Page through the 11,481 technical papers presented at each Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) since its 1969 inception, and the history of exploration and development primarily in the Gulf of Mexico unfolds in one long narrative – replete with human ingenuity, perseverance and accomplishment.
For those who have dug into the OTC archives and watched the technology of offshore drilling evolve alongside plays in increasingly deeper waters, a common theme leaps from the pages:
At some point in time, the impossible becomes possible, and science moves forward yet another step.
“It’s a story about engineering challenges in an environment where one would think, ‘That’s just not feasible,’” said AAPG member Dan McConnell, the 2015 OTC Program Committee chairman and BDT director for the Americas at Fugro GeoConsulting Inc.
“You can see in the evolution of the technical papers how we’ve gone from drilling on the shelf into deep water,” he said. “The cradle of invention has been in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. You can literally see that in the OTC technical programs.”
Ranking as one of the largest tradeshows in the nation – having drawn more than 76,500 exhibitors and more than 2.3 million attendees, both new and repeating – OTC has created a collaborative environment that has allowed industry players to advance their knowledge and their first steps into the depths of the Gulf and other waters.
Begun 46 years ago in its permanent hometown of Houston by 12 engineering and scientific organizations, including the AAPG, OTC has become an avenue for sharing ideas and new technology during a period of unprecedented global demand for oil.
“It’s important for people working in the industry to see the latest technology and to present the work they are doing,” McConnell said. “Often you are doing something that hasn’t been done before. You’re solving new problems related to the extraction of oil and gas in deeper and deeper waters.”
Unlike other conferences in which attendees leave with the presenters’ abstracts and their own notes, OTC has provided from Day One full technical papers that are often used as foundations for academics and professionals in their own disciplines, said AAPG member Buford Pollett, chairman of the AAPG technical subcommittee for OTC and Legal and Corporate Affairs manager for ENI.
“These papers have been critical to the expertise of OTC,” Pollett said.
As some have said about the conference, “No paper, no podium.”
An Unfolding of Papers
Going back to year 1973, McConnell dusted off a technical paper by Ben Burke of Chevron Oil Field Research Co. discussing for the first time the feasibility of deepwater marine risers – devices used to connect subsea oil wells to surface drilling facilities.
“Since then, the design, construction and performance of deepwater marine risers has been a constant at OTC,” McConnell said. “This year is no exception. There will be seven papers presented regarding their continued advancement.”
Also in 1973, a paper titled “A Simulated Dive at 2,001 Feet,” by Christian Agarate and Alain Jegou, revealed the possibilities of human exploration in the deep sea.
“Two professional divers were progressively pressurized with an oxy-helium mixture to 2,001 feet, which they reached on May 24 at 1:20 a.m., where they stayed for 80 minutes before decompression,” the authors wrote.
During the experiment, the divers underwent numerous physiological investigations. Although the test subjects fared well, it was ultimately determined that humans cannot work at such depths.
As a result, the push for technology to replace the human diver began.
Fast forward to 1982 and the concept of Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) makes its OTC debut in a paper titled, “Specialized Deep-Water Drilling Support Remotely Operated Vehicle,” by Peter Nellessen of Oceaneering International Inc. Gathering exposure and momentum over the years, the company is one of the world’s largest operators of ROVs today.
The OTC library of technical papers, which can be found at onepetro.org, is not short on industry firsts. In 1984, the concept of the tension-leg platform was introduced. In 1997, the floating Spar platform made its debut. Following that were the first subsea production systems.
And the list goes on …
“OTC,” McConnell said, “through its technical program archive, really does present the technical history of the offshore oil and gas business.”
Just as industry has recorded milestones at OTC, so has the conference itself.
Begun in the midst of a furious demand for hydrocarbons, OTC hit its first record attendance in 1982 with 108,161 people – a significant jump from the 4,200 who attended the first conference.
Last year saw 108,300 people, a testament to the amount of offshore interest and plays made possible by ever-evolving technology that has enabled industry to operate in deeper and deeper waters.
In fact, as deepwater prospects become increasingly possible, more countries are exploiting their resources and attending OTC to present their findings and learn about new technology, said Stephen Graham, OTC’s executive director.
