" and "Partisanship Trumps Progress," I have described the potential headwinds to economic growth and stock market appreciation instilled by the lack of confidence (on the part of businesses and consumers) caused by the ineptitude and bitterness in the latest debate over the debt ceiling and budget issues.
Indeed, back in late 2010, my surprise list for 2011 included two surprises on the manner in which partisan politics would inhibit economic growth and limit the upside to equities.
Surprise No. 2:
Partisan politics cuts into business and consumer confidence and economic growth in the last half of 2011.
Increased hostilities between the Republicans and Democrats become a challenge to the market and to the economic recovery next year....
The resulting bickering yields little progress on deficit reduction. Nor does the rancor allow for an advancement of much-needed and focused legislation geared toward reversing the continued weak jobs market.
Surprise No. 9:
A new political party emerges. Screwflation becomes a theme that has broadening economic social and political implications. Similar to its first cousin stagflation, screwflation is an expression of a period of slow and uneven economic growth, but, in addition, it holds the existence of inflationary consequences that have an outsized impact on a specific group. The emergence of screwflation hurts just the group that authorities want to protect -- namely, the middle class, a segment of the population that has already spent a decade experiencing an erosion in disposable income and a painful period (at least over the past several years) of lower stock and home prices.
Importantly, quantitative easing is designed to lower real interest rates and, at the same time, raise inflation. A lower interest rate policy hurts the savings classes -- both the middle class and the elderly. And inflation in the costs of food, energy and everything else consumed (without a concomitant increase in salaries) will screw the average American who doesn't benefit from QE2.
Stagnating wages and ever higher food and other costs energize Middle America, the chief victim of screwflation, and a new party, the American Party, emerges chiefly through a viral campaign begun on Facebook. This centrist initiative initially is endorsed by several independent Republican and Democratic Congressmen, but a ratification by Senator Joe Lieberman (Connecticut) leads to several Senatorial endorsements as it becomes clear that the American Party's ranks are growing rapidly. (Both the Tea Party and Sarah Palin abruptly disappear from the public dialogue.)
By the end of 2011, between 5% and 10% of all U.S. voters are believed to be members of the American Party. With its newfound popularity, the American Party asks New York City Mayor Bloomberg to become its leader. By year-end 2011, he has not yet made a decision.
This morning I want to change my stripes; instead of focusing on and being critical of the disruptive impact of the deliberations in Washington, D.C. last week, I want to propose some solutions (a hat tip to Omega's Lee Cooperman who helped me on some of these suggestions).
So, if I were king of the forest, here are 10 changes I would immediately enact:
1. Establish term limits for all our representatives.
2. Limit government spending. Set a specific limitation on the annual gains in spending to be less than the increase in consumer price index.
3. Develop a comprehensive jobs plan.
4. Fix housing. Over 15 million homeowners are underwater with their mortgages, the shadow inventory of unsold homes is a drag on a housing recovery, and we must find a way to find a way to reemploy over 2 million former housing-related workers. We need a Marshall Plan for housing. I would suggest that the Obama administration reach out to the two most knowledgeable and smartest guys in the residential real estate markets, Eli Broad and Bob Toll. I would have them all meet in a locked room with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Geithner and President Obama (and his economic team).
5. Raise taxes on the rich. Put a three-year income tax surcharge (of 10% to 15%) on incomes above $500,000.
6. Create a health care czar and tackle our health care industry's delivery and costs.
7. Mean test entitlements, freeze entitlement payouts and gradually increase the social security retirement age to 70 years old.
8. Exit Afghanistan and Iraq immediately. More effectively rationalize the defense budget and provide returning soldiers full tuition to vocational schools and colleges as they have sacrificed much.
9. Build infrastructure. Set up an infrastructure bank, and place the money saved on defense into a massive build-out and improvement of the U.S. infrastructure base.
10. Create energy self-sufficiency. Develop a comprehensive plan designed to rapidly develop all of our energy resources.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

One-third of Alaska energy use is for jets

Jet fuel supplies for international transportation are one of the biggest uses of energy in the state; oil dominates energy production

By Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

For residents of Alaska, the cost of electricity and fuel for heating, lighting and driving cars provides a constant reminder of the energy consumption that underpins life in “the last frontier.” In 2008, however, 30 percent of the state’s 444 trillion British thermal units of annual energy consumption actually consisted of jet fuel use, powering the international transportation of passenger and freight to and from other regions, according to a report published recently for the Alaska Energy Authority by the Institute of Social and Economic Research.

The report, titled “Alaska Energy Statistics 1960-2008,” pulls together data from a variety of sources to provide factual information about Alaska energy production; energy consumption; and the flow of energy into, through and out of the state.

Other fuels

The report says that, in addition to the use of jet fuel, about one-third of Alaska energy consumption in 2008 consisted of the use of other liquid fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel. The use of natural gas amounted to 11 percent of total energy consumption, electricity 5 percent and coal 2 percent.
About 10 percent of the energy consumed was used for electricity generation, with about 61 percent of power generation using natural gas as a fuel. Hydropower accounted for 17 percent of electricity generation, oil products for 16 percent and coal for 6 percent. Rural communities predominantly used diesel fuel for power generation, although significant wind power capacity has been implemented in rural Alaska since 2008.

The Alaska Railbelt used about 80 percent of the total electricity generated, with that electricity mainly coming from power stations fueled by natural gas.

Data on the energy balance for electricity generation in Alaska illustrates the relative inefficiency of the state’s aging gas-fired power stations: During 2008 power utilities used 45 trillion Btu of energy but only sold 22 trillion Btu of generated power to electricity consumers, the report says.

