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WA oil majors gain new technology

REMOTE or small gas fields off the West Australian coast could be developed employing the world’s first floating LNG plant, the technology for which is now available for Woodside and Shell.

Despite their bitter takeover battle, the two companies are working together to launch the world’s first offshore LNG project, with the objective of employing it in the Timor Sea.

However, the likelihood of its use there has been lessened by a recent agreement for the joint development of a long seabed pipeline, to be shared by the Woodside consortium developing the Greater Sunrise fields and the Phillips Petroleum group developing the Bayu Undan fields.

Even if it is discarded there the FLNG concept is seen as the next step in developing many offshore gas fields too remote for pipelines.

There are a number of small fields in the Timor Sea and giant structures off the north west coast of Australia which could be developed with floating facilities.

An example is the giant Scott Reef gas and condensate field, the first discovery on the North West Shelf 30 years ago.

If the find had been oil, development would have quickly followed but its distance from the North West coast, 450km, precluded natural gas production.

It is ironic that the fields now being planned for the Timor Sea will involve even longer pipelines, but the Woodside group were able to set aside Scott Reef when it discovered other highly productive fields on the North West Shelf.

The group examined the possibility of building an LNG plant on Scott Reef itself, which is only a few metres above high tide, but the project was discarded.

A floating LNG plant could be a solution, particularly as its development costs are believed to be attractive for many fields now “stranded” offshore around the world.

The most serious obstacle to the use of these is no longer technical, but in persuading potential buyers of their reliability.

Floating LNG projects may be more readily accepted by buyers following the recent participation of Osaka Gas Company in the Greater Sunrise venture. It is a major importer of LNG into Japan.

BHP has also developed technology that could be employed in an offshore plant. Six years ago it commissioned a small onshore operation near Onslow, that received natural gas from offshore fields, and the expertise developed there could be employed at sea.

A significant attraction of using FLNG in the Timor Sea would be its relative security in terms of tropical cyclones.

While it is believed the facilities can be designed to withstand these, Shell and Woodside see an area with relatively calm seas off the Timor Sea. It is not known whether fields like Scott Reef would offer acceptable weather patterns.

It appears that the FLNG barge would remain permanently in place, not readily disconnected from its seabed facilities, as occurs with most floating oil and gas platforms and tankers.

Shell and Woodside spent nearly $US2 million in 1999 exploring different types of technology for Greater Sunrise, particularly FLNG. An even more exotic choice – a seabed LNG plant - was examined.

The results demonstrated that FLNG offered a project competitive with a seabed pipeline (at least one developed only for the Greater Sunrise fields) that could be commissioned by 2007.

An advantage for some offshore fields would be that it could make the reinjection of carbon dioxide easier. Some fields produce a high percentage of this, presenting problems in their development, given the global preoccupation with CO2 as a cause of the Greenhouse Effect.

The model studied provided for production of 3.8 million tonnes of LNG a year but it could be much less; one of the advantages of the system is said to be its ability to fill small niches in the international LNG market.

The offshore LNG plant would be on a self-contained barge and carriers would have to be specially designed, with thruster systems for loading.

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