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Stepping up the OBN drive

Stage is set for increased activity in the market for ocean bottom node surveys

It has been a long time since a seismic acquisition contract caused a stir. The script was rewritten last July when Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) awarded the world’s largest-ever 3D seismic acquisition survey to BGP, the Chinese seismic services subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation.

Worth an eye-popping $1.6 billion, the work involves 23,000 square kilometres of onshore data collection and 35,000 square kilometres offshore.

The scale of the ocean bottom node (OBN) seismic portion of the offshore coverage, which will also involve towed-streamer operations, has vaulted BGP into a leading contender, just as it intended.

The company is on record as saying that it missed out on the towed-streamer acquisition market but will not let seabed seismic slip through its fingers.

In addition to the ongoing Adnoc project, it has work off Nigeria for Chevron and Shell, in Brunei for Shell and Azerbaijan later in the year for BP.

The immediate outlook for BGP and its rivals in the OBN space looks favourable.

Every market survey suggests that the percentage of the total marine seismic market for ocean bottom seismic (OBS) has grown from approximately 4% in 2006 to around 20% and is projected to rise further.

Norwegian consultancy Arkwright estimates the 2019 OBS market value at $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion.

OBS — now mainly nodal rather than cable-based — offers much better illumination of the subsurface in targeted areas.

This is exactly what oil companies are looking for, with the emphasis today on enhanced oil recovery from producing reservoirs and low-risk infield exploration for reserves that can be tied into existing offshore infrastructure.

Sustainability challenges

If there are dark clouds on the horizon, that could be due to over-capacity and sustainability challenges.

Stephan Midenet, chief executive of Seabed Geosolutions (SBGS), warns against repeating the “streamer story”.

None of the current players, with the exception of BGP, has the safe haven of a larger parent company to protect them from a drop in seabed seismic survey demand.

SBGS itself is a 60:40 joint venture between Fugro and CGG with the longest history in the business, going back to the commercial introduction of the precursor of its current CASE Abyss node-deployment system in a Gulf of Mexico survey in 2005.

This is now complemented by the more versatile, automated Manta system, which is able to operate in all water depths with the same node.

A CASE crew recently completed a project in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico for Shell.

One Manta crew is in Brazil and another is due in the Red Sea for Saudi Aramco with partner ARGAS.

Both partners in SBGS have expressed the desire to divest the company, presumably in a straight sale or potentially floating it as a separate entity. On 16 April, Axxis Geo Solutions, rebranded recently as AGS, announced a merger with Songa Bulk, a listed Norwegian investment company, to enable the company to trade on the Oslo exchange with the opportunity to attract additional investment.

Node rents

The company has access to vessels but rents its nodes, currently provided by Geospace Technologies.

Magseis had to go to the market to raise funds to acquire the technology assets from Fairfield Seismic Technologies last year, as did SAExploration, to buy the assets of Geokinetics out of bankruptcy.

In the Magseis case, there was a nice, likely one-off sale of 17,000 nodes to BGP for its Middle East job, worth $150 million.

As a result of the Fairfield purchase, valued at $233 million, the combined Magseis Fairfield entity has the challenge of operating two technologies, the Magseis Marine Autonomous Seismic System (MASS) and Fairfield’s longer established range of ZNode technology for all depths.

Of the leading offshore contractors, only Shearwater GeoServices has any OBS capacity, having inherited the cable-based Q-Seabed technology from its acquisition in 2018 of the marine seismic acquisition business of Schlumberger’s WesternGeco.

Shearwater’s WG Tasman and WG Cook multi-purpose vessels will be working this summer in the North Sea for Aker BP and Equinor under a multi-year contract. It is also re-rigging the Vespucci with OBN surveys in mind, using OBX nodes from Geospace.

Polarcus is collaborating on a three-month combined towed-streamer/OBN project in the Middle East with SAExploration for Dubai Petroleum Establishment. It has no plans to invest in its own OBN capability.

Petroleum GeoServices has yet to show its hand but some future involvement seems inevitable.

877ea8c7114fa1ac3df85f3227b89fc4 In action: automated node deployment on the Subsea Viking Photo: SBGS
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