'E-field' concept spawns industry discussions, joint ventures

Technology is the middle name and main aim of the annual 4-day Offshore Technology Conference that opens May 1 in Houston. This year's OTC will be memorable for the first industry-wide discussion of the electronic oil and gas field�or e-field�of the future, said Wolfgang Schollnberger, technology vice-president of BP Amoco PLC and OTC chairman.


Sam Fletcher
OGJ Online

HOUSTON�Technology is the middle name and main aim of the annual 4-day Offshore Technology Conference that opens May 1 in Houston. This year's OTC will be memorable for the first industry-wide discussion of the electronic oil and gas field�or "e-field"�of the future, said Wolfgang Schollnberger, technology vice-president of BP Amoco PLC and OTC chairman.

"In the future, when this technology is commonplace, you'll remember that the concept materialized for the first time here at OTC," he said.

The e-field concept is a marriage of the industry's need to eliminate some of the cyclical ups-and-downs of the oil and gas market and the technology being developed for better planning, monitoring, and exploitation of future fields. Most of the technology developed by the industry in recent years has been geared toward exploration drilling. But the next wave of new technology will concentrate on accelerating development and increasing production at lower costs, said other industry officials.

Downhole equipment surge
That includes "smart well" downhole equipment now being developed to keep wells operating at peak efficiency, especially in deep waters, where maintenance and workovers are so expensive. Schollnberger and others in the industry now foresee a day when those downhole monitors will be connected to e-commerce market equipment to adjust oil and gas production to changes in market supplies and demand.

Last month, Shell International Exploration & Production BV and Halliburton Co. formed WellDynamics, a 50-50 joint venture to develop and market the two companies' intelligent-well and completions technologies. Officials of the two companies claim that evolving downhole technology represents "a breakthrough akin to 3D seismic and horizontal drilling," in terms of its significance in the industry.

New technology, partnerships, projects
"Technology provided the impact that carried us from operational limits in 300 ft of water 25 years ago to more than 7,000 ft today, and it will continue to play a major role. But technology has impacted various segments of the industry differently," said Larry R. Dickerson, chairman and CEO of Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc., Houston.

Shell formed another JV, Shell Technology Investments Partnership CV, last month with The Beacon Group LP, a leading private equity investor. That venture will invest in new businesses that market oil and gas industry technologies, products, or services developed or acquired by the two partners. Its first product, the Twister, is to be exhibited at OTC this week.

Twister is a deceptively simple tool with no moving parts that extracts liquids from natural gas at savings up to 40% over conventional methods. The metal tube operates on the Bernoulli principle, using baffles to accelerate the gas flow to supersonic speeds and spin it in a cyclonic fashion to separate liquids from the gas.

The idea was adapted from a wind tunnel used to test aircraft designs, said Kees Tjeenk Willink, part of the Twister venture team. The device is designed to be attached to a wellhead at the surface. But Shell officials are already considering a smaller version that someday can be inserted downhole.

This conference also marks the first showing of Alstom Schilling Robotics' new electric work-class Quest remote controlled underwater vehicle (ROV), said industry officials. "They've only shown parts of it before," said Bill Tink, vice-president of sales and marketing at Canyon Offshore Inc., Houston. Canyon Offshore�described by an industry insider as "the new upstart company" among ROV contractors�has ordered the first 10 of those new vehicles, to be delivered on a staggered schedule over the next 3 years with the first due in July.

With its unique electric propulsion system, the Quest is smaller and lighter than traditional hydraulic work-class ROVs, say company officials. They claim its design improvements significantly reduce operating costs.

Although electric, the Quest uses fewer wire connections than conventional ROVs, said industry experts. It also uses a captive mouse�a ball-and-cursor system�in place of the usual joystick control, and a 72-in. viewing screen to enhance the operator's "situational awareness" and reduce fatigue. "A lot of ergonomic study went into its design," Tink said.

Although he's excited about the Quest and another autonomous ROV that operates without the usual control tethers, used by C&C Technologies Inc. of Lafayette, La., Drew L. Michel, vice-president of deepwater technology at Global Industries Ltd., sees "no show-stopper" new ROV technology out to 10,000 ft. Since "ROV systems will always weigh too much and take up too much deck space" with cable and control centers, Michel said, "the trend is toward smaller vehicles."

Another technology that many cite as likely to have major effects on the petroleum industry is the internet. About 40% of the 200 new vendors exhibiting at OTC for the first time this year are e-commerce-related firms, officials reported.

"Internet technology will impact the industry because of machines with [computer] chips that 'talk back' and feed information to remote locations," said Joel V. Staff, president and CEO of National Oilwell Inc., Houston.

Cyclical nature discourages new technology
The cyclical nature of the energy industry makes it hard for companies to invest in the latest technology, says Michel. The problem is further complicated by the question, "How soon will the latest technology become obsolete," he added.

In building the new offshore rigs of the future, "new designs will have to be well thought-out and the latest technology incorporated," said Donald T. (Boysie) Bollinger, chairman and CEO of Bollinger Shipyards Inc.

Meanwhile, the industry will keep using technology "to reduce the physical labor required," Staff said.

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