And an analysis of carbon dioxide emissions from Alaska power generation indicates that gas-fired power stations emitted a total of 2.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2008, an emissions figure that could drop to 1.5 million metric tons if power station efficiency were improved to be closer to the U.S. national average, the report says.

Oil dominates production

Not surprisingly, 90 percent of the energy produced in Alaska in 2008 consisted of crude oil, with about 85 percent of that oil being exported from the state. Curiously, on an energy equivalent basis, the amount of natural gas extracted from the state’s oil and gas fields was double the amount of oil produced, but most of this gas was re-injected into the oil fields to drive increased oil production, with the gas presumably being repeatedly cycled through injection and production wells.
Total crude oil production in 2008 amounted to 1,449 trillion Btu of energy, the report says. However, the state did also import crude oil representing 24 trillion Btu of energy, presumably as part of the feedstock for the oil refinery at Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula, for the production of gasoline and other products used in Southcentral Alaska.

Excluding natural gas re-injected into oil fields, gas represented 8 percent of total 2008 Alaska energy production, with coal production coming in at 2 percent and wind and hydropower at less than 0.5 percent. However, much of the state’s current wind power capacity has been developed since 2008, the year for which the data were assembled, the report says.

Rising prices

Alaska residents will not be surprised by the study’s finding that the prices of most forms of energy have increased significantly in past decades, with natural gas prices increasing 80 percent between 1970 and 2008 in terms of 2008 dollars, and with gasoline prices increasing by 65 percent in that same period. However, average electricity prices actually declined by 14 percent, perhaps as a result of the replacement of some diesel power generation by hydropower.
But what about the price of that jet fuel that’s pumped into airplanes carrying people and goods across the globe? Jet fuel increased in price by a whopping 455 percent between 1970 and 2008, the report says.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Company filing plans to drill up to 10 wells in the Arctic OCS starting in 2012

By Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

After several years of frustration in its attempts to start an exploration drilling program in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Shell is in the process of filing new exploration plans for the drilling up to 10 wells, starting in the open water season of 2012.
The plans will entail the drilling of up to two wells per year in the Beaufort Sea and up to three wells per year in the Chukchi Sea, using the drillship Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk floating drilling platform, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith told Petroleum News in a May 2 e-mail.
The company filed its Beaufort Sea plan on May 4, with the Chukchi Sea plan expected to follow within a few days.
Two prospects
According to the Beaufort Sea exploration plan, Shell proposes drilling two wells in its Sivulliq prospect and two wells in its Torpedo prospect, with both prospects being located on the west side of Camden Bay, east of Prudhoe Bay. Sivulliq is the location of a known oil field, previously called Hammerhead.
“As with any Arctic exploration drilling program, weather and ice conditions, among other factors, will dictate the actual sequence in which the wells are drilled. All wells are planned to be vertical,” the exploration plan says.
Shell has two drilling vessels available for use — the drillship Noble Discover and the floating drilling platform, the Kulluk — but says that it has not yet made a final decision on which of these vessels to use in the Beaufort. In March, Pauline Ruddy, Shell regulatory affairs team lead, told the National Marine Fisheries Service Open-water Meeting that the company would likely use the Kulluk for drilling in the Beaufort Sea and the Noble Discoverer for drilling in the Chukchi Sea.
Discharges to be removed
Under the terms of an agreement with the North Slope communities, Shell plans to barge some of the Beaufort Sea waste streams out of region, rather than dispose these waste streams into the ocean. Waste stream to be barged out consist of sanitary waste; domestic waste; bilge water; ballast water; and drilling mud and cuttings from drilling operations below the depth of a well’s 20-inch conductor shoe.
Shell also plans to upgrade the Kulluk’s emissions technology to meet air quality standards.
The drilling vessel would be attended by a minimum of 11 support vessels for ice management, anchor handling, refueling and other tasks, the exploration plan says.
Exploration drilling would start around July 10 and continue through October 31. However, operations would be suspended, with all vessels departing the drilling area, during subsistence whale hunts that would start in late August.
Whichever vessel is used in the Beaufort, the other vessel would be available for relief well drilling, in the unlikely event of a well blowout. Shell has also been planning the construction of a containment dome that could be placed over an Arctic offshore well to contain any oil leak in the event of a well control problem.
Burger prospect
During the NMFS Open-water Meeting Ruddy said that in the Chukchi Sea Shell plans to target the Burger prospect, a 25-mile-diameter structure that is known to hold a major natural gas pool some 80 miles offshore the western end of Alaska’s North Slope.
For its Arctic drilling program, Shell still needs air quality permits from the Environmental Protection Agency. These permits are still on remand from the Environmental Appeals Board, following an appeal by Native Village of Point Hope and eight environmental organizations against the issuance of the permits.
There is also legal uncertainty regarding Chukchi Sea drilling because of an unresolved appeal case in Alaska district court against the 2008 Chukchi Sea lease sale in which Shell purchased its Chukchi Sea leases. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement is in the process of developing a supplementary environment impact statement for the lease sale, in response to a court order in that appeal.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

BP puts test horizontal well into operation

Heavy oil starts
BP puts test horizontal well into operation in the Ugnu at Milne Point

By Petroleum News

Following a lengthy delay after the completion of a $100 million heavy oil test facility on Alaska’s North Slope, BP has now put a heavy oil test well into operation — at 6 a.m. on April 22 a change in torque in the well’s down-hole pump finally signaled the flow of oil through the well, something of an historic event for the North Slope oil industry, Eric West, manager of BP’s Alaska renewal team, told Petroleum News April 27. For a couple of days the well had been producing brine, injected into the oil reservoir during the drilling of the well, but the torque change indicated that oil had finally reached the well bore, West said.

