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Houston Chronicle: Watching from afar

July 7, 2007, 12:42AM
ENERGY

Oil majors are increasingly investing in monitoring stations onshore to track and direct activity at distant offshore wells

By KRISTEN HAYS
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

At tens of millions of dollars a pop, wells drilled in the ocean’s unforgiving deep waters are an investment oil companies consider worth watching around the clock.

And watch they do.

Increasingly risky exploration in recent years has prompted companies to create “real-time operation centers” that are to remote operations what Mission Control is to space exploration.

Finding oil and gas in such harsh environments “really is like exploring in outer space,” said Dean Malouta, technology manager at Royal Dutch Shell’s real-time operations center — or RTOC — in Houston.

In years past, problematic wells or equipment failures on platforms and rigs sometimes forced operations to shut down or slow down to await a troubleshooting team’s arrival.

Such idle time is costly. On average, it costs $1 million a day to operate a deep-water well, including expenses for the drilling rig, materials, services and logistics. If work is shut down, companies still pay.

“We like not to have that happen as much as possible,” Malouta said.

Now professionals onshore can see all the data they need about offshore operations, increasing the speed of intervention to avert a blowout, an underwater mudslide or other problems that can halt operations and waste millions of dollars. Monitoring allows onshore engineers and technicians to skip the travel and diagnose and fix problems as they occur.

“We’re building a spider web all over the world,” said Eric Van Oort, planning and business improvement manager at Shell’s real-time center in Houston. “From this center, we monitor global floating drilling operations.”

Engineers and technicians watch data in small rooms packed with flat-screen computer monitors and humming machinery. Some screens display elaborate charts and lists, while others show real-time video of well activity — all transmitted by sensors and cameras at the well site.

So much warm machinery prompts frosty air conditioning, which also helps staffers stay alert, Van Oort said.

If monitors show the pressure of fluids in pores of a reservoir off the coast of Nigeria is too high to drill, engineers in the monitoring center can get a pressure expert in Houston out of bed to help troubleshoot the problem in hours rather than days, Van Oort said.

“That’s the reaction time you have,” he said.

Industry movement

Other companies have monitoring operations too.

Darrell Hollek, vice president of Gulf of Mexico operations and development for Anadarko Petroleum Corp., said Anadarko monitors offshore operations from its Houston office. The onshore professionals don’t control offshore action, but use information from monitoring to spot trends and analyze well conditions and activity, he said.

BP’s complex near Shell’s real-time center in west Houston has control rooms for each of its Gulf platforms that mirror those on the platforms themselves.

All the same information about pressure in wells and water in the pontoons that keeps the platform level and other operations shows up on computer screens in both places in real time.

Engineers and technicians in platform control rooms even see their onshore colleagues in what looks like a 24/7 videoconference — and vice versa.

“They need a glass of water, we can hand it to them,” BP engineer Pete LaCroix joked in the control room for Thunder Horse, the company’s 250,000-barrel-a-day Gulf platform slated to begin producing next year after repeated startup delays.

“We see what they see,” he said.

Shell has real-time centers in Houston; New Orleans; Aberdeen, Scotland; and Miri, Malaysia. All operate around the clock, though they focus on regional operations.

And they do more than monitor. Geologists, reservoir engineers, petroleum physicists, production technicians and others with roles in determining how and where to drill throughout the planning process are connected by the same technology.

That lets the company shrink the time between discovery and production, Van Oort said.

“We help with upfront planning and work upfront on models for drilling,” he said.

Hurricanes prompt Plan B

Shell, with contractor Halliburton, put its first real-time operations center in New Orleans in 2002.

When Hurricane Katrina swamped the city in 2005, the center emerged without damage, but was rendered useless without power. In addition, staff displaced by the storm sought refuge in Houston for five months.

During that span, Shell’s west Houston facility had some capability to monitor offshore operations, but with nowhere near the detail afforded by the technology at the downed center.

The company has since fully outfitted the second center in Houston, so each center can cover for the other if a hurricane hits.

“We decided if you do business in the Gulf of Mexico, you need this redundancy in centers,” Van Oort said.

While the RTOCs connect onshore and offshore workers worldwide, those sitting in front of computer screens onshore can’t shut out the lights or otherwise control remote operations, he said.

The same goes for BP.

“We don’t take any actions here. We just monitor,” LaCroix said. “They could set it up so you could, but that would be a last resort.”

Van Oort said Shell’s technology can be expanded to add that capability, particularly given an increasing shortage of supervising professionals. The shortage stems from an industrywide phenomenon of too many upcoming retirements without enough up-and-coming replacements.

“We’re thinking of taking people from the rig and doing some things remotely,” Van Oort said. “This allows us to leverage people.”

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http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/business/4949561.html

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