Commercial

Offshore Notebook: Demand Carries the Carriers

By William Stoichevski | September 1, 2007

Offshore

AFTER DISGORGING LESSER journalists on a recent media tour, the Super Puma lifted off again to circle the North Sea Sleipner platform with its BBC film crew. There was no knowing how many times they circled. Some said eight, others 12. Some said it didn’t matter, despite the 85-nm round trip. Norwegian oil giant Statoil "was paying for the fuel."

Statoil’s deep pockets are driving much flying off Norway, a mountainous country as long as the U.S. West Coast. Its $73.2-billion-a-year business becomes the world’s largest offshore oil and gas operator when it merges next month with what had been Norway’s other biggest oil company, Hydro.

In three years, CHC Helicopter has booked $1.46 billion in offshore transport contracts with Statoil. The latest, a $1 billion deal at June’s end, puts nine helicopters at Statoil’s disposal to 2015 — four Eurocopter EC225 Super Pumas and five Sikorsky Aircraft S-92s.

CHC coastal bases in Floro, Bergen, Brunnoysund, and Kristiansund all provide flights to offshore platforms, drill rigs, drill and production ships, and construction vessels.

At Kristiansund, its flights have risen from six a week in 1995 to 14 a day this year, all in support of just one area representing no more than a quarter of the bounty off Norway. Kristiansund serves just 10 platforms, six drill rigs, and the sub-Arctic Norne production ship. CHC in well-to-do Bergen serves the greater Norwegian Sea. Flights from Brunnoysund serve the increasingly important Barents Sea, where a Statoil find became Snoehvit LNG, the world’s first Arctic export terminal for liquefied natural gas.

With CHC in Aberdeen "running an intense operation with much flying and customer liaison" amid business that’s "absolutely" up, CHC in Norway is benefitting from Statoil’s interest in commissioning the latest helicopters. The oil company was quick to adopt the 19-seat S-92.

That faster, longer-range aircraft could get the nod if CHC triumphs again over rival Norsk Helikopter and wins a first contract for exclusive Barents Sea flying. A new production ship and sub-sea concept in the Barents is expected to win approval by year’s end for Goliat, the country’s first Arctic oilfield.

Norsk Helikopter had run a base in Hammerfest, Norway’s northernmost city, in anticipation of this offshore boom, only to pull out when the long-expected surge to the north failed to materialize. But the race is on again, and a go-ahead at Goliat would mean flights to construction and drilling vessels first, and for operations staff afterwards. Goliat signals the first moves in what Statoil calls "the last great petroleum province."

"Whoever wins the Barents contract will have to open a base in Hammerfest," a CHC traffic controller said. At stake is decades of Arctic flying.

To the northeast, the world No. 4 oil company, Total of France, has just inked a deal with Russian gas monopoly Gazprom to oversee a $16 billion development of the giant eastern Barents Sea gas field Shtokman.

The port of Murmansk, already an official Statoil base, is in for a $2 billion overhaul, including extra tens of millions for its spartan airport. Ditto for twin Arctic city Severodvinsk.

Total’s project management of the Russian build-up will center on much offshore construction, and Total crews will be accustomed to CHC comfort. Flying offshore the CHC way means much rigorous simulator training, full de-icing, and the best air conditioning. Little is known of Russian methods of offshore support. CHC would only say it’s "monitoring Russia carefully," perhaps suggesting it’s not known how "competitive" Russian operators will be.

Russian aviation is sure to win many of the flying jobs, and they’ll carry them out in their fashion. Companies could partner with a Russian operator, which is the emerging pattern for entering Russia.

Once the build-up begins, there will be a lot of flying. But stopovers to will have to be arranged for refuelling: Shtokman lies 310 nm offshore the Kola Peninsula. Helicopter stops will have to be built. The nearby North Sea and newly completed Russian oil terminal at Varandei in the High Arctic bear testimony to the strange, towering structures doubling as heli-landings.

Whatever the future shape of Shtokman and the Arctic, where a quarter of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves lie, CHC is enjoying what it calls the "North Sea’s significant upturn" to the southwest.

It’s all about drilling. The North Sea, Norwegian Sea, and Barents Sea show no signs of less drilling. Shtokman has only seen its first seven wells. In the Barents,, some 60 wells have been drilled. Each required a rig to which specialists flew out and back regularly. Entire platform shifts normally change out every two weeks, although such massive commuting has yet to start in the Barents.

Right now, some sixty rigs — not platforms or other offshore kin — are daily destinations. By 2010, many of the 40 or so chopper-friendly, newly ordered semi-submersible rigs will have arrived. A handful of these are bound for the harsh environment of the Barents Sea.

Russian commitment at Shtokman and elsewhere in the Arctic means VIP trips may turn into mass flyouts for rotating crews. Helicopter safety could well become the legal concern of Russia’s Gazprom or France’s Total, as it is for operator Statoil in Norway.

"We are seeing unprecedented demand for new-technology aircraft in all of our European business units," CHC told Rotor & Wing in a letter.

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