National Geographic : 1975 Feb
Seafloor oil wells. Exxon isdeveloping a revolutionary system of underwater wells that may unlock oil and gas reserves deeper beneath the sea than ever before. To boost America's energy pro duction, Exxon is taking a giant step down. Today, under the Gulf of Mex ico, Exxon is testing the proto type of a system that may someday allow us to reach for oil and natural gas deeper be neath the sea than has ever been possible. The prototype is called the Submerged Production System or SPS. As the name indicates, it operates underwater. Exxon saw the need for such a system in the mid-1960's years before the term "energy crisis" entered our vocabulary. Now, after $30 million of design, engineering and construction, the first SPS unit is undergoing operational testing. Why it's needed Nearly all of today's offshore oil and gas is brought to the surface by wells drilled from production platforms. These platforms are huge steel towers that are an chored to the seafloor and rise above the water. Up on their decks many people live and work. These platforms are practical for production in relatively shal low water. But in deep water costs and technological prob lems involved make them less attractive. This is where the SPS may take over. We will soon be producing oil and gas from water depths that will require plat forms nearly as tall as the Empire State Building. The SPS may permit produc tion from even greater water depths. The operation Once the SPS has been lowered to the seafloor and anchored, a drilling ship will complete a num ber of wells through openings on the unit and then leave. After production begins, the SPS will carry out the entire pro duction operation. All SPS func tions will be monitored and remotely controlled by an oper ator aboard a ship or in a control room on shore. At the push of a button, the operator will start up or shut down parts of the SPS unit. The SPS is designed to pipe oil and gas to shore-or to a tanker over head, as shown in the illustration on the right. The handy Manipulator A maintenance device called the Manipulator services and repairs the SPS once it's on the ocean floor. If, for example, a valve should need to be replaced, the Manipu lator will be lowered to a track which encircles the SPS unit. The Manipulator will move around the track until it reaches the faulty valve. It will then remove the old part, insert a replacement, and test to make sure every thing's working right. All the while, underwater tele vision cameras on the Manipula tor will enable an operator in a work boat to direct the progress below by remote control. Environmentally safe Besides having the potential to unlock billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of gas - the SPS also offers promising environmental innovations. The SPS is designed with spe cial features to prevent oil leaks. And even in the unlikely event that a leak does occur, oil-catch ing drip pans will collect the es caping oil and automatically shut down production until repairs are made. Deeper beneath the sea than ever before-this is one of the places Exxon is going to bring you gas and oil.