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But Can It Weather Storms? And Other Questions About the World's New Largest Vessel

Shell's new floating natural gas field is called the "Prelude"—but to what? We don't know.
via Shell/Flickr

When you’ve got something unprecedented to insure, Lloyd’s of London is still the one to call, which is why the oil company Shell is having Lloyd’s insure the largest vessel on the seas or in the world—the floating natural gas field named the Prelude.

Floated out of Samsung Heavy Industry’s dry dock in Geoje, South Korea last month, the Prelude took to the water for the first time. At 1,602 feet, its hull is longer than the Empire State Building is tall and longer than the current “world’s biggest ship,” the Maersk Line, by nearly 290 feet, and 100 feet longer than the reigning all-time world’s biggest ship, the since-dismantled Knock Nevis.


Of course any comparison between Prelude and other so-called longest ships are going to be qualified, as the Prelude isn’t really a ship so much as an offshore gas field that just so happens to float.

Once it’s complete, the Prelude will be towed to the Browse Basin, about 300 miles northeast of Broome Australia, where Shell says it will be hooked up to undersea infrastructure of seven development wells that are around 830 feet below the surface. Then, for the next 20-25 years, in all weather including category-5 storms, the Prelude will stay there, sucking up natural gas, chilling it to 260 degrees below zero, then likely, sending it as a liquid to Asia to meet their growing natural gas demand, at a clip of 3.6 million tonnes of liquid natural gas a year.

“Our innovative [floating liquid natural gas] technology will allow us to develop offshore gas fields that otherwise would be too costly to develop,” said Malcolm Brinded, Shell’s Executive Director, Upstream International. “Our decision to go ahead with this project is a true breakthrough for the LNG industry, giving it a significant boost to help meet the world’s growing demand for the cleanest-burning fossil fuel.”

Yeah, there’s sort of an undercurrent of addicted desperation to the whole endeavor—if it takes building the world’s biggest vessel, then that’s what we’ll do. And depending on the type of environmentalist you are, Shell’s proclamations that the Prelude “will use significantly less materials, land and seabed area than developing the same gas via a similar onshore facility,” and “will reduce impact on sensitive coastal habitats as FLNG avoids the need for shoreline pipe crossings, dredging and jetty works,” is either insufficient or simply irrelevant given that even if it is cleaner than coal, burning natural gas still releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.


In some ways, even if it is unprecedented in size, the Prelude is a throwback, and not just because Lloyd’s got its start in 1688 as a place for sailors to get the lastest shipping news, before evolving into a place to have sea voyages underwritten. While the ship that the Prelude supplanted as world’s largest is a container ship, the old largest ships were crude oil tankers. Built in France in the 1970s, the four Batillus-class ships were called “supertankers,” could actually be considered the “world’s largest” ships, based on their gross tonnage.

Batillus tanker finishing construction via Wikimedia Commons

But, alas, they were only practical during the energy-crisis 1970s. In the oil-glutted 1980s, with prices dropping, the expense of operating a supertanker rendered the giant ships obsolete. Only one of the Batillus-class tankers made it out of the 80s.

Natural gas doesn’t have a global, integrated marketplace like oil has, so prices vary pretty widely across the world. Conspicuously, they have been riding high in Asia, where liquid natural gas can cost consumers around five times more than their counterparts in natural-gas-laden North America. But the demand is there. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China bought 70 percent of global liquefied natural gas supplies last year, according to Reuters.

Down to its name, the Prelude raises some questions: Is the worldwide reliance on natural gas going to grow? Or like the supertankers that came before it, is it floating on inflated energy prices along with the sea? Just as the construction of skyscrapers begins in booms and often ends in the following bust, what is a prelude for, anyway?

Perhaps most compelling, for both myself and Lloyd’s of London: how’s this baby going to weather that first category-5 storm?