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First-phase output could exceed 450,000 b/d

New joint project to be presented in Q3

Drastic sea-level fall creating logistical issue

London — Kazakhstan's North Caspian Operating Company, which manages the giant Kashagan oil field, is planning further production increases after recent upgrade and maintenance work, and aims to present a new project for two nearby fields in the current quarter, it told S&P Global Platts.

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In an email, the management of the seven-member consortium also underlined the challenge of dealing with fluctuating Caspian sea levels, which have fallen by a meter in the last decade in the shallow Kazakh sector of the northern Caspian.

Discovered in 2000, Kashagan was one of the largest oil finds of the last half century, with an estimated 9 billion-13 billion barrels of recoverable oil, but was plagued by difficulties during its initial development, which cost $55 billion.

Oil production volumes have reached 370,000 b/d following the first major shutdown since production began in 2016, according to NCOC, which is headed by former Shell executive Richard Howe.

The 35-day shutdown, completed in May, included projects to improve safety and efficiency, among them a processing plant re-boiler upgrade, and a revamp of the offshore gas injection system. The latter "allowed us to substantially increase gas injection and oil production," NCOC said.

"Preliminary engineering" is now underway that could lift Kashagan production above 450,000 b/d under the current development phase, although this would require investor and government approval, it said.

In parallel, NCOC said it had started planning a second phase to further boost production, something it has appeared to shy away from until first-phase production was stabilized. "Work is now underway to plan the second stage of development. NCOC plans to announce later the concept of this development of the Kashagan field [which] will significantly enhance production versus the current level," it said.

Additionally, the consortium, together with another venture that holds the license to the nearby Khazar field, aims to submit a development plan for both the Khazar and Kalamkas Sea fields in the current quarter, NCOC said. Khazar is operated by a joint venture between Shell and state-owned KazMunaiGaz and Oman Oil Company. A joint development with NCOC would "maximize synergies and contribute to the economic viability" of both fields, NCOC said.

The "cooperative development" could entail drilling more than 50 wells and production could reach 100,000 b/d, with a Final Investment Decision expected "no later than 2022," it said.

However, there remain to be addressed "multiple commercial, legal and administrative issues" for what is a "first-of-a-kind" joint project for Kazakhstan. "Continued support" from the authorities will be "enablers to proceeding with this kind of development work," it said.

Caspian Sea

In addition, NCOC noted a growing environmental challenge: fluctuating Caspian Sea water levels. They rose by around 2.5 meters in the last quarter of the 20th century, creating flood problems at the Tengiz field on Kazakhstan's coast, which is operated by a Chevron-led consortium.

But levels have fallen sharply in the last two decades, likely due to climate change and reduced discharges from the Volga River, fueling fears of a repetition of the drastic shrinkage of the nearby Aral Sea.

NCOC is resorting to hover-crafts to overcome the resulting logistical difficulties, it said. "Water levels have dropped approximately one meter over the past ten years" in the Kazakh sector, and vary on a daily basis, NCOC said.

"The lowering average value presents a risk that the water will be too shallow at times for conventional vessels to maintain the critical supply chain of cargoes and passengers between marine bases and offshore installations. It is essential to recognize this trend and plan to mitigate its impacts."

"As one measure, NCOC has concluded that Air Cushion Vehicles [hovercrafts] are an innovative solution to overcome shallow seas, partial or full ice cover, and marshy areas that are not passable by conventional vessels."

NCOC comprises KazMunaiGaz, with 16.88%, Italy's Eni, Total, ExxonMobil and Shell with 16.81% stakes each, China's CNPC with 8.33%, and Japan's Inpex with 7.56%.

--Nick Coleman, nick.coleman@spglobal.com

--Edited by Jonathan Fox, newsdesk@spglobal.com