Exploring Automation for Shale

Dec. 18, 2014
Leading into the inaugural Well Site Automation for Unconventional Oil & Gas next month in Houston, operators discuss the benefits of SCADA and other automation for their shale operations.

Automation figures significantly throughout oil and gas, and as the industry in North America booms and oil prices continue to drop, there’s that much more push to incorporate the range of technologies. But to try to lump the industry together as a whole does a disservice, as upstream, midstream and downstream applications are often miles apart in their automation, instrumentation, communication and control needs.

Even looking just at the point where the oil comes up to the surface, it’s a whole new world than the industry of even 10 years ago. Exponentially more service providers are involved, working in greater extremes (further out to sea, further under ice, further out in the remotest of remotes), and working with materials and methodologies still in development stages.

So I’m actually pretty excited about a new event coming up late next month in Houston that has a tight focus on onshore well sites, specifically optimizing production at shale oil and gas wells. The inaugural Well Site Automation for Unconventional Oil & Gas is also a vendor-neutral conference, presenting a couple dozen case studies to explore solutions to the specific challenges faced by shale operators in well site automation and remote monitoring.

Much of the conference’s focus is on SCADA systems. SCADA will be vital to the operations of any oil company trying to get the most out of their wells, but certainly not least of all to startups like Vine Oil & Gas.

Vine Oil & Gas is a great example of the companies formed to go after the shale reserves in this country—small, nimble operators that can function in an environment where all the rules have changed. Vine was established earlier this year in Dallas as an independent exploration and production (E&P) company in the shale space. In August, it announced its agreement to acquire Shell’s Haynesville assets—more than 107,000 net acres in North Louisiana, in the core of the Haynesville Shale basin.

Randall Wilkins, measurement and automation supervisor at Vine, will be speaking on well-site measurements and alarm management during the first day of the conference. “Because we are a new company and are starting with limited manpower in engineering as well as the field, SCADA will play a big role in helping to manage our production,” he said in an interview with show organizers. “It also gives us a unique opportunity to implement virtual operations right from the start. By beginning with a system that monitors all the important characteristics of a well, site visits can be reduced and operations costs will be kept to a minimum, potentially making Vine Oil a low-cost operator.”

Low-cost operation has become an important factor like never before seen in the oil and gas industry. The price of oil has recently fallen from about $100 a barrel to close to $60 a barrel. And though producers might be pressed for cash, it’s imperative that they embrace automation to improve efficiencies.

Wilkins certainly had to battle the skeptics in his own company. “I published monthly reports to help quantify the value SCADA brought,” he said. He showed that the use of SCADA and alarming could reduce the industry-standard six hours for bringing a well back online after failure to just two hours. “I captured the production savings from that action. By monitoring all the wells throughout the month, I could come up with the potential production value increase through the use of SCADA. Also, by using SCADA to monitor the wells 24/7, manpower and gasoline were saved each month.” Virtual operations enable well-site visits to be reduced by 90 percent, at the same time improving performance and reducing maintenance, he added.

Though one argument to SCADA use revolves around increased vulnerability to cybersecurity threats, Wilkins does not seem particularly concerned. “SCADA managers are concerned with hacking, but most defer to their IT management to prevent it,” he said. “Unless you have an environment with potentially dangerous control, generally hacking has not been a big concern. Currently, Vine Oil’s system is on a separate network firewalled off from the rest of our network.”

Rene Beck, manager of applied technology and SCADA at WPX Energy in Tulsa, Okla., considers this good practice for SCADA communications. “My suggestion there is to separate your SCADA network, or at least your traffic, from the rest of the network so you have dedicated bandwidth for the SCADA data,” she said to conference organizers. “And then be proactive in monitoring communications, so you can immediately see if there’s some sort of issue so you can proactively troubleshoot.”

Beck, who will be speaking at the conference on SCADA selection, is interested in taking more of the communications wireless. “We’ve had a lot of good luck with wireless,” she says. “I think the technology is to the point where we’re now trying to decide what data is worth being wired, and we’re going wireless if at all possible.”

Beck does not see hitting a limit anytime soon to the benefits the automation technology can bring to well sites. “If there is a limit, it’s pretty high, and we have a long ways to go,” she says.

Next stop: increased mobility. “My vision for five years out is a very mobile environment. Pumpers and field technicians would use exclusively iPads, tablets, phones or other mobile devices, and it’s coming to a screen that’s been built for the device so they can see the key indicators quickly and make decisions,” Beck says.

Well Site Automation for Unconventional Oil & Gas takes place Jan. 28-29 in Houston. You can read the full interviews with Wilkins and Beck, and get more information about the conference, at www.wellsite-automation.com.

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