Linking up the Behemoth
Production and exploration in the oil and gas marketplace has become increasingly dependent on satellite-based telecommunications between offshore platforms and land-based headquarters. Besides real-time data transfer of drilling information and hydrocarbon accumulations, the industry routinely makes use of voice, fax and even videoconferencing applications.
Two oil operations off the coast of Canada have different broadband telecommunications needs. Mobile satellite technology fulfilled certain needs, while saving those operators money through cost sharing of shore-based hardware.
Energy production applications An energy company’s telecommunications requirements will vary, depending on whether that company is engaged in oil and gas production or in exploration. For production applications, an operator drills a constellation of oil wells, penetrating different producing zones. There are generally more industrial processes and more workers involved in production than in exploration. A typical example is the Hibernia drilling and production platform, operating about 200 miles off the coast of St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the Grand Banks.
The North Atlantic behemoth The Hibernia platform, which began providing service in 1997, produces nearly 150,000 barrels of oil daily. Half as high as the Empire State Building (three times as heavy) and containing more reinforcing steel than the Eiffel Tower, Hibernia is home to about 280 workers, rotating in three-week shifts, who require both business and personal communications. Radio requirements include aircraft control for helicopter transport and marine band communications with a fleet of vessels that steer icebergs away from a possible intercept.
As a production enterprise, Hibernia currently uses 512kbps of bandwidth for telecommunications, made available by Stratos, a provider of multinetwork mobile satellite services. The platform has a complete offshore wide-area network (WAN) and a broadband digital satellite link connecting it to the corporate offices in St. John’s. Voice, data and other applications are multiplexed onto the link.
Joe Arsenault, senior telecommunications systems engineer for Hibernia Management and Development, said that one of the greatest demands placed on the offshore telecom system was not data, but telephone service.
“With between 200 and 300 employees on the platform, we get a significant amount of telephone traffic back and forth to the platform,” Arsenault said. “We also have a fairly liberal policy in regards to employee telephone access for personal and business use. We’d like to think we provide our offshore personnel with a good level of connection to the mainland.”
Besides telephony, Hibernia uses satellite technology to deliver drilling and well-evaluation data, in addition to the necessary operations data require to run the world’s largest offshore oil processing and production platform. Data are collected on each well as it is drilled, in real time, using a process called “logging while drilling” (LWD).
LWD involves sending sensors down each well to monitor conductivity and other related data. Drilling and well-service contractors provide Hibernia with custom software that provides specialized graphical and numerical displays on high-resolution monitors.
The collected data are mirrored across a satellite link to Hibernia’s data interpretation center in St. John’s. Well specialists and geologists at the center can access the data-including the depth and location of the well-in real time. This information is used to determine the geophysical and geological features of the well and to anticipate the location of oil deposits.
Hibernia also boasts two full video-conferencing facilities offshore. One is used for day-to-day business communications; the other is a standby and can be used by medical technicians in case of medical emergencies on the platform.
Energy exploration applications Exploration projects typically employ a single, semisubmersible drilling rig staffed by as many as 85 people. This rig drills one well at a time and may require only telephone and LAN connectivity to support its telecommunications needs.
Exploration projects typically use less bandwidth than production facilities.
Commonly, these projects use 256kbps of bandwidth.
Searching for black gold The Jeanne d’Arc Basin Operations Group is a consortium of oil companies including Mobil Oil, Petro Canada, Chevron Canada and Norsk Hydro. Named for an oil-rich geological structure off St. John’s, the Jeanne d’Arc Basin Operations Group links local-area network (LAN) systems between offshore and shore-based facilities.
Roger Dugal, the lead well-operations engineer for the Jeanne d’Arc Basin group, said seven workstations on the offshore rig are connected with the LAN on shore, which includes another 15 workstations. The company’s drilling contractor, Global Marine Drilling, Houston, has five shore-based LAN connections and six or seven stations offshore. These two separate LAN systems share bandwidth.
