Bigger is definitely better, at least for Belle Chasse, La.-based Versabar Inc. Last year, the company took the design of its successful Bottom Feeder and doubled it in size. The result is a floating lifting vessel that is almost as tall as a football field is long and just as wide. The rig can raise up to 7,500 tons in a single lift.
“There's always a demand for heavy lifts on the water,” says Versabar founder, president and CEO Jon Khachaturian.
The original Bottom Feeder was built to lift the topsides of oil platforms swept to the seafloor by hurricanes, but the newer version, called the VB10000, is tall enough to straddle platforms still standing on their jackets on the water. The ability to remove those platforms gives the VB10000 the potential for years of work in the Gulf of Mexico.
After last year's BP oil spill, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement required operators to remove platforms that are not economically viable. Further, BOEMRE identified 638 platforms that are no longer useful. “This idle infrastructure poses a potential threat to the [Outer Continental Shelf] environment and is a financial liability … if subsequently destroyed or damaged in a future event, such as a hurricane,” the agency declared. The agency recommends proactive decommissioning because it is cheaper and faster than post-disaster remediation.
Khachaturian designed the VB10000 with his son, Matthew, and began using it last summer. Built by Gulf Marine Fabricators in Aransas Pass, Texas, for about $100 million, the VB10000 sports two sets of 240-ft-tall trusses mounted on 290-ft-long, 72-ft-wide barges. A bidirectional universal joint on one leg of each truss allows the barges to move independently in “X” and “Y” directions, rather than in concert. Blocks suspended from the top of the connected trusses are operated separately or in combination to lift one corner at a time of a sunken topside, minimizing the seabed mud's suction.
Each VB10000 block can lift 1,500 tons using 3½-in.-thick wire rope. While the old Bottom Feeder could operate only in depths of 400 ft or less, its big sister can go to 500 ft. A dynamic positioning system counteracts wave action and saves time by eliminating anchoring.
The VB10000 has made 12 lifts already and is completely booked through mid-October, Khachaturian says.
When a topside is lifted off the seafloor or removed from a jacket, it is placed on a barge and taken to shore. Platform jackets can be placed on an artificial-reef site, with BOEMRE permission.
Khachaturian says the VB10000 is a specialized piece of equipment that won't fit every company's need. “There's plenty of work for cranes,” he says. With all the decommissioning equipment working in the Gulf, he says only about 200 platforms could be removed in a year.
Though the current configuration of the VB10000 limits its depth to 500 ft, Khachiturian says it could be configured to conduct lifts in deeper water, including possibly lifting the Deepwater Horizon that exploded last spring and sank 5,000 ft. Khachaturian says he has not been approached by Transocean, the rig owner, about such a lift. The Houston-based drilling contractor did not respond to a query asking whether it would remove its destroyed rig. Khachaturian estimates the cost of retrieval at $1 billion but expects the rig will be left in place.
The company says the VB10000 also could be configured to lower objects to the seafloor, including blowout preventon devices.