Subsea firm DeepOcean is looking forward to a bright future

One of the region's premier subsea companies is looking towards a bright future based on a balanced portfolio of work in renewables and oil and gas. Peter McCusker speaks to DeepOcean

Equipment at DeepOcean
Equipment at DeepOcean
Launched 21 years ago subsea contracting company DeepOcean now boasts an impressive multi-billion pound portfolio of assets and annual revenues of £130m.

The Darlington-based company’s roster includes the most advanced fleet of jet trenching ROVs (remotely-operated vehicles) and the most sophisticated fleet of pipeline ploughs in the world market.

Where it led, others have followed, and the Tees Valley now boasts a handful of pioneering subsea contractors making it a hub of offshore innovation, in a sector which is a leading light of the regional economy.


Pierre Boyde, commercial and business development director at DeepOcean, said: “The whole subsea and offshore oil and gas industry in the North East is bigger than the region’s car industry.

“For installation contractors Teesside, and in particular Darlington, is the hub and for the making and fabrication of subsea equipment then Tyneside is the hub.

“For 14 years we were the only subsea company in the Darlington area but now there are three or four. There must be over 1,000 people in the industry in the Darlington area and we are the biggest.

“These are people with highly specialised levels of skills on how to design, install, operate and develop highly specialised equipment. The Tees Valley is now home to a hub of highly-skilled and specialist engineers. It’s a real success story for the region.”

Launched as CTC Marine (Charles Tompkins Consulting) back in 1993, the company quickly grew on the strength of the offshore oil and gas and communications sectors (see panel).

Its success has also spawned the creation of three similar subsea contractors in the area all run by people with connections to DeepOcean.

Modus Seabed Intervention, of Darlington, is run by Jake Tompkins (son of founder DeepOcean founder Charles Tompkins) and Nigel Ward who had worked together at CTC.

Former CTC Marine managing director Daryl Lynch left CTC to become managing director of Reef Subsea and Umbilicals of Stockton.

Also in Darlington is Subsea Innovation, a subsea equipment and services company. It is run by Martin Moon who was previously operations director and interim managing director at CTC Marine.

The growth of Tees Valley subsea cluster is mirrored across the North East with the subsea industry now employing an estimated 15,000 people across the region with annual revenues of £1.5bn.

The UK subsea oil and gas industry is now worth £8.9bn, which is 45% of global market. The worldwide market is expected to grow fourfold to £80bn by 2020, rivalling traditional offshore production within 15 years.

As well as the oil and gas industry subsea companies play a major role in the offshore wind industry, with subsea power cables needed to transmit electricity back to the shore.

DeepOcean is leading the way in these support operations having completed installation and trenching work for 80 infield cables on the German BARD project, as well as winning work on the Greater Gabbard Wind Farm project off the Suffolk coast.

Despite the recent negative headlines surrounding the offshore wind sector, which has seen the loss of major prospective players such as SSE and Centrica, Mr Boyde remains upbeat.

He said: “Our strategy is to have a balanced portfolio of work between offshore wind and oil and gas, as we look out towards 2016 and 2017 we are beginning to see the value of that balanced portfolio.

“This year, and next year, offshore wind will not be so important but from 2016 offshore wind can be huge. This really is the untold story.

“Fewer projects can be a good thing, as we now know who the serious players are; such as Dong and Statoil.

“The players who have fallen by the wayside did not really have it in their heart of hearts.

“Over the years we have had a lot of speculation, a lot of froth and noise, but we now know who the serious players are and they have shown their commitment to invest in the future of the industry.

“There will be a lower volume of work than predicted a few years ago, but there is still a lot of money to be invested in the industry and this will help us deliver a balanced portfolio of projects over the coming years.”

Despite Government concerns over the cost of offshore wind it recently gave to go-ahead for five new large sites in UK waters featuring over 500 giant turbines, with the UK already having more installed capacity that the rest of the world combined.

To meet upcoming market demand DeepOcean has invested in a new cable-laying vessel for operation in the North Sea.

“This is one of only a few vessels specifically designed to do this and will help improved the level of British content in the work on the offshore wind farms in UK waters,” said Mr Boyde.

DeepOcean employs 140 people in Darlington and at peak season there will be an additional 350 contractors, with a further 350 working for supply chain companies on projects initiated by DeepOcean.

As well as offering state-of-the-art subsea equipment, DeepOcean also has the ability to provide engineering and design, route optimisation, geotechnical support, project management and feasibility studies.

