The unmanned offshore production rig: A race to the bottom

Brandon Spencer, ABB vice president of oil, gas, and chemical North America, talks about subsea transformers shown during the trade show conference of industrial equipment manufacturer ABB on March 14, 2017 at the George R. Brown Convention Center, in Houston. (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle)

The new frontier of offshore oil production is moving the above-water platform underwater.

Two companies are in a race to engineer and produce the breakthrough. The German industrial technology company Siemens Corp. is building one version. And, this week, Swiss competitor ABB is showing off subsea plans at its annual customer convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown. ABB is working with California-based Chevron Corp., Norway’s Statoil, France’s Total and the Norwegian offshore oil services company Aker Solutions to build the underwater power structure.

The concept requires power transformers on the sea floor, and a fully automated control room miles away, onshore.

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The upsides are clear. Offshore platforms are dangerous. They use a lot of energy to operate. They’re expensive to run. And they’re expensive to take down.

A subsea production facility would be cheaper, easier to build, easier to dismantle and, perhaps most importantly, unmanned. And equipment closer to the reservoir could produce higher pressures and increased flows, ABB said.

“This will revolutionize the offshore industry,” said Brandon Spencer, ABB’s North American vice president for oil, gas and chemicals.

But competition with Siemens is fierce, Spencer said: “It’s us and them in a race to the floor.”