Thursday, June 17, 2010

Brazil Quietly Secures Its Offshore Oil Platforms

From The Guardian

Brazil is keeping a watchful eye on the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It is among the countries most likely to suffer an accident similar to Deepwater Horizon, having engaged in the exploration and exploitation of huge oil and gas fields in the Atlantic depths.

Brazil's industry regulator, the National Oil Agency (ANP), and the main oil company, Petrobras, won't comment on the disaster. They are, however, reacting very quietly, and behind the scenes.

Petrobras's management told parliament in May that its rescue teams were ready to intervene within 24 hours at the most on any of the rigs in mainland Brazil and within eight hours on the most remote offshore fields.

Brazil has for several years led the way in deep-water exploration, but its expertise has come at a price: in 1984 an explosion started a fire on the Enchova Central rig and 42 lives were lost during its evacuation; four years later another explosion destroyed the same rig, but no one was killed.

The discovery in 2006 of oil fields at a depth of more than 7,000 metres, below a thick (2,200 metre) crust of salt, heralded a new era in oil prospecting in Brazil, plagued by many uncertainties. The deepest level from which Petrobras had previously extracted oil was about 1,800 metres, a world record in itself.

The experts say there are bound to be surprises. "At that depth, with such high pressure, we cannot claim to be ready for any eventuality," says Segen Estefen, the head of a university laboratory that works with Petrobras.

It is a huge technological challenge. Little or nothing is known about the 120m-year-old porous, carboniferous rocks that contain the oil. At 4°C, the sea water is cold enough for there to be a risk of paraffin solidifying in the risers. The pressure also means the pipes need to be reinforced. The sediment on top of the salt is unstable too, making it difficult to anchor the oil rigs.

But the main hazard is corrosion caused by the high carbon-dioxide content of the fields. When it comes into contact with water it produces carbonic acid, making it necessary to invent new nickel-enriched alloys, which are tougher and lighter.

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