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Seeking sustainability in the UK North Sea

A new Aberdeen-based technology development organisation is aiming to help oil and gas companies get the most out of the UK's offshore reservoirs — and to make north-east Scotland a global hub for offshore research and development.

Colette Cohen is aware that expectations surrounding Aberdeen's new £180 million ($225 million) Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) are high.

It is five months since Cohen, 48, was appointed as inaugural chief executive of the centre, a core part the £250 million Aberdeen City Region Deal, a joint investment by the UK and Scottish governments in the north-east of Scotland.

The former Centrica Energy, BP and ConocoPhillips executive says she is entering one of the most exciting periods of her career but is conscious of how much is at stake.

The UK is now putting in practice the Wood Review vision to maximise economic recovery of its remaining offshore resources, the strategy known as MER UK, with the deployment and development of new technology playing a central role.

Even the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA), the new regulator charged with delivering MER UK, is taking a close look at how individual operators plan to use technology across their portfolios.

About 10 billion to 20 billion barrels of oil equivalent are estimated to remain off the UK.

The OGTC could therefore play a potentially important role in determining if the ultimate recovery is at the upper or lower end of this range, Cohen says.

OGTC.jpg Direction: Guests at the launch of the OGTC hear how its solution centres will help find answers to industry technology challenges. Photo: OGTC

It is also hoped the centre will make Aberdeen a global focal point for oil and gas research and development, particularly around technologies that make mature basins cheaper and safer to run.

In so doing, the OGTC could stimulate investment in the north-east of Scotland, anchoring the supply chain there for decades to come while also capturing a growing share of export markets.

"I believe there's a realisation that to make a sustainable change and extend the life of our North Sea, we need to transform the way we work and transform the way we use technology," says Cohen.

In February, Cohen hosted the centre's official launch at its administrative offices on Queen's Road in the Scottish oil capital.

In attendance were government ministers and leaders from business and academia, who heard that the £180 million is there to be co-invested.

This is to be matched by support from industry, universities and other research institutions, either in cash or in access to knowledge, expertise, assets, facilities and equipment.

Cohen says she is looking for a "high level of commitment from industry".

"I do believe we have a massive opportunity here. It will be difficult because behavioural change is required.

"However, this 'lower for longer' oil price has really caused a lot of people to open their eyes to the fact that something has got to give and something has to change," she says.

"It is critical we focus on quickly adapting and adopting technologies that will have an immediate positive effect on the basin, as well as starting longer-term development programmes to influence the sustainability of the basin."

Technology background

Cohen, known for her straightforward no-nonsense manner, was born in Dundalk, Ireland, and studied chemistry at Queen's University Belfast before later completing a Masters degree in project management and economics. 

She started her career offshore in 1991 and has worked in the North Sea sector, Norway, the US and Kazakhstan.

About a decade ago she started working on technology development for US supermajor ConocoPhillips in Houston before also spending time developing some of the first technology used in unconventionals production in the Lower 48.

"I have a history with technology," she says. "It has always been a passion and an interest. I have enough of a technical background to be competent, if not expert. I can find my way around, which is reasonable for a chief executive."

Colette2.jpg Photo: OGTC

"Together we have a unique opportunity to create a culture of innovation in the UK North Sea, an attitude that embraces technology."
OGTC chief executive Colette Cohen

Her experience has also given her other valuable insights that include witnessing first-hand the difficulties technology developers face in convincing a generally conservative and risk-averse oil and gas industry to adopt new technology.

"I should know — I worked for operators and I was the person sitting on committees needing to be convinced. I was the one saying 'actually, that piece of technology seems a bit risky'," she says.

"I can understand what it feels like for industry when someone brings in a piece of technology and says, 'trust me, its great'.

"I now want to be able to answer the old me. I want to be able to convince the old me why a new piece of technology should be deployed onto a platform or placed it into a well."

Cohen says the team she is assembling at the OGTC has credibility and also has a track record of delivery.

"I think we are lucky in having the kind of expertise in the team that allows us to understand how the decisions are going to be made," she says.

"Everyone on the team knows what it takes to deliver a project, change a process or manage either a new well or a complete asset integrity programme. All of them have been there and done that.

"That's really important because when they are talking to people in the industry they can have a really constructive conversation together."

