By Emily Pickrell
HOUSTON — As the North American energy boom continues, many overseas companies are looking to Houston as a launching pad for a broader expansion into the U.S. and offshore.
Danish consulting firm Ramboll Oil & Gas Co. agreed last fall to acquire Houston’s Excel Engineering, which has been active in North America and the Gulf of Mexico.
Ramboll plans to expand its Houston-area employee count from 50 to 500 by 2020.
Bill Elwell, Excel’s vice president of engineering, spoke with FuelFix about Excel’s work building, maintaining and removing offshore platforms — the last a specialty Ramboll hopes to use in the North Sea, which soon will face its first round of platform retirements.
These are edited excerpts from the interview:
FuelFix: What are the challenges of maintaining platforms in the Gulf of Mexico?
Elwell: We do a range of modifications on platforms as well as ensuring that they comply with regulations, and we tell the operators what they need to do to comply. It is not unlike a car – emissions need to be monitored, and with time, there are various problems that crop up. There are also a vast variety of changing conditions on a platform – weather, corrosion. It is not a static thing, which means you are constantly working on it.
FuelFix: Do operators hire you to maintain a specific platform?
Elwell: Companies trade platforms all the time. The platforms change and the owners change, but they still use us. We have the drawings for the platforms, and in most of the cases they keep us.
The business deals for offshore plays are typically made on the reserves and the potential, not on the platform. The platform is an accessory to the deal.
FuelFix: You also remove platforms from the Gulf. What is that like?
Elwell: It is not as easy.
We do engineering studies to determine what makes sense economically. The integrity of the structure ages over time, and a lot of additional equipment has been added, such as a compressor and a separator. When it’s time to lift it out, it is bigger and heavier.
The necessary equipment to lift it might be elsewhere in the world.
If you have something that weighs 1,000 tons, you might have to find a different strategy for removal as a result: You could cut it in half or in pieces and use a very inexpensive lift barge and come out financially ahead. Or you might wait for that single lift.
The piles are cut with explosives. You have to take everything out to 15 feet below the bottom of the sea, so you lower explosives and set up the charges and pick up the structure, but if it doesn’t come, the challenge is figuring out what went wrong.
The problem could be from the marine growth on the structure, or perhaps water in parts of the structure that used to be airtight, so you lose buoyancy.
I was involved in one and it took three tries, because the explosives were not cutting the piles properly. You can’t just pull twice as hard, because you will overstress things. Its removal took several days of assessing the cause of the problems.
That is what is so interesting. It is a constant challenge. You are problem-solving and adapting to situations and information, and trying to come up with good engineering solutions.
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