Optimized Oil Recovery and Automation Converge

Efficiency strategies from oil and gas producers are using nimble SCADA platforms and communication technologies to control remote oil wells and drive maintenance costs down.

To combat low oil prices and smaller margins, North American oil and gas producers are moving toward digital oilfield applications to drive efficiencies with their existing wells. As a result, optimized oil recovery strategies are replacing large capital offshore projects.

There has also been a great deal of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity in the face of lower oil prices, and assimilating disparate control systems and processes has been a major challenge. To overcome this obstacle, companies are employing a factory manufacturing approach to drive vertical integration of oil assets.

Amarillo, Texas-based Pantera Energy, for example, is a David in an industry full of Goliaths, but its aggressive acquisition strategy includes more than 200 major M&As since its inception in 1982. Operating more than 1,300 wells across Texas and Oklahoma, the oil and gas producer needed to move away from proprietary control solutions that prevented its ability to increase efficiencies.

After a recent asset acquisition, Pantera turned to system integrator Champion Automation to implement a pilot project using Inductive Automation’s Java-based SCADA system and Kepware Technologies’ KEPServerEX OPC connectivity platform.

Adopting KEPServerEX and a SCADA platform, Pantera knew it could support its aggressive acquisition strategy and integrate disparate equipment quickly. The initial project included 25 pump controllers, about 50 compressors and eight saltwater disposal systems (SWDs). With a radius of 30-40 miles for these well sites, Pantera faced major challenges with human pumpers monitoring and managing these equipment assets on a daily basis.

“We formulated the control and networking architecture, while also commissioning the oilfield project,” says Lee Reeves, founder and technical director at Champion Automation. “One of the primary design considerations with this project was the lack of SCADA workforce knowledge before this installation. Pantera doesn’t have a full-time, trained SCADA technician or engineer, so we had to design a system that a layman could use.”

Besides operating control, simplicity was essential for maintenance and the ability to add new SCADA tags for the different types of SWD compressors.

Essential to this “oilfield as a manufacturing operation” is the OPC interface standard. The protocol simplifies communication of multiple types of OEM equipment for any OPC-compliant SCADA platform. This project includes Emerson Process Management remote operations controllers, ABB flow computers, Weatherford rod pump controllers and various PLCs used for equipment control. The communication platform from Kepware can gather data from 150 different protocols or drivers for various devices, databases, and applications.

“One of the many interesting aspects of this project was the interface to Pantera’s liquid well sites that used Weatherford 8500 pump-off controllers,” says Jeff Klumpp, project manager at Champion Automation.

The accumulation of liquids in mature wells can occur when the bottom well pressure approaches reservoir shut-in pressure, and this can impede or sometimes stop production.

“When the pump pulls so much oil out of the hole, the level drops and they need to shut it off,” Klumpp says. “Previously, human pumpers drove to the individual well sites to monitor and control this local process, but now this has been integrated into the SCADA platform. Champion also developed the mobile and HMI screen design for the pump-off process and tuning of these controllers.”

Getting data to mobile operators as quickly as possible was highly coveted by Pantera, but so was the quick commissioning time involved for this project.

The commissioning started in November, and by January the SCADA system was partially deployed. “The communications infrastructure design took about two to three weeks, but the SCADA platform was operational pretty quickly,” says Doug Gremillion, technical design engineer and director at Champion Automation. “Even with this partially deployed system, Pantera was able to take advantage of the SCADA system immediately.”

“It’s a very quick and easy way to introduce a SCADA solution,” says Steve Sponseller, business director of oil and gas at Kepware. “Champion became familiar with the integration of KEPServerEX in the oil and gas market when implementing Ignition.”

One advantage with this quick deployment was the immediate use of alarming notifications for these remote wells. “If a compressor goes down, Pantera receives an alarm notification within 30 minutes,” Gremillion says. Serial communication between equipment and instruments is done via Modbus, and a wireless backhaul is used to connect to the SCADA platform.

Before the alarm procedure, a human pumper would routinely drive 15-30 miles to visit different well sites throughout the day to monitor equipment. “A pumper might visit a site and everything might look fine,” Gremillion says. “After traveling to the next well, the previous site could malfunction and production would be lost until the next day’s visit.”

Though financial analysts are still not convinced that an M&A strategy will win the day against low oil prices, an “oilfield as a manufacturing operation” strategy will pay dividends now and when oil starts heading north.

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