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A real-time vigil at Shell

Eric Kayne For the Chronicle: Matt Allen, an engineer, works at Shell’s real-time operations center this month in Houston. The center monitors data from wells around the clock.

Shore-based engineers for Shell monitor offshore rigs 24/7 from high-tech centers


Sept. 18, 2010, 8:18PM

In the months since the Deepwater Horizon accident, Eric van Oort has received inquiries from competitors, investigators and even BP about the network of high-tech centers Shell uses to keep watch over its offshore wells from land.

Shell may gather the same real-time well data other oil companies collect today, but its centers have drawn attention because the company staffs them with engineers who monitor the data around the clock for problems.

“A lot of oil companies use their real-time operating centers in a passive mode, collecting data, being able to do post-mortem analysis. We use them to interact with the rig in real time to keep it actively out of trouble,” said van Oort, performance improvement manager for wells at Shell Upstream Americas, during a tour of the company’s real-time operations center in west Houston.

While no one claims such centers could have prevented the deadly April 20 blowout at BP’s Macondo well, they are getting a closer look as oil companies face pressure by regulators and the public to ensure the safety of offshore drilling.

This summer, in fact, BP began building a 24-hour real-time operations center at its west Houston campus. Expected to be completed by year-end, it will continuously monitor all the company’s drilling and completions work in the Gulf of Mexico, company spokesman Daren Beaudo said. Others could follow suit.

Major oil companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips say they use real-time well data to keep tabs on offshore drilling projects, especially big and costly deep-water wells. The information, collected by sensors on drilling rigs and inside wells and beamed to land by satellite, allows shore-based engineers to assist during important drilling phases and intervene when problems arise.

The data also can be stored to create a black-box-like record of each offshore well. But few companies have dedicated staff to track the information as it comes in.

Investigators have relied heavily on real-time data from BP’s Macondo well in reconstructing the hours and minutes leading up to the blowout that killed 11 workers and triggered the worst oil spill ever in the U.S.

The British oil giant, in an internal investigation report this month, concluded that BP and Transocean crew members on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig misinterpreted clear warning signs about dangerous conditions in the well prior to the explosion and took steps to regain control of the well only after it was too late.
Macondo’s problems

Since the accident, Shell’s well-monitoring engineers have also looked at publicly available data on the Macondo well and noticed problems brewing in the two hours before the blowout, van Oort said. But he declined to speculate on how Shell might have responded differently.

Shell’s first real-time operations center was established in 2002 in New Orleans as a pilot program — and it grew out of a costly mistake.

The year before in the Gulf of Mexico, Shell drilled what van Oort called “our own well from hell,” paraphrasing a BP engineer’s characterization of the Macondo that surfaced in e-mails during the accident investigation. Shell’s project far surpassed its budget, then drillers found when they reached their target that faulting in the formation had allowed all the oil and natural gas to leak out.

“So, we said, ‘We don’t want to do that anymore. It’s just too painful,’?” van Oort said.
Two goals

The idea behind a dedicated center was twofold.

First, it was to do more well planning on the front end by fostering more collaboration among geologists, reservoir engineers, drillers and others who traditionally had done their work in isolation.

Next, it was to provide around-the-clock monitoring of well data – both to enhance safety and reduce costly errors.

Van Oort estimates Shell’s global network of real-time operation centers now saves the company more than $100 million a year in reduced lost time on wells and other benefits.
Houston center’s focus

In North America, Shell keeps tabs on Gulf of Mexico wells from its center in New Orleans. A center in Calgary, Alberta, watches unconventional gas projects in Canada, and the Houston center handles international wells. The company also has real-time centers in Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Africa and the Middle East.

Inside the Houston center, engineers sit at stations facing 12 stacked computer monitors, four for each of three wells they’re assigned to watch. At one terminal, screens are tracking dozens of streams of data from a key Shell project in Libya. Another terminal follows wells in Brazil and Nigeria, while others are tied to projects elsewhere.

Even small anomalies might prompt an instant message to a crew member on a drilling rig on the other side of the globe, said Luis Hartenstein, one of the engineers. A bigger problem could spur shore-based monitors to recommend shutting in the well, though they cannot operate rig controls remotely.
Big Brother?

Van Oort said some veteran rig personnel initially bristled at the idea of what they saw as Big-Brother-like oversight by the company, but they later came to understand the centers ultimately were keeping offshore crews out of trouble.

“Foremen are busy. Mud loggers on the rig are busy. They have tasks to do. They are not focused on keeping eyes on pit levels,” he said, referring to rig equipment that monitors well fluid levels for dangerous gas influxes. “That’s what we provide.”

Eric Smith, associate director of Tulane Energy Institute in New Orleans, said regulators could require the industry to monitor well data from shore more closely in the wake of the BP accident, and Shell’s centers may provide a template.

“When all of the evidence is in, I’m sure there are going to be people who say, ‘If somebody had been looking at the data at BP, they could have told these guys to stop.’?”

Eric Kayne For the Chronicle: Eric van Oort, performance improvement manager, says Shell uses the centers “to interact with the rig in real time to keep it actively out of trouble.”

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