David Thorpe fingers a fragment of clay, still warm from where it had been pumped out from below the sea floor.
Like a doctor, he delicately assesses the specimen for signs of the health of the patient – in this case Ras Al Khaimah’s Saleh gasfield.
“If we’ve got a sharp piece, that means the drilling’s going well,” says Mr Thorpe, DNO’s general manager for the emirate.
DNO, the Norwegian oil producer that is 40 per cent owned by RAK Petroleum, is best known for its plays in politically compromised places such as Iraqi Kurdistan, where it was the first company to sign a production agreement with the regional government after the American invasion of Iraq, or Somaliland, another place that behaves like a country without the official title.
But some of its most interesting work, from a technological point of view, is happening at smaller platforms such as this one in Ras Al Khaimah.
Located 45km offshore, the Saleh field draws from the same geological zone as Saudi Arabia, although its production lifetime was far shorter: it pumped its first oil and gas in 1984 before peaking two years later because of a loss of pressure and water breakthrough.
But, last year, DNO took a second look at the field when data showed that a second, lower reservoir remained hidden beneath the spent one.
That leads to the drilling operation The National was witness to last month. The drill bit – a screwdriver head as wide as a man’s forearm – had at that time chewed through 1,000 metres and has another 3,800 to go. As the hole deepens, workers feed in long steel pipes to keep the well intact. This is a challenging site to drill, since the drill bit must pass through the depleted upper reservoir before making it to the jackpot. It will take 120 days and 100 workers to reach the goal, advancing at varying speeds between 30 metres an hour to as slow as three.
Adding to the challenge, the rock is among the toughest to squeeze gas from. While formations in Abu Dhabi benefit from about 20 per cent porosity, Ras Al Khaimah averages 5 to 10 per cent, meaning it is harder for gas or oil to move from the rock to the well to the barrel.
Mr Thorpe’s team has opted to address the reticent rock with hydraulic fluid – the same cocktail of sand, water and chemicals that is injected underground to fracture US shales. But the engineers must frack delicately, because if the opening gets too big, water could seep in.
“The farther you are up the [Arabian] Gulf, the harder it is because the formations are tighter,” says Mr Thorpe, who carefully wraps up his rock sample in a paper towel for future examination. “This kind of drilling, we’re moving closer towards shale.”
From the platform, puffs of turquoise and white dust can be seen in the navy blue water as the rest of the dredgings wash out to sea.