Keeping station

Elaine Maslin

April 1, 2017

Elaine Maslin chats with Helix Energy Solutions to find out how the intervention services provider is keeping afloat with new collaborative offerings, and, yes, new vessels entering the market.

Helix’s newbuild the Siem Helix 1, before its back deck equipment was fitted. Photos from Helix Energy Solutions.

The downturn’s reach has affected many sectors, including the well intervention market. Vessels – some the result of significant investment – have been introduced to the market, only to fall off the radar.

For the stalwarts of the business, they have seen shorter contracts, shorter-term planning (impacting contract visibility) from operators, and plugging and abandonment (P&A) preparation work. Despite seeing some fleet attrition, Helix Energy Solutions Group expects two new vessels to come into operation this year, and another in 2019 (the Q7000). It is also set to introduce new equipment designed to help extend the capabilities of the existing and the new vessels to the market, while continuing to drive new techniques and operating philosophies into the market.

“Rates are down, competition is strong, but we had a very full schedule (last year) and are filling up the schedules for the rest of this year,” says David Carr, vice president – Commercial, Helix. “Rigs have been coming off contract and competing against us.”

But, a combination of efficiencies Helix has made over the last year, risk-sharing work under its Subsea Services Alliance with Schlumberger, and renting intervention riser systems (IRS) to operators who have rig contract over hangs and want to find alternative work for them, has helped Helix stand firm.

Since the downturn hit in 2014, most of the well intervention work in the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico has been a steady blend of P&A preparation work and production enhancement work, Carr says. While the P&A market has a lot more potential, with a growing global well stock, production enhancement work might also be making a return, he says.

“With oil prices above US$50/bbl, we expect to see an increase in production enhancement work. In the North Sea, there is also a much older well stock which needs maintaining or it will reach the end of its production life much sooner,” Carr says.

Gulf of Mexico

Helix’s two semisubmersibles, the Q4000 and Q5000, have work in the US Gulf of Mexico for the next year, despite facing competition from rigs. This month, in fact, marks the first full year of operations on the Q5000. The vessel entered service on contract to BP in Q2 2016, working entirely on intervention. Although IRS-related issues led to a “shaky start” early on, Helix says it has close cooperation with BP and expects continued improved performance.

Helix also recently announced that under its Subsea Services Alliance, it plans to make the Q4000 available with a full Schlumberger spread as a fully integrated package.

Doing this would have two impacts, Carr says. First, staffing can be cut by up to 30%, reducing replicated staff. Second, operators will benefit from regularly having the same crew return shift after shift, with this consistency and experience adding value to all parties. “That has a tangible impact,” Carr says. “It also means fewer helicopters, improved safety and competency, among other benefits.”

Helix is also bringing two new vessels into operation this year. The firm has already taken delivery of the chartered Siem Helix 1, which, following modifications in a Brazilian yard as part of acceptance with Petrobras, is currently expected to start a four-year contract with the state-oil firm offshore Brazil during Q1. The Siem Helix 2 is expected to join her on contract to Petrobras later in the year (read more on page 40).

New equipment

The recently upgraded Seawell.

As well as new vessels, Helix has new subsea well access equipment scheduled to come into the market this year: a 15,000psi IRS and its ROAM open water abandonment tool, which OE featured in December 2016. The IRS, due in the market in Q4, is the same design as the IRS on the Q4000, but with higher pressure capacity.

“We see quite a lot of use for this in the Gulf of Mexico,” Carr says. “When times were good, there were a number of projects by certain supermajors to build and own equipment of this type. This is expensive and then the operator has the cost of maintaining it. We will be the first to actually have a high-pressure rental system in the market.”

The ROAM tool will bring a significant change, Carr says, by allowing 18 3/4in access into the wellbore.

This would open up the use of tools already in the market, such as perforate and circulate, or perf and wash, as it’s known tools, but which currently have to be run on drill pipe. “We have proposed a methodology to complete entire upper abandonments with the ROAM tool with one of our units, instead of a full rig using these technologies.” There are also a lot of companies looking at ways to do full upper abandonments using plasma or explosives and the like. These could also be deployed from a riserless well intervention unit, he points out.

With ROAM, Helix can also install primary steel caps in abandonment mode, instead of using inflatable devices currently used, which some operators are not entirely comfortable with, he says. The system has several clients interested, is currently undergoing regulatory review with no known issues thus far, and is due to be ready in 2H 2017.

“The combination of the Q5000 and ROAM tool is interesting,” Carr says. “The Q5000, like a lot of rigs, has false moon pool underneath the deck, so you can do subsea lower abandonments with the riser access package, then suspend the riser access package subsea, so that you can simultaneously deploy the ROAM tool, without having to retrieve the IRS back to surface. That literally saves you days in running time.”

The 15,000psi IRS and ROAM have been built by OneSubsea, which jointly owns the equipment with Helix under the Subsea Services Alliance. This is beneficial to the alliance, Carr says, because it means the original equipment manufacturer has “skin in the game.” “It gives us a supply chain we are comfortable with and lets us bring products to market faster.”

North Sea

After completing an approximate $90 million refit and upgrade at the Damen yard in Vlissingen in the Netherlands, the Seawell (which did its first intervention job in 1987) came back to work in the North Sea last year and has a full schedule for the rest of this year.

While traditionally vessels coming out of a major refit would have teething troubles, the Seawell has been performing well and expects to be in operation some 270-300 days this year, nearly all supporting P&A work in the North Sea for various clients, says Steve Nairn, vice president, Helix Well Ops (UK). The Seawell was involved in this type of work in the 1990s, but legislation has changed since then, resulting in the call for rigs to do a lot of the work. With the ROAM tool, more can again be done from intervention vessels, Nairn says, de-risking the work the rig still needs to do, i.e. pulling tubing.

New techniques, rather than technology, have indeed been a feature of the North Sea business, led by the Well Enhancer.

Last year, the Well Enhancer performed the first riser-based coiled tubing (CT) job from a vessel (OE: December 2016), for a perforation job on the Pierce field for Shell, and the first deployment of ceramic sand screens from a light well intervention vessel, also for Shell. The CT job received a lot of interest and multiple clients are already expressing interest to use this method for work in the North Sea this summer, Carr says. “We expect to see an increase in that type of activity. Being able to add CT capability into the well without a full rig is quite a game changer.”

Earlier this year, the vessel performed a subsea first, running a coiled hose – essentially wireline with a hallow core – to inject chemicals to specific areas of a well.

This year, the Well Enhancer will continue its P&A work, with further coiled hosing work potentially in the cards.


It’s not all been peaches and cream.

At the end of last year, Helix sold the Helix 534, a converted drillship. It also does not plan to renew its charter contract with DOF for the Skandi Constructor. However, Helix is leaving its kit on the boat and currently plans to jointly market the vessel in Asia Pacific and Africa, under a DOF Subsea business with Helix well intervention capacity.