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How to improve production

Friday, September 8, 2017

Digital Energy Journal held a forum in Aberdeen on March 14 looking at what new approaches to digital technology can help improve production - which came up with some exciting ideas.

What does improving production mean? Most people in the oil and gas industry think they understand. But the answer is pretty complex because it is such a wide range of things, involving an understanding of the wells, the pipelines and the topsides, being able to spot and resolve problems quickly, and also looking for opportunities where it can be done better.

And all the time, it isn't very clear what the results of the decisions are. You can see the current production with varying degrees of clarity (not all wells have flowmeters, and some of them are inaccurate and it takes a while to get the data). You can see when there are obvious problems, like slugging (big bubbles of something in the oil flow, which stops the flow from moving).

If something goes wrong, production engineers are under pressure to make fast decisions, because if they don't, someone else (probably offshore) will make the decision for them, and they may not make it so well.

In the data we've seen, up to 1 in 4 wells in the North Sea can have negative production, where opening the choke actually means the overall production is reduced - perhaps because this well connects to a lower pressure reservoir, it draws oil production from other wells down into it. That's something good to know.

It also involves understanding the topsides. The separators, removing water and gas, have a limited capacity. There is no point in maximising production from individual wells if the production flow is then constrained by the separators downstream. And you also want to understand the causes of downtime with the topsides equipment, the most common of which is probably compressors 'tripping' (switching themselves off due to high or low constraints being violated or being manually switched off). This starts to get into the facilities management and maintenance domain, but it is all connected.

A further problem for production engineers is that the IT department may not have deep understanding of the tools they administer, what they do, and the software companies which make the tools are usually working with the IT department, not the production engineering department. Yet production engineers could benefit from better digital technology, perhaps even more than the subsurface people can (since their digital technology is, in relative terms, pretty good).

One interesting theme which emerged in the conference is that the big challenges can be split into platforms and tools. By 'tools' we mean the software tools which production engineers directly work with, to understand a flow, analyse something, look at different options and try to see what the results of a decision would be. By 'platforms' we mean everything these tools are built on - including the sensors and flowmeters, the data management and integration systems, the databases and the data exchange standards.

Both the tools and platforms should be handled in different ways. For the tools, you ideally want a competitive ecosystem of continually developing and refining different sorts of tools to help in different ways - understand a situation, analyse it, see the impact of decisions. These tools might be developed by engineers or domain experts themselves, rather than software people.

For the platforms, you want it to be as solid as possible, changing slowly. The platforms take real IT expertise, and a fair bit of domain expertise as well, to design and build. But once built, they shouldn't take much maintenance.

The costs of poorly managed production data are not obvious, but they could become more obvious in time. An audience member noted that one North Sea oil company has an unofficial business model of acquiring assets and going through the data very carefully, to try to discover where the reservoirs are larger than the selling company thought, and it seems that was a successful tactic for them.

Low technical support

One interesting issue is the low amount of technical support which production engineers get. A survey of 35 oil companies by New Digital Business found that geological and geophysical staff typically have one technical support person for every 17 professionals; drilling people have one for every 30 professionals, reservoir engineers 1 in 20, but production data people have one technical person for every 95 professionals.

Production data could be called 'last piece of subsurface data we haven't grasped properly,' said Jonathan Jenkins, COO of NDB.

Companies also have IT departments, but IT people do not necessarily have the understanding of the production domain that they would need to provide assistance.

'This whole idea of support and having the right type of support is all part of the fundamental building blocks of getting production data more easily trusted,' Mr Jenkins said.

Steve Roberts

Steve Roberts, head of digital solutions with the Oil and Gas Technology Centre (and formerly head of field of the future with BP), attended the event and said he had found it a 'really refreshing conversation.'

'A lot of themes resonate with me,' he said.

'I think time is right to make great steps forward. I had a privilege in BP of looking at global portfolio, here I'm looking at a regional portfolio. I think there's a chance to do some things. You're all struggling with the same sort of issues.'

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