Conditional response – recovery off the Russian island of Sakhalin

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This article originally appeared in World Expro magazine

In the north Pacific Ocean, the Russian island of Sakhalin’s harsh environment poses significant challenges for oil and gas companies hoping to extract the estimated 14 billion barrels that lie offshore. Oliver Hotham speaks to Mike Clark, engineer with Sakhalin Energy, about the challenges this climate brings for pipelines, the techniques used to keep them running, and what it’s like living and working in the icy wilderness.

Snow doesn’t fall too frequently on Sakhalin Island, insists Mike Clark, who has worked as an engineer there for two years now; when it does, however, it usually comes in the form of one-to-three-day blizzards – a real issue when you run the world’s largest integrated oil and gas development in the far east of Russia.

“You get large quantities of snow deposited in a very short period,” Clark says. “All roads are impassable until they are cleared, and access to the 800km-long onshore pipeline right of way is blocked for considerable periods of time.

“It’s those kinds of conditions that we have to manage, particularly in road transport. It has to be managed carefully anyway, but in those kinds of conditions it has to be managed even more meticulously.”

Having spent 25 years working overseas for the oil and gas industry in the Middle East and west Africa, Clark is no stranger to tough environments, but getting accustomed to working in Sakhalin, he admits, has been a challenge. Of course, it is a little colder than he was used to – even in the summer, it can be chilly, and in the winter, temperatures can dip lower than -40°C, with wind-chill factors of -70°C. The seven-hour minimum time difference between the island and mainland Europe, too, means he has become accustomed to taking phone calls either early in the morning or late in the evening.

Historically a stage for the competition over territory between imperial Tsarist Russia and the Empire of Japan, Sakhalin has also been known as Kuye in Mandarin and Karafuto in Japanese. In the closing months of the Second World War, as Japan surrendered its empire to the Allies, it came under the control of the USSR and has been administered by the Kremlin ever since.

When 2 became one

The real boon to the island came in 1994, when the liberalisation of the Russian economy and the influx of foreign investment that rushed into the country led to the creation of the Sakhalin Energy consortium – later joined by Gazprom – the primary role of which was the development and management of the Sakhalin-2 project – a massive undertaking and cooperative effort that now consists of three offshore platforms, an onshore processing facility, 300km of offshore and 1,600km of onshore pipelines, an oil export terminal and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, the Prigorodnoye production complex.

Shell has hailed the Sakhalin-2 project as “one of the most challenging engineering feats ever achieved”, and it is one of the largest integrated oil and gas developments in the world. The two main fields, Piltun-Astokhskoye and Lunskoye, are offshore and on the north of the island, and are therefore surrounded by moving sea ice for six months of the year.

This treacherous sea ice posed one of the major technical challenges to the project, meaning that oil and gas cannot be transported by tanker at an export point nearby and must instead be exported from an ice-free port on the south of the island. The hydrocarbons are transported to shore by subsea pipelines, processed and then transported south through two specialised 600km-long 24 and 48in onshore pipelines to the Prigorodnoye complex.

“The construction of the pipelines was obviously characterised by various seasonal limitations,” says Clark. “These included the end of the winter thaw period, which is approximately a month long and makes it impossible to work in many areas. Subsea pipe-laying, although I wasn’t there at the time, was actually done largely in the ice-free window. We do have offshore pipelines that operate for roughly half the year under pack ice.

The island also lies on volatile seismic fault lines. Its inhabitants have long been plagued by earthquakes; a 7.1-magnitude quake on the north of the island killed 2,000 people in 1995, and two years ago, an 8.2-magnitude quake was felt as far away as Moscow.

Because of this danger, pipelines onshore must be engineered to withstand substantial damage caused by the most powerful tremors and to bridge 19 active seismic fault crossings during their journey from the north to the south of the island.

“This is one aspect where pipeline design addresses this risk – each fault crossing is specifically designed to ensure that the seismic movement we’re expecting can occur without the pipeline rupturing,” says Clark. “They’re designed to accommodate the worst kind of seismic event for a thousand-year return period.”

That’s not the only geological hazard that Sakhalin presents. Pipelines are also susceptible to damage from other natural disasters, and pipeline routes have to pass through areas where landslides and mudflows can be common, particularly as the temperature rises in the spring.

“These issues have to be addressed at the design stage as well, so for landslides and mudflows, we basically bury the mudflow deeper below the slip lanes,” Clark says.

“Limitations were placed on the ground pressure exerted by construction equipment, and soil removal was tightly controlled in order to best preserve the surface layer of peat and prevent subsequent erosion and landslides.”

“The fault crossings are able to accommodate pipeline movements of nearly 5m. This was all a major engineering challenge,” Clark adds.

All in all, special sections for the onshore pipelines were needed to accommodate 700 road crossings, 1,100 water crossings, 18 rail crossings, 80 electrical transmission line crossings and more than 100 underground services crossings, as well as more than 70 unstable ground areas for landslides, mudslides and avalanches.

Measure for measure

On an island so prone to dangerous natural phenomena, the issue of safety is of course crucial to Sakhalin Energy’s work. The company has, according to Clark, identified several location-specific hazards for the pipeline design and operation – from the dangers of crossing ice and areas prone to landslides, to the potential for encounters with bears.

Attention was focused on four main areas of safety concern: drivers, vehicles, site supervision and subcontractor management. During the peak of construction of the project, there were up to 25,000 people working across the island – some offshore, some onshore – and moving them across the island had to be done extremely carefully to avoid accidents.

“Basically, it’s about recognising all the risks associated with operating here, and addressing them,” says Clark. “This approach, coupled with strict consequence management, had a positive effect on incident frequency and severity.”

“The temperatures during winter posed obvious personal safety hazards, and ordinary manual activities became very difficult; in order to mitigate the hazard to the workers, ‘warm shelters’ were provided on the work site so that they could have a break from the cold every two hours,” Clark explains.

“The project controls essentially comprised compulsory defensive driving tests, vehicle inspection and testing, seat-belt fixing, seat-belt-wearing compliance, speed-limit compliance and daily alcohol testing for professional drivers.”

Work around the environment

Sakhalin has also faced substantial challenges, offshore and onshore, with the task of protecting the island’s diverse natural flora and fauna. Offshore, the main environmental consideration was the presence of the critically endangered western grey whale, for which the island is its only known feeding ground. Rescheduling and rerouting of the pipeline was necessary to avoid any potential impact on the creatures, a process monitored by international experts on the Western Grey Whale Advisory Panel.

“The project had to reroute pipelines around the main whale feeding areas,” says Clark. “And we had to ensure low noise levels from all vessels and work activities in the vicinity of those locations.”

With the recent decline in oil prices, the industry’s appetite for expensive and complex projects like Sakhalin-2 could be a thing of the past; after all, in 2005, Royal Dutch Shell estimated that the total cost of the project was up to $20 billion – not a paltry sum. Clark argues that while that may deter investment on these types of undertakings, the long-term profits and ability to control operation costs make it worth it.

“Our assets at this stage don’t require major investment to keep running,” says Clark. “They’re well designed and they operate within their design window, so we’re operating efficiently, cost-effectively and we are a maturing organisation.

Sakhalin is a highly profitable project and, if estimates are to be believed, is sitting on $812 billion from the island’s oil at prices as they stood in mid-February. The oil industry loves a new frontier to explore, and it can’t get more ‘frontier’ than this island in the frigid northern Pacific Ocean. If Sakhalin can be tamed, there are few places that can’t.

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