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Hot prospects

Hot prospects

02/04/2010 | Channel: Technology

David Bleackley of Aspentech explains that through technology and talent operators can continue to be successful in the North Sea oil and gas sector

The oil and gas industry is critical to the UK economy and currently provides some 350,000 jobs. Now demand for human resources is set to grow further with the recent announcement of a record-breaking number of exploration licenses in the North Sea. This demand will be particularly intense in the four counties of Aberdeenshire in Scotland, which already account for some 39 per cent of the total employment in the UK oil and gas industry. With estimates suggesting there are still around 20 billion barrels of oil equivalent to be produced from the region’s fields, this opens up the opportunity for further development of the UK continental shelf.

Tackling skills shortages
Bridging the skills gap will be vital if the industry is to recruit the talent required to fully develop the new oilfields. Success in this endeavour will also require strong partnerships, specialist engineers and traditional skills development through the UK’s universities and schools.

While the oil and gas sector should not be considered to be in crisis, a serious situation could arise if insufficient action is taken to develop the next generation of skilled workers. This, in turn, means not only that recruitment will need to be intensified but that the underlying capacity to train will have to be expanded. One key initiative here is the ‘Upstream Technician Training Scheme’. This is a collective approach by the industry aimed at training and developing the next generation of process and maintenance technicians for onshore and offshore roles. This scheme has trained about 100 new technicians every year since 2002.

Keeping assets safe and sound
Skills development will be key too if offshore oil and gas operators are to come to terms with the growing problem of their maturing - and in some cases - decaying assets, which raise serious concerns about integrity and safety. Asset safety is brought into further question by high staff turnover, leading to a loss of knowledge about the way the asset works. Skill shortages throughout the industry inevitably lead to greater use of third party contractors who are unlikely to have the same level of familiarity and understanding as the original workers.

This is one reason why deploying process optimisation and decision support technology can be so important in allowing automation of the more mundane tasks and in enabling vital engineering skills to be deployed where they can be used most effectively.

Sophisticated software suites can play a key role in assisting those new to the sector to assimilate from their highly experienced, retiring colleagues the knowledge required to work on the aging North Sea assets, and in providing sustainable engineering best practice to those actually working in Aberdeen and those aspiring to do so. In this way, technology is effectively being used to help engineers to deploy their honed skills in areas where they are needed most such as informed decision-making, for example.

Software technology providers need to ensure that these applications are intuitive to learn, use and align to industry work practices, so that they can deliver benefit to the widest possible community within a business and not just be the focal point for experts.

Environmental protection
Overcoming the skills gap will also be key if the industry is to ensure it has the right talent in place to perfect critical environmental solutions such as carbon capture and storage in the North Sea.

The oil and gas industry survives today as a carbon-intensive economic sector. Global demand for carbon-based fuels exceeds supply but, at the same time, environmental regulation is growing. Going forward, the sector faces the major challenge of maintaining supplies while either reducing emissions or finding a means of managing them more effectively.

Following the hype around the United Nations conference held in December 2009 in Copenhagen and the intensified efforts of European and UK policymakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, carbon capture and storage (CCS) has gained increasing prominence as a key discussion point.

CCS technologies enable the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels to be separated and transported at given pressures to geological formations for injections and storage. In the UK, CO2 emissions from large sources account for about 250 metric tonnes per year with the power sector contributing around 115 mt/yr from just 20 sites. So, the scope for making significant inroads with a few projects is clear and initiatives are underway to investigate the implementation of CCS in North Sea oilfields. The capacity to place between 4600 and 46,000 million tonnes of CO2 in the North Sea is increasingly a key topic of discussion in industry circles.

CCS has shown great potential in addressing the greenhouse emissions reduction challenge and there are a number of companies exploring this currently. However, one of the key challenges in CCS is carbon capture. Pilot studies – some of which are using AspenTech process modeling solutions to realise a viable and cost effective method of capturing the carbon in the shortest amount time – are in their early stages.

