It’s called Prelude, and it’s bigger than big. More than 530 yards long and 80 yards wide, it was constructed with 260,000 metric tons of steel, more than was used in the entire original World Trade Center complex, and it’s expected to displace 600,000 metric tons of water, or as much as six aircraft carriers. Even the paint job is huge: Most big vessels dry-dock every five years for a new coat, but Prelude’s paint is supposed to last 25 years. It will produce more natural gas than Hong Kong needs in a year. And it’s so big that you can’t really photograph it, at least not all at once. The photographer Stephen Mallon spent two days on cranes, one fore and one aft, taking more than a thousand pictures. Later, editing software was used to stitch hundreds of them together to create the composite image you see here.
What makes this giant liquefied-natural-gas enterprise feasible, paradoxically enough, is the miniaturization its construction represents. It’s much smaller than landlocked equivalents — imagine shrinking your local refinery until it fits on a barge. Shell Oil, which has the biggest stake in the project, describes Prelude as more environmentally friendly than an onshore site. There are no estuaries under threat, no shorelines to run pipe across and reduced risks to population centers, given the explosiveness of natural gas. And it is designed to ride out extreme weather, thanks to three giant 6,700-horsepower thrusters that can turn it into the wind and waves. “These are the things that the naval architects had to worry through,” says Robert Bea, co-founder of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, at the University of California, Berkeley. “It works like a big-ass weather vane.”
Prelude is not a ship or a boat: The Shell executives refer to their longer-than-the-Empire-State-Building-is-tall contraption as a facility. “Prelude F.L.N.G.,” they might say, is “the largest offshore floating facility ever built.” (F.L.N.G. stands for floating liquefied natural gas.) Then again, even the executives slip up once in a while and call it a ship, because the Prelude does in fact move, just a little, when it has to. In the finished sketches, it looks like a gigantic unfinished cruise ship, a 30-story Carnival Cruise Lines boat, built with an Erector set.
Right now it is under construction in a South Korean shipyard on Geoje, the island where Samsung Heavy Industries makes large ships and drilling platforms. Prelude is designed to take advantage of inaccessible or “stranded” natural-gas deposits, stranded because until recently they cost too much to make their capture worthwhile. In North Dakota, for example, most natural gas released from oil drilling is burned off because of infrastructural limitations and the expense of recovering it. “A project like this wasn’t an economical prospect for decades, but now things are changing,” says Francis O’Sullivan, the director of research at M.I.T.'s Energy Initiative. Owing to shifts in oil prices and a change in the climate of energy arbitrage, a vast amount of usable natural gas — an estimated three trillion cubic feet of it — is now profitable and waiting to be tapped within an area called Browse Basin, under the Indian Ocean, roughly 125 miles northwest of Australia. That’s where Prelude will soon be towed, then fixed to what “The Biogeography of the Australian North West Shelf” describes as “the relatively featureless sedimentary sea floor plains.”
For anchors, Prelude uses four groups of mooring chains, each link of which is more than three feet long and was cast in the Basque region of Spain. On the days Prelude was photographed, the turret, which will be as big as the Statue of Liberty, had not been installed yet. It will go underneath the circular aperture, visible at the far right of the last image, and be the point through which the natural gas will be piped up into the facility and around which Prelude will rotate on the water. In the shipyard, this spot is known as the moon pool.