Author: Nigar ABBASOVA
"I am happy because I am an oilman. I have been working on the Oil Rocks since I was young. I started as an operator, now I'm a manager. Much has changed here over the years but working offshore is still more difficult than onshore. After all, the Caspian is not always calm... It's difficult to be an oilman but it's worth it!" Israfil Ismikhanov said in his interview.
Indeed, it is very difficult to be away from family and friends for half a month performing complex tasks such as drilling and producing oil under hot weather or cold winds. But that's how all the residents of this amazing, iconic and historical town called the Oil Rocks live every day. This year the Oil Rocks is celebrating its 70th birthday.
Island of seven ships
One can find this giant monster made of steel and wood 110km into the Caspian Sea north-east of Baku. This unique town was constructed on metal racks after the start of oil production around the so-called Black Rocks—a ridge of rocks barely protruding on the surface of the sea. The chief reason for the creation of this engineering complex, also known as the Eighth Wonder of the World and Island of Miracles, and going 20m deep into the sea, was oil production.
On November 1948, a geologist Aghagurban Aliyev and drilling specialists Yusif Safarov and Sabit Orujov proposed an idea of exploration and drilling in this area followed by drilling of the first exploration in 1949 and production of first oil on November 7, 1949 at a depth of 1,100m. In honour of this event, Black Rocks was renamed to Oil Rocks, and the well, which was a pioneer of offshore oil production in the Caspian Sea, eventually turned into a monument, which is the main symbol of the field today.
It was later decided to create an artificial island covering an area of 7,000 hectares around the Oil Rocks. The construction of the town began in 1958 with ships bringing half a million cubic meters of rock blocks and sand. The foundation for the main section of the town was seven submerged ships, including the legendary Zoroaster—the world's first oil tanker built in Sweden. That's how the artificial Island of Seven Ships was born. In parallel with the increase in the number of wells, the number of connecting racks used for the movement of cars and trucks also increased. In just 70 years, 1940 wells were drilled on Oil Rocks together with the construction of flyover bridges (200km), production sites (333) and oil, gas and water pipelines (100km).
One can get from Baku to the Oil Rocks only by sea and helicopters. There is no permanent population here with operations carried out on a rotational basis every next week. A working shift lasts an average of 10-12 hours. Sometimes it is necessary to work in extreme weather conditions given the frequent occurrence of storms in the Caspian. So, every tonne of oil produced at the Oil Rocks is really worth gold.
The Oil Rocks Production Unit (PU) has a diverse team of operators and oil and gas masters, maintenance operators monitoring reservoir pressure, oil preparation specialists, well technicians, power and construction engineers, transport workers, turners and electric welders, ordinary workers and team leaders.
The team of professionals also includes young people who need mentoring. "Working on Oil Rocks provides invaluable experience. This is a very good school for beginners. Compared to working onshore, offshore climatic conditions are more severe. I think one should start with difficulties to make it easier to cope with normal work later," Nazim Kerimli, well technician, said.
By the way, Oil Rocks has all the necessary conditions for the recreation of workers after a hard shift. One can walk, relax and enjoy the green space in the park or work out in the gym. There is a monument and a museum to the national leader of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, a monument to the geologist Agha-Gurban Aliyev, memorials to oil workers—victims of the Karabakh conflict, as well as a monument in memory of the oil workers who died in the sea...
Oil Rocks has everything to ensure the full life cycle of its residents: several power plants, dormitories and residential buildings, a bakery, teahouse, dining room, football field, library, kindergarten, cinema, hospital, water treatment plant, and a waste incinerator.
According to SOCAR President Rovnag Abdullayev, offshore oil workers are the company's golden asset. "Thanks to the dedicated work of Azerbaijani oil workers, we could materialise the idea of oil production in the open sea, which in turn has laid a foundation for the offshore development. This ensured the advancement of oil specialists in Azerbaijan. Exploration of the unique Oil Rocks field has boosted exploration works in many seas. Currently, offshore production makes the bulk of hydrocarbon production in the world. We are proud that it all started after the construction of our legendary Oil Rocks," President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan said in his congratulation letter to the oil industry on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Oil Rocks.
There is still potential
Indeed, the development of Oil Rocks boosted the development of exploration operations not only in the Caspian but also in the Okhotsk, Barents and North seas, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. Full cycle of offshore operations was first based on Oil Rocks, including the exploration of oil and gas fields to the delivery of finished products, initial experiments with marine engineering and its mass development and introduction. Exploration and maintenance works at the Oil Rocks has gradually formed an entire school of oil and gas engineers and academicians.
