COLUMN | Elon Musk buys two Valaris rigs for SpaceX [Offshore Accounts]

An Ensco 8500-series rig (Photo: EnscoRowan)

We have previously seen unwanted deepwater rigs scrapped in the breakers yards of Turkey, or held for conversion into subsea mining vessels by Allseas, as the drilling industry staggers from one bankruptcy to the next (see here). But now, something new, an innovative use for some of the armada of laid-up rigs: using a pair of laid-up Valaris rigs as launch pads for Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets.

SpaceX is Musk’s privately held company, which has already successfully sent its Falcon9 rockets into orbit 104 times. Of those 104 launches, 47 were relaunches of the craft, which is designed to be reused to bring down costs. SpaceX’s next project is the Falcon Heavy, “the world’s most powerful rocket”.

Bought for scrap prices, recycled as SpaceX facilities

CNBC has confirmed (here) that the DP2 semi-subs formerly known as Ensco 8500 and Ensco 8501 will be converted by the tech billionaire’s company to support rocket operations, presumably launches or recoveries of the spacecraft, after the drilling equipment is removed as each Falcon heavy rocket is only 70 metres long. The rigs were built at Keppel FELS in in Singapore in 2008, but have been languishing in lay-up in the industry downturn at Brownsville, Texas, since 2016.

SpaceX acquired them for US$3.5 million apiece last July, shortly before Valaris filed for Chapter Eleven bankruptcy protection. Full specifications of the units when they were in service Ensco rigs can be viewed here.

Mars is the ultimate goal

SpaceX has renamed the oilfield workhorses after the moons of Mars, Deimos and Phobos. Mars is the target of the company’s most ambitious mission, a manned spaceflight to take humans to the red planet, and ultimately settle on it, making us an interplanetary species. Mars is on average 140 million miles (225.3 million kilometres) away from Earth (see here). Discussing the challenges of inhabiting a planet with little oxygen and a thin atmosphere, Mars is, “a little cold, but we can warm it up,” as SpaceX claims.

The Port of Brownsville is located close to SpaceX’s Starship development facility in Boca Chica, Texas, so the laid-up units required no move. SpaceX is now advertising for crane drivers for Deimos and Phobos.

MethaneSAT to track emissions from oil and gas industry

In late 2022 SpaceX will launch a satellite expected to have a major impact on oilfield operations as well. MethaneSAT is, as the name implies, designed to measure methane emissions worldwide, tracking those oil and gas producers with leaky wells, or those who deliberately vent the greenhouse gas.

MethaneSAT is owned by the American conservation group Environmental Defense Fund, but is funded by a US$100 million grant from billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ charity, the Bezos Earth Fund. Bezos Earth Fund has an endowment of US$10 billion, and will also fund software to process the data from MethaneSAT.  Further details of recipients of Bezos Earth Fund’s first US$791 million grants are here.


The Environmental Defense Fund says that the sensors on MethaneSAT can detect differences in methane levels as small as two parts per billion. The methane data will be available to stream for free for non-commercial users, enabling researchers to look at hot spots for the release of the gas, and name and shame polluters.

Rather than drilling for gas offshore, Deimos and Phobos will soon be helping to monitor from space those releasing it into the atmosphere.

Hieronymus Bosch

This anonymous commentator is our insider in the world of offshore oil and gas operations. With decades in the business and a raft of contacts, this is the go-to column for the behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings of the volatile offshore market.