PHOTOS: Shell is moving mountains for deep-water Gulf oil

INGLESIDE — Royal Dutch Shell is about to move a mountain, towing its new state-of-the-art Olympus platform for duty in the Gulf of Mexico’s deep water.

The Olympus, designed to operate in water depths of 3,000 to 5,000 feet, will be Shell’s sixth tension leg platform in the Gulf. The company escorted a group of journalists on a tour of the platform Wednesday.

The platform — towering 406 feet from the base of the hull to the top of the derrick — is docked at the Ingleside, Texas shipyard near Corpus Christi and will leave in about a month to work at the Mars B project 130 miles south of New Orleans. Earlier this year, the hull made an 18,000-mile, two-month trek from South Korea to Ingleside.

Multiple tugboats will tow the platform through the Aransas Pass jetties and then east to the Mars field. When the platform is at its final location, workers will install the 16 tension legs that will anchor it to the ocean floor.

Tension leg platforms are named for those steel tendons, which reach from pontoons supporting the floating platform to the ocean bed. They provide greater stability and more deck space than some other platform designs.

Kelly Bowen, principal construction engineer on the project, compared the structure to an upside-down pendulum.

“Instead of gravity, we are using buoyancy to create the tension,” he said. That involves ballasting the hull to submerge it, attaching the legs, then removing the ballast so the rising hull applies upward tension on the legs.

When the Olympus is fully installed, subsea equipment will link it to wells and pipelines. Shell expects to begin production next year.

Shell owns 71.5 percent of Mars B project and operates it. BP has the remaining ownership interest.

The Olympus is Shell’s largest platform, and the company expects it to produce 100,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day at its peak.

The Mars A tension leg platform, built in 1996 and already at work in the Mars field, has produced 700 million barrels to date.

Olympus’ drilling rig is about twice the size of the one on the existing platform, and is designed to access reservoirs at 22,000 feet — beyond the reach of the first facility.

The new platform is expected to extend the life of the Mars field to at least 2050.

Derek Newberry, Shell’s Mars B business opportunity manager, said the integration of the new technology for the platform, combined with existing infrastructure in the Mars field, will allow Shell to maximize the field’s potential.

John Hollowell, Shell’s executive vice president for deep water, said that while some aspects of the Olympus design were developed on earlier platforms, each new project requires some technology to address characteristics unique to the reservoir for which it is designed.

“Each one of these projects requires innovative technology that at the time we began did not exist,” Hollowell said. “And that pattern will continue.”

Among the innovations on Olympus is that it’s crew can control ballast from its deck, reducing safety risks by eliminating the need for workers to descend into the platform’s legs to monitor and adjust its position.

And its control room will be among the first using fiber optics to communicate with facilities on shore. Mars A transmits data by microwave, which is slower and less reliable than fiber optics.

This new capability will allow shoreside personnel to evaluate reservoir and drilling data in real time, said Steve Flack, Shell’s integration manager for Olympus.

One of the three control room operators will be stationed in New Orleans, allowing for oversight of operations from aboard the platform and from shore.

“The reason you want to do that is because it brings field experience to engineers, and it brings engineers to field experience,” Flack said. “It bridges this gap of information flow.”