Countries not typically associated with offshore exploration in the past, such as Ghana, India, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Tanzania and Israel, have become new to the attendance roster, Graham added.
“OTC has always been a worldwide draw,” McConnell said. “Saudi Arabia has been known for its onshore operations for some time, but now they are venturing into their own waters in the Red Sea.”
As offshore technology has advanced over the years, Graham said, so has the need for exhibition space. With the exception of 1984, the year that oil prices crashed and just 2,773 people – a record low – attended OTC, a prominent exhibition for new technology has been a staple at every conference.
In fact, when the NRG Center (then Reliant Center) was practically busting at the seams in the early 2000s, OTC officials came up with a way to expand the exhibit space to include the NRG Arena and use the outdoor space between the two venues an effective go-between, Graham explained.
Although OTC uses a combined space equivalent to more than 10 football fields, the event still has a waiting list of exhibitors each year.
“We’re always sold out,” Graham said, noting that he is expecting approximately 2,500 exhibitors this year compared to the 200 exhibitors who participated in the first conference.
While roughly 130 countries have participated in OTC over the years, attendance has grown so that additional conferences under the OTC umbrella have been created in a global outreach of sorts, said Dana Otillio, senior marketing manager for OTC.
In 2011, OTC Brasil and the Arctic Technology Conference made their debuts in areas where offshore activity has piqued much interest. Then, in 2014, OTC Asia was introduced.
As the conference has become a growing source for educators, particularly those who teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM subjects), OTC executives added the Energy Education Institute to its program in 2007. The full-day workshop for Houston-area science teachers provides energy-related topics that can be taken back to the classroom as well as hands-on energy lessons from the National Energy Education Development project, Otillio said.
Priding themselves on their history of putting on an interdisciplinary conference, OTC organizers design its technical programs through the collaborative input of scientists from a broad range of backgrounds, including geology, engineering and geophysics, Pollett said.
“It’s a sense of collaboration and not competition,” he said. “We all work to find topics that many people are interested in. If it’s not collaborative, it’s not successful.”
For example, this year’s AAPG technical program includes sessions on reservoir evaluation and management, put together in conjunction with the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and the Society of Professional Engineers.
“It will be conducted in a setting that offers many different perspectives rather than the perspective from your own particular specialty,” Pollett explained.
Another session, titled “Advances in Quantitative Geohazard and Georisk Assessment,” also was put together from a collaborative point of view, appealing to geologists, petroleum engineers, naval architects and others who develop offshore facilities, Pollett said.
Not only are technical sessions developed in the truest sense of sharing, so are the exhibits.
“Those who created OTC really brought clients and contractors together in a way that they could understand and share technology that in other instances they might not have wanted to share,” Pollett added. “But people have been willing to share their technology. They are giving enough of a taste of the technology yet not disclosing any trade secrets.”
Rounding ’Em Up
Over the years, a key factor in the success of OTC has been the desire of all participants to congregate in one place: to learn, to share and to network.
“OTC has become a polyglot of people from around the world,” McConnell said.
“Every year, it’s like a reunion of sorts,” Graham added. “Networking has always been ranked highly on our surveys.”
After the Macondo incident in April 2010, OTC became a gathering point for local and national media as well. Knowing the world’s offshore experts who represented every facet of the industry were gathered at the NRG Center, reporters planted themselves at the venue for answers, sound bites and quotes.
OTC officials played the opportunity wisely, using the limelight to inform the press about best practices of offshore well design and drilling, and putting into perspective loss of well control versus successful operations, Graham said.
While 2014 set a record with the greatest OTC attendance, it is not likely that 2015 will set another. As Graham and others frankly point out, attendance has typically mirrored the price of oil, and it’s no secret that 2015 has started out as a down year.
Nevertheless, as deepwater exploration becomes more feasible and pervasive worldwide, the draw to OTC remains magnetic. This year, OTC received 1,313 paper proposals, the highest in the event’s history. OTC’s story continues to unfold.
And, as McConnell said, “People are still creating the future.”