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E&P Notes

STAR Program Seeks Better Testing for Separation Technology

Trent Jacobs, JPT Technology Writer

A project spearheaded by Exxon­Mobil, Shell, Chevron, and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has been established to advance separation technology through improved testing methods and collaboration between users and suppliers.

The main driver behind the creation of the Separation Technology Research (STAR) program is the industry’s need to separate oil, natural gas, and water from the production stream using technology that is lighter, smaller, and less expensive than conventional separation systems. To achieve its goals, the joint industry project must bridge the gap between the test results of separation components in controlled environments and their performance in the real world.

“A lot of operators are looking for performance data on separation equipment under fieldlike conditions, but many of the equipment manufacturers do not have that data directly available,” said Chris Buckingham, manager of the STAR program and a program director in SwRI’s fluids and machinery engineering department. “What we are really trying to understand is how equipment performs under identical situations using standardized test procedures.”

The multimillion dollar program counts several contractors and equipment makers as its members, including FMC Technologies and Aker Solutions. SwRI is a nonprofit organization that works to advance oilfield science and technology at its research facility in San Antonio, Texas.

Membership in the STAR program for the initial 3-year charter ranges from USD 75,000 to USD 450,000, depending on the type of company. Buckingham said the program, which is looking for more companies to join, was created with a long-term vision in mind and companies will be invited to rejoin after their initial membership ends. “We’ve initially started off with a 3-year program, but we are looking at research plans that go well beyond 3 years,” he said.

Buckingham added that the STAR program presents operators with a new opportunity to collaborate on learnings and separation data that would otherwise be held as a closely guarded proprietary secret. “Sometimes, the operators will embark on their own research project to analyze separation system internals, but since they paid for it, they do not readily share that information,” he said. “They want consistent data from the different types of equipment, but they also want to share data from the different fields they are developing together.”

By participating in the STAR program, companies will not only have access to testing facilities and data, but also be charged with deciding which technologies and testing methods to research. The technologies in the program cover all three primary application areas: onshore, offshore, and subsea. Testing and research of the different systems will be carried out at SwRI, including testing in its multiphase flow facility. The types of separation that will be examined include gas/liquid and liquid/liquid separation. Three-phase separation technologies will also be studied in the program.

 Eroding the US Crude Export Ban

Stephen Rassenfoss, JPT Emerging Technology Senior Editor

Booming US oil production is beginning to seep into international markets despite the country’s ban on oil exports. One sign of change was the departure in late July of a tanker from Texas City, Texas, with 400,000 bbl of liquid hydrocarbons bound for Asia, Reuters reported.

The condensate on board the BW Zambesi skirted around the crude export ban because a large gas processing company convinced regulators that it was exporting a refined product, and there is no limit on that. Regulators agreed with the argument offered by Enterprise Products Partners that since distillation was used to process the production, which is rich in natural gas liquids, it had been refined, the Wall Street Journal reported. This could open the door to more such sales because what can be coaxed out through fractures in extremely tight rocks tends to be light hydrocarbons that go through similar processing.

This could open the door to more exports because what can be coaxed out through fractures in extremely tight rocks tends to be light hydrocarbons that go through similar processing. Meanwhile, the subject of US crude exports has become a point of discussion in both the industry and political circles. Oil producers want to export because the high quality oil they produce sells in the US for less than the world market price, while US refiners, chemical plants, and others benefit from the low-cost supply and would prefer to see the ban stay in place.

Politically, crude exports run counter to the popular notion of energy independence in the United States, which has seen oil imports shrink from 60% of US oil consumption in 2005 to 30% currently.

A recent report from energy consulting firm IHS concludes that limiting exports would reduce investment in unconventional production. Without international sales, investment will be suppressed by price discounts that run as high as 20% under global market prices. Demand for US produced light crude is limited because it is often a poor match for the many domestic refiners set up to process heavy grades.

“As a result of the boom in tight oil production, the US is exceeding its capacity to process that type of crude. Current export restrictions mean that light crude has to be sold at a sharp discount to compensate for the extra cost of refining it in facilities that were not designed for it,” said James Fallon, an IHS director who coauthored the report with Kurt Barrow, vice president for downstream energy at IHS.

IHS said US oil exports would allow producers to earn a higher price, leading to greater domestic oil production— from 8.2 million BOPD to 11.2 million BOPD in 2022. This growth projection assumes that US exports will only slightly lower the value of crude on global markets. It predicted US crude exports would find ready markets in Europe and Asia, which now rely on Africa and Russia. Oil from those regions may be re-oriented to Asia.

If oil exports are tightly restricted, IHS predicts that US daily production will drop by more than 1 million BOPD because of reduced investment.

IHS’s point of view runs counter to the one offered by users, such as refiners on the east coast of the US who now depend on the light crude delivered by train from the Mid Continent,  or chemical makers who are investing billions in new facilities to take advantage of the growing supply of low-cost hydrocarbons.

