Full Name

Ultra-Deepwater Program


The mission of the Ultra-Deepwater  (UDW) program is to identify and develop technologies, architectures, and methods that ensure safe and environmentally responsible exploration and production of hydrocarbons from the ultra-deepwater portion of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) in an economically viable (full life cycle) manner.

This mission of technology development encompasses:

  • Extending basic scientific understanding of the various processes and phenomena directly impacting the design and reliable operation of a ultra-deepwater production system
  • Developing “enabling” technologies
  • Enhancing existing technologies to help lower overall cost and risks
  • Pursuing new technologies which, if successfully developed, are capable of “leapfrogging” over conventional pathways
  • Accomplishing these tasks in a safe and environmentally friendly manner.
  • Relevant 2005 Energy Policy Act definitions include:
    • Ultra-Deepwater - a water depth that is equal to or greater than 1,500 meters (~5,000 feet).  The program also includes technologies applicable to formations in the OCS deeper than 15,000 subsurface.
    • Ultra-Deepwater architecture - the integration of technologies for the exploration for, or production of, natural gas or other petroleum resources located at ultra-deepwater depths.
    • Ultra-Deepwater technology - a discrete technology that is specially suited to address one or more challenges associated with the exploration for, or production of, natural gas or other petroleum resources located at ultra-deepwater depths.

Resource Opportunities and Priorities

The significant importance of this mission is illustrated by Figure 1, which shows the difficulty the oil and gas industry has had since 2002 converting discovered resources into proven reserves (producing developments).  Proven reserves add value to royalty revenues, consumers, and the oil and gas industry.  Identified non-producing resources do not contribute to the supply base or generate royalties.

Figure 1:  Proven Reserves Add Value

Further evidence supporting UDW’s goal to reduce cost can be found in Figures 2, 3, and 4 from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA).  The data in Figure 2 vividly depict the much higher cost associated with UDW.  To ‘move’ the resources to proven reserves, cost must come out of the system.

Figure 3:  Undiscovered Resource Base by Field Class Size

Figure 4 depicts the continuing and growing US dependency on imports.  The UDW program will focus on reducing overall development costs so that this resource base can safely and in an environmentally appropriate manner be utilized to:

  • Improve US energy security
  • Economically develop and produce resources for America’s energy consumers
  • Promote American jobs and tax base
  • Improve America’s trade balance


Data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s EIA vividly shows the continuing increased US dependence on imports.

Click here to view the web page. 

Figure 4:  Imports and GOM UDW Production

RPSEA’s UDW Program 

Transforming ultra-deepwater discoveries into producing fields requires huge capital investment and new technologies. RPSEA will focus on:

  • Extending basic scientific understanding of the many UDW challenges as well as developing modeling and predictive tools to help industry better define and ultimately manage the risks associated with field development and physical regimes of the resource base to support efforts in the enabling and enhancing categories.
  • Developing new enabling and/or cross-cutting technologies that will allow industry to safely, and in an environmentally friendly manner explore and transform these discoveries into producing properties in ways that are impossible with existing technologies.
  • Enhancing technologies to help lower the overall cost and risks and reduce the field development cycle time by improving existing technologies resulting in higher recoveries, lower thresholds of abandonment, and development of currently uneconomic resources. It is instructive to note that even in today’s commodity price environment; many large (100 MM BOE plus ) fields are not economic due to the current cost of existing technologies and the high level of risk involved with development.
  • Grand challenges – transformational technologies which, if successfully developed, are capable of “leapfrogging” over conventional research and development pathways.

UDW Goals and Metrics

The goal of Ultra-Deepwater Program (UDW) is to develop environmentally sensitive, cost-effective technologies to identify and develop resources in increasingly challenging conditions and ensure that the understanding of the risks associated with ultra-deepwater operations keeps pace with the technologies that industry has developed.  UDW will assess and mitigate the risk in offshore production activities related to controls, safeguards, and environmental impact mitigation procedures in place during drilling, completion, and production operations.  Research topics may include:

  • Development of improved well control and wild well intervention techniques;
  • Evaluation of appropriate safeguards for BOPs, cementing and casing;
  • Evaluation of instrumentation and monitoring;
  • Improvement of flow assurance;
  • Expediting the completion of relief wells; and
  • Other topics associated with ultra-deepwater operations.

This goal was altered following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the GOM.  While the mission remains the same, the UDW Program will redouble its efforts to ensure that hydrocarbons are safely extracted in an environmentally sound manner.  As noted above, the Program will focus the identification, analysis, mitigation of risks associated with development of UDW techniques and tools to responsibly drill for and produce oil and gas in this environment.  In short, the original mission to develop the tools to reduce dependence on foreign sources via the GOM ultra-deepwater will be intertwined with the safety and environmental sustainability requirements to ensure that future work can be performed soundly with positive results.  By doing so, the research and development performed under the UDW Program will lead to greater public understanding and acceptance of future industry endeavors to unlock and tap these precious reserves.

