Robust deepwater programs intertwined with increased process safety initiatives, competency assurance programs
By Joanne Liou, associate editor
Martin Vos is vice president, deepwater wells, at Shell.
Shell leadership has been vocal within the industry about improving process safety, particularly within the drilling space. How is Shell working with its drilling contractors to ensure process safety improvements?
Regarding process safety in wells and homing in on well control, there are a lot of areas where we are making progress and improvements. It means continually upgrading our technical standards and procedures to tackle new challenges, having competent staff and contractors on our rigs, having original equipment manufacturer (OEMs) certifications, applying our safety case regimes and managing major hazards. We design our wells to have two tested barriers and are working on human behaviors and our safety culture – all areas that are being worked together with our contractors.
We have improvement plans and engage frequently with our suppliers and our contractors to make sure these improvements are made and embedded. Furthermore, in 2012 we created more transparency around process safety and introduced a tool, eWCAT, the electronic Well Control Assurance tool, for our deepwater rigs globally. This is a web-based software tool that captures equipment certification for well control equipment, people certification, BOP tests and barrier status for our deepwater operations globally. It’s a tool whereby you can see and measure what the process safety status, e.g. well control assurance status, is on a deepwater rig. We also are in the process of implementing this approach into our onshore operations.
A huge amount of work goes into capturing all the certificates on equipment, personnel – whether they have Round I, Round II or IWCF training – and the barrier status. All these things need to be captured on the well site. Transparency drives compliance, and this is how we can see the process safety status or well control assurance status of all deepwater rigs globally.
Before this, the rig teams themselves had the responsibility to monitor and ensure that these things were in place, but now there’s more transparency. Drilling superintendents, drilling managers, myself and other leaders within Shell and the drilling contractors have access to the tool. Drilling contractors play a big role in loading the tool, and we are working together to make sure we are compliant.
How are you recording process safety incidents or improvements?
The Wells group started recording process safety incidents at various levels, like we do in personal safety, at the end of 2011. Similar to personal safety incidents, we record process safety incidents and review them with the relevant people, which may include people outside Wells, such as subsurface staff, depending on the type of process safety incident.
For an incident involving a kick, for example, we would review that with our subsurface engineers, learn from it and try to prevent these types of incidents from happening. There may be a serious incident, such as a kick, and you also have small incidents, such as a gas sensor not working or a mud calibration not being done correctly. These are all incidents that happen in the process safety space, and if you report them, you will learn from them.
Starting with this approach, we have and will continue to improve process safety awareness, process safety culture and understanding what process safety is at all levels.
How has leadership taken a role in developing process safety culture?
We’ve been improving and monitoring people, equipment, standards and systems. Similar to how we’ve made a journey with personal safety in the last years, we can improve our process safety. For example, all of our Wells staff has completed a process safety module and online training course to understand process safety and the associated terminologies.
By putting process safety on the agenda and on the daily HSE meetings, we are raising awareness and getting staff to talk about process safety. In addition, in 2012, we developed a campaign called “Think Process Safety,” which we plan to roll out to the entire Wells organization in early 2013. This campaign raises awareness of what process safety entails and how the worker in the field can improve process safety performance through their own actions.
Besides process safety, what do you see as some of the most critical issues in deepwater from your current position at Shell?
The biggest challenge for deepwater activities is rooted in growth. In early 2013, we will have seven deepwater floater and four deepwater platform rigs in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), two deepwater floater rigs in Brazil and one in French Guiana – a total of 10 floater rigs in the Americas. Globally, we will have 14 deepwater floater rigs at the beginning of 2013. With this strong growth, the technical and operational integrity going forward will be absolutely critical. To ensure that integrity, we need robust processes, equipment and standards, but, most importantly, we need competent people to deliver that. It applies to all operators, contractors and service companies.
How are you managing the strong growth in your deepwater operations?
We’re set up globally as a deepwater organization. We run our operations from the Center of Excellence in the US. We have expertise in Houston and hubs in New Orleans, La., Stavanger, and Kuala Lumpur. This central support and our global standards help us to leverage our expertise from Houston whenever we need it, and it helps us deploy our capability globally where we need it. There are also technical and other challenges, but with our growth in the number of people and with the development of our people and having a global organization, we are able to support our growth plans.
We’ve concentrated on how fast and how much we can grow, at a pace that we think is safe and manageable to sustain. We look at how many rigs and capability we have now and what kind of capability we need to match our growth plans, and we make sure we grow our activities at a pace that matches our capability growth.
You mentioned that there has been significant growth in the number of your employees. How are you ensuring the competency of your crews with this influx of new people into your organization and the overall industry?
In recent years we have been able to grow our deepwater staff quite substantially. At Shell we have competency development programs and high standards for these competency exams and accreditations. Every member in Shell’s Wells group will have to pass our Round I and Round II exams. In fact, up to 20% of people who take the exams don’t pass in their first attempt. Failing twice means they will not be allowed to work in Wells engineering at Shell. We have strict competency requirements and have had for a long time in Wells.
What assessment do you have to ensure that over time the competency is still there?
When new recruits join Shell, they join our training program. They will do a Round I competency exam. After passing the exam, they go into the next level in the program, and approximately after two to three more years, they do a Round II competency exam. These are competency accreditations that can also be used to get a master’s degree at Robert Gordon University in Scotland and soon, also, the University of Houston.
Besides this training and these competency exams, depending on what position you are in, such as an offshore operations supervisor, you also have to have a well control certification with competency exams every two years. We also have mandatory advanced well control training and other more specialized training programs to develop our Wells staff.
The delivery of this competency program is being improved upon. For example, new staff that go through this training program receive an iPad and have access to all the standards, the documents, the manuals but also the training material. Rather than sending them 12 binders of books, we give them an iPad with all the materials.
How are you attracting people and retaining them in your program?
If somebody wants to get a master’s degree, they can use the Round II training, combined with a special project at work to earn a master’s degree while working. It’s an attraction to staff. Beyond that opportunity, the training and the professionalism that we offer is a big attraction to staff. Working in a high-tech environment with a growing portfolio of projects is a big attraction for people.
How do the challenges you’re facing in deepwater compare with industry-wide challenges?
The challenges in deepwater are similar for all operators. To go deeper and deeper and set record after record, the challenge now is in the area of high pressures, high temperatures (HPHT) and, for example, sour fluids. We have more and more challenging environments coming from HPHT and sour fluids, both in exploration and development wells.
How is Shell mitigating those deepwater challenges?
We have a technology program and an R&D program that help us address these challenges. Delivering robust and tested technology solutions for these more challenging environments, that is what is really important for us. Our R&D and technology programs are geared to deliver these programs, and we need to work with industry partners, integrated service companies, drilling contractors, technology providers and regulators to deliver these challenging projects.
How does Shell balance the need for operational integrity within Shell against the need to manage costs, particularly in deepwater?
Technical and operational integrity are fundamental to our deepwater operations, similar to personal safety, where a safe operation is a boundary condition to a high-performing operation. For our wells and our developments, we need technical and operational integrity in line with our standards as a starting point. This is a boundary condition, and there is opportunity to manage costs through the application of novel technologies, doing things smarter and taking out wasteful practices.
In what areas do you expect to see significant capital investment?
On a global scale, I expect continued investment both in deepwater well construction, where a low number of wells are drilled with high well costs, and in unconventional land well construction, where a high number of wells are drilled with low well costs.
In deepwater, for example, I see investment in high-specification rig contracts, with capacity to run heavier and longer casing strings to deliver the challenging well designs, as well as offer robust well control equipment. In equipment and services for our deepwater wells, there will be investments for the high-end technology solutions and, for example, subsea equipment for 400°F wells and for subsea trees.