West said that since the morning of April 22 the well has been producing oil at a rate of 350 barrels per day and that the test facility had delivered more than 1,000 barrels of heavy oil to the Milne Point processing facility since the oil started flowing.

“But what pleases us so much is that there has been no upset to the well,” West said. “It has produced steadily at that rate.”

And the well is only producing small amounts of sand, with sand coming up the well in quantities ranging from trace amounts to about 2 percent by volume, he said.

BP is carrying out its testing of heavy oil production from the relatively shallow sands of the Ugnu formation, to ferret out the production characteristics of the resource, with an objective of determining whether commercial-scale heavy oil production on the North Slope will be feasible both from a technical and from an economic perspective, Erik Hulm, heavy oil appraisal team leader for BP Alaska, explained to the Alaska Geological Society on April 22. Companies have been producing heavy oil elsewhere, in Canada and Venezuela for example, but no one knows whether production will prove practical in the challenging Alaska Arctic environment, Hulm said.

But the potential prize is huge, he said.

Billions of barrels

Of the 70 billion or so barrels of oil so far discovered in the central North Slope, only about 40 billion barrels consist of conventional light oil that readily flows up a well bore and through a pipeline. The remaining 30 billion barrels are relatively viscous, thus requiring specialized production techniques, Hulm said.
Within the thicker grades of oil, BP distinguishes between what it calls viscous oil, with a consistency of syrup, and heavy oil, with a consistency of honey or molasses. On the North Slope, BP and ConocoPhillips have in recent years started to produce viscous oil from the sands of the Schrader Bluff/West Sak formation, using horizontal wells and waterflood techniques. But no one has yet attempted to tap into the estimated 12 billion to 18 billion barrels of heavy oil in the shallower Ugnu formation — heavy oil is generally too viscous to flow unaided through a pipe.

Being quite depleted in hydrogen relative to light oil and also being difficult to flow, heavy oil is less valuable than light oil. On the other hand, with high oil prices and with North Slope light oil production declining, companies are moving across the oil viscosity spectrum, seeking new commercial opportunities with more difficult resources. And, with BP hoping to use North Slope light oil to dilute the heavy oil for pipeline transportation, the company wants to see if it can achieve success in heavy oil production before light oil production rates decline to a point where it becomes impractical to ship the heavy oil to market — refining the heavy oil into a less viscous fluid on the North Slope for export by pipeline would be prohibitively expensive, Hulm said.

Two methods

For its test production, located on S pad in the Milne Point field, BP is using two techniques, both involving the pumping of oil into a heated tank at the surface, where sand is separated from the oil for disposal through the Prudhoe Bay grind-and-inject facility. The Ugnu sands, rather than being a conventional solid rock, are unconsolidated.
The first technique, called cold heavy oil production with sand, or CHOPS, involves drilling a vertical well through the Ugnu reservoir and then using what is called a progressive cavity pump, a down-hole pump with an augur-like rotor spinning at high speed, to draw the sand-oil mixture into the well and up the well bore. Small holes, known as wormholes, propagate from the well, out through the reservoir sand, increasing the exposed surface area of sand from which oil can be sucked and providing channels for the oil to flow into the well.

A rod passing down the well bore from the surface turns the pump’s rotor.

In 2008 BP successfully demonstrated the extraction of some oil from the Ugnu using a single CHOPS well, as a precursor to investing in the heavy oil test facility that it has since built.

The second technique involves the drilling of a horizontal well through the reservoir, with slots in the steel well liner creating a large area of contact with the reservoir, allowing oil to enter the well, as in a conventional oil field. A progressive cavity pump located downhole, in the area where the well bore steepens from the horizontal en route to the surface, will push the thick oil up the well. The pump will also draw down the pressure in the horizontal section of the well thus reducing the reservoir pressure — the drop in reservoir pressure should cause gas to effervesce from the oil and drive the oil towards the well, West explained.

Geologic investigation

Hulm explained that BP had arrived at the location and design of its heavy oil test after an exhaustive investigation of the geology of the Ugnu and an evaluation of various heavy oil production techniques.
Quite a lot of information about the Ugnu can be gleaned from the various wells that have passed through this formation en route to drilling targets in the established oil reservoirs deeper below the North Slope, Hulm said. Rock cores pulled from some of these wells provide evidence about the detailed nature of the Ugnu deposits, while well log data enable the extrapolation of rock information to wells from which well cores were not obtained. And seismic data provides a regional picture of the geometry and extent of the Ugnu formation.

Piecing together data from these various sources, geologists have determined that the Ugnu sands commonly fill what must have been meandering river channels within ancient river delta systems during the late Cretaceous and early Tertiary. The most promising looking oil reservoir units consist of multiple sand-filled river channels, stacked together to form large sand bodies in the subsurface.

The entire formation slopes west to east, lying about 2,000 feet below the surface on the western side of the central North Slope and being 5,000 feet deep to the east. Many geologic faults cut through the strata, breaking the reservoir into a multiplicity of compartments but also trapping oil in the sand bodies by juxtaposing the sand against more impervious rocks.

The heavy oil in the Ugnu has formed as a result of bacteria eating the originally formed light oil. And, with the bacteria becoming increasingly active at lower temperatures, the oil at the relatively cold, shallow western end of the Ugnu is heavier and thicker than the oil at the deeper and less cold eastern end, Hulm said.

