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Oil Companies Must Learn To Share

Oil companies often treat proprietary software like a precious secret. The reality is these closely held assets are likely worth a lot less than assumed.

Rapid advances make static code a perishable commodity. Models now will be obsolete in 6 months, “because we will have something that is better,” said Theresa Baumgartner, a research engineer for Shell engaged in drilling-software development.

And, many programs are redundant. “Most models and source code have been recreated multiple times, which requires significant effort and energy with little additional benefit or stepwise improvement.” That observation was in the introduction of the recent paper “Creating Open Source Models, Test Cases, and Data for Oilfield Drilling Challenges,” written by a group of oil and service companies and academics making the case for an open-source hub for sharing drilling software and data.

Rather than keeping secrets, Baumgartner said, companies need to look for ways to get more out of their digital assets by offering them to others who have something useful to offer in return.

“The value of tools is not in having them; it is in using them. I am happy to give some away if we get something back,” Baumgartner said.

Shell is among the supporters of a drilling hub for sharing models, as well as drilling data, tools for benchmarking software and equipment performance, and documentation describing how all the software was made and works.

“Let’s combine it together and use all of it,” said Paul Pastusek, a drilling mechanics advisor for ExxonMobil. He delivered the paper that laid out the plan for a drilling hub. The paper’s coauthors were from Shell, Apache, Schlumberger, Baker Hughes, and other service companies plus several universities.

Faster Through Sharing

The ideas offered at the recent SPE/IADC International Drilling Conference are familiar ones. The recently created the Open Source subcommittee, which is part of SPE Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section, wants to create a cooperative repository for open-source software—code that anyone can inspect, modify, and use—that is common in the tech sector.

Sites such as Git Hub speed software development by providing building blocks of code plus the documentation needed to use them, among other things. Those hubs are also used by application developers in the oil business for tasks such as advanced statistical analysis, but they do not address drilling specifics such as physics-based modeling of drill-bit performance.

Baumgartner is part of a team charged with rapidly expanding Shell’s menu of applications, which it will offer in its corporate app store.

“Lately, the challenge is to deliver more apps in a shorter period of time, to deliver more value to the business,” she said while delivering paper SPE 194100, “Real-Time Drilling Advisor App Store—An Agile Development and Deployment Program.”

Shell’s goal is to create a usable tool chest for engineers who are not software experts, allowing them to assemble modules as needed. For example, Shell is working on making it easy for users to create dashboards to track performance by plugging apps into an open-source program.

An industrywide drilling hub would expand what is available for Shell and be the only source of open-source drilling code for many operators who lack the resources of a major.

Time-Consuming Ordeal

Pastusek acknowledges that the open-source group is embarking on a difficult, long-term effort. The ambition is huge. The paper summarizing the undertaking is 30 pages long and explains the need for a drilling hub, lists the many topics of interest and the documentation required to make sense of it all, and touches on the legal issues related to sharing.

Some of the companies behind the paper have already contributed data, but much more is needed. That will take time.

“You know we (oil companies) don’t share data well,” Pastusek said. “It is hard to get that approval—and can take a lot of time to do so.” The difficulties are magnified when partners are involved because each must approve the release of software or data from the project.

The companies involved in the paper took on the challenge because they saw the need in the drilling sector. That need is particularly acute in universities. “Academics told me, ‘We have all the models we need. We want real data’,” Pastusek said.

The industry uses little of the data it collects. “Only 1% of the data is used in our decisions,” said Mike Dewitt, vice president for wells, upstream operated, for Shell. “Over the past 2 years, we have generated more data than in our entire history.” Dewitt gave the keynote speech at the drilling conference.

Companies have been loath to release data, even on old projects. An exception was Equinor, which, last year, opened an online repository holding all its data from a shallow-water field off Norway called Volve, which produced 63 million bbl of oil from 2008 to 2016. Among the partners on that field was ExxonMobil.

The data release spawned the development of software to mine it. The data also was used by companies to develop products ranging from fast reservoir imaging software to a tool for storing well data in one place.

Like the Volve field, the basis of a lot of drilling software is old. Most of the drilling models go back longer than he has been in the business, Pastusek said. “Drilling-string dynamics models go back 60 years in the industry.” Pastusek said he learned about software sharing from his son, a tech industry veteran who started a company.

Pastusek’s arguments for sharing include “you have some things, but you need others.” For example, tech companies share program uses to simulate the performance of devices before they are built. Drillers ought to be able to do the same.

Through all of this, engineers are a critical variable. “The value of a model depends on how it is used,” Pastusek said.


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