Speaking to a crowded room of petroleum geologists, Shell's director of technology and exploration, John Darley, who is in fact not a geologist but a petroleum engineer by profession, spoke of something dear to the hearts of many geoscientists -- pushing the technological limits of finding and producing more oil and gas.
"Integration has been the watch-word of our industry for many years," Darley said, "but I would like to suggest to you that a new paradigm in integration will be necessary if we are really to optimally develop the subsurface resources entrusted to us, as an industry and as individual professionals.
"Our challenge is to ensure the optimum deployment of available technologies to ensure that hydrocarbon resources are developed as efficiently and effectively as possible in response to society's needs for ever increasing levels of energy to power industrial and societal growth."
Darley was the lead speaker at the annual meeting for the session "Technology Trends in Exploration and Production."
The session also included speakers from ExxonMobil Exploration, ChevronTexaco E&P Technology, TotalFinaElf, Saudi Aramco, the Kansas Geological Survey and the University of Aberdeen.
Darley recounted the many predictions that the world is running out of oil -- the first in an1855 advertisement in Pennsylvania for Kier's Rock Oil, which advised consumers to "hurry, before this wonderful product is depleted from nature's laboratory."
"One of the central reasons why these forecasts have been so consistently inaccurate is their failure to understand the importance of technology, how rapidly that technology would develop and the difference it would make," he said.
North Sea Example
The petroleum industry has long recognized that technology is a crucial part of its success and a key to unlocking future opportunities.
"But this is a changing environment," he noted. "We are working in an increasingly mature industry, the easy gains have largely been made and extracting future resources is bound to become more difficult. And yet the pressure to produce more is growing."
Darley said that meeting those needs "will require all our technical ingenuity across all forms of energy.
"Our challenge, then, is to identify and apply the technologies to deliver those volumes as efficiently as possible," he noted. "I have great confidence in our ability as an industry to do that, but it will require new approaches -- particularly in the area of integration."
Darley used the North Sea as an example of one province that has been impacted tremendously by technological advances.
"Time and again new technologies have given new life to producing fields and reservoirs," he said.
Specifically, the mid-'80s to mid-'90s brought the benefits of introducing 3-D seismic technology; during the second half of the '90s production further benefited from technologies such as multilateral and horizontal drilling as well as the development of time lapse seismic.
"The ability to integrate dramatic improvements in subsurface imaging capability with advances in well drilling and completion technology have provided breakthroughs in reservoir management over the past decade," Darley said.
Many accumulations that were too small or too remote to be economically viable are today coming on stream thanks to new advancements. For instance, the Penguins fields that were first discovered in the North Sea over 20 years ago are today being developed using the latest subsea tieback technology as well as "designer" horizontal and multilateral wells, he said.
"As we move forward into the 21st century, the challenges will become even more intense as we seek to develop the technologies needed to allow further growth in capabilities in these areas," he continued.
"The focus will be on those technologies which reduce development and operating costs, which increase ultimate recovery and extend or increase production levels and which will position the industry for the longer term."
Darley said the petroleum industry is capital intensive with perhaps 25 to 30 percent of major investment being drilling related and a significantly higher percentage of exploration programs related to drilling activity.
"As an industry we have seen steady reductions in well costs over the past few years," he said, "but with, in my view, significant opportunities ahead as we fully exploit the capabilities of expandable tubulars and mono-diameter wells."
Expandable tubular and mono- diameter technology is the latest in a long line of technologies that have radically changed the drilling process. The technology is based on a downhole metal forming process of wellbore tubulars that is based on cold working the steel within the plastic region of the stress strain curve.
Using expandable technology, the pipe diameter can be expanded by over 20 percent with very little impact on wall thickness. Some of the benefits include greatly reduced drilling, completion and production costs and considerably less environmental impact.
Last year Shell deployed the world's first mono-diameter well, with significant potential for cost savings in deepwater environments.
"Expandable technology is already changing the rules of the game," Darley said. "The industry uptake has been extremely rapid and will, in my view, see even further acceleration in the years ahead.
While advances in well technology provide one element of the improvement equation, complementary advances in subsurface imaging allow the greatest improvements to be made in the optimum development of the hydrocarbon resource.
"All explorers have great examples showing the breakthroughs in subsurface interpretation enabled by the latest solution algorithms and massive computer power, which allow increased confidence in exploration drilling and, perhaps as important, tremendous opportunities for improved reservoir management," Darley said.
He detailed how time-lapse subsurface imaging significantly improved plateau production in the Draugen Field in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea.
"The improved understanding of the Draugen Field performance provided the ability to manage the oil production plateau by careful adjustment of injection and production volumes, together with judicious placement of infill wells," he said.
Giving VOICE to the Situation
Darley also discussed a Shell-developed technology called VOICE, which brings together many of the improvements in imaging technology.
"Starting from the processed seismic data, random noise is removed by the application of structure oriented filtering," he explained. "This advanced seismic filtering technique is applied along the structural grain of the data in order to retain the structure but remove random noise."
Conventional filtering techniques are grid-based, or horizontal, and smear dipping data.
"The data quality is improved through a technique that segments units of similar seismic character and similar stratigraphy and color codes them," he said. "Such operations, if they were even possible on conventional systems, would take weeks if not months."
The VOICE tools can provide these results in a matter of hours, he said.
"Clearly, this makes better use of the interpreters' time and helps us to make better and faster decisions."
Nigeria's Bonga Field in Nigeria is a good example of how improvements in imaging technology have helped in field appraisal and development. Darley said interpretation of the Bonga Field used improved seismic imaging and interpretation capabilities originally used in the Gulf of Mexico.
When applied to Bonga, the technologies allowed the identification of significant "in field" opportunities in addition to the main reservoir, thus increasing the hydrocarbon reserves.
"Confidence in subsurface interpretation also plays to improved drilling performance as the reservoir sequences become well defined and understood, so that well engineers can plan and execute the well programs using the 'drilling the limit' technology."
New Approaches, Great People
Darley spoke of "smart well" and digital technology before coming to "the single most important aspect in our quest to meet the growing demand for hydrocarbons in the coming decades."
And that is ... ?
"The people who apply the technology and achieve the integration through their skills, initiative, energy and personality," he said. "Our industry will continue to need great people for many years to come.
"Yes, technology has made and will continue to make a real difference to the way we work and the successes we enjoy, but the real difference comes from our people and their special and individual contributions," he said.
"Our greatest challenge, both collectively as an industry and individually as professionals, is to attract, encourage, develop and challenge young people to help us continue to make a difference in the years ahead."