Choice of technique

That variation in depth and oil type from one part of the Ugnu to another has a critical impact on the choice of technique used to extract oil from the Ugnu sands.
Hulm described a hierarchy of heavy oil extraction techniques, some of which have a multiyear track record of successful use and some of which are more hypothetical in nature. Methods that have seen success in some parts of the world can be broadly categorized as mining, hot extraction and cold extraction.

The direct mining of heavy oil deposits can be eliminated as a possibility for heavy oil production on the North Slope, in part because of the depth of the Ugnu sands and in part because of unacceptable environmental impacts, Hulm said. Hot extraction, typically involving the injection of steam into the underground sand to reduce the oil viscosity, has been used with success in Canada and is a possible candidate for North Slope use. Both CHOPS and the use of horizontal wells are examples of cold oil extraction techniques and both have track records of success in some places.

But the best technique to use in a particular situation depends on the particular combination of oil and rock properties that a would-be heavy oil producer is dealing with, Hulm said.

“It’s actually the rock and fluid properties that dictate which of these methods is going to work,” he said.

For its North Slope heavy oil production test, BP determined that cold techniques — CHOPS and horizontal wells — would be most appropriate. These techniques seemed suitable for the reservoir depths, sand qualities and oil viscosities within the North Slope units where BP is operator, Hulm explained. And the use of cold techniques would avoid some engineering challenges potentially associated with pumping hot steam through well pipes in the North Slope permafrost, he said.

However, it is likely that a hot, steam-driven technique would be more appropriate in the shallower and heavier oil deposits, more toward the western end of the Ugnu, he said.

Risk assessment

Using the results of its geologic analysis, BP developed a set of maps depicting the relative risks to successful cold heavy oil production at different places, using parameters such as the rock porosity, sand thickness and oil quality. The maps led BP to the selection of the Milne Point S-pad as a suitable test location. The location sits over stacked, Ugnu channel sands and is within reaching distance of several reservoir zones and a couple of faulted reservoir compartments, Hulm said.
And BP sees the possibility of 7 billion barrels of oil in place in reservoir areas earmarked as candidates for cold production. If cold extraction works the recovery factor would likely be around 10 percent, but could approach 20 percent, Hulm said.

As a proof of concept exercise, BP is trying out two horizontal wells and two CHOPS wells in an initial test phase, West said. It will take about a week to draw down the pressure in the horizontal well that has gone into production, after which the heavy oil team will monitor the well for a week before starting up the first CHOPS well, he said.

But extracting heavy oil from a reservoir below 2,000 feet of permafrost in the Arctic represents a move outside the envelope of industry experience of using cold heavy oil extraction techniques, Hulm said. And the production characteristics of the Ugnu reservoir and oil are unknown. Moreover, the use of surface-driven rods to spin the progressive cavity pumps at the bottoms of wells necessarily deviated far from the vertical in the North Slope’s drilling-footprint-conscious environment will present some particular technical challenges.

Depending on the test results, BP could determine that some other production technique is required, Hulm said. However, at some time in the future heavy oil production will hopefully deliver a substantial new resource to market and bring a new source of revenue to Alaska, he said.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Green Thing

In the line at the store, the cashier told the older woman that she should bring her own grocery bag because plastic bags weren't good for the environment. The woman apologized to him and explained, "We didn't have the 'green thing' back in my day."

The clerk responded, "That's our problem today. The former generation did not care enough to save our environment."

He was right, that generation didn't have the green thing in its day.

Back then, they returned their milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled.

But they didn't have the green thing back in that customer's day.

In her day, they walked up stairs, because they didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. They walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time they had to go two blocks.

But she was right. They didn't have the green thing in her day.

Back then, they washed the baby's diapers because they didn't have the throw-away kind. They dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts - wind and solar power really did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing.

But that old lady is right, they didn't have the green thing back in her day.

Back then, they had one TV, or radio, in the house - not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief, not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen, they blended and stirred by hand because they didn't have electric machines to do everything for you. When they packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, they used a wadded up old newspaper to cushion it, not styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, they didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. They used a push mower that ran on human power. They exercised by working so they didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.

But she's right, they didn't have the green thing back then.

They drank from a fountain when they were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time they had a drink of water. They refilled their writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and they replaced the razor blades or bought a blade sharpener for a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.

But they didn't have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or rode the school bus instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. They had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And they didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

But isn't it sad the current generation laments how wasteful the old folks were just because they didn't have the green thing back then?

Monday, March 28, 2011

DNV Macondo BOP Final Report

DNV Macondo BOP report - Drill pipe at an awkward angle
DNV has released its final report into what went wrong with the Blow Out Preventer above the Macondo well - it was drill pipe not being cut properly, due to being at an awkward angle when the rams tried to cut it.

At the time of the accident, there was a drill pipe tool joint between the upper annular ram and the upper variable bore ram. When both of these rams were closed around the drill pipe, forces from the flow of fluids pushed the tool joint into the upper annular ram.

This meant that the when the blind shear ram was closed, it did not close the drillpipe smoothly, but pushed the pipe at an awkward angle, which meant it did not seal.

Note - it was not a problem of a tool joint being positioned between the blind shear rams at the time they were activated and the rams not being able to cut them (as many people thought it might be) - but the tool joint being in a position such that the rams could not cleanly cut the drill pipe.

An additional contributing factor was the fact that the upper annular ram, which closes around the drillpipe but does not squash the drillpipe, was closed at the time, because of the negative pressure tests which were carried out.