Advisory Committee Roles in the UDW Program Element

The UDW Program solicits input and volunteer efforts through several avenues.  A chief strength of the Program lies in its unique use and engagement of over 950 subject matter experts and other interested parties.  These volunteers meet with RPSEA periodically to review project progression, develop ideas for additional project work, and share their knowledge with one another.  In addition to providing high-level input from oil and gas operating companies that are ultimately responsible for the production of deepwater energy resources, this highly developed process of idea generation, vetting, and project selection formally facilitates the direct input of universities, regulatory bodies, service companies, manufacturers, national laboratories, and other key stakeholder groups.  The broad engagement through expansive and inclusive advisory committees provides the UDW Program with significant pro bono expertise, as well as potentially significant cost share funds, to further accelerate the development of ultra-deepwater technologies.

The UDW Program utilizes a Program Advisory Committee (PAC) and Technical Advisory Committees (TACs) in advisory roles.  The PAC consists of upper level technical managers within operating companies, service and manufacturing industry, and safety and environmental firms, as well as experienced academic researchers  The PAC provides high-level input on program priorities, field areas of interest and technology dissemination, as well as a link to the producer and research communities; but its primary role is project selection.  PAC engagement in the process is critical because:

  • The operators will be the organizations called upon to actually deploy and operate the new technologies developed under the program
  • The service, supply, and manufacturing industry representatives provide a unique perspective concerning development issues related to novel technologies
  • The safety and environmental concerns are fully aware of new developments and specific technological gaps and needs within their areas of expertise
  • Academic researchers provide an additional link between fundamental and applied research that can shed light on newer, promising, beyond the horizon technologies.

Supporting the PAC are six TACs, each of which is focused on a particular ultra-deepwater technology area (see Table 1).  In the past year the number of TACs has been reduced to account for the restructuring and refocus of the UDW Program toward more of an environmental and safety area of interest, as well as to increase collaboration and cross-pollination of certain functional knowledge areas.  The role of the TACs, with representation from subject matter experts (SME) who study and apply ultra-deepwater technologies in real field situations, is to identify current technology gaps and define the specific R&D efforts needed to address these gaps.  As such, the TACs provide a bottom-up, end-user-driven program.

Drilling & Completion and In-well Interventions Environmental, Safety & Regulatory and Metocean Floating Facilities and Systems Engineering
Flow Assurance Geosciences and Reservoir Engineering Subsea Facilities

Table 1: UDW Technical Advisory Committees

Identification of Focus Areas for New Technology Development

The UDW focus areas for the initial solicitations (2007 and 2008) were developed using a DeepStar Systems Engineering study that was based on industry UDW experience and needs.  Four base case field development scenarios were identified as representative of future Gulf of Mexico (GOM) ultra-deepwater developments with technical barriers, which challenge development.  These scenarios were drawn from four key areas of activity in the deepwater GOM (Walker Ridge, Keathley Canyon, Alaminos Canyon, and the Eastern Gulf) and the associated technology challenges (Figure 5).  Collectively, these areas of activity represent a very large resource base as portrayed earlier in Figure 4.1.  The initial 2007 and 2008 project selections and portfolio program were developed based on these generic field types, with the UDW goal to develop new technologies to help convert these resources to proven reserves.

Figure 5: Technical challenges for identified basins

Each of the above areas is characterized by challenges currently hindering technical and economic development which have been organized into a grouping of six technology UDW needs.  Within each area of UDW need, various initiatives have been identified. 

The 2009 and 2010 selections continued that goal – to address challenges associated with specific field types.  The Program expanded the R&D efforts to carry projects addressing the most important gaps closer to implementation and commerciality stages.  It was during the 2010 UDW Program project selection stage that the Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill occurred.  Consequently, in the months that followed, a renewed emphasis was placed on safety and environmental sustainability (S&ES).  As a result, the 2010 UDW solicitation process was altered to ensure that S&ES and risk mitigation were addressed wherever possible.  The 2010 UDW Program solicitations were therefore highly focused on S&ES issues.

Likewise, the 2011 and 2012 UDW Programs focused on risk assessment and prevention, safety and the environmental aspects of UDW through drilling, completions, operations, reservoir, and met-ocean functionalities.  It has become abundantly clear from the 2010 catastrophe that there should be no separation between the quest to address these technical challenges and the need to include all aspects of safety and all potential effects on the environment as an integral part of scientific discovery through this, and any other Program.

Planned solicitations

There are no further planned solicitations for the UDW Program element under the Section 999 Energy Policy Act of 2005 Program. Funding for this program was rescinded in 2014. As a result RPSEA will provide technical oversight and technology transfer for existing projects through 2016.

Going forward RPSEA is working with several of our current subcontractors and members to develop various follow-on Joint Industry Partnership projects and is soliciting Federal grant funding, to enable commercialization of several of the successful, promising developments from past programs. For more information about the UDW project solicitations please contact Bill Head at bhead@rpsea.org.