Chronic people shortage means industry must harness value of technology advances to deliver better wells
By Linda Hsieh, managing editor
Zuhair Al-Hussain is vice president of Saudi Aramco’s Drilling and Workover group.
From your position at Saudi Aramco, what do you see as some of the most critical challenges confronting your operations today?
Number one is HR issues, which includes replacing aging field personnel, knowledge transfer to the next generation and localization of the drilling industry. Second is HSE. There are limited academic venues for getting an HSE educational foundation, not just in the Middle East but globally. We also need to provide more hands-on field experience for HSE officers on the rigs.
Third is technology. We need to transform current field personnel into a technology-savvy work force and need more rig automation to mitigate chronic HR shortages and improve drilling and safety performance. Harnessing the value of real-time data transmission and deepwater drilling pose challenges as well.
All of these issues are not independent to Saudi Aramco; they are industrywide except perhaps localization of the drilling industry. Currently the world produces about 86 million bbl/day. Of that 86 million bbl, only 21 million, or 24%, comes from Middle East North Africa (MENA) countries while the remainder comes from the rest of the world. At the same time, there is about 1,355 billion bbl of oil reserves in the world, of which about 758 billion, or 56%, is held by MENA. Eventually that 24% production percentage will swing, and, when it does, we have to be ready with competent, trained professionals here in Saudi.
How does today’s well complexity, whether with multilateral drilling, geosteering, extended-reach wells or intelligent monitoring of wells, affect the way you manage your wells?
Saudi Aramco is utilizing all of this technology both onshore and offshore on oil and gas wells alike. It has greatly enhanced our ability to reach reserves that were unreachable before, as well as more efficiently drill existing fields and sidetrack old wells more successfully. We are able to look at a new development project knowing that we will be using the latest drilling technology to develop this field as efficiently as possible, going farther and hitting tighter targets than ever before.
How are real-world technical limitations holding back the goals you have for your drilling programs?
Of course we all want to be able to drill farther horizontally and deeper without the concern of torque and drag and motor failure limitations, but at the same time we realize that we have to learn how to walk before we can run. The industry is progressing at a very rapid pace so it’s only a matter of time before these objectives are realized.
Gap areas are in high-pressure/high-temperature (HPHT) with extended-reach drilling and in HPHT with slim tools, as well as in lost circulation.
How are you supporting technology development/innovation in your organization against the need to cut costs and manage risk?
Each new technology, if selected by our engineering specialists, is evaluated separately, then judged on its own merit. Not all new technologies are trial-tested; however, if a new technology makes sense, we are willing to share the risk associated in testing it and evaluate it based on its actual performance. In doing so, Saudi Aramco has been at the leading edge of many technological advances when others might be too risk-averse in some situations.
What are your concerns with the reliability of today’s equipment?
At Saudi Aramco, all the equipment we use has to conform to strict API and industry standards. For example, we require all our drilling contractors to have API blowout preventers with all OEM parts, never any substitutes. In addition, before any new equipment is introduced into our system, rigorous independent-party inspections have to be satisfied.
Does true drilling automation fit into your vision of the future of drilling?
Absolutely. Today there are rigs being operated by drillers and assistant drillers only. No rig floor operators or derrick men. Nowadays, we have more than one computerized system to control drilling parameters and optimize ROP and avoid drill pipe sticking. Horizontal wells are being monitored and geosteered remotely. Geological models are being updated on a real-time basis while drilling, so well placement optimization is taking place on real time, too.
Drilling rig automation will improve performance, safety and reduce manpower.
How many real-time operations centers does Saudi Aramco have now? What value are they adding to your drilling operations?
Presently there are two real-time operations centers (RTOCs) operated by Saudi Aramco – the GOC (Geosteering Operations Center) and the D&WO RTOC (Drilling & Workover Real Time Operations Center). The GOC focuses on landing directional and horizontal wells as planned. The GOC team communicates with the rig site and directional service companies to geosteer through the reservoir, modifying the geological model as required.
Value adds are providing an effective real-time collaboration space for better and faster decision-making and placing the horizontal section in the best part of the reservoir using the geosteering workflows.
The RTOC objectives are focused on drilling trouble avoidance and performance enhancement for critical well sections. The drilling specialists use a number of complex applications running simultaneously in real time to generate simulations based on engineering modeling analysis and offset correlations, providing faster and better decision-making.
There are also three other RTOCs operated by directional service providers where the focus is on directional tool performance, MWD/LWD log quality and the directional plan delivery.
