2013July/AugustSafety and ESGThe Offshore Frontier

Next-gen well control encompasses global standards, automation

Concept developed for the well control of tomorrow also covers training, barrier verifications 

By Joanne Liou, associate editor

A rig crew member works on Shell’s tight gas operations at Groundbirch, Canada. Shell is among a group of operators, drilling contractors, service companies and OEMs that has developed a concept of next-generation well control, which  is more automated and revolves around equipment with enhanced reliability.
A rig crew member works on Shell’s tight gas operations at Groundbirch, Canada. Shell is among a group of operators, drilling contractors, service companies and OEMs that has developed a concept of next-generation well control, which is more automated and revolves around equipment with enhanced reliability.

A group of industry experts have created a vision for the next generation of well control that involves establishing global standards for well designs, improved training, automation of emergency responses and verification of barrier effectiveness. An October 2012 SPE forum on well control brought together approximately 60 professionals representing operators, drilling contractors and the service industry. The goal was to explore industry’s readiness to manage well control situations, both from a prevention point of view and remediation, which covers competency, planning, equipment and automation. “We walked away after a week with a basic set of conclusions,” setting a vision for the next-generation well control, Jan Brakel, manager of wells research & development at Shell Projects & Technology, stated.

Industry recognizes that, for sustainable operations, it must establish practices that work today and tomorrow. “We have to conduct our operations much more diligently, and that’s where well control plays a major role,” Mr Brakel said. “That’s why I believe we need to move much more to automated systems and take the human being more out of the equation in terms of controlling the different processes.”

Developed by several companies that participated in the 2012 discussion, including Shell, National Oilwell Varco (NOV), Noble Drilling and Maersk Oil, the concept of next-generation well control is far more automated, revolves around equipment with enhanced reliability and will cater to all eventualities – being able to close a well under any circumstances, Mr Brakel explained.

With regard to automation, he believes the drilling industry is where the airline industry was 30 years ago. “If you told a passenger that a computer was flying the plane, he would have immediately gotten off the plane,” he said. “Today if someone steps on the plane and is told that the computer is down and the pilot will fly the plane, he will probably get off because we trust the computer more than the pilot. The pilot is still required, but he’s more in an observing role and only intervenes if it’s really necessary.”

With industry still routinely relying on the driller to manually control the drilling process with hands on the joystick or the mechanical brake, there is much room for improvement, he continued. “We can drill much more efficiently, much faster if we have means to optimize our drilling parameters and drilling process on a second-by-second basis, as opposed to once an hour,” Mr Brakel explained, “and that goes for the well control detection.”

With the concept of next-generation well control, Mr Brakel said the group is calling for every rig to be fully instrumented; this means putting all required information at the driller’s disposal to assist him in making informed decisions about the drilling process.

Further, Mr Brakel believes there is a need to enhance wellbore monitoring through more accurate flow-in and flow-out measurements, as well as a computer-based interpretation system. There should be a fail-safe if the driller does not appropriately respond, he explained. “There should be a warning that a potential well control situation is developing so that (the driller) has an opportunity to remedy the situation, but if he ignores that or for other reasons responds inappropriately, at some point the system should take over.”

As the airline and nuclear power industries have done, the drilling industry also can automate many of its processes by using computers to analyze data streams, draw conclusions and take action. “That’s an area where the drilling industry can do better,” Mr Brakel added.

Alongside calls for more automation, participants at the SPE forum also agreed that there is a need for global standards around well control, as well as a process to verify that those standards have been effectively applied. Mr Brakel said it would be up for discussion whether a company should be responsible for its own verification or if an external verification process is needed. “Typically, every company has well design standards, but are they all to the required level? Is there any global oversight? Should there be?”

In particular, well design is one area in which more stringent verification against standards would be needed. “We need to be more rigorous in verifying the barriers in our well – the BOP stack or plugs or cement,” Mr Brakel noted. “We need to be more rigorous in verifying that these barriers are effective – testing, in other words, but how do you do that? And against what standards?”

The extent of the regulator’s role in the verification process also should be more clearly defined. In Europe – including the UK, Norway and the Netherlands – the regulator verifies that operations are planned and conducted according to appropriate standards; however, much of the responsibility remains with the operator to create ownership, he said.

In an audience poll during the plenary session at the 2013 SPE/IADC Drilling Conference, a majority indicated that the regulator should play a stronger role to ensure the industry performs to set standards, Mr Brakel said. However, it’s also important that industry does not depend solely on regulators to initiate change.

“As an industry, we must accept our responsibility. The reputation of our industry, our license to operate as an industry, is at stake,” he noted. “There are significant business consequences of these major incidents – commercial implications, financial implications – in addition to the safety and environmental ones. Although the regulator could be more prescriptive with respect to standards, industry should be more proactive in setting and enforcing higher standards.”

Automated emergency response System

Shell is working with Noble Drilling and NOV on an automated response system that requires providing more detailed information to the driller so that he can determine if a well control incident is developing. The real-time information is a prerequisite for an automated emergency response system. “We’re looking at the rig instrumentation and have taken one of the Noble rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and extended the sensor set so we have better, more reliable detailed information on flow rates,” Mr Brakel explained. “Real-time surface data on flow rate and tank volumes will be fed into an information system that tells the driller what is going on. Once we have sufficient confidence that the provided information is accurate and reliable, the next step will be to use that advisory system to automate emergency well response.”

The project was initiated as a response to Macondo, when senior Shell management realized the extent to which well control response depended on human intervention. The rig instrumentation was deployed on the Noble rig earlier this year, and the companies remain in the learning process, Mr Brakel noted. “We haven’t decided what that (automated well response) needs to look like, yet. It can be an emergency disconnect in an extreme case, or it can be stopping the drilling process and flow checking or closing the BOP.” By the end of this year, the companies expect they will be able determine what data is needed and to what accuracy. “We’re using radar-type flow rate meters, and we’ll have to decide whether those are accurate enough and reliable enough.”

As many sensors have only recently been developed, Mr Brakel believes there is opportunity for further development and improvements in accuracy and reliability. “A lot of rigs have very basic instrumentation in regards to early kick detection, and if more sophisticated information is needed, then third parties come with their sensors and bolt them on,” Mr Brakel said. In the future, “a complete, enhanced sensor package that you need to drive and steer your drilling process toward maximum operational efficiency should be standard on every rig.”

Mr Brakel said he hopes there will be more interest within industry to establish similar initiatives or joint-industry projects as this automated response effort. Although industry forums can generate useful ideas, such as the next-generation well control concept, it is up to participants to disseminate the information beyond his or her work place. Participants of the 2012 forum on next-generation well control, for one, are trying to generate global interest and stimulate discussion, Mr Brakel said. “I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know exactly what all the solutions are, either. It’s a bit of an experiment to see if there is more global appetite to start tackling some of these problems.”

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