What technologies could reshape the future of the oil and gas industry?
Observers from the world of petroleum geology, geophysics and engineering discussed that question at this year’s premiere Unconventional Resources Technology Conference (URTeC) in Denver.
Predictions ranged from drilling technologies to digital technologies, from large-scale to nanotech, from sweep efficiency to cost efficiencies. The forecasts were partly wish-list and partly punch-list, with a hint of gee-whiz in the mix.
Here are a dozen technologies identified at URTeC that could change the industry’s future:
- Nanotechnology applications, including coatings, laminates, nanoparticulates, advanced sensors and nanoreporters.
- Technology innovations to achieve fully coupled reservoir simulation.
- Improved technology to predict where proppant will flow, then identify where the proppant is and what it’s doing.
- Data technologies for sweet-spot identification from minimal information and rapid determination of optimal completion design.
- Technologies for enhanced oil recovery from nanoperm reservoirs.
- Technologies that capture and reuse waste heat, flare gas and other sacrificed by-products.
- Molecular filtration for oil-water-CO2 separation.
- Data acquisition in horizontal wells during hydrofracturing.
- Technology to identify, image and assess producing volumes, including 4-D microseismic.
- Data technologies drawn from outside the energy industry (i.e., gaming, weather forecasting).
- Technologies for nonaqueous stimulation/waterless fracturing and the use of “challenged” water in hydrofracturing.
- Technological efficiencies that improve recovery, reduce capital expenditures and lead to a dramatic reduction in cost per barrel-of-oil equivalent.
URTeC was a first-of-its-kind meeting on unconventional resources, held last August and jointly sponsored by AAPG, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and the Society of Petroleum Engineers.
During the meeting AAPG member Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics at Stanford University, moderated an interactive panel discussion on “Technologies That May Transform the Future.”
Panel participants, all AAPG members, were:
- Mike Mullen, president of Stimulation Petrophysics LLC in Denver.
- Doug Valleau, director of Unconventional Resources Technology for Hess Corp. in Houston.
- Greg Leveille, general manager of Unconventional Resources for ConocoPhillips Co. in Houston.
Maybe surprisingly, maybe not, data technologies received an abundance of attention in discussions about the industry’s future.
“I think there’s huge potential in some of the softer side of information technology,” Mullen said.
“One of the issues we have is that we are a very data-intensive industry,” he said. “There might be terabytes of data that you’re dealing with. Where do you put all this stuff so you can find it?”
Oil companies aren’t the only organizations that deal with huge data volumes, and Mullen thinks the industry could borrow concepts from outside oil and gas. The gaming industry, for example, has its own approach to imaging, and weather forecasts deal with big data daily.
“I can hop on my iPad and see a weather map of the entire United States with a pinch of my fingers,” he said. “I think, ‘Why can’t I do that with my oil and gas data?’”
Desperately Seeking Consistency
One serious challenge for the industry is acquiring data that is both accurate and consistent. Data collected by state agencies in the United States is notoriously inconsistent and difficult to utilize, Mullen noted.
“It would be nice if the professional organizations could put out recommended standards on what should be kept in the states,” he said.
The continuing process of converting old paper files to digital files will bring benefits for the industry, Mullen said – but it also has challenges.
“The problem with paper well files is that maybe the piece of paper you’re looking for or the information from the one particular day you’re looking for, someone took that out of the file and didn’t put it back,” he said.
Companies often assign low-level staffers to create digital information databases, he noted. That can lead to errors, omissions and low quality.
“This is where databases turn into sausage,” he said. “The more you know what’s in them, the less you like them.”
Use It or Lose It?
Mullen identified two other changes in the industry where new technology makes a difference – the concept of what producing “pay” is, and the much-anticipated shift in workforce as a generation of older professionals retire.
Concepts of conventional pay cutoffs “are out the window,” Mullen said. Unconventional resource plays produce from “unproducible” low-perm zones, tight sands could revolutionize the industry, and ideas about what will produce change constantly.
Years ago, “nobody even thought you could produce gas from coal,” he noted.
But maybe no challenge for the oil and gas industry is greater than the coming crew change, as older workers leave the workforce and take with them lifetimes of experience and knowledge.
“I’ve seen it in my 37 years in the industry,” Mullen said. “The predecessor generation to mine, what they took for granted we had to learn all over again, and make it work.”
Technology could have a part in easing that shift – if the industry can create true knowledge databases and make them functional.
“If there was a database architecture – I keep going back to Google and Bing and the others – that to me is a great idea,” Mullen said.
In a time of very rapid technological change, Mullen thinks the industry could do a better job of acquiring and adapting new technologies for its own needs.
“From my viewpoint, I think some companies have done better than others in keeping up,” he said. “But I think we lag as a whole in utilizing the technology that has come along.”