Going back to 2008 when we spoke with you for this same feature in DC, you mentioned five items as being of top importance. Let’s see how far we have come on these issues now that it’s 2012. First, you cited the ability to de-complete the complex multilateral completions without extended fishing operations.
The concern is still valid, and the answer is “slight change” for the existing market available technologies. However, introducing breakthrough technologies such as the WetConnect and more of wireless downhole tools will eliminate the use of cables and hydraulic lines and consequently reduce greatly fishing operations and risk.
Second is the ability for reliable well intervention for the multilateral, extended-reach, maximum reservoir contact (MRC) wells.
The concern is still valid, and the answer is also “slight change” for the existing market available technologies. However, introducing completions with permanent downhole valves with no inside-wellbore cables allows complementing infinite laterals in multilateral wells with smart equipment. Utilization of tractors and vibrators on coil tubing along with advanced deflector tools would help in intervening extended-reach and MRC wells.
However, chances of success are still slim. Introduction of active coil is a new era in intervening wells where the electric/electronic cable transmit required data effectively and reliably.
Third is the ability to remove drilling cuttings from highly inclined and horizontal wells to facilitate running tubulars, completion equipment and whipstocks.
This concern is greatly mitigated by introducing technologies that drive tubulars and completion equipment, such as SwivelMasters, Turbocaser, sacrificial motors, chemical as lubricant, etc. Such and other technologies still require further assessment. However, initial analysis is promising. This concern is not only mitigated by introducing made-for-purpose technologies but also by modifying drilling practices and introducing better fluids into the equation, as well as preparing the hole properly.
Fourth is shortage of competent and experienced rig crews, drilling engineers and service company personnel.
As mentioned earlier, this continues to be an industry concern, not just Saudi Aramco’s concern.
Fifth is severe lost circulation across fractured and vulgar formations contributing to rig lost time, high mud costs and well control problems.
This concern is still valid, and the answer is “slight change.” However, advances in non-conventional lost-circulation material, drilling with casing and drilling underbalanced or balanced would greatly help mitigate this concern. The main issue with such a concern is the well control issues, which could be catastrophic if a loss were to induce kicks in highly pressured reservoirs. Competency of hands handling such operations must be maintained at the highest level at all times.
Other than these five issues, what are some new problems you’re encountering when drilling or completing your wells or in well intervention?
As stated before, a shortage of competent trained manpower continues to be a source of concern to us, and I am sure many other operators around the world. Whether it is among the drilling crews or service company crews, both in the field and in the shops performing tool maintenance and quality control, it all results in lost time that could and should be avoided if these people were properly trained.
Have there been any drilling/completion technological innovations that you’ve come across in the last year that you think of as a true step-change?
One technology that we are currently testing and seems to be very promising is the Turbocaser Express. This tool is an expandable turbine that can be connected to the bottom of the completion with a reaming shoe.
The benefit is that you will guarantee the deployment of the completion at all times, even in areas where wellbore stability issues are a concern. This is even more relevant these days when well geometry and completion jewelry is getting more complex, i.e., multi-stage frac completions.
Shale and tight-gas frac technology is definitely a game changer.
Are the drilling rigs on the market meeting your needs and where would you like to see improvements?
Today, for the most part, they are meeting our demands, with the exception of quite a bit of loss time both due to rig maintenance issues along with inexperienced rig personnel. We are looking at new-generation rigs with smaller footprints that are more automated and fast movers.
Do you anticipate Saudi Aramco needing significantly more rigs in the near future?
Soon we will start exploring in deepwater. We are looking at the unconventional gas plays in the Kingdom.
Has the Macondo incident had any impact on the way you conduct your drilling operations?
Not really. We at Saudi Aramco embarked on a very rigorous system of well control policies and procedures about 12 years ago. More recently, just prior to Macondo, we recognized that we had some problems in personnel well control competencies, which we have cleared up by implementing a very thorough well control competency test. This is in addition to our rig supervisors having to possess a valid IADC WellCAP well control certificate.
We are adjusting our requirements for well control certification to be competency based, and I urge our industry to follow suit.
Has Saudi Aramco taken a new look at your well control policies and procedures since Macondo?
No. However, we are working with BOP manufacturers and technology developers on a new concept for BOP equipment addressing reliability and high H2S environments.
In conclusion, Saudi Aramco is very optimistic of the future and in our ability to overcome the issues and challenges and meet the requirements of oil supplies. This optimism is based in part on our sizable resource base, investment in human resources and technologies, best-in-class operating practices, and our deep commitment to environmental protection.