NASA Scientist: Arctic Drillers Can Learn from Space Program

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As the oil and gas industry intensifies its exploration efforts in the Arctic, it could benefit from exploration of another kind – outer space, Dr. Omar Hatamleh, NASA’s assistant chief scientist, told attendees at the recent Houston Consular Forum in Houston, Texas.

The space program and drilling in extreme environments have some surprising similarities, Hatamleh said. 

“What are the advantages of working with NASA? During the peak of the Apollo program in the 1960s, it took about 400,000 people from different industries, academia and the government to produce this great endeavor. That was a huge cost in personnel, and wouldn’t be allowed in today’s environment,” Hatamleh said. “Experts estimate that by 2050, total energy demand is going to be about 80 percent higher. We need to put together our collective intellect to start thinking about better ways to attack these problems and move forward,”

The space station took about 20 years to build, but has provided a significant amount of invaluable information, Hatamleh said. It is a useful model to extrapolate information about working in the Arctic.

“When we started thinking about it, there is so much in common. We both incur challenges involving working in extreme environments and exploratory environments, and the technologies developed for one can be applied to the other, as well,” he said.

One example of how technology could offer solutions to the challenges of performing in hazardous conditions would be to use humanoid robots, Hatemleh said. This could require artificial intelligence to enable the robot to perform without input from human workers.

Both the energy industry and NASA make use of Big Data, Hatemleh said. 

“For the oil and gas industry, there is better seismic, better drilling, better production techniques and there is a significant amount of data collected every day. It’s the same with us [at NASA],” he noted. Considering the human factor in areas such as the sleep cycle and the effect of lighting can have significant effects on workers, NASA learned.

To ensure the health of workers, the infrastructures must be considered, Hatemleh added. Not every part can be taken in outer space, just as not every part can be taken to the Arctic. However, using a 3D printer, Arctic workers could receive a file and print what part is needed.

“We can work together to develop technologies as a group,” using synergistic partnerships, and team and joint resources. “Together, we can reach new heights,” he said.

OPPORTUNITIES FROM DRILLING IN ARCTIC

“There is too much energy to leave in the Arctic sea bed,” Pete Olsen, a Republican congressman representing Sugar Land, Texas, told attendees at the event.

Olsen and Gene Green, a Democratic congressman from Houston, gave the keynote speeches at the Forum, which was hosted by the University of Houston Energy Initiative, the City of Houston, and the OTC’s Arctic Technology Conference. Political leaders and executives from leading energy companies that are drilling in the Arctic spoke at the event.

While long-timers in the oil industry look back fondly at the 1970s, when the industry was in its hay-day, the industry is actually doing much better now, noted Green, who observed that “this is the best economy that I’ve ever seen.”

 As an indication of the strength of the industry today, Green noted that here are currently five crackers and five refineries in East Harris Country in Houston.    

While Olsen and Green talked about their support for the oil and gas industry, and that “more American energy” was necessary and only an “all of the above approach” – including drilling in the Arctic – would provide the energy necessary to support growing demand, the speakers turned quickly to the challenges posed by working in the harsh climate of the Arctic.

Statoil’s Jason Nye, senior vice president of U.S. Offshore, explained that the Arctic can be divided into three different operational areas, or categories:

  • Workable Arctic – there is little or no sea ice or icebergs. So, there are solutions that can be carried out with today’s technology; an example is drilling offshore of Newfoundland
  • Stretch Arctic – there is significant ice that inhibits operations or floating structures for much of the year. How exploration and development is likely to take place can be visualized, but the industry is some ways away from realizing key technologies and capabilities needed for commercial feasibility; an example is northwest Greenland
  • Extreme Arctic – areas where there is continuous or nearly continuous ice coverage. This is where solutions are hard to visualize and require a long-term focus in investment and technology; an example is Greenland

“Why is an industry like ours still willing to take on this large task,” Nye asked. “The answer is twofold. First, we believe the Arctic’s resources will be a critical source of energy for a growing world. Economic growth and rising standards of living will result in a more than 30-percent increase in global energy demand over the next thirty years. Also, we have been producing more energy than we have discovered each year since the early 1980s. We see great resource potential in the region.”

CHALLENGES IN ARCTIC

Climatic conditions represent the greatest challenge to those working in the Arctic, Nye and other speakers said. Exploration and production activities in the region require the proper rigs, equipment and clothes. Also, there are challenges imposed by having to work in darkness for half the year, and by the remoteness of working in a far-off region of the world.

Presenter Peter Lundgren, MD PHD at UMEA University in Sweden, is a medical advisor for the Swedish Armed Forces, and the Swedish Mountain Rescue Services. He noted that in the extreme climatic conditions of the Arctic, there are two keys to meeting the challenges:

  • Basic knowledge – this includes knowing how to main the proper heat balance when the extremities lose blood flow and heat, as well as how to prevent hypothermia
  • Need for more research – what to do in unexpected circumstances, such as when clothing becomes wet in extreme cold

Knowledge within the entire organization and further research are the two main keys to remaining healthy and being able to work in hostile environments in the Arctic, Lundgren said.

Mitch Bloom, vice president of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, discussed how countries could work together to develop the North and overcome the challenges of the area. The climate and resource protection are important in working in the Arctic, and the melting of the permafrost from climate change poses risks to infrastructure. Because of its comparatively small population, Canada, Boom said, has undertaking socio-economic development while building partnerships. 

“So much of what Canada is trying to do is diversity of the economy. We’re trying to get different components of it working together. Because the population of Canada is so small, so many of these economic opportunities are based upon fly-in, fly-out workforces. So, there is not a strong connection [from transient workers] in many cases.”

There is “everything” there in the Arctic, Bloom said. In terms of oil and gas, there are huge volumes up there. However, it can only be developed on a world-class basis.

“There are lots and lots of opportunities. However, the capital costs are so immense. You have to build your own port, your own roads, and your own airstrip. But if we’re not going to see our people benefit from this, why do it?”

All things considered, the Arctic offers a lot of opportunity, but collaboration and finding people with the right skills are necessary. And even then, Bloom noted, “it’s not for the faint of heart.”

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