So the drillpipe did not have freedom to move - this also means that the rams were trying to close the drill pipe in a scenario which might have not been previously tested.

The liquids flowing through the well made it buckle between the upper annular and upper variable bore rams, which also led it to squash in an awkward way.

So as the blind shear rams closed, part of the drill pipe cross section ended up being trapped between the ram block faces, so the blocks did not fully close.

The evidence suggests that the blind shear rams were activated on the morning of April 22nd (the date the rig sank) - at this date the hydraulic plunger to the autoshear valve was cut, DNV says - although there is no way to be sure exactly when it closed, it could have been activated earlier by the deadman / automatic mode failure system.

When the drill pipe was sheared on April 29 with the casing shear rams, the flow just found a different route, going through open drill pipe at the casing shear rams, and up the wellbore to the blind shear rams.

DNV recommends that the industry makes further studies what effect flow through the drill pipe tubing and blow out preventer components can have on the ability for the BOP to close, with possible buckling of the drill pipe.

It also recommends that the industry should study the effects of tubulars being fixed or constrained in the blow out preventer as the rams close.

DNV recommends that the industry should also look at potential effects of certain activities (for example conducting negative pressure tests) can have on the ability for a BOP to operate in an emergency.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kenai LNG plant set to close this spring

ConocoPhillips, Marathon to mothball facility due to weak market conditions; plant has been shipping to buyers in Japan since 1969

By Eric Lidji
For Petroleum News

With news that ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil plan to mothball their liquefied natural gas plant on the Kenai Peninsula this spring, Alaska is left standing on a bridge without a keystone. Since making its first shipment in 1969, the Nikiski export facility has held the Cook Inlet natural gas market together, even as that market began to change with age.
In its first few decades in operation, the facility justified the production of large Cook Inlet gas fields for local use by providing a large market outside Alaska. In the 2000s, it provided backup for utilities as local deliverability declined. Now, the plant could theoretically be converted to an import facility to bolster declining local production.
ConocoPhillips and Marathon made their decision based on market conditions, but those conditions aren’t easily delineated. As recently as last summer, the owners felt confident enough about the Asian market to apply for another two-year extension of their export license, but it appears the companies could not secure contracts through April 2013.
The reasons abound. The plant used to be the sole supplier to Japan, but now supplies only one half of one percent of that market. The LNG shipments leaving Alaska were once the largest in the world, but are now among the smallest. Supply contracts between Alaska and Japan used to run for 15 years, but have recently run for two-year terms.
Now, the future of the plant is uncertain.
“Right now, our intent is to get the plant preserved. We’re going to be evaluating options,” Dan Clark, ConocoPhillips’ manager of Cook Inlet assets, told Petroleum News. Those options range from closing the plant, to reconfiguring it, to selling it.
The bad news ripple effect
While Asian markets don’t appear to be mourning the news, the closure’s impact on Alaska markets will be wide ranging because of the unique role the LNG facility plays.
Once the plant is mothballed in April or May, it will jeopardize more than 100 direct and indirect jobs and tens of millions in taxes and royalties for state and local governments.
With the coldest months over by then, Southcentral should be no worse off than expected for this winter, but peak demand will be a critical issue next winter. Although Enstar Natural Gas, through Cook Inlet Natural Gas Storage Alaska, is building a new third-party storage facility, it won’t be ready until 2013. Even once it comes online, it won’t make up for the combined loss of the plant and declining Cook Inlet production.
“This storage facility is not intended to be a be-all end-all solution for Cook Inlet,” said John Sims, a spokesman for Enstar Natural Gas, the largest consumer in Alaska.
While Enstar expects to start getting firm shipments from the North Fork unit starting in March, those deliveries won’t fill the shortfall Enstar is facing in the coming years.
“That insurance policy that we had is lost,” Sims said. “And that’s a big one.”
Some wells to be shut-in
Until storage is available, ConocoPhillips will have to shut-in some wells once local demand drops in the summer. Because of the aging nature of Cook Inlet reservoirs, it’s unknown how those wells will produce once ConocoPhillips brings them back online.
(However, ConocoPhillips will continue to operate the Tyonek platform at the North Cook Inlet unit. While that unit primarily feeds the export facility, it is not isolated from the grid. North Cook Inlet and Beluga River will now be used to fill local contracts.)
The closure could also dampen exploration in Cook Inlet.
Through a deal with the state, ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil bought third-party natural gas at their export facility, creating a market for explorers. Even though Alaska is craving natural gas, the local market might still not be large enough to support all of the potential production from the Cook Inlet leaseholders currently interesting in drilling.
The loss of an overseas market could also jeopardize plans to bring North Slope natural gas to Southcentral. Various plans for an in-state pipeline require an “anchor tenant,” like the export facility, to keep residential and commercial customers from bearing the full cost of the project. Meanwhile, an “all-Alaska line” from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez is based on exporting LNG, although the larger volumes available from the North Slope could change the market dynamics, allowing Alaska to better compete against other basins.
A plant in gradual decline
The closure of the plant is not entirely unexpected.
The last decade brought fundamental changes to the operation of the plant.
Phillips Petroleum and Marathon Oil built their facility at the dawn of the global LNG trade, only a few years after Great Britain began importing it from Algeria in 1964.
The Kenai plant started its life as a pioneering infrastructure system: a liquefaction plant in Alaska and a re-gasification plant in Japan, the two largest LNG tankers ever built and the new offshore Tyonek platform along with new pipelines and wells to support it.
The facility originally operated on long-term contracts with two Japanese utilities, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Inc., and Tokyo Gas Co. Ltd. The first export license ran from 1969 to 1984 with a five-year extension. The second license ran from 1989 to 2004.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the idea of shipping gas overseas caused heartburn at home.
In 1996, Phillips and Marathon applied for a five-year extension, through 2009, but local utilities and producers argued that continued exports would cause shortages in Alaska.
The U.S. Department of Energy approved the extension, but the issue reared its head again when ConocoPhillips and Marathon asked for a two-year extension through 2011.
The State of Alaska only backed the request after the companies agreed to certain concessions, like meeting local needs, increasing drilling and buying third party gas.
Utilities supported last extension
Last summer, when ConocoPhillips and Marathon requested another two-year extension, though 2013, the changing nature of the Cook Inlet changed the nature of the opposition.
Aside from a group of Democratic lawmakers worried about local supplies meeting local demand, the request got wide support from utilities, producers and the State of Alaska.
That happened for two reasons. First, ConocoPhillips and Marathon asked only for more time to ship volumes already approved for export. Second, storage and deliverability became more immediately pressing issues in Southcentral than production.
In the past decade, though, the plant and Cook Inlet began to show their age.
A 2006 report estimated that the plant would need significant investments to continue operating beyond 2011. ConocoPhillips recently put the cost of that investment in the range of several hundred million dollars. Except for an expansion in the mid-1990s, the plant, including its two turbines, has been in service since operations began in 1969.
(Reconfiguring the plant for imports would create additional costs.)
In 2007, Agrium mothballed its nitrogen fertilizer operations on the Kenai Peninsula after years of declining gas purchases because it could no longer secure a supply contract.
In April 2009, ConocoPhillips and Marathon cut their tanker fleet in half, reducing the volume of shipments. “Looking back on it, that was sort of the first step,” Clark said.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

