The history of unconventional shale production is a short one, with the first development of the Barnett only in 2006. However, the technology that has come together to make it happen is quite old. The first true horizontal oil well was drilled in 1939 in Morgan County, Ohio (although there is some debate that the first horizontal well may have been drilled in 1929), and the first commercially successful use of hydraulic fracturing techniques was in 1949. Despite the long history of these technologies, the original creators would hardly recognize them today. The use of downhole motors and multiple stages for hydraulic fracturing have brought us a long way in terms of accuracy, speed and usability.
The United States and Canada are uniquely positioned to lead the development of unconventional plays because of the availability of equipment and infrastructure. Beyond North America, conventional reservoirs will become increasingly more difficult to drill in more hostile environments and politically unstable regions. As a result, the industry will be looking at unconventional shales as one of the more stable areas of development for new oil and gas reserves. The quickest areas to capitalize on unconventional plays will be those which have a similar infrastructure to the US or can quickly develop and bring them to functionality.
As the globalization of unconventional plays moves forward, we can expect advances in geophysics with microseismic and other conventional seismic techniques. Developments in treating and completing horizontally drilled wells are being made every day, and soon this will translate into standard practices.
Companies will also change as a result of unconventional oil and gas exploration, along with job titles and responsibilities. The fields of geology, geophysics and engineering will merge into a more holistic discipline as engineers begin to look at more geophysical and geological data and geologists and geophysics begin paying closer attention to engineering data.
Digital Versus Paper
The world has gone digital and the oil and gas industry is no exception. Over the past 25 years, the industry has been transformed, moving everything digital. Seismic started the digital revolution in oil and gas but the original records were on paper and the geophysicists of the day worked with colored pencils marking the important structural horizons. Even the allimportant map was a paper product that took days to be hand drafted.
Today, paper seismic along with the drafted maps are all but gone, and most companies get their log information digitally as LAS information so that it can be quickly analyzed and distributed. WITSML (Wellsite Information Transfer Standard Markup Language) is also becoming a standard and virtually any data that comes from a rig can now be sent digitally.
New technology will make conversion to digital easier and more cost effective, which will make searching for these treasures easier and faster. Organizations with access to the best digital data and searching algorithms will have a distinct advantage. This doesn’t mean just scout tickets but will include paper logs, core photos, production on paper and a host of information that is currently stored in log libraries and corporate warehouses.
Seismic and Microseismic
Most seismic interpretation packages on the market today are 20 to 30 years old. They have become difficult to maintain and will become harder to enhance in the future. As a result, the disciplines are beginning to merge. Engineers are paying more attention to microseismic, as it can, for example, tell them where and where not to fracture. Real time collection and analysis will allow engineers to make quick decisions that will save money and increase production.
New seismic attributes are being invented all the time that offer a better and clearer picture into the earth’s interior. Attributes often provide a filter or lens that better visualize some geological feature such as faulting, stratigraphy, or reservoir fluids. The trend of developing new attributes will continue and systems will begin generating them automatically, providing users with a specific lens that will allow them to interpret information more clearly and precisely than ever before.
The Digital Oil Field
There has been much discussion over the past ten years regarding the digital oil field. To date, the cost has been high and implementation has been restricted to large wells or remote locations. Today, with cost effective cell and radio technology and high level compression techniques, we are finally starting to see higher adoption of this technology.
In addition, the ability to monitor production and tank levels and remotely control valves and other equipment is promising to make wells more productive and efficient. It also equips operators with the tools needed to quickly react to problems that will make operations safer and reduce environmental impact.
Bluetick, Honeywell and other companies are currently producing automated systems that control wellhead operations remotely. These types of systems will increase in usage as the industry drills with closer spacing and continues to have problems replacing older workers who will be retiring in the next few years.
Merger of Data and Analysis
Data from every facet of the oil and gas industry is being collected at ever increasing rates, and companies are making significant investments in managing the vast amounts and extreme variability of data types. Unconventional wells are also increasing demand for more efficient methods of managing and analyzing big data, as they are more complicated and expensive than they were for previous generations of conventional drillers. As a result, organizations of all sizes are now taking advantage of big data in an effort to maximize company resources such as time, capital and talent. High performance analytics hold the promise of synthetizing complex big data into more manageable results that support better decisions.
The combination of increased data availability and advanced analytics has leveled the playing field between large and small companies by allowing them to focus on the problem of finding and producing oil and gas – not moving data from one system to another.
Predictive analytics are becoming better each year. We have always had systems that help predict where hydrocarbons are, where the water is, where the fault is and so forth – those continue to get better. In the past few years we have also seen szystems that will predict when you might have drilling problems, by learning from past events on other wells and then predicting the future – saving operators millions of dollars in drilling costs.
Prescriptive analytics are really new to the industry but will begin showing up in end user applications. These will be systems that help maximize your return on investment. For example, when given certain shale characteristics from microseismic and other parameters, companies will be able to determine what is the most effective and efficient way to complete a well.
One of the most impactful things we will be seeing over the next few years is the use of collaboration tools. We can currently share files and data across a single database but we have not been able to share thoughts, ideas and words without the use of an external system such as e-mail or a presentation manager. Collaboration – not just within a company but with partners, consultants and colleagues across the internet – will change how and with whom we work. We’ll soon have the ability to communicate using words, voice and video with anyone working on the same project – whether they are in the next office or on the other side of the world. These collaborative tools will be integrated into the technology we are currently using, making it possible to not only find answers using our own ideas but also ideas from a range of experts across the globe.
It’s an exciting time for the oil and gas industry. The insights gained from new technology and techniques will enable more effective decision-making – and deliver unprecedented results. It will also lead to new opportunities for exploration and production, bolstering economies and revolutionizing our energy future.
John Fierstien is vice president of product management at Drillinginfo, a SaaS and data analytics company that enhances strategic decision-making by equipping the oil and gas industry with cloud-based tools and services.