The role of oil & gas technology in reaching the world’s decarbonisation goals
Published 1st February 2022
by David Stent, Content Manager, Energy Council
The energy transition has thrown up many surprises and challenged the industrial world to change or be left behind, with the greatest attention arguably given to how the global oil and gas industry is engaging with this need for change. The industry itself has been labelled the ‘greatest potential innovator for the energy transition’ and a quick look at the approach to developing new, low-carbon technologies would lend truth to the statement.
The Energy Council has examined a small selection of new oil and gas technologies that will advance the mission to achieve a low-carbon society, largely eliminate emissions from oil and gas production over the coming decades and open the door for new opportunities.
These technologies will target the removal or mitigation of Scope 1 and 2 emissions, those either; emissions created at one’s own facilities, or those emissions of purchased power to run their operations. Scope 3 emissions, those created by the consumer, are likely to become a burden as the energy transition matures.
Data, data, data
There cannot be a discussion about advancing the oil and gas sector through technology without a conversation about the foundations for integrating these innovations – data. One’s ability to effectively utilise new technologies is reliant on the expertise and software that input or interpret data points. With the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) frameworks and the broader advancement of hardware and software – has allowed us to capture massive data sets that require expert analysis.
For some, like the Italian supermajor Eni Spa, they have invested heavily in advanced computing technologies, data storage and data analysis teams that can provide far greater clarity toward short to long-term production volumes, supply chain blockages, management of facilities and operations – altogether constructing detailed representations of an entire value chain under one’s control.
While digitalisation of operations may appear a costly endeavour, the long-term savings from optimising processes due to in-depth data, will make the initial capital expenditure worthwhile.
Practically, collecting broad data sets from across the chain of operations can best be seen in the development of digital twin systems and ‘lighthouses’ that can provide real-time data ready for analysis and actionable changes to optimise operations as they happen.
Developing oil and gas fields is risky business in the energy transition, the costs have only grown but the challenges have multiplied significantly. The timeframe for project development can take many months, if not years, even before the difficulties of energy transition capital and Covid constraints created a maze of new barriers. Therefore, for E&P companies, it has become crucial that new drilling activities are supported by the most complete and advanced data sets that will accurately assess what lies beneath the surface.
Traditionally, reservoir assessments have been analogous with a limited number of historical data sets – the consequence of which are limits on what the geophysicist can forecast. However, with advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, the analysis by a geophysicist can be expanded exponentially to include a far broader range of data sets. Herein, the AI and ML will be able to create forecasts that consider many more variables, reservoir conditions or field operations that may affect production volumes. Once in place, the same technology can then continually assess and update the data sets as they mature. As reservoirs reach their maturation phase, these reservoirs can then begin to be assessed for carbon storage, an important new focus for E&P geophysicists.
One such example is PetroREAL ASI, which uses these exact AI and ML capabilities to deepen the knowledge and data that geophysicists have to analyse potential reservoir capacities. We have no doubt this is one area that E&P companies begin to heavily invest in to better understand their assets from the early development stage.
In turn, enjoying access to such information allows a producer to engage with financiers and investors with more complete information, which in an age of uncertainty becomes increasingly valuable. Moreover, it provides concrete data on output which means you can predict and mitigate the quantity of emissions that will be created from an early stage.
When turning to production, the advancement of low carbon subsurface technologies can both reduce emissions and improve recovery efficiency by up to 50%. The primary technology in use and showing the greatest promise is Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) in which water and gas are injected into wells to drive oil towards the surface. While it has been a technology in existence for some time, the necessity to maximise reservoir output has never been more vital.
Drone and robotics technologies have quickly become a go-to tool for industries across the globe, providing unique access to areas where it is too dangerous or too expensive for humans to venture. The oil and gas sector has been a pioneer in subsurface drones or remote operated vehicles (ROVs) – allowing offshore operators the ability to assess drilling equipment, pipelines, wellheads and a range of other deep-sea infrastructure with advanced monitoring equipment, cameras, scanners and various robotic arms. In doing so, the cost of offshore exploration operations has fallen significantly over the past decade, and now is an essential tool for operators.
Crucially these ROVs are able to reach depths faster and deeper than the typical human-operated submersibles and divers, where they face the dangers of deep-sea currents, poor visibility or simply bad luck.
ROVs come in two ‘classes’: a work class ROV, capable of completing complex tasks with specialised arms that can be programmed to accomplish physical tasks; and, an observational ROV, one that has visual recording capabilities and which include aerial drones for assessing surface operations with greater clarity.
The decarbonisation benefits come from the ability to access the vast area of operations, to make repairs, undertake maintenance and install equipment (such as EOR) faster, cheaper and more safely than ever before. Creating new value through robotics has the added benefit of shifting capital requirements to more active decarbonisation processes, such as CCUS.
Some of the more advanced ‘heavy’ work-class ROVs can “reach depths of up to 3,000 meters and come with lifting capabilities of up to 5,000kg”. Similarly, the ‘high capability’ observational ROVs can reach depths of up to 6,000 meters. Such depths are near impossible for human labour, expanding the potential for development of deep offshore drilling.
Technology through the Energy Transition
Many of the oil majors and venture capital companies are seeking to invest in energy transition technologies, and while these are popular choices for oil and gas operators that mitigate their emissions profiles, the technology that changes the world may not be invented yet. The point herein is that the energy transition will require immense investments into new technologies, some may not work but the ones that do will allow the oil and gas sector to maintain their E&P operations. This is crucial for a sector that is on the ropes against the shifts in institutional finance and investments, investing in new technologies and driving down emissions profiles will be what saves the oil and gas sector. Despite the costs of digitalisation and modernisation, the opportunity to make that difference starts now and could just be the lifeline that attracts new capital to a company.