AGIA an issue in Juneau

House Bill 142 says line uneconomic without firm commitments by summer
Kristen Nelson Petroleum News

Is it time to declare AGIA dead? That’s the question some Alaska legislators are asking.
The TransCanada-ExxonMobil Alaska Pipeline Project, one of two projects to move Alaska North Slope gas to market, was licensed by the state under the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act.
Tony Palmer, vice president of Alaska development for TransCanada, said after the close of the July 30 open season last year for the Alaska Pipeline Project that “we have received multiple bids from major industry players and others for significant volumes.”
The next step, he said, is to work with potential customers to resolve conditions on the bids: “That’s what we’ll be doing over the next several months.”
Palmer told Petroleum News just prior to the close of the open season that the goal was to have precedent agreements signed by the end of the year. If conditions are simpler, it may take less time, he said.
On the other hand, “If we get many complex conditions we may not be able to achieve it in 100 business days,” extending beyond the end of the year when precedent agreements could be signed, Palmer said.
Because year-end has come and gone without signed precedent agreements, some members of Alaska’s Legislature are now concerned that the AGIA-licensed project is a failure and they want to legislate a way for the state to get out of its contract.
State required continuation
Under AGIA, the state required that in the event of a failed initial open season — no bidders for pipeline capacity or not enough bidders — the licensee would be committed to continue through certification by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
That was one of the must-haves in AGIA, which in return provided a number of incentives, including $500 million in state matching funds for work on the project through FERC certification.
Palmer told legislators during the 2007 debate over AGIA that TransCanada preferred — in the case of a failed initial open season — to focus on obtaining customers “as opposed to doing the engineering and regulatory and legal work to capture a FERC certificate.”
Palmer said that even though the state offered a higher cost-share match after an open season, that TransCanada would prefer not to pursue the certificate “until we had customers or credit.” Told that fellow Canadian pipeline company Enbridge had told legislators “no producers, no pipeline,” Palmer said in his view it is “no customers, no credit, no pipeline.”
The Legislature passed AGIA in 2007, and despite its concerns over the FERC certification requirement, TransCanada submitted an AGIA application and received the AGIA license in 2008.
Both the Alaska Pipeline Project and the competing BP-ConocoPhillips Denali project held open seasons last year. Both reported receiving bids; neither project has completed negotiating precedent agreements.
HB 142 introduced
Which brings us to the new session of the Alaska Legislature, and concerns by some House Republicans that since precedent agreements have not been signed the AGIA-licensed project may not be economic and may not result in a pipeline, while the state is committed to reimbursing TransCanada up to $500 million.
The sponsors of House Bill 142, introduced Feb. 4, say the bill would provide an exit strategy for the state if there are insufficient firm transportation commitments resulting from the initial open season.
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Kenai, speaking at a Feb. 7 press conference, said the Legislature is in the dark.
“We’ve heard from TransCanada after the open season that gas was bid,” but don’t know if there is enough gas for a pipeline, he said.
Chenault also said “our perception of natural gas supplies in the Lower 48 at the time of the AGIA process are considerably different than what they are today,” with shale gas production growing at a rapid rate.
Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said the goal of the legislation is “to create a sense of urgency about moving forward with the AGIA process.” That urgency was “not mandated in the original AGIA legislation and … I think it was an oversight in the original AGIA legislation,” he said.
The bill creates “a rebuttable presumption that the project licensed under the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act is uneconomic because of insufficient firm transportation commitments during the first open season,” gives TransCanada until July 15 to disclose that it received firm transportation commitments sufficient to support construction of the project, and requires the commissioners of Natural Resources and Revenue to notify the Legislature before Aug. 1 whether firm transportation commitments were disclosed to them prior to July 15.
The commissioners would have until Aug. 15 to submit a report to the Legislature that there are sufficient firm transportation commitments for the project to go forward, or that the project has credit support sufficient to finance construction and predicted costs of transportation “would result in a producer rate of return that is not below the rate typically accepted by a prudent oil and gas exploration and production company for incremental upstream investment that is required to produce and deliver gas to the project.”
TransCanada, administration, respond
Palmer told Petroleum News Feb. 8 that TransCanada “is confident that we have done everything we can do to advance the project and meet the obligations we have to the State of Alaska; and to date the State of Alaska has met their obligations to us as the licensee.”
He said he wouldn’t prejudge what might happen with the bill, but will “participate as requested and we’ll see how that plays out.”
The Associated Press is reporting that the administration plans a legal review of the bill.
Deputy Commissioner of DNR Joe Balash told AP there are concerns about “impacts and potential exposure” from the measure.
Larry Persily, federal coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects, told Petroleum News in a Feb. 8 e-mail: “I understand Alaskans’ frustrations with the pace of the gas pipeline project and I know people want to see some positive news about the open seasons. I only ask that people not confuse the debate over AGIA with the project itself. The pipeline is possible, the project would be good for the state and the nation, and the federal government is ready to work with whichever company or companies are willing to risk the tens of billions of dollars needed to finance the pipeline.”
Legislative reactions
Members of the Senate Bipartisan Working Group had mixed reactions to the bill.
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said in a Feb. 8 press availability there were some concerns in the Senate about whether the state has given the process enough time, and said he didn’t “anticipate a similar bill on the Senate side, but we’ll see how things progress on the House side.”
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said he thinks discussion is timely, and said he’s “concerned that we could be tied up in the contractual obligations for years into the future.”
Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said he thinks the Legislature needs to wait to see the results from the open season “and then sort it out at that time.”
House Democrats, speaking at House Minority press availability Feb. 8, were opposed.
Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she thinks “the State of Alaska should be taking down barriers to entry instead of putting them up and I think that unfortunately what the new AGIA bill would do is break our deal to get a gas line.” She said she thinks the bill would produce a lawsuit by “breaking our deal and setting an artificial deadline.”
The bill has been referred to only one committee, House Finance, and Kerttula said she intended to talk to Chenault about that.
Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, a member of House Resources, said “certainly AGIA and the whole concept of AGIA is a Resources issue” and should be heard by that committee.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Alaska lawmakers propose ditching Palin's pipeline plan

