Firms hope to cash in on Arctic energy promise (photos)

Dozens of companies convened at the George R. Brown Convention Center this week hawking the latest high-tech products designed to support energy companies as they move to tap the vast resources held in Arctic seas.

From firms offering up drones to map the region to large ships designed to break up treacherous ice, some of the most advanced tools serving one of the most precarious parts of the world were on display.

But in an environment that requires a totally different approach to operations, even the most basic necessities sometimes require a new approach.

That’s why Thom Huson was in town selling footwear.

“My boss said ‘why are we here?’” joked Huson, safety industrial sales manager with Implus, a Durham, N.C.-based shoe and accessory company.

Huson was pitching the drilling community on a $40 set of metal attachments that hook on to boots and give workers traction to prevent slips on snow and ice. It’s decidedly low-tech, but it’s also a tool he believes is just as important in the Arctic as the most advanced types of technology.

Implus originally sold the attachments mostly to mail carriers and utility workers, but the company recently realized the energy sector was an untapped market, give the inroads it’s starting to make in the Arctic.

Last year, the footwear company attended the massive Offshore Technology Conference, where it got lost in the shuffle.

But this year, it came to the Arctic Technology Conference — a younger sibling of OTC — where it was a better fit. “I thought it’s perfect,” Huson said. “It’s people who are all dealing with snow and ice.”

Indeed, many of the vendors at the event, which wraps up Wednesday, hope to tap a market with huge potential.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have estimated that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas deposits sit north of the Arctic Circle. That’s prompted energy companies to view the Arctic, and in particular the region’s icy seas, as the next frontier for energy exploration.

Unlike the OTC event, which is 45 years old and drew 100,000 last year , the ATC is a smaller affair, now in only its third year and typically drawing around 1,300 attendees.

Many of the attendees were new entrants to the sector, buoyed by growing interest in a region that presents huge upside for the energy sector but also requires careful logistical planning, given a climate unlike that of any other place on earth.

Lasse Rabenstein, founder of German-based company Drift & Noise, was pitching attendees on technology that can provide near-real time information on sea ice conditions by combining satellite images with data gleaned from a device that attaches to a helicopter and shoots lasers and electromagnetic signals at the ice.

His company was born from more than 15 yeas of work conducted through an German educational institute that studied Arctic climate conditions. But about a year ago, it was spun off into a separate entity, in part because of the commercial opportunities that are becoming available in the Arctic.

“Extreme ice features can be a hazard for every industrial operation,” Rabenstein said. “There’s no doubt we’d like to bring out expertise into the game. They’re looking for people with these expertise, and being locked in our academic ivory tower doesn’t do anything.”

Still, some firms have looked at the Arctic with a combination of enthusiasm and trepidation, given the well-documented stumbles that occurred there over the last year and a half.

In 2012, a Shell drilling rig ran aground off the coast of Alaska in the most notable of a series of equipment failures the company suffered in the area.

Last month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals questioned the methodology used by the Interior Department as part of its 2008 leasing program in the area. That decision brings much uncertainty to the future of exploration and production in the area, and Shell has already said it won’t resume Arctic drilling in Alaska’s seas this summer. Last year, ConocoPhillips announced its exploration plans in the area were on hold too.

Olgoonik, an Alaska-based company, is working on behalf of Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil to conduct baseline environmental studies in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea so the companies will be able to determine how their activities impact the region.

But Kevin Hand, president of the company’s commercial division, said while that work is important, the company hopes to soon begin the bigger task of providing services in the area when offshore Alaskan exploration and production begins in earnest. When and if that will happen is uncertain.

“The real concern is… at what point do the major companies lose the appetite to take these risks and take the beating publicly?” Hand said. “The prize is significant, but at what point is there a critical mass where they lose the appetite and perseverance?”

Companies are also looking beyond Alaskan waters. GustoMSC, a firm based in The Netherlands that designs offshore rigs, was at ATC even though it doesn’t have any rigs in the Arctic quite yet.

“There are opportunities,” said Alain Wassink, its vessels design manager. “You have to be in it for the long run. It’s not going to happen tomorrow.”