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On board Shell’s Prelude barge, the world’s biggest vessel

PAUL GARVEY: Resources reporter, Perth: 4 March 2017

The biggest vessel the world has ever seen is in the final stages of preparation ahead of its maiden voyage to its permanent home off Australia’s northwest coast.

Royal Dutch Shell’s revolutionary Prelude floating liquefied natural gas facility — 50 per cent longer and six times the weight of the world’s largest aircraft carrier — is deep into the commissioning process at a shipyard in Korea, with the 120 Australians who will man the vessel already on board to familiarise themselves with the monster.

The Prelude control centre, a custom-built office within Shell’s Perth CBD headquarters, is already buzzing as technicians monitor the live feed of images and data from the vessel in readiness for its long-awaited arrival in Australian waters.

The sheer scale and ambition of the project has given Prelude what David Bird says is an “aura” within Shell, with workers and executives from across the sprawling corporate empire queuing up to be part of it. Adelaide-born Bird, who has returned to Australia to take on the role of vice-president of Prelude after decades working around the world for the company, says he has “the best job in Shell”.

The $US12 billion ($15.9bn)-plus Prelude behemoth leaves a distinct impression on all who see it for the first time.

“That first time you walk along the quay side, you see this well of red steel that continues for half a kilometre,” Bird tells The Weekend Australian.

“Then you’ve got to get a lift up eight storeys just to get on the first deck, then all the modules start from there. You can never prepare yourself for that scale.”

Floating LNG is a new generation facility that compresses the sprawling mass of a traditional land-based LNG plant into the comparatively tight footprint of a giant custom-built barge.

The barge is positioned directly over remote offshore gasfields, removing the need for long underwater pipelines and allowing the exploitation of reservoirs previously considered too far from shore to warrant a dedicated onshore LNG plant.

State-owned oil-and-gas giant Petronas has already deployed the world’s first FLNG facility in its native Malaysia, but Prelude will be far and away the biggest.

The dimensions of the project are staggering.

Such is the size of the barge that it will require about 120,000 tonnes of ballast to keep it stable — that ballast alone will weigh more than a fully loaded US aircraft carrier.

The steam boilers that power the facility are the largest of their kind, built by Japanese industrial giant Kawasaki. The flare tower that extends off Prelude’s bow is half the height of the Eiffel Tower and 40 per cent of the weight — incredibly, the tower was picked up, angled and inserted into place in a single lift at the Geoje shipyard where Prelude was built.

Even the chains that will anchor Prelude are enormous; each link is a metre long and weighs a tonne. A Spanish foundry, one of the few in the world capable of making chains that size, made 17km of it for the project.

The chain will attach to 16 massive piles — each of which is 62.5m long, 5.5m in diameter and weighing 650 tonnes — which have been driven into the seabed above the Prelude gas field. That itself presented its own challenges, with the process described as akin to piling into Rice Bubbles.

The chain from Spain lies mainly on the seabed 200km north of Broome in northwest Western Australia, waiting for the arrival of Prelude.

The date of departure for Prelude from its Geoje shipyard remains tightly under wraps. All that Shell will say is that it expects to be generating cash flow from the project in 2018. Working backwards from that target, coupled with the advanced state of commissioning in Geoje, suggests the behemoth will finally set sail for Australia sometime this year.

In the meantime, the 120 Australian crew members are living in Geoje while they continue to learn the ins and outs of Prelude, working closely with the Perth control centre.

The workers will enjoy a level of comfort on board Prelude rarely, if ever, experienced by those in the offshore oil and gas industry.

The vessel features individual accommodation for the full workforce — an uncommon luxury — while Shell and its neighbour Inpex have installed an underwater fibre-optic cable between Darwin and Port Hedland that will allow Prelude workers to enjoy city-quality internet connection and seamless video calls to home.

Over a video link between Geoje and Perth, Ting Gorman — a graduate who will serve as a production technician on Prelude — tells The Weekend Australian she and her colleagues feel the significance of working on a flagship project for a company as storied as Shell.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to work on something of this scale,” Gorman says. “Everyone when they come into the yard for the first time, they can’t believe how big and how busy it is.”

The world of oil and gas has changed significantly since Shell approved Prelude for development in 2011. The days of $US100-a-barrel oil that inspired Aus­tralia’s LNG construction boom are well and truly over.

Shell originally envisaged that Prelude would be the first in a line of FLNG vessels built back-to-back in Korea, but the cash squeeze felt throughout the industry in recent years has slowed that momentum.

The big Browse gasfields near Prelude, as well as the Greater Sunrise field between Australia and East Timor, were shaping as likely candidates for the second Shell FLNG vessel, but neither project is close to being approved.

Bird says Shell is playing the long game in floating LNG and that more of the giants will follow eventually. “There’s been a perfect storm of affordability, there’s scarce capital to go after these projects, but the intent is still there,” he says.

“The intent still remains that this is a way to unlock, in a way that Shell thinks is very competitive, some of these more remote and challenging resources.”

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