The concept of technology transfer is a bit nebulous— one person sharing a new system, tool or idea with another. This being a new challenge to the oil and gas industry is somewhat of a misnomer; even the earliest oil men passed along the latest innovations with each other. But, at least according to one recent report, market dynamics have created a gap between the forward-thinking and planning oil majors and the smaller operators without the means for R&D.
In his recent SPE paper, “Development of a Technology Transfer Model in the 2020 Era for the Oil and Gas Industry,” Jeremy Viscomi, vice president of global marketing at Premier Oilfield Laboratories, wrote, “In the last few years the landscape of the oil and gas industry has changed dramatically in relation to technology. Many operators, out of necessity, have adopted a manufacturing or mass production mentality regarding their wells while disregarding optimization and the use of technology for long-term production.”
Early tech transfer
According to Viscomi, well abandonment was a common problem in the early 1990s, an issue recognized by researchers at the University of Kansas. Those researchers developed and outlined a model for independent operators to embrace and utilize new technology with the goal of reducing well abandonment and increasing oil production over the long term.
The idea of knowledge-sharing soon grew outside the realms of higher education through the creation of organizations like the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA) and the Petroleum Technology Transfer Council (PTTC).
RPSEA is a nonprofit, national consortium based on a private-public partnership model that has worked with industry, academia and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory. The consortium, founded in 2002, advocates technology transfer of R&D information and has managed more than 170 projects. The PTTC was established more than 20 years ago by the U.S. DOE to provide a forum for transfer of technology and best practices within the producer community. The council provides training and workshops throughout the U.S. where oil and gas operators are producing.
Recently, Viscomi partnered with Lanny Schoeling, author of the original methodology at the University of Kansas, and Tom Williams, RPSEA president, to expand upon the work conducted in the 1990s and update its methodologies for today’s more challenging operating environments with his SPE paper.
“Our objective was to set the course for companies to continue to take advantage of technology and best practices in ways that optimize operations, improve economics and secure production far into the future,” Viscomi wrote.
Concurrent to Viscomi’s efforts, RPSEA published its own R&D plan this year in “Keeping It Going for the Long Haul—The Easy Stuff Is Gone,” authored by Williams.
Both RPSEA and Viscomi noted that technology transfer programs would be most beneficial to producers that often have limited technical staff with little to no R&D budget available to explore new technologies.
“In our attempt to address the needs of the modern oil and gas operator, considerations had to be made for many operators who do not have or have limited access to industry research labs, government funding and university programs,” Viscomi said. “IPAA [Independent Petroleum Association of America] describes these operators as those producers who do not have more than $5 million in retail sales of oil and gas or do not refine more than 75,000 barrels per day of crude oil during a given year.”
The updated methodology published by Viscomi featured five components that he said operators can use for quick access to technology without significant costs while increasing oil production and lowering operating expenses:
1. “Technology leadership guided by industry to initiate and manage the technology transfer process;
2. Problem identification activities that help create a two-way dialogue between industry and a leadership organization;
3. Documented demonstration projects rooted in problem identification activities;
4. Focused technology workshops that disseminate demonstration project findings; and
5. Regional resource centers with outreach resources serving as local and online repositories for easy access by industry.”
“When these programs are affordable, credible, adaptive to audiences and utilize available technology to pair with end users, they play a key role in the continued success of the oil and gas industry.”—Jeremy Viscomi, Premier Oilfield Laboratories
Meanwhile, the RPSEA plan was written to allow the organization and its stakeholders to prioritize RPSEA’s focus while providing a road map for industry and policymakers to work together to address challenges through research and technology transfer. The RPSEA report also includes a summary of technology transfer efforts designed to enable and enhance the sharing of industry innovations and research findings.
The organization’s efforts for conveying the industry’s innovations to end users includes monthly reports, project updates and reviews, workshops, and presentations at public meetings at all stages of an ongoing project.
“When a project reaches completion, successful examples and case studies generated during the course of the project are the basis for formal technology transfer efforts,” the RPSEA report stated.
Among the specific technology transfer approaches incorporated into the RPSEA program are
- “The engagement of Program Advisory Committee and Technical Advisory Committee members in needs assessment, project selection and ongoing project review, which RPSEA said promotes ongoing interests in developing projects and facilitating field tests and demonstrations using producer wells, data and facilities;
- A continuing commitment to enhance the functionality and value of the RPSEA website by adding relevant, value-added data and information regarding the organization’s individual projects; and
- That the R&D contracts awarded include requirements for the expenditure of funds allocated to technology transfer in accordance with the program- level plan.”
Both Viscomi and RPSEA realized that technology transfer efforts are not a one-size-fits-all concept. Transferring program results to smaller, independent operators requires a different approach than that utilized, for example, for ultradeepwater and onshore unconventional operators.
Although the concept of technology transfer among oil and gas companies inherently benefits those that don’t possess the ability to develop their own technology, most companies are protective of their intellectual property.
Faig Alizada, writing for the international law firm Grata International, identified the challenges in sharing technology and innovations while at the same time protecting intellectual property—the industry secrets that make each company and its operations unique.
In “Protection of Know-how in Oil and Gas Technology Agreements,” Alizada referenced the example of publically disclosing the individual components of hydraulic fracturing fluid in response to public concerns over the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing operations.
“Oil and gas companies have resisted disclosure of the exact composition of fracking on the grounds that these mixtures are trade secrets,” Alizada noted. “Creating a fracking fluid mixture that produces the desired results is an extremely complicated task. Without effective trade secret protection, public disclosure would allow imitation and reverse engineering of highly proprietary information.”
Alizada recommended companies consider “know-how agreements” that determine the scope of the information being protected and disclosed. In addition, he noted that a company’s intellectual property committee should decide whether to pursue a patent or a trade secret protection for a particularly innovation.
“For example, some things, such as databases, are not patentable and thus must be maintained as a trade secret,” he wrote.
But as Viscomi and RPSEA noted, sharing such information and technology works for the greater good of the industry, keeping it healthy for the future. “Our goal is to stand on the work of programs such as PTTC and RPSEA, utilize their successes and expand them into a methodology that embraces emerging communication technology and takes technology beyond 2020,” Viscomi said. “The strategies and techniques are not limited only to independent producers. Market conditions urge all producers to explore emerging technology to improve production and optimize each well.”