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As digital oilfield programs continue to gain momentum, the question now is what is next for one of the most innovative areas of the energy industry?
Many of the companies at the forefront of the intelligent energy revolution have now reached a point where they have, to a large extent, achieved what they originally set out to do. But all readily admit there is still a very long way to go.
BP has taken a lead role from the beginning with its "Field of the Future" technology flagship, with the company's digital oilfield program having now run for more than 10 years. The program now routinely supports more than 80% of the operator's top producing wells – more than 1 MMboe/d of net production.
BP outlines its activities so far into two distinct phases and says the characteristics of these phases also apply more generally within the industry.
Phase 1, covering years 2000-2005, dealt with demonstrating the validity and potential of the digital oilfield concept. This phase dealt with engaging asset and major project teams in understanding the potential value in new ways of working by accessing real-time operational information. In an R&D sense, Phase 1 was about developing and integrating a diverse set of tools to support technology trials and prove the concept.
According to Steve Roberts, vice president of the Field of the Future program, Phase 2 (2005-2011) saw BP start to implement at pace and scale. That deployment yielded approximately 400 specific value stories as well as demonstrating numerous capex savings, efficiency improvements, and examples of safety assurance.
Giving a paper at the recent SPE Intelligent Energy event in the Netherlands, Roberts said, "For BP, the focus was on delivery of discrete real-time remote monitoring solutions and target-driven value realization for well monitoring, surveillance by exception (i.e., event-driven rather than by routine scheduling), equipment reliability, and production optimization. We have documented value delivery of more than 70,000 boe/d net cumulative production impacts, plus other benefits. The choice of specific technologies was less important than the drive for sustainable implementation and solid business cases."
An example of BP's latest generation of digital oilfield projects is the company's Valhall Redevelopment and Skarv projects offshore Norway. BP Norway has been at the leading edge of trialing digital oilfield concepts since the beginning of Phase 1.
These two developments were built from the outset with digital oilfield principles as a core feature of their design, and they represent what may be the first "second generation" developments, building on all of the previous experience and pushing the concept further on. This is exemplified by the built-in ability to shift some of the control functions for Valhall to an onshore control room – a virtual extension of the offshore control room. Similarly, the operational model for Skarv is dependent on collaboration between three key locations (one offshore and two onshore). All will be equipped with a full suite of Field of the Future capabilities.
Roberts added that BP observed similar progress being made in other companies. "If we take a moment to look back on the industry achievements of the past 10 years, it is clear
that we have made a huge step forward in the way we can operate our assets. We therefore conclude that we are at or close to the end of Phase 2 and a complete impact model cycle and need to consider if and how an equivalent step change might be achieved over the next 10 years," he said.
The range of industry experience raises an interesting question about options for the next phase of activity, however. These, he said, range from a focus on embedding the success to date as "business as usual" to targeting the next class of difficult problems or operational risk reduction. Using the skills and experience from Phase 2 could unlock even greater value and further transform the work of energy companies.
Behind all this is the fact that the resource base of the industry, although large, is finite. BP expects resources to increasingly come from fields that are challenging to produce, both technically and geographically. Within its own resource base, the expected mix will comprise increasing amounts of unconventional oil and gas in future years. Taken together, these factors lead to a demand for continuously improving efficiency in what is essentially a commodity business, requiring appropriate technology to enable performance breakthroughs. The digital oil field has become a key element of the toolkit across the industry for meeting these challenges, according to BP. But while the concept of digital oil fields is held in common across multiple upstream operators and their suppliers, there has been difficulty in producing an agreed industry definition of what constitutes a digital oil field or associated corporate program, Roberts said. Reasons for this include the fact that different companies:
He also pointed out that the digital oil field is a broad, cross-functional concept with potential to fundamentally alter the way the industry operates oil and gas fields.
"Its implementation is complex, and business cases can be very varied," he said. "The underlying technology stack has numerous components from sensors through communication buses to complex analytical algorithms to digitally automated actuator valves. This means the technical permutations for creating value coupled with the workflow improvement opportunities are numerous.