Like Hibernia, the Jeanne d’Arc group requires real-time data transfer on drilling and well parameters, such as depth and background gas readings. Using a wireline logging system developed by Schlumberger, as much as 1Gb of information can be transmitted at a time by Stratos, over its satellite link, to a shore-based facility. At that point, the data are analyzed and recommendations are forwarded to employees on the drilling platform.
In the Jeanne d’Arc case, 25% of the available bandwidth has been allocated to voice and fax service. The equivalent of six satellite voice lines (three to the operator, three to the drilling contractor) and one fax line use 64kbps of satellite space.
Alternatives Offshore projects, by nature, are in remote locations, and terrestrial options, such as connecting to a cable, microwave or fiber optic network, generally are not workable. Alternatives are typically either mobile satellite services, such as Inmarsat, or a dedicated stabilized-base earth station on the offshore platform.
The cost for Inmarsat-B high-speed data can run as high as $10 per minute. Even if an operator rents a channel, and gets the deepest possible discount for a 24-hour link, airtime expenses can still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per month.
One alternative is a dedicated, stabilized earth station (as shown in Figure 1 on page 38), which is a point-to-point, VSAT-type application operating in the C-band or Ku-band. Although the installation cost on an offshore rig may be as much as a $250,000, charges can run as low as $10,000 to $15,000 per month for airtime and access. The high upfront capital cost is offset quickly over a year, as compared to an Inmarsat solution. However, because Stratos provides multinetwork solutions, having Inmarsat terminals installed along with the C-band earth station ensures a low capital-cost solution for emergency backup communications.
A single Inmarsat terminal in the high-speed data mode can deliver a maximum throughput of 64kbps. On the other hand, VSAT applications allow for data rates of 1.554Mbps (comparable to T1 service). On an offshore platform, typical bandwidth requirements range from about 300kbps to 500kbps.
The compressed voice channel capabilities of digital satellite links allow for 8kbps compressed-voice channels. At 500kbps of bandwidth, that means as many as 10 telephone calls can be terminated shoreside while retaining sufficient bandwidth to operate a reasonably high-speed LAN between the offshore platform and the shore-based headquarters.
Cost control To service oil and gas industry customers, Stratos constructed a C-band teleport and operations center in St. John’s. The company’s $1 million, 7.2m dish is capable of higher gain than smaller antennas. The C-band teleport provides service at lower airtime costs than its smaller L-band (e.g., Inmarsat) counterparts because the satellite requires lower power to transmit back to the offshore platform’s C-band earth station, which in turn conserves overall satellite power.
Hibernia is equipped with its own multiplexing equipment, and the company manages its own dedicated satellite link. Stratos provides an aggregated 512kbps bandwidth through a T1 digital circuit directly to the Hibernia premises. At that point, Hibernia manages its own telephone circuits and LAN bandwidth allocation.
This process works for Hibernia, but for companies that do not employ their own staff telecommunications engineers, a different service model is more likely. In this case, customers make use of the engineering resources of a satellite service provider to operate and manage the satellite service, end-to-end.
Regardless of the operating preferences, oil and gas companies can realize significant operational cost savings by using a single C-band teleport for all their communications.
For example, in addition to the Jeanne d’Arc Basin Operations, Amoco Canada, Terra Nova and Husky are scheduling more oil and gas exploration and drilling in the Grand Banks area. As each customer is added to the common-user, earth-station facility, Stratos can discount service to its customers while maintaining profitability.
This strategy of cost sharing has already proved successful. An Amoco Canada drilling project, begun in May 1997, overlapped the Hibernia project. Hibernia received a discount for service right from the start. When the Amoco project ended in January 1998, Hibernia returned to paying the original, non-discounted price. Now, both Hibernia and Jeanne d’Arc’s Glomar contractor will receive a discount. When the Husky project goes on line, all three companies will realize savings from joint use of the C-band teleport. That’s significant, considering the six-figure cost of using fixed point-to-point satellite services. That savings translates into lower operational costs overall, which in turn means a lower cost per barrel for oil production, and therefore greater margins for the oil companies using the services.