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Oil exploration: jack up rigs and throwing darts

Oil exploration: jack up rigs and throwing darts

Step on board for an exclusive tour of the first jack-up oil rig manufactured in the Middle East.

August 28, 2008 8:08 by

Scott MacMillan

The UAE’s Maritime Industrial Services (MIS) has delivered a breakthrough for the oil exploration business, producing what it claims is the first jack-up oil rig – the type of rig best-suited for the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf – ever built in the region.

You might think an area with about 60 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves would excel at oil rig manufacturing, but you’d be wrong: Most of the rigs currently in service in the Gulf and around the world come from the Unites States and Singapore. So the SeaWolf Oritsetimeyin, the $130 million rig scheduled for delivery in August to Nigeria-based drilling contractor SeaWolf Oil Fields, is a milestone for MIS and the region.

There’s no economic reason the U.S. and Singapore should dominate the business, other than know-how and good timing by companies based there. As the current oil boom fuels a slew of new orders – and most of the rigs in service today are on their last legs – rig manufacturers in the Gulf will be seeking a greater share of the pie.

“Most of the rigs that are in service today are, on average, 25 to 30 years old,” says Jerry Smith, managing director and principle shareholder of MIS. “So eventually, like me, somebody’s got to be retired.”

An American, Smith has worked in the Gulf oil business since 1970, founding MIS in 1981 and growing it from about 20 employees to roughly 5,000 today. The company is now publicly listed in Norway.

At its shipyard at Sharjah’s Port Khalid, MIS gave a tour of the new rig, led by Glaswegian Jim McClore, MIS’ head of new build. Despite the advent of geophysical and seismic testing, looking for oil remains a surprisingly rudimentary business: Until the black stuff spurts out, oil companies are essentially “dart throwing,” says Smith. “They’re getting better and better, but generally they still don’t know until they drill that there’s anything there.”

Once the rig is in place, the drill itself (or drill string) is loaded onto the rig in sections and fed, piece-by-piece, through a top drive (bottom left). Though it starts on deck-level, before drilling commences this giant engine is hoisted to the top of the derrick (top left, between the two aft legs of the rig; the shipyard crane hovers in the background), where it pushes the drill string into the seabed. The derrick sits atop a movable platform called a cantilever (its railing is visible in the foreground), which can extend 50 feet over the aft end of the deck and move 15 feet starboard and port.

But before any of that happens, the rig has to find a good place to stand. Once in the right location, a rack and pinion system drives three 411-foot legs into the water at a rate of 17 inches per minute. In the Persian Gulf, only a fraction of these legs will ever be submerged, since the Gulf’s maximum depth is a mere 150 feet.

Once drilling starts, the muck and shale churned out of the seabed is sucked into a mud manifold, which workers are still welding together. The mud swirls on board in tanks while agitators, stirring the mud like a giant ice cream maker, prevent it from settling. Then it’s pumped back into the ground to hold the drill in place.

This rig will be used solely for exploration, says McClore. “You’ll cantilever over a platform, and then you’ll start drilling into your well. Whenever you’ve done that, you leave the drill string, you cantilever back in, you jack down and you disappear.” With luck the platform will stay behind to process a steady flow of black gold. If not, there’s always another dart to throw.”

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