"Decomposing the concept into tractable pieces in order to make progress presents any company with a potentially bewildering array of choices from the total potential technical and workflow scope. These choices have been made by each operator such that, to the best of their knowledge and ability to predict, they will maximize the likelihood of achieving a successful, sustained value-adding outcome."
$5 billion value of smart technologies
Another early leader in digital oilfield technologies has been Shell, which in the first decade of its own "Smart Fields" initiative focused on new technologies, making business cases and implementing the technologies as widely as possible.
The program started in the early 2000s in areas such as installing monitoring and control devices in wells and was then expanded to overall field management, with the concept proving robust and still serving as a guiding principle in the approach to implement smart technologies in the global asset base.
The uptake of smart technologies and sustained benefits was achieved across the global portfolio of assets in Shell, leading to broad experience of deployment and sustainability, covering nearly all operating environments in terms of desert to arctic, field development/depletion types, and various organizational models.
Overall this has led to "major contributions to the bottom line," according to a paper presented at this year's Intelligent Energy event by Shell's Frans Van Den Berg and Leo de Best. "The value of Smart Fields for Shell and its partners was assessed at US $5 billion as a result of the smart technologies. Learning from successes and failures in implementations in the value assessment has given, and continues to give, deep insights in optimizing of the approach for technology deployment," they stated.
Looking ahead, they went on to highlight that as Shell enters the "second decade," the focus of the Smart Fields program is on accelerating the implementation of new technologies across assets in a way that value generation is sustained. "The key success is achieved once the 'edge technology' has become commodity," the authors said.
Shell's Edwin Verdonk, vice president of subsurface expertise and technology deployment, was one of the cochairs for the Intelligent Energy event. "We see that the speed and implementation of new technology is faster than ever before, and that's very important. When you look at the changing world and the complexity of the challenges facing us, technology is going to get us to a different place, a new level," he said.
Verdonk went on to stress the importance of industry collaboration and targeted partnering to help get companies the technology they need faster. "In the old days we would do it all ourselves. Now, through methods such as targeted partnering, we can get there faster. We see a much more open environment than ever before, and this greatly improves the speed of the implementation of the technology," he said.
Managing data mountains
Verdonk also warned about the need for the industry to continue getting smarter about managing the huge amounts of data and knowledge now being produced and what is done with it. This also was highlighted by Roberts, who pointed out that individuals having so many screens of data in front of them is a problem. "The aerospace and car industries have overcome this problem. An aircraft has real-time information flooding in all the time, but the pilot sees it all in a very integrated way. It's the same with a car, where there is monitoring going on all the time throughout the vehicle in the tires, engine, brakes, and so on. But the driver is only alerted when there is a potential problem. We have to engineer and filter our information in the same way," he said. Overall, Roberts highlighted three basic choices facing the upstream industry as it moves forward as well as the digital oilfield practitioners operating within it. The first two are:
Next generation scenario
This "next generation" scenario requires a visionary view that there is an additional prize to be secured over what has been considered to date, Roberts said. This is likely to involve some fundamental shifts in how the company could standardize on and introduce a new generation of working practices. These would be enabled by highly integrated systems incorporating currently emerging technologies focused on key business issues, and the company would build that on digital oilfield learnings from phases 1 and 2.
"Current toolkits and approaches will need to be maintained until such systems can be delivered. However, it is likely that the data and system integration needs of this next generation of solutions may require re-architecting and re-implementing earlier systems that form the basis of today's digital oil fields, effectively making them obsolete and requiring new investment. A full life cycle view will be required in order to make the necessary long-term commitment to deliver such systems," he said.
He also suggested that an element of the "next-generation deep capability" scenario is a set of system interfaces designed to meet the needs and aspirations of the "next-generation engineers and geoscientists" for integrated data and information-rich, collaborative, and mobile work environments. Roberts summarized the key characteristics of its solutions as:
relying on futuristic, highly collaborative, mobile, and device-independent interfaces. "We see this as a vision as engaging and challenging as that we had when we first developed our Field of the Future concept 10 years ago," Roberts said.