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Last Updated: Monday, 25 September 2006, 05:20 GMT 06:20 UK
Showcase pipeline fuels global gas flames
By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Acergy Piper, North Sea

The technology used to lay gas pipes deep under water is valuable

At first sight, there is nothing hi-tech about the vast, rusty vessel that appears to float in the air above the choppy, three-metre waves.

Seen from a helicopter, Acergy Piper is clearly too small to be an oil platform, but it does not look like a ship either.

If anything it resembles a set from the movies Waterworld and Mad Max.

Yet Acergy Piper is central to the heated debate about energy security, both in the UK and globally.

This week, the vessel will complete the roll-out of the world's longest underwater gas pipeline, the Langeled, which from 1 October will start delivering up to a fifth of all the gas consumed in the UK.

And in the future, the techniques employed here, deep under the sea, could be put to good use by the Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Gazprom plans to roll out a $4bn (2.1bn), 1,200 kilometre-long gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea to Germany, as well as developing its 1,400 square kilometre Shtokman field in the Barents Sea, set to become the world's largest offshore gas field.

Complex route

For all its importance and cutting-edge construction mission, Acergy Piper is far from polished.

Instead, it resembles a heavy industry plant where the workers are cut off from the outside world for weeks on end, their movements restricted to this dreary, 170-metre long, slow-moving barge.

But those on board are not complaining.

"We've got big-ass plasma in our lounge area," shouts Ferdy Laurent, a loud Californian with stickers from dozens of oil companies plastered all over his hard hat, and who likes to describe himself as a Texan redneck.

On deck, a series of giant steel pipes - each weighing about 25 tonnes and measuring 42 inches in diameter - are pushed along an assembly line manned by industrial workers from more than 30 countries.

A pipe is heated up
The pipes are central to a heated debate about energy security

Each of the workers is kept busy, welding the pipes together into a continuous tube that will cover a 1,200 kilometre stretch from the west coast of Norway to Easington in UK.

It is a complex process that involves a great deal of fine tuning.

Each piece of pipeline is covered with several layers of protective coating to ensure it can survive at the bottom of the North Sea for more than 50 years.

The joints are all given an ultrasound check before the pipe is being slowly lowered into the sea from its main firing line at angles designed to match the peaks and valleys of the seabed.

Power games

The completion of the Langeled pipeline has done much to mollify concerned gas customers in the UK, who saw gas shortages last winter force prices to record levels for households and businesses alike.

This winter, getting Langeled on stream is set to help push prices lower, prompting consumer groups to warn UK users against locking themselves in to the high fixed prices that are currently on offer.

The project also has also turned heads beyond Britain.

On Friday 15 September, a Russian contingent visited Acergy Piper to see the Langeled roll-out for themselves.

Officially, the two Norwegian companies behind the Langeled project - Hydro and Statoil - are optimistic about their chances to be chosen as Gazprom partners in major projects.

The massive pipelines could bring giant contracts and bigger bucks

The Langeled project - which at some stage consumed 30% of the world's entire carbon steel production, and which has come in on time and well under budget - is indeed impressive, and can act as a showcase that may put the Norwegians at the front of the race to construct pipelines for the Russians.

"We're going to build it," one official quips on board the Acergy Piper when asked about a 555 kilometre pipeline Gazprom wants constructed in extreme conditions in the Barents Sea.

But privately, some officials concede that Gazprom is far from prepared to treat them as equals.

"They are interested in our technology, but that's all," says one senior official.

As such, Acergy Piper does little more than play a part in a much bigger power game: Gazprom has access to Russia's vast - and largely underdeveloped - energy resources, and it desperately needs the help of Western energy giants that often possess greater skills and technology.

Giant contracts are on offer, though in return Russia wants both direct access to lucrative Western energy markets and equity stakes in the companies it enters into partnership with.

So far, during lengthy talks, the Russians have been playing their cards close to their chests.

But that could all change very quickly, and industry observers reckon that major contracts could soon be awarded as even the Russians' legendary patience crumbles in the face of powerful market forces.


SEE ALSO
New pipeline may stem gas fears
11 Sep 06 |  Business
Europe's Russian energy dilemma
03 Aug 06 |  Business
Carbon burial plan for North Sea
08 Mar 06 |  Science/Nature

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