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Remotely operated wells 'safer and simpler'

Monday, November 21, 2011

Remotely operated wells can be safer, simpler and easier to manage, says Ron Cramer, Principal Optimization Engineer at Shell.

'If you have an offshore facility designed for unmanned operation, it can be inherently safer and simpler, with less equipment, less accommodation and less logistics ' said Ron Cramer.

He was speaking at a technical session at Offshore Europe conference in Aberdeen, presenting a paper entitled 'Remote Operations - A Remote Possibility, or the Way We Do Things Round Here?' [SPE - 145224].

The primary and most important benefit is reduced operator exposure to process and travel hazards. 'Significantly less trips are required to the remote production facilities in trucks, helicopters and boats; along with less hours working in hazardous areas such as well heads, pumps and compressors, hence the operation is considerably safer.'

'You get increased staff productivity. Why? Because you're operating the plant remotely and electronically with control actions performed more or less instantaneously.'

'A large, onshore, European gas field is totally automated with fast well and compressor remote stop/start capability. It's like starting a car. You push a button and indicate how much gas is required, the system then selects the wells and starts them automatically.'

'If you want to do it manually you do it one well at the time. If the operator has to travel to the well, it takes time to get there - the further the well and the greater the distance between wells, the longer it takes and the more production is deferred.'

With remote operations you can also involve scarce global experts on specific issues. 'You can make the information globally available, such that remote experts have the problem evidence at their finger tips, this enables collaboration with local staff, both viewing the same real time data at the same time and in the same format, for more effective and faster problem solving.'

In West African fields remote operation systems are being installed for safety and production reasons. 'Sending operators to the wells is becoming progressively more difficult,' he said. Similarly in the Hurricane prone Gulf of Mexico, platforms are evacuated and shut-down when storms approach. Even though these activities are performed with consummate professionalism, the staff are subjected to travel hazards and shut downs result in production losses. Consequently there are opportunities to leverage remote operations, inclusive of continuously manned remote control rooms to increase production and safety.

'In the Gulf of Mexico fields expert staff offshore visit frequency has been substantially reduced by utilizing an onshore facility called the 'Bridge' where skilled analysts continuously monitor the assets and flag and pre-process the information for the engineers,' he said.

For onshore fields the most significant benefit of remote operations is in reducing staff road travel to visit the remote wells - one of the biggest sources of accidents. Ironically many times the operator didn't have to go to the well because it hadn't changed.

'For virtually all oil companies, driving and other travel related incidents are a significant issue. Too many people get injured and killed every year,' he said.

Of secondary importance to safety you can also use the real time data required for remote operations to optimize production. For example, if you're doing gas lift, you can use real time data to lift more oil using less gas lift gas. The real time data can also help unravel well/reservoir problems sooner, such that they can be fixed sooner to produce more oil or gas.

It is not hard to run plant remotely. The technologies to remotely start and stop wells, pumps and compressors are mature. 'We've had them in refineries for 50 years. The technology we have now is fit for remote operations purposes.'

The amount of remote operations can only go up.

'We're going to have thousands of more wells over the next 10 years. That is going to change the way we operate, because it will be difficult to find and train staff to run the process the old, manual way,' he said. 'So the amount of automation is certainly going to increase.'

'If we have thousands of new wells, I believe that robotics is something we'll have more and more of,' he said, including tasks like robotic sampling and well testing.

Robotic operations are already well established in subsea operations 'because we've got no choice,' he said.

Control and authority

Operators have to be able to adjust the process, based on what they observe. 'There's not much point in doing remote surveillance if you don't take action to improve the efficiency and integrity of the production processes.'

The best remote operators should be 'looking for trouble' or in other words proactively looking at things which could possibly be going awry or might be about to go wrong, so they can be put right as fast as possible.

For example, if a well starts to water out, it may be expedient to close-in that well and increase production from other wells to compensate for the loss.

You need to make sure that authority is delegated to those who can take action in a timely manner - if something goes wrong at 3 am on a Sunday morning, staff on duty need to be capable of analyzing the situation and empowered to take the necessary actions to render the process safe.

With the Piper Alpha disaster, executive authority to close-in production was not clearly delegated to offshore supervision, although they had been given the responsibility to produce as much oil as possible. 'That was one the factors that turned a major incident into a catastrophe,' he said. For safe production inclusive of remote operations, it is essential to empower the operator to shut down the process on sensing hazardous conditions.

Getting it implemented

Persuading people to switch to remote operations is not always easy. 'The operator, like most human beings may be reluctant to change and reverts to operating the field the old manual and travel intensive way.'

The main reason why it can be a struggle to implement remote systems is 'resistance to change - the operator needs to be motivated, there needs to be something in it for him,' he said.

'If you want to do things down-manned or unmanned, you've really got to change the philosophy of how you operate and why,' he said. 'That 'why' needs to be clear to all concerned. You need to change your standards and guidelines and procedures.'

The best way to move forward for brown fields is to put an operations philosophy in place, establish guidelines and communicate to the operator that this will make his life easier, using the power of suggestion to strive to 'make it his idea.' 'If you've got management pushing it and operations staff are onboard and 'own it,' it will be successful,' he said.

Mr. Cramer related one case where staff were reluctant to use newly installed remote operations equipment and continued visiting remote well heads unnecessarily, rather than using newly installed offshore electronic control and monitoring facilities. Management forced them to use the remote data by taking the boat away, with significant OPEX and safety gains. Forcing tools of this nature are far from ideal, it is much better to persuade the operator to effectively use the new tools.

Change management is not such a problem for green fields, when people don't already have ingrained habits, he said. 'You can design it with no living quarters and with minimum maintenance equipment, hence, there is less need to visit the remote facilities.'

'Over time, as the number of wells increases, the need for remote operations will increase, and that will drive the change management process,' he said.

Associated Companies
» Royal Dutch Shell plc
» Offshore Europe
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