What's Ahead

The Appeal of Mature Fields

Todd B. Willis, Editor-in-Chief, The Way Ahead

Ask most YPs what they want in their career, and you’re likely to hear descriptors like “cutting-edge,” “major project,” or “new development.” Ask us where we want to work, and locations like Houston, London, or Dubai might come to mind. You probably won’t hear us wanting to tend to 5-B/D stripper wells in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico, or be a field engineer in Baku, Azerbaijan, one of the world’s earliest major energy hubs.

Upon initial consideration, these places seem unimportant—not the sexy, cutting-edge future of the oil field. They are where the action was 50 years ago, a relic, interesting to read about in history books, but certainly not to work in. The real technology and capital spending—or so the thinking goes—is in deep water or unconventional gas fields. Indeed, TWA focused this year’s first issue on deepwater plays and the technology required to operate in these areas.

On closer inspection, though, the level of ongoing investment into mature assets and their significance to the operations of companies large and small show that this initial impression just doesn’t hold up.

Many operators have invested tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars into sustaining or revitalizing older assets. Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems and i-Field (intelligent-field) efforts enable an engineer sitting at a desk hundreds of miles away to monitor entire fields single-handedly. Waterfloods, steam floods, polymer floods, infill drilling programs, horizontal side-tracks—all of these enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and improved recovery projects bring tens of millions of dollars of investment capital to these so-called oilfield “relics.” They also bring with them the need for project managers, financial analysts, and talented engineers who can maximize return on investment.

This should be of great interest to anyone with ambitious career aspirations. While a younger professional may not have the opportunity to be the lead drilling engineer on a USD-500-million deepwater exploratory well, many engineers not even 2 years out of college lead multiwell drilling programs in brown fields. Major capital projects in new, billion-dollar developments usually call for entire teams of 25-year veteran engineers to handle the work. But YPs are frequently given the reins in older, more mature fields. It is here that training and hands-on education can be acquired that enable today’s young professional to develop into tomorrow’s technical expert and team leader.

Why do companies bother with these older assets? Why do so many companies agree they are worth hanging onto, despite the amount of work required to squeeze “blood from a stone,” as it were? One reason: They are predictable, both in terms of production and dollars. Whereas deepwater or unconventional resources often require high-risk investments for uncertain payouts, mature basins bring with them decades of history, gigabytes of information (in the form of openhole logs, decline curves, and known reserves), and reliable cash flows. Predictable cash flows enable organic growth for many companies, and avoid the need for costly external financing.

But another reason is that it’s a lot easier for a company to bear a mistake on the order of a few thousand dollars than one involving a few million dollars. The same could be said for a young professional’s career! Brown fields are excellent training grounds to develop your real-world skill set, or to apply advanced techniques and project management skills long before you leave the ranks of YPs.

Continuing TWA’s tradition of featuring CEOs of some of the industry’s best-run companies, we are excited that Martin Craighead, CEO of Baker Hughes, provides some candid insight into what it takes to be a CEO. Our Academia section describes an everyday household item—soap—as an aid for EOR, and in Tech 101, that mainstay of brown fields is discussed: permanent well abandonment.

Don’t forget to connect with us online, too: The discussion is ongoing at LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Drop us a line, start a conversation! We’re always eager to keep communication flowing both ways.

Finally, this is a special issue for me, as it is my last as editor-in-chief of The Way Ahead. I would like to welcome the incoming editor-in-chief, David Vaucher, who will officially take the helm with our January 2014 issue.

When I applied to join TWA’s editorial team over 5 years ago, my primary interest was the chance to improve my writing skills. I never expected being part of TWA would be so rewarding in so many other ways—developing my ability to work in teams, improving my leadership and project management skills (putting together articles and issues is definitely a project), and, most importantly, developing friendships, both on the TWA staff and at SPE.

Like any good organization, despite all I have given over the years to The Way Ahead, I have received far more in return. For that, I am grateful.