Following a few busy days at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston last week, Helix Energy Solutions group invited me on a tour of the Helix Producer I, the first ship-shaped production vessel in the Gulf of Mexico.
Approaching via helicopter, the Helix Producer I stands out as a rather unusual looking vessel. Originally designed as an ice-class train ferry servicing routes between Germany and Denmark, she had about 40 feet of beam added to her at Viktor Lenac Shipyard in Croatia, upgraded with seven 12MW electric thrusters, dual 4,000-pound hydraulic thrusters, and a topsides production unit was installed at Corpus Christi’s Kiewit Shipyard between 2006 and 2009. Her bow and pilothouse are the only features that reflect her original design.
After landing on the helipad we soon met up with the Offshore Installation Manager, Dean McFarlin at the Production Control Center.
“Is this really it?” I thought to myself.
Dean and I, along with Helix’s Director of Marketing, Cameron Wallace, were in an office with a bunch of flat panel TV screens and the production watchstander.
It seemed like a pretty straightforward operation. Oil, gas, and water come in, the produced fluids get processed, then sent right back off the rig and on toward shore. Certainly a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the deepwater drilling rigs I had worked on a few years back.
“We’re currently producing from 5 wells at about 50 percent of vessel capacity” Dane mentioned.
The Helix Producer I can produce 30,000 bbl/day of oil, 70 million cubic feet of gas, and 50,000 bbl/day of water.
“Very salty water,” he added. This water was left over from ancient seas that came and went long ago and helped create the perfect conditions for vast oil fields.
Winding down and around the stairwells inside the accommodations area, we made our way outside to the DTS, aka the Disconnectable Transfer System, which is the conduit from which all the produced hydrocarbons flow to and from.
It’s a fairly high tech system. Not only does it handle all the incoming production and export lines, but it is also integrated with the electro-hydraulic umbilicals that control the subsea architecture a few thousand feet below on the sea floor.
The crazy part is that all these lines are built into a swivel system that allows the ship to spin around the buoy via its dynamic positioning system without leaking or damaging any of the pressurized piping or umbilical systems.
Pointing at the swivel, Dean comments, “There’s probably only 2 or 3 people who actually know how this swivel really works. It’s a closely guarded Helix secret.”
This buoy is designed with a quick release system that allows it to be disengaged from the Producer in case of a storm. The following video shows it being released while dodging Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011.
After the storm, the buoy was then retrieved in a rather ingenious fashion. The Producer sent out a sonar ping, of sorts, which triggered the release of a small buoy with a line affixed to it. Tied to that line was a much bigger line which was then used to winch the huge production buoy back into position.
We left the DTS and Dean led us through the aft production facility where he explained all the different systems used to separate the gas, crude oil, and water. The crude oil and gas are routed back to shore, however the thousands of barrels of water produced every day are treated and discharged over the side via a high tech oil/water separator.
MARPOL Annex 1 regulates the discharge oil overboard in liters per mile, however due to the fact this ship doesn’t actually go anywhere, it’s oily water separator is extraordinarilly good. So good in fact, Helix’ OIM notes there is no discernable trace of oil in the discharged water.
Leaving the Production deck, we headed back toward the bow and up to the wheelhouse where we met up with the on-watch Dynamic Positioning Officer, Clarisse Osegueda. A 2008 graduate of Cal Maritime Academy, she is tasked with ensuring the Producer I stays on station no matter what the weather and current bring.
Facing aft, the DPO chair faces the production facility and a myriad of displays, and a small iPod station sits on the window sill breaking up the silence found throughout the bridge.
“Inbound helicopter 23 minutes out.”
The announcement over the PA system was our signal that the visit was nearly over and soon after, we were making a loop around the ship in the S-76 and headed back to Houma.