OTC opens with optimism, focus on safety

Two years after an oil spill that plunged the offshore drilling industry into a period of re-evaluation and scrutiny, the aura surrounding this year’s Offshore Technology Conference is almost giddy.

The industry, it seems, is stomping on the accelerator, with surging activities in oceans across the globe that have filled executives, engineers and geologists with the excitement of a gold rush.

That’s not to say that safety in offshore operations won’t play a role in the conference, said Steve Balint, chairman of OTC 2012, which runs Monday through Thursday at Reliant Park. But that’s not all that has industry professionals talking this year, he said.

“There’s a real buzz in the industry, a huge activity level that’s going on right now that has everyone excited,” Balint said.

Soaring world oil prices have brought an injection of cash into the industry as investors and explorers have made bet after bet on deep-water wells that often have struck valuable hydrocarbons.

The result has been more money and more drilling in the North Sea, off Africa, South America, Asia and, most certainly, in Houston’s backyard: the Gulf of Mexico.

As more than 70,000 offshore professionals flood Reliant Park this week for the largest industry gathering of the year, an air of progress and optimism will be pervasive, organizers and industry professionals said.

Still, as regulations and lawsuits continue to unfold related to the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that left 11 workers dead and poured nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, safety in offshore exploration and production operations will continue to be a major focus of OTC, Balint said.

“There’s a drive now, and you will continue to see that drive, to build and design safe systems into all aspects of offshore projects,” he said.

Sessions on the spill

Several panels and executive keynote presentations at OTC 2012 will focus on the aftermath of the spill, including response capabilities and risk management. A session on cementing will touch on an issue connected to the Macondo well blowout. Investigations found that the well’s cement job was among factors that may have contributed to the blowout.

Innovations related to offshore drilling safety and disaster response also will be highlighted at the event. One, called The Claw, is a 10-story set of jawlike claws capable of grabbing pieces of a sunken rig or platform off of the ocean floor.

Also headlining discussions at the conference will be improvements in seismic imaging technology, which allows scientists to see more clearly what lies beneath thousands of feet of ocean and earth. Recent changes have dramatically helped exploration and production companies target hydrocarbon reserves that they previously could not see clearly, said Leta Smith, director of oil and gas supply outlooks for IHS CERA.

Small player is big news

Much of the excitement about offshore exploration and production has been a product of the success of smaller, independent companies, like Tullow Oil. The English company, which invests half of its $2 billion budget in exploration and production, will take center stage at the conference during presentations highlighting its discoveries off Ghana.

Tullow’s success has come in areas that some major producers have overlooked, spokesman George Cazenove said.

“We’re not consciously trying to be anti-industry or doing the exact opposite of what everyone else is doing, we’re just taking positions that we like,” Cazenove said.

With Tullow and other smaller producers proving that they could leverage their investments for home-run discoveries, others have jumped into action as well, spurring an increase in activity across the offshore industry, said Bill Maloney, executive vice president of Norway’s Statoil and head of the company’s North American operations.

“I think they help the industry, and they’re in some ways even bigger risk-takers than some of the larger companies are,” Maloney said. Statoil had almost no presence in the Gulf eight years ago and now is its fifth-largest lease-holder, he said.

Largest exhibit ever

The sheer number of new technologies and innovative products on display at OTC, from 2,500 companies, is an indication both of the interest in improving drilling safety and in expanding offshore work, Balint said.

Demand for exhibition space has been so high that the conference expanded to 641,530 square feet of show area, up 38,200 square feet from a year ago.

“This is going to be the largest exhibit that OTC has ever had,” Balint said, “and that’s pretty neat.”
Offshore Technology Conference