Higher Crude Prices Spur North Sea Automation

Prices on world oil markets have fallen recently, and with them U.S. gasoline prices, though no doubt many Automation World readers still think an average of $1.90 per gallon for unleaded is tantamount to daylight robbery.

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Well, if it is, we in the United Kingdom would settle for being fleeced U.S. style. We’re currently paying 85 pence per litre for unleaded, which translates, at the current dollar rate, into a truly eye-watering $6.27 per U.S. gallon.

But there is a silver lining. Although the United Kingdom is the second largest oil producer in Europe, production from the North Sea peaked in the late 1990s, and in the last few months, we’ve become a net importer again. Go back a year or two and the prognosis for many of the older fields was for a relatively rapid decline leading to abandonment and decommissioning. But it’s wonderful what a more than doubling of the crude price can do.

Suddenly, reserves that were economically unrecoverable become attractive again, extending the life of existing fields and bringing other prospects into play. One consequence is that operators who thought their existing control and safety systems, many of which date back to the 1980s, would see out the last few years of their facilities’ productive lives, are now having to contemplate upgrade or replacement, making them more than usually receptive to innovative solutions.

London-based Invensys (www.invensys.com), for example, has migrated three of Total’s production platforms from an older Fisher Provox to Foxboro I/A, using its “Plug in” system approach, which retains the existing field wiring, terminations and enclosures. Shell Expro, on the other hand, decided on a full Foundation Fieldbus solution, the first in the U.K. sector of the North Sea, when it gave Yokogawa (www.yokogawa.com), Cheshire, the task of replacing the control and safety systems on the Brent Alpha platform, thus enabling unmanned operation from Brent Bravo some three kilometers distant. Meanwhile a number of operators are understood to be considering upgrading platform distributed control systems by retaining existing controllers and inputs/outputs (I/Os), and linking them to modern and open supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) architectures based on robust and scaleable server technology.

Nor are the opportunities for innovation confined to the main control system. For example, Citect SCADA, from Citect (www.citect.com), Birmingham, handles all human-machine interface (HMI) and metering supervisory functions in a personal computer-based metering system, which has replaced proprietary flow computers and associated database computers on EnCana’s Scott platform. And ICS Triplex (www.icstriplex.com), Essex, is currently working on a development contract for the Ormen Lange gas field in the Norwegian sector, whose aim is to determine the feasibility of locating a Subsea Compression Facility on the sea floor at a depth of up to 1,100 metres.

But perhaps the most unusual beneficiary of falling production is U.K. SCADA specialist Transmitton (www.transmitton.co.uk), based in Leistershire. Back in 1997, it installed a system to control the export of 20 billion cubic metres of gas per year from the United Kingdom through the 235 kilometer Interconnector gas pipeline to Belgium. Last year it won a further £0.75 million contract to upgrade the system to handle the import of up to 26 billion cubic metres a year back into the United Kingdom.

Andrew Bond, andrew@abpubs.demon.com.uk, is a journalist based in the United Kingdom and is Editor of the Industrial Automation Insider, a monthly newsletter delivered via e-mail. www.iainsider.co.uk.

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