Tue, Nov 14, 2017 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: Brazil pushing limits on deep-sea oil frontier


An aerial view of the Cidade de Itaguai oil platform and its heliport, operating at the Santos basin exploration unit of “pre-salt” in Itaguai, about 240km off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Friday.

Photo: AFP

Scanning the maze of pipes and valves sprouting from one of Brazil’s pioneering deep Atlantic oil platforms, Lucas Azevedo does not mince words.

“We’re sitting on a bomb,” said Azevedo, safety officer for Brazilian company Petrobras’ Cidade de Itaguai platform, about 240km off the coast of Rio de Janeiro.

At 28, Azevedo is responsible for enforcing rules designed to prevent everything from platform crew members falling down stairs to the entire place blowing up.

And the prospect of a platform turning into a fireball while sucking oil out from miles under the ocean floor is not an altogether unreasonable fear.

The platform — actually a converted oil tanker — is crammed with high-pressure networks of oil and natural gas lines, not to mention the 1.6 million barrels of oil it stores in its hold.

“A gas leak could provoke an explosion ... with very serious fatalities,” Azevedo said, when asked his greatest concern.

Anchored in sometime stormy waters 2.24km deep, the Cidade de Itaguai platform defies nature’s most primal forces — and what until recently were considered humankind’s own limitations.

The so-called pre-salt fields here contain vast crude oil reserves, but at incredibly hard-to-access depths, requiring a combination of high-tech gadgetry and simpler things, such as extremely long, strong pipes.

The rewards are just as impressive, Petrobras and its growing list of foreign partners in the pre-salt project said.

For example, the Lula field, where the platform is located, has an estimated 8.3 billion barrels of reserves, making it by far the most important part of the Santos basin, which now accounts for 40 percent of all oil production in Brazil.

Lula alone produces close to 800,000 barrels a day.

To get at those riches, the Cidade de Itaguai pumps oil from seven wells piercing not just 2.2km underwater, but a further 5km below the seabed.

Until a decade ago, this was almost science fiction. Even now, such operations are reserved for the world’s oil majors.

“The equipment is getting bigger and with that, so are the complications,” said Johan Vermaak, 46, the South African who manages the platform. “This is groundbreaking, what’s happening here.”

Travel to and from the platform, including during a rare visit by Agence France-Presse and three Brazilian media outlets, is dependent on helicopters.

From the air, the Cidade de Itaguai looks like some mad scientist’s creation — an otherwise ordinary ship festooned in so many yellow and white pipes and so much scaffolding that there appears to be no space left to move.

The platform is seven stories high and has a deck area equivalent to three soccer fields, so the 150 crew spend much of their lives navigating steep staircases and long, windowless corridors.

Although the ship, held in place by 24 mammoth anchors, is in mid-ocean, most of its exterior work stations barely have a view of the water. Once inside, there is only the slight swaying of the hull in the waves to remind you of the sea at all.

Petrobras contracts Tokyo-based Modec to run the installation, with a crew drawn 85 percent from Brazil, plus others from as far afield as India, Italy, Malaysia and Ukraine.

Most crew members work two weeks straight, then fly back to shore for a two-week break. While aboard, they sleep in bunks in small, plain cabins where a hot shower and a television are the only frills.

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