Oil export restrictions were implemented in the 1970s. They have drawn little notice because US crude production fell steadily from 1970 until 2008, when shale production kicked in.

“The 1970s-era policy restricting crude oil exports—a vestige from a price controls system that ended in 1981—is a remnant from another time,” said Daniel Yergin, IHS vice chairman. “It does not reflect the dramatic turnaround in domestic oil production, led by tight oil, which has reversed the United States’ oil position so significantly.” US Crude Oil Export Decision: Assessing the Impact of the Export Ban and Free Trade on the US Economy.

 RoboNodes: Autonomous Seismic Receivers

Trent Jacobs, JPT Technology Writer

Saudi Aramco is on a mission to increase the amount of seismic data that it collects by fourfold, while reducing costs and acquisition time by half of what it spends today. Part of the company’s grand vision involves the creation of an entire fleet—3,000 units—of autonomous seismic nodes that will largely eliminate the need to contract for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and their support vessels for future seafloor seismic acquisition projects.

The company began work on the technology, which it calls RoboNodes, in 2012 with French seismic surveying firm CGG and Seabed Geosolutions, a joint venture formed by CGG and Fugro last year. So far, the technology has been tested in pools, lakes, and at sea. A launch and recovery system for retrieving the nodes in a timely manner, and in rough sea conditions, is also under development. Some of the challenges the project team is working to overcome involve designing a low-cost, ­highly accurate clock for simultaneous seismic shoots and a power-saving data recorder.

The RoboNodes are rated for 300-m depths and can be programed to “swim” to the seafloor in novel arrangements to illuminate subsurface structures that may hold hydrocarbon deposits. The nodes are controlled by an acoustic communication system and, with the push of a button, the robotic units can move to another prearranged location to begin another seismic shoot from a different angle. “You can play with the geometry,” said Constantinos Tsingas, a geophysicist who works on the RoboNode project at Saudi Aramco. “You do not have to arrange them in a uniform grid. You can put them anywhere you want, because you can send them anywhere you want.”

Tsingas said the company wants RoboNodes to provide seismic data faster, cheaper, and with more resolution than what are possible using conventional ocean-bottom nodes and cables, two widely used subsea acquisition technologies. Deployed off vessels, ocean-bottom cables collect data as sound waves from an air gun reflect off subsurface formations and into hydrophones, which are spread evenly along the inside of the cable.

“That is time consuming and costly,” said Tsingas.  He added that the cables have some limitations regarding where they can be used. “You cannot access places close to a drilling rig; they will not allow you to place the cable near one. By having a flexible system like RoboNodes, we can access these areas much easier.”

Some of the same problems that limit ocean-bottom cables also limit the application of ocean-bottom nodes, a newer technology. Because of the risk of tangling up the ROV’s umbilical, or even worse, striking a man-made subsea structure, ROVs are not used to deploy ocean-bottom nodes in restrictive subsea environments. RoboNodes are many times smaller than an ROV and presumably would not suffer from the high rate of downtime incurred by ROV systems. “After they record,” Tsingas said of the nodes, “they will be able to come back, recharge their batteries, and go back down again for another mission.”

Another downside of ocean-bottom nodes is that while they can be placed in any variety of arrangements best suited to image the subsurface, each time a company wants to do a new shoot, an ROV must first locate and then relocate each node, one by one. Sometimes, this poses a challenge when the nodes become hard to find because of low visibility and the turbidity of the seafloor caused by the ROV’s thrusters. Other times, nodes have been known to sink in a muddy seafloor.

Saudi Aramco’s ultimate vision is to develop thousands of RoboNodes to speed up the company’s efforts to locate more offshore discoveries. The company hopes that by 2020, the geophysical sector of the oil and gas industry will have adopted robotic technology for seismic acquisition.  Outside of Saudi Arabia, the technology may have a wider application, especially in deepwater areas wholly dependent on ROV support. “Hopefully, we can take it deeper,” Tsingas said.

New Canadian Well Identification System Launched

Saskatchewan will be the first jurisdiction to implement the new Canadian Well Identification System (CWIS). Responding to requests from oil companies, industry vendors, and regulators, the CWIS project was undertaken to upgrade the system of well identification in western Canada that is outdated because of advances in drilling and completions technologies, according to the Professional Petroleum Data Management Association. After widespread consultation and volunteer participation, the first draft of a new system was released in mid-2013.

The system comprises three related identifiers that recognize every well, wellbore, and well reporting stream.

  • The Well ID identifies a well. Most information is filed and retrieved according to the well it came from or relates to.
  • The Wellbore ID identifies a wellbore. All downhole measurements and construction, including tests and completions, can be located by depth and time intervals within the wellbore.
  • The Well Reporting ID identifies a well reporting stream for which the regulator requires information.

CWIS maintains legacy unique well identifiers, but also incorporates a standard system of coded identifiers to allow business processes to leverage accurate information, the data management association said. Every data item in every well can be managed from creation to delivery to archive. For more information on the new system, visit