JUNEAU – Leading state lawmakers introduced legislation Friday to abandon a centerpiece of former Gov. Sarah Palin’s administration: a state-sanctioned effort to advance a major natural gas pipeline.

The measure from Alaska House Republicans underscored the impatience and skepticism that many lawmakers have expressed about the current process and a belief the state is no closer than it was several years ago to realizing the long-hoped-for line.

Under the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act championed by fellow Republican Palin, the state promised TransCanada Corp. up to $500 million to advance a line. TransCanada won the exclusive license in 2008.

The state has reported that reimbursements so far have topped $36 million.

The company missed a self-imposed target for reaching agreements with shippers at the end of 2010 but has cautioned against reading much into that, noting that negotiations are complex and continuing.

But a number of lawmakers are losing patience — and faith — that this process will succeed in getting a line built this decade, if ever. The measure Friday was the first such introduced by the Legislature.

The bill, introduced by Republican Reps. Mike Chenault, Mike Hawker, Craig Johnson and Kurt Olson, would presume the project is uneconomic if TransCanada cannot show proof to Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration before July 15 that it has received firm shipping commitments.

Parnell has stood behind the process, saying he supports efforts by private industry to build a line that could carry gas from the North Slope to market.

Read More

Monday, January 17, 2011

Alaska pipeline restarted, oil flowing

by Mary Pemberton / The Associated Press Fairbanks Daily News Miner

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Oil began flowing again Monday through the trans-Alaska pipeline after workers installed a pipe to bypass a leak at a pump house station on the North Slope.

Alyeska Service Pipeline Co. said it hoped to increase the amount of oil in the 800-mile pipeline to 500,000 barrels during the next 24 hours.

The pipeline was carrying about 630,000 barrels a day before the leak was discovered on Jan. 8 in an underground pipe encased in concrete.

"We are really monitoring the pipeline and the equipment very carefully as we bring it up," said Michelle Egan, a spokeswoman for Alyeska, which operates the pipeline.

The pipeline delivers about 13 percent of the nation's daily domestic oil production to tankers for West Coast delivery.

The oil began flowing again after crews completed a 157-foot bypass.

"It is a complicated process," said Rachel Baker-Sears, a spokeswoman for the Joint Information Center set up in Fairbanks to handle the crisis.

She said the restart went smoothly, but it could take a few days for the pipeline to return to previous pumping levels.

During the initial shutdown, the flow was scaled back to 5 percent of previous levels and oil was collected in two large storage tanks at Prudhoe Bay.

The pipeline was temporarily restarted after four days but was shut down again on Saturday so the bypass pipe could be installed.

During the shutdown, a containment vault was used to collect the estimated 13,326 gallons of oil that leaked from the pump station pipe.

Egan said there had been no known harm to wildlife or the environment.


