Shale Oil Safety: How Automation Removes the Risk

The amount of pressure that gets applied to shale wells in order to get the resources up through the fissures is a key factor in industry safety.

Historically, human workers ran around manually controlling gauges and knobs. That not only was a very dangerous position to put workers into, but the practice also brings into question response times and repeatability, notes Chris LeBlanc, vice president of sales and marketing for Lime Instruments (www.limeinst.com).

But this is even more of an issue for shale than for legacy, conventional reserves, which were more forgiving. “There was a lot less equipment, a lot less horsepower needed to create the fissures in the formation,” LeBlanc says.

The automation is required to extract resources both economically and safely. “When you have more horsepower, you have more pressure, and more pressure means more danger,” LeBlanc says. “You need automation in order to remove the human risk factors of these jobs that become more and more risky as you add more and more equipment and have more and more pumps.”

Instead of workers walking a site, all in harm’s way, Lime Instruments’ data vans enable operators to be sitting further away in a central location. “If you can remove that person, you can control more efficiently within the safe environment of the van,” LeBlanc says. “And instead of 30 people, you have four to five that effectively run that spread far better than you could in the past.”

There are still quite a few people using manual processes, though, notes Jerry Hines, North American oil and gas manager for National Instruments. But even the face of those manual processes has begun to change, according to Rachel Phillips Herrick, a production engineer at Goodrich Petroleum (www.goodrichpetroleum.com).

Safety is first and foremost the main reason for automation, she says. “Shale places are in remote areas. You might have to drive 30 miles on the route just to get to any location. Nobody will ever find you if they don’t know you’re there. So we need those safety controls to shut in the well if there’s H2S.”

Most accidents are avoidable, Phillips Herrick points out. Goodrich has made changes in recent years to make conditions safer out in the fields, she says, including moving from analog to digital controls, and making it easier for instruments to be checked. “Instead of analog, we’re doing it digitally, which some of the guys don’t understand or trust,” she says, explaining that workers are not allowed to gauge tanks manually. Each wellhead has tablet screen where workers can walk up and view all of the data.

Instead of having to connect to the Internet, which isn’t always easy in these remote locations, they can control the well directly from the local controller. “It’s really, really amazing, and the field guys love it,” Phillips Herrick adds. 

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