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Last Updated: Monday, 5 April, 2004, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
Oil exploration by remote control
By Lars Bevanger
BBC News, Oslo

Some believe the technique could be the future of oil and gas exploration

A geologist wearing 3D glasses stands in front of a giant screen showing a computer generated model of the sea bed under an oil rig in the Norwegian North Sea.

He is hooked up to the 3D image through various cables, and moves effortlessly around in the virtual landscape simply by moving his head and hands.

We are in the onshore operations room of ConocoPhillips, the third largest oil and gas operator on the Norwegian continental shelf.

This is the future of oil and gas exploration, says the operations room manager, Mike Herbert.

"We are changing the way we work. All the people working in this room used to work offshore, on the actual rigs they are monitoring now," Mr Herbert told BBC News Online.

We've saved over 100 million kroner [US$14m] in the year we've done this.
Lars Takla, ConocoPhillips Norway
"One year ago we were able to open this control centre, where the same people can do the same job, in real time, from a normal office."

Efficient exploration

Norway is the world's third largest oil and gas exporting nation. But the reserves on the Norwegian continental shelf are dwindling, and operators are looking for more efficient ways to explore what is still left.

For ConocoPhillips, this operations room is one important part of that development.

Across the room from the visualisation screen sit a group of experts: directional drillers, operating geologists and logging engineers.

Many more platform operations may move onshore

Robert Askew is monitoring several computer screens, which show him the geology of one of the bore holes in the Ekofisk oil rig area.

"From this data I can find out whether there is oil down there, and how much," Mr Askew told BBC News Online.

That particular technology is not new. What is very different from just one year ago is that Mr Askew is actually working a few minutes away from his home and family in Stavanger.

"I can now do more or less exactly the same job from here. It's obviously much better to sit here than in a noisy unit off-shore somewhere."

Robert Askew used to go out to the rigs for two weeks at a time. Now he comes home to his family every afternoon. "I can't say I miss the platforms," he said.

In theory this operations room could be located anywhere, and ConocoPhillips are already looking to set up similar centres in other time zones, to completely eliminate the need for working night shifts.

Money saver

It is extremely expensive to look for oil and get it to the surface from wells which sometimes plunge 6,000 metres into the seabed under the often stormy North Sea.

More efficient and cheaper ways of doing it are very welcome with oil company executives.

Mike Herbert, Bevanger
ConocoPhillips' Mike Herbert says the technology has transformed working
Lars Takla, the managing director of ConocoPhillips Norway, is no exception.

"Today they can do a better job with the same information from these on-shore facilities," he said.

"We've saved over 100 million kroner [US$14m] in the year we've done this.

"We save on helicopter transportation, we save on extra allowances for working offshore."

Mr Takla envisages more and more platform operations moving on-shore in the future, heralding increased efficiency and further savings.

"I think this is just the start. We're already building an on-shore centre for our off- shore production and processing facilities," says Mr Takla, who admits that the North Sea helicopter operators are probably the only ones who are not happy with this development.

They have already lost 130 return trips from Stavanger to the oil rigs since the operations room opened last year.

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