In practice, the latest ideas and developments of scientists helped oil workers gain professional experience and skills under the most difficult marine conditions. Specialists working at the Oil Rocks later applied their practical knowledge in the hydrocarbon fields of Kazakhneft, Turkmenneft, Dagneft, Tatneft, Bashneft, etc. For the first time in the USSR, a method of drilling several directional wells from one base was tested at the Oil Rocks. Later on, this method of cluster drilling was widely used in other oil fields of the USSR. The new flyover method for developing the Oil Rocks fields is still considered the first in the world and has no analogues.
Although the Oil Rocks fields undergo the last stage of development, they continue to make contribution to the overall oil production in Azerbaijan. According to SOCAR, the operating balance of the Oil Rocks PU includes 406 wells with 399 wells active. The daily production volume at the field is 3,500 tons of oil and 300 thousand cubic meters of natural gas.
According to SOCAR, "the water cut rate is 30%, which is a rather low indicator for the field at the last stage of its development."
Over 70 years, Oil Rocks and Mud Sopka fields operated by the Oil Rocks PU have produced a total of 186 million tons of oil and 14.3 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Over the entire period of operation, PU provided 13% of oil production in the country. At the same time, 176 million tons of oil and about 13.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas were produced at the Oil Rocks fields over the past period.
"As a result of efforts to increase production efficiency, the volume of oil produced annually by Oil Rocks PU has exceeded 1 million tons in the past two years. This is a record achievement for the development of the fields during Azerbaijan's independence," Dashgin Iskenderov, Director General of the Azneft Production Association (SOCAR) said.
According to Iskenderov, the drilling of new wells and the return of inactive ones to operation are of particular importance for increasing oil production. Over the past ten years, 9 new offshore bases have been constructed at the Oil Rocks with 183 wells drilled and about 500,000 tons of oil produced. The repair of 145 inactive wells has produced another 150,000 tons of oil.
At the same time, the potential of the field has not yet been used in full. According to geologists, residual reserves at the Oil Rocks are 210 million tons of oil. At the same time, recoverable oil reserves, subject to the use of existing technologies, are estimated at 18-20 million tons. "However, it is possible that with the advent of new technologies, we can increase the production rate of these reserves. For the further development of the Oil Rocks field, it is planned to put into operation five new base sites, as well as drill up to 50-60 new production wells," SOCAR said.
"Oil Rocks has gone a long distance over the past period and turned into a production town with modern infrastructure. It now undergoes a new stage of development. I'm sure that the rich reserves of the Oil Rocks will continue to strengthen Azerbaijan's economic potential and further improve the living standards of our people for many years to come," President Ilham Aliyev said.
SOCAR's experience gained at the Oil Rocks created favourable conditions for accelerating exploration in deeper parts of the Caspian. As of today, 28 offshore oil and gas fields have been identified in Azerbaijan, of which 19 are under development, 40 fields are developed onshore. Azerbaijani offshore fields have produced 1.09 billion tons of oil and 714 billion cubic meters of gas. Onshore fields have produced 979 million tons of oil and 139 billion cubic meters of gas. Total investments in the oil and gas sector of Azerbaijan during the period of independence reached $101 billion.
"Our main challenge in the future is to maintain oil production at a stable level and increase gas production. In the coming years, we plan to begin large-scale exploration and production at the Absheron, Umid, Karabakh, Babek, Shafag, Asiman, Ashrafi, Dan Ulduzu, Aypara fields," Rovnag Abdullayev said.
According to Abdullayev, Oil Rocks play an instrumental role in the implementation of these projects. It is a strategic communications and infrastructure hub connecting other fields in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian. Indeed, Oil Rocks deliver 70% of SOCAR's annual oil and gas production, including oil and associated gas from the shallow part of the Guneshli field, as well as associated gas produced from the Chirag-1 platform at the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli. Gas enters the gas compressor station (GCS) on Oil Rocks, where it is compressed and sent to shore. With a design capacity of about 11 million cubic meters per day, GCS receives and transports about 6 million cubic meters of gas per day. Development of new fields will make it possible to utilize their capacities in full.
By the way, with the start of production at the Absheron field scheduled for 2021, the gas and condensate will be sent ashore through the infrastructure at Oil Rocks. Thus, even in the event of complete depletion of hydrocarbon resources, this engineering complex will continue to play one of the key roles in the oil and gas complex of Azerbaijan as a transportation hub.
The legendary Oil Rocks has left an indelible mark not only in the history of global oil production, but also in world cinema. One of the episodes of the James Bond franchise The World Is Not Enough has been filmed at Oil Rocks. Also, Oil Rocks is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest offshore oil platform. It is difficult to predict the future of this unique object in the long term. But Oil Rocks will forever remain in the memory of mankind as a living museum of oil, a fabulous island of miracles and a good example of how a person conquered nature by building an entire town-platform on the open sea.