A cathedral to science

Last updated 05:00 18/01/2014

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More than 200 kilometres off the North Island's West Coast sits a cathedral to science. At 229m long and 36m wide the Noble Bob Douglas deep-sea drill ship is a monumental display of some of the oil and gas industry's finest technology.

The equipment is so advanced that by drilling in New Zealand waters the Noble team are underutilising the technology they have.

Frank Patterson, Anadarko's senior vice-president of international exploration, says the sixth-generation vessel is merely being broken-in in the Taranaki Basin.

"They have taken everything that we have learned on all the previous generations and they have figured out what worked well and what issues there might be that could be improved.

"If you look at this, then this is like the iPhone5 of vessels," he said.

Mr Patterson, who is based in Houston, Texas, was one of nine people who flew out to visit the drill ship last week.

Fairfax Media was invited along for the trip.

Located 200km off the coast of Raglan, the vessel is reached after a 50-minute chopper ride from Taranaki.

That was exciting enough, despite the heavy and hot orange safety suits, but the real awe starts when the Noble Bob Douglas comes into view.

Even from miles away it stretches out across the site, seemingly proud of its size and its presence in 1520m-deep water.

With the supply vessel beside the ship bobbing up and down in the 2m swells, the drill vessel looks like a calm giant on a sea of turbulence.

It barely moves as we approach, despite having no anchor.

The six 5000kw Rolls-Royce thrusters keep it in place through the current changes and varying weather.

Just the way it manages to stay stationary is fascinating.

On board there is very little motion and one can't help but be overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything.

The derrick is 64m high, the stairs seem to run for miles, and even the lunches are huge.

Salmon fillets, rack of lamb cutlets and unnecessarily large raspberry lamingtons are just a few things served at today's lunch.

The 193 workers, including about 65 New Zealanders, aboard the ship are well fed for their 28-day stints.

The hospitality afforded to the visitors on board is second to none, and with thick Texan accents around every corner, one couldn't help but think this was southern hospitality at its finest.

"Today we are going to look out for ya'll," Greg Broussard, Noble's operations manager, tells the visitors. "People are our most important asset and their safety is our greatest responsibility. Without people you don't have anything but a big floating bit of iron," he said.

But the Texas-based oil and gas exploration company has not escaped the heat of controversy.

The drill ship's presence has been marked by Greenpeace protesters and the invasion of boat SV Vega inside the 500m safety exclusion zone.

Mr Broussard says protesters are not uncommon, but he hopes that over time people will come to understand the company ethos.

"Our objective is to do things safely and successfully with no harm to the environment. We operate in a relatively low-key way," he says.

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The low-key comment seems an out of place thing to say about a ship that is so large.

In fact, the only thing that is low-key about this vessel is the captain's wheel.

Because the vessel uses the most advanced technology, everything is computerised and a real wheel is no longer needed.

Inconspicuously sitting among the controls is the baby black wheel. It's smaller than a doughnut.

The ship's wheel may be small, but the gas tanks aren't.

The ship burns 50,000 litres of fuel a day just being stationary.

The fuel creates the power for the entire ship, which costs about $1.2m a day to run.

With running costs so expensive Anadarko is sticking to a tight schedule and is hoping to strike big in New Zealand.

Just what that potential payout could be will be determined by what type of hydrocarbons are found.

Mr Patterson, who has a background in geology, wanted to see the crew strike something last week when he was here from Texas.

Noble Bob Douglas has been drilling since late November and last week had just started to hit the optimum depth for hydrocarbons.

"In this well we are really not looking for anything until about 3000 to 3200 metres or deeper, and we just got there.

"It's a little bit different in every basin, but most of the time you are looking deeper instead of shallower. But then there is a point in the geology where you get too deep and then the hydrocarbons don't exist there either. So there is kinda a sweet spot that you drill to.

"From here on it is possible," he said.

On our visit the crew had just drilled 100m in 12 hours, something Mr Patterson says is the culmination of four years worth of work from a multi- faceted team.

Anadarko, which operates in 17 countries outside of the United States, looks all over the world for places where they think the economics of the project can be supported by a large enough find.

Surveying, 2D and 3D seismics must take place before drilling begins.

"We believe these two basins - the Taranaki and the Canterbury - have that potential."

Even if the first well in the Taranaki and Canterbury basins does hold hydrocarbons, the company won't know how big the find is until they set up a second and third well in the vicinity.

"The first well is great. It's awesome. You need to celebrate it, but the second and third well are the real important ones because those are the ones that tell you if it's big enough to be really successful.

"The first well can be a heartbreaker. That may be all you find.

"What you want is something you can build into something much bigger and put a facility on, and develop and produce it.

"Then it's cash flow for the company, it's cashflow for the country, it's jobs - it's everything," he said.

The next few weeks will hold moments of truth for the crew on the Noble Bob Douglas.

The drilling licence ends in the Taranaki Basin on February 14, then the vessel will head to the Canterbury Basin. After that it's off to the Gulf of Mexico, the environment the vessel was specifically designed for.

Anadarko was a 25 per cent shareholder in the Macondo well that blew out in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It killed 11 workers and led to America's worst oil spill.

The company, which maintains it was a silent partner, agreed to pay compensation of US$4 billion.

In contrast to that, the crew aboard the Noble Bob Douglas have had no major, or even minor issues.

The sole issue in or out of the water was medical and minor, which was handled by basic first aid.

The low incident rate is something Mr Patterson hopes will encourage more deep-sea drilling exploration in New Zealand.

"We are doing this all by ourselves. It would be great if there could be more industry activity here so we can do some rig sharing.

"At the moment we are out where no-one's been and we are drilling in an area where no-one has really had the courage to go before.

"As a company we've made some of the largest discoveries in the world in the last 20 years.

"What's exciting is there's still big things to find in the world.

"Hopefully we will have a discovery or two in New Zealand," he said.

Fairfax Media was on board the Noble Bob Douglas as a guest of Anadarko.

- Taranaki Daily News

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