Bold new frontiers for oil
Many scientists say that production of oil will peak within three or four decades. Some even say production is already declining. Meanwhile, demand is still rising – at an annual rate of almost three per cent. Global consumption is now 30 billion barrels a year, and the discovery of new reserves has dropped to only five billion barrels a year. Oil prices recently rose to their highest level since 1980, and the UK is again a net importer of both oil and gas…
Environmentalists are pressing for “sustainable” alternatives, and nuclear power is back on the agenda. So does that mean the end is nigh for oil exploration? The industry in Scotland has other ideas…
As the waves gently lap on the beach in Malaysia, the petrophysicist keys in some numbers and sits back to see the results. The 3D virtual simulator kicks into action, and he sees at a glance what the problem is. He makes a few adjustments, then turns on the sub-surface robot and restarts the drilling remotely, using electro-magnetic radiation to sweep up the oil, before having a video-conference with his colleagues in Aberdeen, sharing real-time data from an oil field in Siberia.
The petrophysicist is one of a new generation of “rock stars” who change their career paths without even catching their breath. After graduating, he worked in Angola, setting up a solar-energy system for a new petrochemical plant. Then, he spent three years in Norway, in oil exploration, before heading off to Australia to teach for a couple of years. But the lure of Malaysia was hard to resist, and his new job as a Remote Reservoir Manager is the most fun he’s had for a long time...
This scenario is dreamed up by Professor Patrick Corbett, head of the Institute of Petroleum Engineering (IPE) at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. But even though it is an educated guess about the future, the picture he paints is a very small part of his vision for oil exploration.
Even specialists like petrophysicists may be an endangered species, says Corbett, because of recent technological advances. The boundaries between jobs are also beginning to blur, and disciplines are merging – geology, geophysics, petrophysics and engineering.
Corbett says his own job also changes all the time. He’s spent the last 20 years arguing about the integration of geology and engineering, and describes himself as one of the first “petroleum geoengineers”. Now, he wants to “bring together the petroleum industry with the renewables community, as well as governments and society in general,” to develop more intelligent as well as more sustainable and economically viable methods of oil exploration.
In Corbett’s view, the oil industry and the “greens” have much more in common than either believes, and should work much more closely together to address many critical issues. Funding is available from the oil companies which could support new projects in renewables. The industry itself is also taking the initiative by using alternative energy sources in some of its facilities, including solar cells and wind power, while some of the industry giants in Europe are already investing significant sums in renewables.
Until there is a magic wand to solve all our energy problems, oil will continue to play a key role. Estimates of world oil recovery factors vary from 27 to 40 per cent, while for the UK North Sea, the estimate is 46 per cent. Instead of arguing ourselves into a corner, says Corbett, we should be discussing how best to exploit the remaining reserves, at the same time as developing alternatives.
This open-minded thinking underlines how philosophy is just as important as science and technology in Corbett’s approach. The sexy high-tech gadgets the industry will use in the future are also not all of the answer. “Technology helps us recover more oil but it is not the only solution,” says Corbett. “We also have to get our science and our policies right.”
According to Corbett, there are several steps we must take, sooner rather than later, to address current energy problems. First, we have to start thinking of our hydrocarbon reserves as a singular global resource, rather than scattered individual resources, and then squeeze out every last drop of existing reserves. Despite the ups and downs of prices and market demand, exploration must continue and the infrastructure must be conserved, but a much more holistic approach is required to reconcile the different opinions and interests of industry players.
New technologies must also be exploited – for example, using carbon capture and storage (CCS) to optimise recovery of crude from older oil fields, taking advantage of better intelligence and real-time data, including seismic, geophysical and petrophysical data, as well as nuclear magnetic resonance. Capturing and injecting carbon dioxide into the wells would also help reduce the impact of emissions from power generation from fossil fuel – “clean fossil”.
“Using CCS would not only add years to the lifetime of oil as a primary energy source but also help to stabilise the environment,” says Corbett. “To achieve this, however, we need a partnership between academics, government and industry, including public money for CCS projects.”
One of the major problems in the oil production industry is the formation of mineral scale in oil reservoirs, which damages the rock matrix and blocks production tubing, reducing the productivity of wells. Scale deposits are normally prevented using special chemicals in a process known as a “squeeze treatment”. This has been an active area of research within the IPE since the mid 1970s, and in 2001, the Oilfield Scale Research Group (OSRG) launched a new research project called “Flow Assurance and Scale Control”, obtaining and modelling data to ensure fields are effectively managed and advance the understanding of the fundamental processes involved in scale control. FAST (the Flow Assurance and Scale Team) has also carried out over 100 technical studies to solve specific production/reservoir scaling problems.
To practise what it preaches, the IPE at Heriot-Watt University recently became part of the Edinburgh Research Partnership (ERP), joining forces with the University of Edinburgh. The new venture is backed by new investment of £12 million, which funds a total of 20 new researchers and creates five joint institutes, including one for Energy and another which focuses on Subsurface Science and Engineering. The idea is to enable the two universities to achieve the highest levels of research competitiveness by creating a critical mass of world leading researchers in key areas of engineering and mathematics – an ambition which perfectly fits with Corbett’s vision for the IPE.
As well as talking about “global change” and forming new alliances, the IPE also seeks to put its ideas in action by taking a global approach to its teaching. In addition to 200 students in Edinburgh and its “approved support centres” in various countries, there are also about 200 part-time distance-learning students. Heriot-Watt University also has a new campus in Dubai, where 40 IPE students will be part of a target of 800 students within the next four years.
Says Corbett, “we annually produce more Masters in petroleum engineering than all the institutions in the US combined – approaching 300.”
For Corbett, however, the ultimate challenge is to get people thinking and working together more effectively. This means rewarding people within the petroleum industry for thinking “out of the disciplinary box” and encouraging companies in the petroleum industry to think “out of the petroleum box”. Technology will have a major role to play, but the biggest advances will come from creative ideas, like those emerging from the multidisciplinary research initiatives such as ERP and IPE.