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FPSO Technology in the Gulf of Mexico

A floating, production, storage, and offloading (FPSO) unit is a floating vessel used in offshore drilling.  FPSOs receive hydrocarbons from nearby offshore platforms, process them, and then store them until they can be offloaded onto a tanker or transported through pipeline.

The first FPSO, the Shell Castellon, was built in Spain in 1977.  Today there are over 200 FPSOs worldwide, and that number is growing fast.  According to researchers at Douglas-Westwood, a consulting and research services provider, almost 130 FPSO installations will begin on projects in the next four years.

In September, Petrobras became the first company to use an FPSO for production in the Gulf of Mexico.  In this blog post, we’ll discuss the basic benefits of FPSOs and take a closer look at Petrobras’ FPSO, the BW Pioneer.

FPSO Basics

FPSOs are particularly useful in remote or deepwater locations where seabed pipelines are not cost effective.  These vessels are moored in place with a central mooring system that allows them to rotate freely to respond to weather conditions.  Additionally, FPSOs often have spread-mooring systems to anchor them from various locations on the seafloor.

FPSO production equipment usually consists of water separation, gas treatment, oil processing, water injection, and gas compression.


The main benefit of FPSOs is that, unlike pipelines, they can change location.  Once an oilfield is depleted, the FPSO can be moved to another one.  This makes them optimal for small oilfields and areas with no infrastructure.  FPSOs can also be moved in case of hurricanes or other weather hazards.

FPSOs are historically safe, spilling less than 500 barrels of oil combined.  They are also more environmentally friendly than pipelines because they involve less building on the sea floor.

The Record-Breaking BW Pioneer

In March 2011, BOEMRE gave Petrobras America final approval to begin production using an FPSO at the Chinook-Cascade project in the Gulf of Mexico.  Petrobras’ Chinook and Cascade projects are located on the Walker Ridge area of the Gulf, approximately 165 miles offshore Louisiana in 8,200 feet of water, which is considered an ultra-deepwater project.


Petrobras’ FPSO, the BW Pioneer, began oil production in the ultra-deepwaters of the Chinook oilfield on Sept. 6, 2012.  The BW Pioneer is the first FPSO to produce oil and gas in the Gulf.  The FPSO also holds a world record for being moored at a depth of 2,500 meters.  It has a processing capacity of 80,000 barrels of oil and 500,000 cm3 gas per day, and storage facilities for 500,000 barrels of oil.

The BW Pioneer is moored at the Chinook #4 production well, which was drilled and completed in Lower Tertiary reservoirs and located at a depth of 8,000 meters.  This well is connected to BW Pioneer by subsea equipment and lines in addition to free-standing risers (which are vertical production lines).  Oil will be transported from the BW Pioneer by tanker; gas will be transported by pipelines.


Conclusion:  More FPSOs Likely

FPSOs have been used in the North Sea, Brazil, Asia Pacific, Mediterranean Sea, and offshore West Africa, and now the Gulf of Mexico.  This technology saves time with their ability to move to another well after production is complete instead of building pipelines. As pipelines are optional, FPSOs have potential to reduce the environmental impact of offshore drilling projects. FPSO technology is also allowing operators to drill in deeper waters.  It is likely that more FPSOs will follow Petrobras’ BW Pioneer into the Gulf of Mexico.

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