It will take time and skilled resources to demonstrate the commercial viability of meeting the carbon capture challenge. Current estimates indicate that 10,000 jobs will be created in Scotland alone to support this initiative but again, this will be drawing on an already strained skills pool. This, together with the fact that the long-term effects of storing large amounts of CO2 underground are unknown, will mean that widespread adoption anywhere in the world is unlikely in the near future.

PSN was involved in designing what was believed to be the first fully integrated project for carbon capture and storage, which would enable CO2 to be pumped out to a North Sea offshore platform for storage in a reservoir 10,000 feet below the surface. The design was to capture the CO2 from a power station through a reformed upstream combustion channel then take it out to the platform and storage.

The project included what were believed to be a number of firsts. These are thought to include the first time that a large quantity of carbon could be stored in an underground reservoir; the first time that a previously hydrocarbon facility switched over to mainly processing CO2 and the first time that injection of carbon into a north area field has resulted in enhanced oil recovery through increased reservoir pressure and miscibility of CO2 and mobilising vast quantities of oil back out of the reservoir and up to the platform.

PSN achieved these results by designing the platform and modelling the process systems using the latest state of the art software modelling techniques from AspenTech. Its software solution enabled understanding of how the equipment and facility would operate using the new regime as well as developing conditions for new equipment. This design would be suitable for multiple projects and was subject to a patent as well as being put forward for one project, which would have realised $100,000 in savings from the project cost.

It has not been developed into a construction project. At the time, there was a requirement of government capital investment, which was not realised. However, with recent announcements around CCS in the North Sea, PSN sincerely believes that it should again be considered. And many members of the oil and gas community believe that CCS options such as this one are now becoming commonplace in the North Sea.

Why energy management makes sense
While CCS is explored more fully, oil and gas companies can do much to sustainably and cost-effectively reduce carbon emissions through the more traditional practice of efficient energy management across their plants and assets.

Energy management has not been a primary driver in the oil and gas production industries. The focus has always been on improving production and enhancing recovery. However, the downstream refining and chemical industries have developed considerable experience in energy management and it has been a key driver in reducing their operating costs. The knowledge and the skills are available in the European engineering community to address this opportunity.

In mature assets where reduction of operating costs is vital to extending field life it makes sound business sense for organisations to review their strategy for energy efficiency and ways in which they can optimise their energy consumption. This will effectively reduce operational expenses, drive bottom-line improvements and strengthen business performance. For many of these companies, energy costs represent a large but hidden operating cost, as the energy demand is satisfied from the hydrocarbon reserves.

The way in which organisations interpret energy management varies. Typically, the key challenge is to identify the combination of improvements that best meet the demands of existing production processes and utility systems and maximises the potential in line with business objectives.

Some operators have reviewed their artificial lift strategies to minimise energy demand. Much work has been done on electrification and the use of variable speed drives rather than using gas turbines.

When modifications to the asset are required to meet changing field conditions, companies need to consider energy consumption and greenhouse gas production as part of the mix. Energy enhancements made in the design of assets will impact environmental and energy performance for the lifetime of the asset.

An important component of the solution is provided by model-based energy management systems such as those produced by AspenTech. These will help take advantage of potential savings, which may not have been previously fully explored in addition to providing optimised and consistent information about an asset’s key processes and facilities for decision-makers.

Adopting energy efficiency best practice can enable major bottom-line benefits of between five and ten percent to be obtained using operations planning and optimisation – without significant capital investment even in some of the more sophisticated assets.

Scoping the Challenge
The success of the UK oil and gas industry is critical to the success of the economy as a whole. And the recent announcement of new exploration licences demonstrates that there is still great potential in North Sea energy resources to drive the industry forward. Despite this, however, it is clear that operators in the sector face a raft of challenges from skills shortages to aging infrastructure to concerns over CO2 emissions.

In tackling these challenges, operators will need to develop talent and knowledge transfer, and critically the right technologies, to drive operational efficiencies and to contribute to the ongoing success of the sector.

David Bleakley is strategic business manager exploration & production at AspenTech, the world’s leading supplier of software that optimizes process manufacturing. Having always been at the forefront of innovation, today AspenTech solutions are used by nearly every company in the process manufacturing industry worldwide.

For further information please visit: www.aspentech.com