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High-risk environments – how to excel despite the extremes.

Much of the world’s remaining crude oil reserves lie in regions where exploration and production present formidable challenges.

Crude oil developed and produced during Phase 1 of the Kashagan oilfield in the North Caspian Sea is the result of an industrial project that is widely seen as one of the most ambitious and complex energy developments anywhere in the world. The oil reserve covers an area of almost 2,700 square kilometres, with oil found in reservoirs more than four kilometres below the seabed. The field is estimated to contain more than 35 billion barrels of oil, about 40% of which is recoverable.

LR was closely involved with the first phase of the Kashagan development and Darkhan Shalmukanov, LR Marine and Offshore Director for Kazakhstan, explains the physical challenges of exploration and production activity in region.

“For about four or five months of the year, we face subarctic temperatures up to -40°C and below, and drifting ice around the two artificial islands located at Kashagan about 80 kilometres offshore. There is a small fleet of icebreakers that tackle drifting ice around the offshore installations. Then, in a matter of a few weeks, we get scorching summer temperatures of 40°C or more. You can imagine that providing independent verification services in such conditions is pretty demanding.

“However, climate issues are only part of the story.” Shalmukanov continues. “Kashagan crude is a light and sour oil which contains large volumes of poisonous and highly corrosive hydrogen sulphide (H2S) gas. This high gas component in the oil requires meticulous attention to detail, both in the choice of materials and components which handle the crude, but also in the design, operation and assurance of project and personnel safety requirements. At seven parts per million, H2S can kill you, without you even knowing. It has no sign or smell.”

A significant part of LR’s mandate, therefore, involves safety and the classification society has personnel constantly on call.

Although one of the artificial islands is unmanned most of the time, operations and safety assurance personnel must attend on a regular basis. LR uses remote technologies where possible including drones, ROVs and pipeline inspection gauges for some of its procedures, but physical attendance is still sometimes necessary.

Although other assurance bodies have worked in the region for short periods, LR’s independent verification, assurance and classification services have been used by the North Caspian Operating Company NV (NCOC) for about 15 years. NCOC operates the field on behalf of KazMunayGas, CNPC, Eni, ExxonMobil, Inpex, Shell and Total.

“When LR established its first office in Kazakhstan, which was previously part of the Soviet Union, personnel faced several challenges including a different language, climate and culture” says Laurent Abou Gebrayel, LR’s Business Development Manager of the Caspian Sea Region. “The team rapidly overcame these, building local capability and adapting to the local environment while sharing the knowhow and values of the company having more than 260 years of history and experience. As the only provider of independent verification services, our early representatives had to work hard at building relationships and trust.

“Yes,” agrees Shalmukanov, “our early endeavours built the foundations for a solid relationship. One of our top priorities is to inspire and assist in the development of expertise locally. Kazakhstan is a young country and we aim to assist in helping to introduce international standards, to train local personnel and to make the most of local content wherever possible.

“We share with our Kazakh hosts what we do at our locations all over the world,” Shalmukanov continues. “And we have taken Kazakhstan ministry of transportation and communications personnel to London for training courses. This included local Marine Administration staff who have been engaged in establishing the country’s maritime registry, another initiative that is being supported by LR.”

As to the future, Shalmukanov is optimistic. “Everybody engaged in the development, operation and oversight of Kashagan Phase 1 has learnt important and essential lessons along the way. LR has strong capability in high-risk environments and this underpins all our current practices”.

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