A new onshore drilling platform enables tapping a potentially immense source of energy.

View from inside the rig mast enclosure. Although enclosed, the drilling floor is kept cold to preserve the core.
U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) officials, back from a recent trip to Alaska’s North Slope, reported on the first attempt in the United States to tap methane hydrates, a potentially immense source of future energy, using what could be the forerunner of a new type of onshore drilling platform that dramatically reduces impact on fragile ecosystems.

“We saw what could be the drilling platform of tomorrow tapping the energy resource of tomorrow,” says Carl Michael Smith, DOE’s assistant secretary for fossil energy. Smith and other department officials visited the “Arctic Platform,” a lightweight, 100-by-100-foot aluminum drilling platform elevated a dozen feet above the frozen tundra on specially designed steel legs. Based on platforms similar to those used offshore, the Arctic Platform is compact and modular, allowing it to be safely transported by air or with ultra-low-impact vehicles called rolligons. The platform was developed by Anadarko Petroleum Corp., headquartered in Houston. Although the prototype platform is a scaled-down version of the one that would be deployed in future commercial operations, the concept could one day eliminate the need for gravel pads and the temporary ice roads and ice pads that now must be used on the North Slope.

“As President Bush’s National Energy Policy emphasized, the oil and gas industry has made remarkable advances in the last 40 years to shrink the ‘footprint’ of its operations. Anadarko’s Arctic Platform could be the industry’s next major step toward the day when exploration and drilling would leave virtually no lasting trace on the surface,” notes Smith.

The platform has been installed at a site just south of the Kuparuk River field 60 miles west of Deadhorse, Alaska. The methane hydrates project is part of a two-year cost-shared partnership between DOE, Anadarko, Maurer Technology Inc. of Sugar Land, Texas, and Noble Engineering and Development, both wholly owned subsidiaries of Noble Corporation of Sugar Land, Texas. DOE is providing $6 million of the $10.5 million total estimated cost. Deployment and testing of the Arctic Platform is expected to add another $2 million to the project cost with DOE planning to contribute half.

The Arctic Platform being assembled on Alaska's North Slope.
“The Arctic Platform could offer a solution to the difficult drilling and production challenges we face in environmentally sensitive areas,” encourages Anne Vincent, Anadarko’s spokesperson. “Because the platform is elevated off the tundra, it could eliminate the need for gravel pads, thereby minimizing surface disturbance and eliminating the need to build temporary ice roads each season to access the drill site. This means that we could safely extend the window when we can conduct operations above the Arctic Circle because we would not be limited to winter months when the tundra is frozen.”

Tom Williams, vice president of Maurer Technology Inc. and the principal investigator for the DOE-funded project, reported that drilling of the hydrate well, designated Hot Ice No. 1, began on March 31 using a slim-hole rig provided by Dynatec, a Utah-based drilling services company. Drilling is to ultimately reach a depth of about 3,000 feet. Methane hydrates are expected to be encountered between 1,200 feet and 2,500 feet deep.

Hydrates are ice crystals that encase natural gas under pressure and at cold temperatures. Known to exist beneath much of the world’s permafrost as well as on or below the ocean floor, hydrates could be a vast storehouse of natural gas that dwarfs other gas resources. On Alaska’s North Slope alone, the hydrate resource has been estimated at 590 trillion cubic feet – many times the 100 trillion to 150 trillion cubic feet thought to exist on the North Slope in more conventional gas-bearing formations.

Inside the drillers’ station (where it's warm!).
Hydrates have been encountered in North Slope drilling operations before, but this is the first time in the United States a well has been targeted specifically at a hydrate formation. Experts from DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the U.S. Geological Survey and Schlumberger have assembled at the site to analyze core samples of the hydrates in a specialized mobile laboratory on the platform. Paulsson Geophysical Services of Brea, Calif., plans to image the hydrate target zone using a sophisticated technique called vertical seismic profiling. The University of Alaska at Anchorage and the U.S. Geological Survey also have assisted in preparing for the project.

A specially designed “Drill Smart” system developed by Noble allows project participants to view continuous live data and images from the platform. Anadarko plans to conduct a production test of natural gas from the hydrate formation when the well is completed – again the first ever such test in the United States. “If we can learn how to extract the natural gas trapped in hydrates economically, we could dramatically strengthen the nation’s future energy security,” says DOE’s Smith. “And if we can tap this enormous resource in a way that minimizes the impact on fragile ecosystems, we can take a major step toward both our energy and environmental goals.”