TAPS Shut Down Because of Leak

TAPS shut down at midnight Friday for replacement pipe installation
Anchorage (Platts)--
Alyeska Pipeline Service Company began a planned 36-hour shutdown of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System as expected overnight to install new piping at Pump Station 1, bypassing a section of damaged pipe that caused TAPS to shut down last Saturday. The shutdown began at 12:07 a.m. Alaska Standard Time (0907 GMT) Saturday. The company is installing 157 feet of 24-inch pipe that had been fabricated in Fairbanks and moved to the North Slope earlier in the week. Federal and state regulators had allowed TAPS to do a temporary restart Tuesday night so that warm crude oil moving in the line would keep critical systems functioning and prevent a freezeup in winter conditions. TAPS was carrying about 630,000 b/d of crude when it was shut Saturday.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Pump station leak shuts down TAPS

Pump station leak shuts down Trans Alaska Pipeline System


Published: January 8th, 2011 07:23 PM

The 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline is shut down due to a leak at Pump Station 1 on the North Slope.

tool nameclose tool goes here North Slope oil producers have been asked to cut their production to 5 percent of normal.

An oil line encased in concrete leaked an unknown quantity of crude oil just outside a booster pump building, according to Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. spokeswoman Michelle Egan. Alyeska operates the line and its pump stations.

A crew doing a routine inspection noticed the leak this morning and Alyeska shut down the pipeline at about 9 a.m., Egan said.

"There's no visible oil on the tundra," Egan said. "We believe it's all inside that casing."

While Alyeska staff believe the leak is contained, Egan said, they wouldn't know for sure if it had escaped that concrete structure until crews had a chance to excavate around the pipe. Crews are working to determine how to fix the line and get the pipeline running, Egan said.

Alyeska is unsure when oil might start flowing, she said.

"We want to make sure that we aren't going to make the situation worse by restarting, so we're being very careful and methodical about that," Egan said.

BP is in the process of cutting off production at the fields it operates, said Steve Rinehart, Alaska spokesman for the oil company. It will take time for wells to be shut in and pipelines and other facilities to be freeze protected.

Normal production from the North Slope fields averages around 630,000 barrels a day of oil. A 5 percent production level would be about 31,500 barrels a day. The oil fields have limited storage capacity, and the production that occurs will go into storage while the trans-Alaska pipeline is shut off.

BP runs most of the oil fields on behalf of itself and the other leaseholders. Conoco Phillips and Pioneer Natural Resources also run fields. BP, Conoco and Exxon Mobil are the major producers on the North Slope.

Rinehart said it was unclear how long the pipeline shutdown would last.

The pipeline runs from the North Slope to a tanker port in Valdez. Pump Station 1 is at the beginning of the pipeline. Alyeska runs the pipeline for the five oil companies that own it: BP, Conoco, Exxon, Koch Industries and Chevron.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico could resume within weeks

Path Clears for Deep-Water Drilling

Deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico could resume within weeks under a policy announced Monday by the Obama administration, which has come under increasing criticism from the oil industry and politicians in the region over the impact of the drilling halt.

Oil and gas exploration in the Gulf's deep waters has been stopped since May, when President Barack Obama announced a six-month drilling moratorium in the wake of the April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 workers and set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The administration lifted the ban in October—a month ahead of schedule—but hasn't issued any permits for new deep water oil wells.

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the delay has hurt both the oil industry, which has seen billions of dollars in projects put on hold, and the Gulf Coast's economy, which has been hit hard by the slowdown.

The administration said Monday that it would clear the path for 13 companies, including Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC, to resume work on a handful of wells that were already approved and under way when the moratorium took effect. The 16 projects must still comply with strict new safety rules announced after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but in most cases won't be subjected to new environmental reviews.

The announcement means that some drilling could resume in a matter of weeks, although the exact timing remains unclear. But the policy doesn't affect the more than a dozen permit requests that were pending when the moratorium took effect or have been filed since. Those must still undergo enhanced environmental reviews.

GE Bets on Deep Water Oil With $1.3 Billion Wellstream Bid Access thousands of business sources not available on the free web. Learn More Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the newly formed federal agency in charge of offshore drilling, said projects that were interrupted by the moratorium deserved special consideration.

"For those companies that were in the midst of operations at the time of the deep-water suspensions, today's notification is a significant step toward resuming their permitted activity," Mr. Bromwich said in a statement.

Oil companies in recent weeks had become increasingly pessimistic about a quick resumption of drilling in 2011, with some predicting that the wait would last into the second half of the year. On Monday, the industry praised the decision but said more details were needed.

"It appears to be a step in the right direction," Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group, said in an interview. However, he said, "there are still major questions and some confusion among the companies about what is being required."

Elgie Holstein, a staff expert for the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group, said he didn't see any reason for projects halted by the moratorium to be treated as special cases. But he said the new policy was reasonable as long as regulators enforced the new safety and environmental rules. "I actually thought it was a balanced response," Mr. Holstein said. "It does relieve some of the pressure that the Gulf Coast has been feeling from an economic standpoint."

The administration has come under increasing pressure from Republicans and some Gulf Coast Democrats to allow drilling to resume. On Monday, lawmakers reacted cautiously to the announcement. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who has been a vocal critic of the administration's drilling policy, said some projects could still be thwarted.

"We need to know more about the conditions under which drilling will be allowed to resume and make sure those conditions don't actually undermine the intent," Ms. Landrieu said in a statement.

Doc Hastings, the Washington Republican who is incoming chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, was also skeptical.

"Today's announcement by BOEMRE only ensures the possibility that previous drilling activity can resume at some point in the future if certain requirements are met," Rep. Hastings said in a statement. "The Obama administration can prove it's serious about resuming drilling in the Gulf by actually issuing permits and allowing people to return to work."

—Siobhan Hughes and Tennille Tracy contributed to this article.