Industry, government officials see 'no roadblock' to FPSOs in Gulf of Mexico

Offshore participants and government regulators found "no identifiable roadblocks" barring use of floating production, storage, and offloading vessels in deepwater oil projects in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sam Fletcher
OGJ Senior Writer

HOUSTON, Sept. 26 -- A 2-day workshop by offshore industry participants and government regulators in Houston this week found "no identifiable roadblocks" barring use of floating production, storage, and offloading (FPSO) vessels in development and production of deepwater oil projects in the Gulf of Mexico.

While "some hurdles" and technical issues still must be addressed, said Peter M. Lovie, vice-president of business development at American Shuttle Tankers LLC, Houston, the primary focus among industry representatives now is on the economics of an FPSO project in the gulf's deep waters, vs. using a pipeline or some other means of transporting the oil ashore. "That's a major shift from the issues they were looking at in the past," he said.

The primary reason for that change, Lovie said, is the US Minerals Management Service's record of decision on an environmental impact statement, published in the Dec. 31, 2001, Federal Register, that gave general approval to the use of FPSO systems in the central and western gulf.

Yet 9 months later, MMS officials are still waiting for an offshore operator to propose using a FPSO in a deepwater production plan.. "All we need now is for some company to step forward and go through the (approval) process" for a specific project, said Charles E. Smith, a research program manager for MMS.

One detail yet to be resolved is what a producer would do with the associated natural gas, as FPSOs are designed to store only liquid production. MMS regulations ban reinjection of produced gas offshore as a conservation issue. However, Smith suggested that MMS officials might consider a temporary injection program "until new technology or infrastructure comes along," providing that the operator has a feasible plan for recovering and producing all of the injected gas.

He said MMS would work with producers in developing other methods of transporting gas from an FPSO, including liquefied natural gas, compressed gas, gas-to-liquids, and others. MMS would also consider plans to use the gas to fuel electric power generators located offshore at the well site, with the electricity transmitted by subsea cable to markets ashore.

"We don't have all of the answers yet because we don't have all the questions. But we're confident we can sit down and work out solutions," said Tricia Clark, manager of quality assurance and emergency response at Skaugen PetroTrans Inc. "There are still lots of operational issues, but by drawing on the years of experience with FPSOs around the world, there is no reason why this can't be done in the Gulf of Mexico."

To do it right, she said, "We have to look at the whole system." Clark represented the American Petroleum Institute's shuttle vessels task force at the 2-day forum.

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