R&D roadmap

Cohen is confident that the OGTC will claim its own unique space in the applied R&D landscape.

It's operational and funding model has already proven hugely successful in other industries but, she says, the oil and gas industry has been late to the party.

The Advanced Propulsion Centre in Coventry, which carries out automotive research, and the Aerospace Technology Institute in Cranfield, both in England, are two examples of research institutions that have enhanced the reputations and bolstered the prominence of the sectors they serve.

Both have built what Cohen calls strong and progressive relationships between their industries, academia and government.

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Far from only developing new technologies, she says, they have also helped to create a vision for what their sectors will look like far into the 21st century.

"They are now investing for a different future for their sectors. They exist to move around that roadmap of the vision that they have created for their industries," she says.

"We've seen technology making a difference in the performance of other industries. The aviation, automotive and manufacturing sectors are continuously using technology to re-imagine and reshape the way they do things."

However, she says: "The oil and gas industry has been insular in comparison to other sectors and recently we have not been at the forefront of technology.

"The use of key technologies such as composite materials, robotics and the tremendous power of big data have not yet made material in-roads into our industry, despite the potential gains.

"Creating a culture of innovation in our industry is essential if we are to catch up with other sectors and bridge our technology gap."

Making connections

Cohen and her team have spent time visiting many of the technology centres established under the UK's Catapult programme, which connects businesses with research and academic institutions.

There are now 13 Catapult centres in the UK, ranging from high value manufacturing to transport systems, usually located where the expertise resides.

The OGTC has drawn inspiration from them in its organisational structure, which will feature what it has dubbed solution centres focused on finding answers to challenges provided by industry.

The OGTC is also establishing centres of excellence to support research teams and to invest in specialised equipment and testing facilities that can be contracted to clients in the UK and overseas.

One of these centres, a multi-million-pound joint venture between the OGTC, Aberdeen and Robert Gordon Universities, focusing on field life extension and decommissioning, has already been agreed.

Meanwhile, a technology accelerator programme will offer support innovation within smaller businesses to "incubate" R&D services by providing access to facilities and operators, as well as arranging test and deployment opportunities.

Finally, an innovation hub is being created, where people facing technical challenges in oil and gas can meet people with innovative new technologies that may provide radical solutions.

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Cohen emphasises that even though the OGTC is at an early stage, a good deal of work is under way. Early focus is being placed on rigless plugging and abandoning, which could help slash costs.

The OGTC is working with a number of operators, including Total and Chevron, to pilot new technology on their facilities during the 2017 shutdown season.

"We are already working towards a field trial in 2017, which could result in a step change in how we approach the plugging and abandonment of wells," she says.

"Improving the performance of drilling is also high on the agenda, as is asset integrity, especially regarding corrosion under insulation and finding ways to avoiding entering process vessels.

"With corrosion under insulation right now, it is a hugely time consuming activity. We have an aspiration of zero vessel-entry by 2025.

"So, we are looking for technologies that would really enhance our ability to detect corrosion under insulation without having to take the insulation off or going into the vessels.

"That would make a massive difference both in safety performance and in the efficiency of our operations," says Cohen.

The OGTC will also be seeking to develop technologies to exploit the 3.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent that remain locked in the UK's so-called small pool discoveries that are economically challenging to develop - "Plug-and-play technology... that could bring those fields on really quickly", Cohen says.

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Guidance for the OGTC's areas of work will come from the UK's Technology Leadership Board, a body chaired jointly by industry and the OGA.

Cohen says the OGTC's objectives are also being aligned with the UK's other oil and gas technology bodies, including the Oil & Gas Innovation Centre, National Subsea Research Initiative and the Industry Technology Facilitator. 

Cohen accepts that measuring the success of the OGTC will not necessarily be easy, given the variety of areas in which it could have an influence, from improved recovery rates to increased jobs and exports.

However, she has no doubt that it will make a positive difference.

"Together we have a unique opportunity to create a culture of innovation in the UK North Sea, an attitude that embraces technology," she says.

"We live in challenging times but we have a supportive regulator, a highly skilled and capable industry. We also have the backing of the UK and Scottish governments and a compelling need to improve our performance.

"This is a major opportunity. We must be brave."