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Permanently unmanned platforms controlled from remote bases could in future not just produce oil but also prevent contaminated water being discharged back into the sea.

The vision could become reality in the next 20 years, according to Glen McLellan, director of strategic operations at specialist oil firm Opus, which marked two decades of serving the industry this year and was recently acquired by Aker Solutions.

Mr McLellan also believes that over the next 20 years the use of chemicals to help oil recovery could be routinely replaced by more natural materials, derived from matter such as mushrooms.

A key area of focus for the industry in future years will be the recovery of oil from marginal fields with enhanced oil recovery (EOR) using polymer flooding one of the main methods deployed. Operators are increasingly using EOR as it can in many cases improve the amount of recoverable oil by 10-20 per cent, but it can also pose an environmental hazard.

Adding polymers to water makes it thicker and more viscous which helps to force oil towards the wellhead, but the resultant produced water is a real cause of separation difficulties. Instead of synthetic, man-made chemicals, oil companies are already experimenting with greener, natural materials to reduce the impact on the marine environment.  

Technology is being developed using mushrooms which can produce a biopolymer that naturally thickens water and can be injected into the well to help production. Tests have shown the product remains effective in high temperatures and heavy salt concentration but can be used in sensitive marine systems.

“In future this will become commonplace as operators will have to become greener”, said Mr McLellan. “As regulations become tighter they will no longer be able to use man-made chemicals with poor biodegradation, but be deriving them from naturally-occurring biodegradable substances.

“At the moment there are a lot of production chemicals used offshore for things like removing oil from water, stopping scale and preventing corrosion. In the coming years a lot of the focus for innovation will be environmentally driven to move away from the use of chemicals.”

Unmanned well-head platforms controlled from onshore are already operating but so far without oil separation technology to clean up the produced water before it is discharged back into the sea. However, at least one facility that would re-inject fluids back into the reservoir and avoid sea discharges is currently being developed.

 “With no discharges to sea and no people on board this would be an environmental and manpower risk-free asset”, said Mr McLellan. “In future this type of facility, which is controlled remotely from onshore, could become the norm.

“But everything would need to be so robust that there would be no risk of it breaking down.”

In order to make this happen he believes over the next two decades process facilities will also be smaller, cheaper and greener to be more efficient while meeting tougher environmental regulations.  Technologies will have to be made simpler, with fewer moving parts, to reduce the possibility of it failing, while much smaller facilities are needed for ageing assets whose size and integrity means bulkier equipment cannot be accommodated.

At present modules weighing thousands of tonnes are needed during the separation process. Compact flotation units, which had not been devised 20 years ago, are now commonplace and in the next 20 years will be significantly reduced in size to around that of a garden shed. Smaller units will be easier to fit on older platform and retro-fit on other assets.