May 31, 2010

FEATURE | Heavy Equipment

Development company World SkyCat advocates using airships instead of pipelines

A British company is developing a giant airship to transport natural gas, which could replace pipeline construction in remote northern regions and free up scarce skilled labour for other major projects.

Michael Stewart, managing director of World SkyCat of the UK claims to have an alternative to the construction of the proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline, which does not have the same negative social and environmental impacts.

“We’ve named them “SkyGas”, he said. “The principle is the ultimate in clean, green application. A fleet of about 15 SkyGas hybrid air vehicles will be able to transport the equivalent amount of gas the pipeline could pump per year, at the same volumes, at significantly lower cost and from point to point – virtually anywhere.”

SkyGas would be a moveable asset that could pick up gas where it comes out of the ground and deliver it anywhere.

“Obviously there is a large infrastructure in North America that works and should be maximized,” said Michelle Stirling of World SkyCat Western Canada Ltd., which is the Canadian marketing and leasing arm of World SkyCat Ltd (U.K.).

“However we see with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and various other remote locations, there are virtually insurmountable problems.” Stirling said these problems include construction and logistics challenges that cause price escalation. There are also environmental concerns that are really serious due to the remote location and difficulty of accessing for repairs, eco-terrorism, and aboriginal land claims that must be respected.

One of the main reasons for considering the development of hybrid air vehicles for the transportation of natural gas is cost.

“In the broadest terms a fleet of airships at a cost of $4 billion can replace a pipeline at a cost of $16 billion,” said Stewart.

“The environmental impact is nil compared to building a pipeline, as well as the risk of spillage. The airship would burn its payload as fuel in a clean way.”

The airship delivery model would eliminate the need for pipelines and a pipeline network that feeds the main pipeline.

“SkyGas can open up gas fields that are otherwise stranded,” said Stewart. “When they are up and running, it would require an oil and gas company to activate a well. Revenue could be generated before a full pipeline was employed.”

The airships would need very little infrastructure, because it would land at the field and pick up gas straight from the ground.

Airships will operate very well in cold climates, because helium is very dense. Stewart said the one piece of infrastructure that will need to be built are hangars.

The vehicles will need to have a base and somewhere to go for ongoing maintenance. These hangars will have to be huge, becasue the airships are 1220 feet long.

Stewart said there are two immediate challenges to the development of hybrid air vehicles for the transportation of natural gas.

“Pipelines are an extremely well known technology. We are talking about something that is unproven,” said Stewart.

“The other factor is safety. We have had a safety expert do a study and it would be almost impossible to catch fire. If it did catch fire it would burn upward and we wouldn’t fly over areas of dense population.”

Perhaps the most significant benefit of using airships to transport gas is that it would free up skilled labour and reduce cost for all Western Canadian and Northern projects.

The SkyGas application of SkyCat will ensure that there is not an additional drain or bottleneck of skilled trade resources.,” said Stirling.

“Even though the market has slowed down considerably since the global recession hit, certain oil sands projects are picking up, the Chinese have made a significant investment up there, the oil spill in the Gulf all point to an upswing in activity there again.”

Massive northern pipeline construction projects require a large supply of labour and construction activity in the oilsands is picking up again. Some experts predict that Alberta could face a shortage of skilled labour in 18 months.

“The highly skilled trades - are expensive people. When they have to work in remote locations the costs associated with housing and transporting them are significant,” said Stirling.

“All of those costs escalate almost exponentially when there is a labour shortage and it hurts everyone.”

Stirling said there will still be requirements for people to work at the wellhead and build certain facilities, but there will not be the long-term requirement to build the pipeline itself.

This will help maintain market stability in terms of the labour force and keeping costs stable as well.

The $16.2 billion Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline received conditional approval from the National Energy Board (NEB) earlier this year.

However, the project is facing a number of serious challenges and still needs to go through the final round of NEB hearings, which began in April.

The pipeline proposal is backed by a consortium led by Imperial Oil Ltd., and includes ExxonMobil Corp., ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which represents the Inuvialuit, the Gwich’in and the Sahtu nations.

Imperial Oil, which is the lead proponent of the project, said it will decide in late 2013 whether or not to even go ahead with the pipeline. Last month, the consortium said natural gas could start flowing through the pipeline in 2018 at the earliest.

A SkyCat is a hybrid air vehicle, which means it combines hovercraft landing/take-off technology, with an aerodynamic design so it can be navigated like an airplane.

The air cushion landing system allows the vehicle to land on flat land, grass, swamp, snow or on water, giving the vehicle fully amphibious capability.

The landing system is similar to a hovercraft and allows the airship to land without the normal lighter-than-air airship ground crew and ground landing infrastructure.

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