Industrial giant General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) has its sights set on its budding subsea oil and gas business, where it helps drillers extract oil beneath the seabed and where it is developing so-called disruptive technology, one that holds the potential to revolutionize the industry.
General Electric’s subsea business is not new, since the company has sold extraction and processing equipment for more than 40 years. But it is a key part of the company’s oil and gas unit, which has grown from a $1 billion niche business in 1994 to a $20 billion business in 2013, partly through several acquisitions.
The company’s subsea oil and gas unit has seen its orders backlog expand from $2 billion in 2011 to $5 billion in 2013, said the company’s CEO of subsea systems Rod Christie at a New York presentation on Wednesday.
“We play well in the large infrastructure industry. And there’s nothing really larger at this point in time than oil and gas,” said Christie to investors at the JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) conference.
“We’ve driven tremendous growth in the subsea business, really over the last three years,” he added. “We’re well-placed around all the major deepwater basins.”
That GE unit has taken on 2,000 more employees since 2011. The conglomerate has also placed strategic oil and gas research sites near important markets, like Brazil, where it has already scored energy contracts from state oil giant Petrobras (BVMF:PETR4)
“They’re putting these research centers down in the key markets where subsea is likely to be a really big play,” William Blair & Co. analyst Nick Heymann told IBTimes. Key regions include West Africa, Norway and Russia, with the latter two countries acting as a gateway to the Arctic. GE is developing hardware that can survive in subsea Artic environments.
But researching new technologies may be key in this competitive market, which hosts rivals like FMC Technologies, Inc. (NYSE:FTI). The ability to process oil right on the ocean floor, rather than sending it to the surface first, could reduce some capital costs by 30 percent, according to Heymann.
“Now everything’s processed up at the surface, and it’s really a pretty big difference,” said Heymann. Output from existing wells could rise 20 percent if seabed processing can be done, and the need for bulky and expensive machinery at the water’s surface will be lessened.
GE’s research center in upstate New York, near Schenectady, even hosts a chamber which simulates subsea pressure and conditions. That’s so engineers can test high-voltage technology under trying conditions, often three kilometers (1.86 miles) underwater and hundreds of miles offshore.
There’s a serious drive in place for GE to develop subsea processing technology commercially by 2018, according to Heymann. It could drive dramatically lower operating costs for oil companies, he said.
GE has worked on subsea processing and compression technology for several years, in collaboration with Royal Dutch Shell PLC (LON:RDSA) and Statoil ASA (ADR) (NYSE:STO), according to Christie.
Now, “we’re bidding this technology into the industry” sales and orders, said GE Oil & Gas chief technology officer Eric Gebhardt at the conference. “The bidding is new.”
Subsea Outlook With Major Production Systems, GE Company Presentation March 2014
Nonetheless, GE has fared less well on delivering projects on time, according to a 2012 industry report by Welling & Company. Executing on these massive projects, which involve tens of thousands of equipment orders and hundreds of thousands of engineers’ hours, is one key hurdle.
GE also acquired the tiny Norwegian firm Naxys in 2012, obtaining its subsea acoustic monitoring technology. That boosted the company’s data analytics, so it can monitor subsea operations without deploying sensors on each piece of equipment.
GE still faces steep challenges. The subsea oil and gas industry already seems stretched in handling high demand, said JPMorgan analyst Steve Tusa.
On the technology front, too, there are ample difficulties. There’s “umpteen millions of square inches of pressure” on the seabed floor, joked Heymann. Routing power transmission cables from land into sea depths is tough, and any electric system must be compact and require minimum maintenance.
“It’s like going to the moon to get the oil,” said Christie at the conference, echoing an analogy made more than once in the industry.