Much of its work is in the global offshore oil and gas industry including the deeper water projects of the west coast of Africa and closer to home the North Sea.

Despite North Sea investment reaching record levels of over £14bn last year the September Scottish Referendum and concerns over the UK Government’s tax regime have tempered investment this year.

Mr Boyde said: “These are critical times for the industry, the Government must ensure we do all we can to secure the remaining North Sea reserves now.

“There are a lot of very interesting marginal fields with working assets to tie back to, but some of these have a shelf life and if we leave it too long to act, it will be too late as the existing platforms will have been decommissioned.

“The Governemnt will have to make the North Sea attractive through the tax system.”

But he added: “Across DeepOcean’s portfolio in oil and gas and wind power we are very positive about the future.

“We expect to see a lull in 2015, but from 2016 and 2017onwards we expect to see both markets improve substantially.”

History

Darlington entrepreneurs Charles Tompkins and John Johnson formed CTC Marine in 1993 and it quickly grew with support from telecom giant Alcatel, due to the growing need for power and telecommunications cables to be buried under the sea floor.

Prior to this, many cabling jobs were completed by divers and crude ROVs, but CTC and Wallsend-based SMD revolutionised the market.

Working with SMD, CTC developed a bespoke trenching and burial machine, one which reduced task completion time by 70% and halved the cost.

Around this time the offshore oil and gas market also began to take off as subsea production took over from the traditional fixed platform production method.

The fixed ‘topside’ platform dominated North Sea oil and gas production for the industry’s first decade, but from the mid-1980s there has been an increased emphasis on subsea recovery.

Subsea production systems are wells located on the sea floor rather than the surface. Petroleum is extracted at the seafloor, and then ‘tied-back’ to an already existing production platform.

The well is drilled by a moveable rig and the extracted oil and gas is transported by riser or undersea pipeline to a nearby production platform.

The real advantage of subsea production systems is that they allow the operator to use one platform - strategically placed - to service many well areas.

In 2000, telecom company Alcatel took over CTC but, three years later, the founders bought the company back.

In January 2007, the company was bought for £75m by DeepOcean and, in 2008, it was bought by oil multinational Trico Marine Services for around £400m

CTC was later separated from its parent and has become part of a new Norway-based company, DeepOcean Group Holding.

Inventory

DeepOcean has one of the most impressive ranges of assets in the industry comprising robots, trenchers, ploughs and vessels.

Its portfolio includes 19 trenching vehicles for the use in burying subsea cables with 18 of these having been made by SMD of Wallsend.

“Our aim is to always invest in the most up to date technology and to do that our designers work closely with manufacturers such as SMD to produce these world-leading machines.

“We continue to invest in the latest technology and the design concepts are created here in Darlington,” said commercial and business development director Pierre Boyde.

DeepOcean has 37 subsea robots which are used for undersea maintenance and inspection

“This is one of piece of equipment which has seen the greatest advances. They are fitted with cameras and sensors and come with two mechanical arms, which effectively replace the work of the divers.

“Divers are unable to work at depths of below 180 meters and the most interesting new fields and are now in waters of 100m and deeper,” said Mr Boyde.

As well as the trenching and inspection and maintenance vehicles DeepOcean has a comprehensive fleet of support and construction vessels.

The most recent additions to its fleet are the SMD built T1000 advanced jet trenching ROV and the T-3200 which it says is the world’s most sophisticated subsea trenching system

The T1000 is suitable for deployment in water depths to 2000m and makes is one of the most versatile and reliable jet trenching ROVs available.

Equipped with a High Sea State LARS Launch and Recovery system, the T1000 can be deployed in harsh weather conditions with up to 4.57m significant wave height.

Deep Ocean says: “The T1000 is permanently mobilised onboard the Havila Phoenix subsea construction vessel. The combination of the T1000 jet trenching ROV, T-3200 mechanical/jet trencher and the Havila Phoenix vessel specification provides a step change in trenching capability within the subsea intervention market – the ultimate trenching spread.”

The company says the T-3200 is the world’s most sophisticated subsea trenching system, ‘offering unrivalled capability for the burial of pipelines and cables in challenging ground conditions’.

The T-3200’s advanced multi-function product lifting and trench tooling capability enables the burial of all products from large flooded trunk lines through to flexible pipes, power cables, umbilicals and large diameter pipelines.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer