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Operating in high-risk oil regions

Oilfield Technology,

Written by Jake Davies, Marketing Director, Permasense.

You’re an oil and gas operator working in a harsh, remote or politically unstable environments and you suspect there’s a problem with one of your assets. You have two options. Option one: you send personnel into a potentially dangerous situation. Option two: you don’t. Which do you choose? It’s not a trick question; there isn’t a catch.

It’s a decision faced by operators the world over every day, and if it seems like an obvious choice, it wasn’t always. In the past, manning assets either permanently or temporarily – high-risk region or not – was the only way to capture important data or carry out essential maintenance. If you picked option two, you might have to go without, to the potential detriment of the operation.

But that’s no longer always the case. In the age of the digital oilfield, remote monitoring solutions are making it possible to choose the second option without forgoing the essential data gathering that keeps assets safely in operation – in many cases adding significant business value too.

Risky business

Oil and gas is an inherently high-risk industry. But health and safety standards are continuously improving, with operators having unprecedented control of the operating environment. However, as companies turn to higher risk locales, there is little they can do to control the environment around them.

And these regions aren’t getting any safer. We’ve seen a sharp rise in piracy and militant attacks off the coast of Nigeria. In the first two months of 2016, there were 24 cases of “piracy and armed robbery at sea,” double the number of attacks in the closing two months of 2015. Normally stable Kazakhstan recently saw terrorist related shootings in Aktobe, which was also the site of the country’s first suicide bombing in 2011. That’s not even to mention the continued terrorist threat across much of the Middle East and North Africa, or the unabating piracy threat off the East Coast of Africa.

There are instances of good news, such as the recent truce between FARC and the Colombian government after 60 years of warfare, but overall, geopolitical risks to oil and gas operations don’t seem to be fading.

But it’s not just geopolitical risk that operators have to contend with. Today companies operate in regions where the environment itself poses significant challenges. Despite the threat of extreme cold or violent and unpredictable weather systems, new frontiers such as the remote Arctic or deep water Gulf of Mexico continue to tempt the bold and the adventurous.

Reducing risk

Putting people in the field always carries a certain level of risk. So one simple way to reduce this risk is to rely less on mobilising personnel and more on deploying technology to monitor assets remotely.

And some companies are already embracing this way of thinking. For example, BP’s Technology Outlook suggests that digital technologies have greater potential than any other to reduce risk, optimise production and contribute to more efficient operations. And according to a recent poll at the Data-Driven Production Conference in Houston, 87% of respondents intend to accelerate their use of Remote Operation Centres.

Asset integrity is one area where the digital oilfield is becoming a reality. For example, permanently-mounted sensors attached to strategic points in the infrastructure can take continuous, robust measurements of equipment wall thickness to monitor for the effects of corrosion or erosion. Then – using wireless technology – they send the gathered data for analysis at a central, safe or convenient location, onshore or offshore.

There is no need for guess work. At any given time, operators can gain immediate insight into exactly how their assets are coping with the demands placed upon them by ever-changing operating conditions – all from the comfort of their desks.

Data quality is exceptional, since sensors are permanently installed and the frequency of measurement allows operators to see the changes occurring in real-time. Suddenly operators can see – form afar – how infrastructure responds to all the unpredictable variables at work within the upstream environment.

But that’s not all. Once installed, sensors are virtually maintenance free, with battery lives of up to nine years. Using either existing IT infrastructure or dedicated satellite connections, they continually feed data back to a remote operating centre. This means fewer teams deployed to high risk regions, so those people stay safer.

Less risk, better business

For specific remote solutions, such as asset integrity monitoring systems, there are accumulative positive effects. Data is highly accurate, continuous and transmitted in real-time – providing huge volumes of information, which supports equally continuous, real-time operational decision making, as well as predictive capabilities for when to anticipate a problem in advance.

These kind of tools lead to improved asset uptime and increased profitability. In a low oil price environment, high-quality solutions make a tangible difference to operator margins.

The precipitous fall in oil prices has turned the spotlight on technologies that can help lower costs, reduce capital expenditure and improve operational efficiency. And in addition to the human benefits, reduced risk can – sometimes – go hand in hand with reduced cost.

Instead of sending highly skilled teams into high-risk regions, those resources can prioritise data analysis over data capture – all from the comfort of their desk. Better utilisation of the workforce is another powerful ‘side effect’ of taking steps to reduce risk through remote monitoring solutions.

There are obvious immediate savings from reducing or eliminating site visits: helicopter and transport charter, security costs, overtime pay. There are some less obvious benefits too, such as reduced strain on highly sought after offshore bed space. Risk is also priced into many business costs such as insurance, which could possibly be lowered if you could demonstrate concrete steps to reduce exposure to risk.

Hard choices for long-term survival?

The natural assumption is that an age of low oil prices and higher risk territories will be one of hard decisions. However, the sector has a long tradition of embracing innovation in times of crisis to stay safe, stay relevant and stay commercial – and ‘option two’ is getting easier all the time. By changing working practices and adopting smart technology, the people-related risk that operators face in these regions can be greatly reduced. Ultimately, the enhanced quality of data delivered by continuous integrity monitoring systems leads to better use of resources and better operational decision making. This means safer people and a safer business, set for long term survival.

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