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From control rooms such as this one in Houston, Hess employees control drilling and monitor wells in North Dakota and elsewhere. Shown here are Patience Stern and Jeremy Brown. IMAGE: HESS CORP.

The Digital Oilfield: How digital technologies are changing the oil industry in ND and nationwide

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – A columnist from Pennsylvania has a message that people in the Dakotas and Minnesota should hear.

It’s this: Today’s oil-and-gas job “isn’t the same petroleum job your grandfather or your father would have applied for,” wrote Pittsburgh native Salena Zito in August.

“It not only attracts computer scientists, software engineers, mathematicians, and geologists,” but it also “provides careers for locals who thought those good jobs left for good.”

Cities that think only of Google, Apple or Amazon when the talk turns to high-tech work should think again, Zito wrote.

And she’s got a point, one that holds true for the Bakken region of North Dakota.

“What we’re seeing is a total transition,” said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. “It’s a high-tech oilfield.”

These days, not only is much of the actual drilling controlled remotely, but also the wells are monitored remotely by highly-trained people looking at screens.

In other words, “these are office jobs,” Ness said.

True, people still climb the rigs, but even that work has changed.

“Prior to 2009-10, oilfield work was very similar to what it would have been 30 years ago,” Ness said.

“The most basic component was the drilling rig, where you still had roughnecks up on the rig floor with chains, levers and tongs.”

Today, automation – notably “iron roughnecks,” computer-controlled hydraulic machines – can handle the heaviest and formerly most dangerous work.

And the drilling itself “is driven much more with a joystick,” Ness said.

“So the drilling rigs are safer, the monitoring is better and the work itself – many of these are now white-collar jobs,” with wages that range from $60,000 to $120,000 or more a year.

“It’s insane, the type of technology that’s being used in and is coming to North Dakota,” Ness said.

The iPIPE Program

In Grand Forks, the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota is managing a pipeline-safety research project that’s on the technological cutting edge.

The iPIPE Program has its origins in a meeting called by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, said Brent Lohnes, director of North Dakota operations for Hess Corp.

“Shortly after Gov. Burgum took office, he pulled together all of the operators in the state for a meeting, the focus of which was, ‘How do we reduce the number of spills we’re having in North Dakota?’” Lohnes said.

“That resonated with a group of operators, and we got in touch with the EERC. We reached out to see if this was something they could help with.”

The result was the iPIPE or Intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program, in which the EERC – sponsored by the member companies and the North Dakota Oil and Gas Research Council – is overseeing testing of new leak-detection and leak-prevention technologies.

The partners held a Shark Tank-like event in May, in which industry experts judged proposals from around the world. Said Jay Almlie, EERC principal engineer, “we kidded that we had one of every accent, including German, British, Israeli and Swiss.”

Two technologies were chosen for further testing. Pipers were one. These golfball-sized monitors made by Ingu Solutions of Calgary, Alb., can be dropped into a pipeline in one location, retrieved hundreds of yards or hundreds of miles downstream, then tapped for data describing the pipeline’s condition.

It’s ingenious technology, Almlie said. “It’s got ‘ears,’ so it’s listening for leaks. It’s got pressure sensors, so it’s finding deposits. And it’s telling you about the health of the pipeline, because it’s measuring wall thickness as it flows through.”

The other technology selected was a satellite-monitoring system developed by Satelytics of Toledo, Ohio. Satelytics’ system watches the landscape along a pipeline’s length, then sends alerts when key changes are detected.

Those could be such things as a car on location, an excavation that’s occurring or a shift that could signal a landslide, Almlie said.

“These may be minute changes that the human eye couldn’t pick up,” he said.

“When a landowner finds a leak, that’s the worst-case scenario. We want to prevent leaks or catch them early, so that a release might be limited to tablespoons rather than tens of thousands of barrels.”

Importantly, these and other technologies incorporate artificial intelligence. Satelytics’ systems, for example, “learn” from experience what to look for in landform changes.

“The system can be told, ‘You were wrong with that alert,’ or ‘You were right with that one,’” Almlie said.

“Eventually, the goal is 100 percent success on hydrocarbon alerts, with zero false alarms and zero missed true leaks.”

A fresh lineup of leak-prevention and -detection technologies will be evaluated at a second Shark Tank in late October, Almlie said.

Artificial intelligence

Speaking of AI, it’s being called upon to improve all aspects of drilling, from the tip of the drill bit to the hearing rooms where lawmakers draft regulations, said Vamegh Rasouli, chair of the Department of Petroleum Engineering at UND.

UND researchers, for example, are using data-mining and intelligent solutions to perfect refracking. That’s the practice of going back to once-fracked wells to frack them again. AI’s role will be to analyze the data about pressure, geology and productivity, then decide which of the region’s many wells would be the best candidates for refracking, he said.

AI also is changing how companies run their drilling operations. As mentioned, drilling engineers can operate remotely; “from control rooms in Houston, they drill in the North Sea now,” Rasouli said.

And sensors on drill pads transmit data that operators monitor 24-7.

But “we don’t want a lag between receiving the data, analyzing the data and sending back a solution,” said Minou Rabiei, assistant professor of petroleum engineering at UND.

Instead, “the industry is moving toward using machine learning, artificial intelligence and Big Data to make those decisions.” Smart machines can recognize problems and take action right away, much faster than any operator could do.

And the better the systems, the safer the industry, and the more trust that can be built up with regulators, lawmakers and the public, Rabiei said.

Said Zito in her column, “Thanks to an infusion of high technology driving the natural gas industry, it’s not just about dirty boots anymore – and it’s a good story.” That’s the lesson of oil-and-gas development in the Bakken, and it’s proving to be a good story there as well.

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business