In other areas, perhaps where deepwater well designs are not as challenging, capital investment will go toward highly efficient, fit-for-purpose rigs with a small environmental footprint and highly automated rigs. I also see investment in multiservice vessels to do operations like riserless interventions, top-hole drilling, and plug and abandonment activity. These vessels will be smaller and more efficient, suitable for these types of operations.
Are the drilling rigs on the market today meeting your needs? In what areas are improvements needed?
Some of these vessels do meet our needs, but we’re also looking into our own specifications for multipurpose vessels for plug and abandonments, riserless operations and interventions on wells. We can do a lot of these activities with smaller vessels. These vessels exist, but I see us doing more with smaller, smarter vessels.
Will these smaller vessels play a bigger role in deepwater operations?
Yes, because the high-capability rigs drill deep, challenging wells, but drilling a top hole, for example, or installing a Christmas tree or doing an intervention on a well, are types of operations that can be done with smaller units than drillships. Doing more operations with these smaller vessels and using a fit-for-purpose vessel makes sense.
In June 2012, Shell expanded its Gulf of Mexico portfolio during the US BOEM Lease Sale 216/222. What kind of expectations or activity does Shell foresee in the Gulf of Mexico? What other regions is Shell looking to expand in?
Shell will have an active drilling portfolio in the GOM, with seven deepwater floating drilling units and four active deepwater platform rigs in early 2013, and we’re planning to grow this with about one unit per year until 2016. Besides an active exploration program in the GOM, we currently have a total of five major development projects either in the front-end stage or under construction in the GOM.
As far as global activity, we have exploration activity in areas such as French Guiana, Nova Scotia, Greenland, Colombia, Australia and West Africa, and development projects in areas such as Brazil, Norway, Nigeria, Australia and the Philippines.
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 technological innovation at Shell is in rig building and automation. In 2012, we started three deepwater rigs: the Bully 1, the Globetrotter 1 and the Bully 2, which make use of novel technology. While a traditional rig has a derrick, these rigs have a multipurpose tower, where the tower is in the middle and drill pipe is stored in two carousels, one on each side.
The other two sides are used to make up assemblies and run stands of drill pipe. There is not a derrick so you have open space on the rig. It’s a game-changer because since the late 1800s we have been using derricks.
The multipurpose tower allows for automation because you can automate and make up the pipe on one side and move it to the other side and run it, while you make up the next string on the first side with a push of a button. There’s innovation in this rig, such as pipe handling with magnets, and it is all integrated technologies. It’s much less manual and much more automated. By being integrated, the whole environmental footprint of this concept and the size of the ship are smaller.
There is a safety advantage because, with more automation, you have fewer people on the floor, and you don’t have anybody high up in the derrick. This is a new way of organizing operations on the rig.
Do you foresee this multipurpose tower design becoming more prevalent in the future rigs that Shell will add to its portfolio?
We have three in operation now and a fourth one being built. At this stage, we’ll learn from this concept and learn to work with it. The first signs are encouraging of what we can do, and I see this concept as a strong addition, a new way of organizing rig equipment and build drillships.
How would you describe the progress in automation within your drilling operations?
Automation has really taken off in the last years, and the possibilities are limitless. We can automate tripping pipe, but we can also automate things like BOP testing. We can automate the steering of the drilling BHA and even from the office we can steer the drilling assembly. There is a huge potential for automated operations.
Are you making use of remote operations centers to manage your drilling/completion operations?
About a decade ago, we started the real-time operating center (RTOC) in the US, and all of our deepwater operations are linked to a center. We can globally support our deepwater operations from an RTOC, whether it is in Houston, New Orleans or a hub we have around the world. RTOCs support the operations in real time but also in the front-end planning stage as these RTOCs are used as collaboration centers where our engineers come together and do front-end planning using data from previous wells to help design the next well. RTOC is a big piece in managing our deepwater operations globally, as well.