Breathing life into brownfields: Innovation to extend asset life
The year, 2020, was another tough period for the oil and gas sector. It was a time in which demand was rapidly quashed, wholesale prices even went temporarily negative, and uncertainty escalated. As always during a downturn, the call went out to explore the possibility of extending the life of existing assets, reinvigorating brownfield sites, and driving further efficiencies into production by doing more with less.
Consequently, there is a great deal of interest in production control systems for brownfield extension, rapid tie-backs, and solutions for equipment upgrades. That interest reflects a wider trend in the industry. Market reports suggest that the trend for smaller tie-back projects, smaller wells, and fewer well developments was well underway before the pandemic struck, a trend that is reflected in our own experience at Baker Hughes, Fig. 1. We’re seeing an appetite for these projects from IOCs, major operators and the independent operators. Giant projects with multi-year timelines are a rare beast these days, as operators look for rapid returns in the face of searching questions from investors and a five-year outlook that is as difficult as ever to predict.
Strict operating parameters have always been the spur to technological and operational innovation within our industry. However, there is inevitably a lag between the onset of an industry-wide challenge and the availability of proven solutions to address it. That is not necessarily the case this time round, with the outcomes of the previous innovation cycle already available for immediate deployment.
Furthermore, this innovative thinking has gone beyond the scope of technological advances, and embraces the way that solutions are developed, the way they are made available, execution strategies—and the way suppliers and operators work together.
REALIZING THE BENEFITS
In terms of both capital investment and time to revenue, the theoretical advantage of extending existing asset life over developing greenfield sites is very clear and substantial. However, technological challenges exist and are summarized here:
- System downtime during change-over. This is the big one: excessive downtime extends time to revenue and will seriously impact cost benefits of undertaking upgrades or tie-back projects. Seamless integration of new technology with older systems requires solutions that are designed for backwards compatibility with a broad range of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
- Robust obsolescence management. Systems will become obsolete. That is inevitable in any industry where innovation takes place. With the pace of innovation in computing, software and electronics accelerating, then, naturally, instrumentation and control systems are more prone to this than other mechanical pieces of equipment. However, in good product designs, obsolescence can be foreseen and therefore managed, so that any upgrades are harmonized and seamlessly integrated with existing systems. When the opportunity comes to upgrade, the latest software and communication systems can be added that enhance the performance and diagnostic capability of the system.
- System reliability. All systems involved in asset life extension must be built for reliability and be designed to maximize uptime. Longevity is crucial to ensure proposed benefits are achieved. The right technology for the field, the asset and the business goal is needed to mitigate risks around equipment reliability. And because no two projects are identical, that requires a 360o project analysis from the outset.
To give this some real-world context, consider the specific issues around integrating new communications and power into an existing production control system. Adding new communication signals to an existing umbilical could disrupt signals from both old and new systems, making both less effective and efficient. However, the information needed to avoid disruption is the intellectual property of the installing OEM. When a third party is working on overlaying new communications, commercial sensitivity can prevent a full understanding of legacy equipment—and the solutions it will therefore support.
There are two main options available in this situation: a time-division multiplexing (TDM) solution, which in effect allows systems to take turns to use available bandwidth; or a frequency-division multiplexing (FDM) solution, which enables two systems to use different frequency bands at the same time.
Both TDM and FDM are only made possible by the right modem, and this is where developments made over the past few years come into their own. Both low-speed copper modems and multi-band copper modems are now making both multiplexing solutions possible; and because they are designed with reliability, equipment life and easy-installation in mind, they help address the challenges outlined above.
THE TOTEX CALCULATION
At an operational level, the challenge is about ensuring that total expenditure (TOTEX) for the lifetime of the extended asset is kept as low as possible, without compromising availability or extending downtime during installation. The quality and robustness of the underlying technology naturally has a key role to play in lowering TOTEX: reducing time between failure, lowering production loss and decreasing maintenance costs following installation and commissioning.
But reduced TOTEX goes beyond reliability: it is also about a design and execution mindset that leads to overall cost reduction for operators. For example, investments made by suppliers like Baker Hughes have created a portfolio of structured products, consisting of configurable parts that are reused in different systems. This can unlock opportunities to lower TOTEX. Developing products in this way offers a number of advantages to operators:
- It ensures that solutions are available and proven at the right technology readiness levels (TRL), by using technologies that are already qualified and proven.
- It provides manufacturing and supply chain efficiencies with more standardized materials and processes.
- It reduces the project lead times, because there is less variability to manage, thus optimizing project delivery and reducing schedule creep.
Most of all, it reduces the associated costs, such as non-recurring engineering, software-engineering hours, and upfront systems engineering. This is particularly pertinent to brownfield sites, where these costs make up a substantial proportion of the overall expenditure. In addition, structured products also result in a lower CO2 footprint for the project itself, due to process step and materials reduction, coupled with more compact, modular solutions.
However, all tie-back and life extension projects are field-specific. The health of the reservoirs, current production levels, previous efforts at production enhancement, and the likely life left in the field are all factors that inform technology selection and optimization. That, in turn, requires not just technology expertise or even deep knowledge of the field, it also requires a closely collaborative relationship between supplier and operator.
A TIE TO THE FUTURE
The right technology with the right execution strategy can, therefore, enable faster system design, faster equipment delivery, and ultimately a shorter time-to-revenue. This integrated approach is what we call Subsea Connect. By offering integrated services and solutions, starting at concept evaluation and involving design from the reservoir up, we are eliminating interfaces and the friction that comes with them. In so doing, we can unlock value, accelerate schedules and reduce TOTEX.
However, the real unifying factor here is the vision and technology development needed to manage the future needs of the industry, as it faces the social, economic and political demands for decarbonization. Reliability, longevity, and innovation all play their part in achieving this goal. For example, with a future-first mindset, a system refresh that includes digital and electrification solutions could be preferable to an initially proposed upgrade. Some of our clients have already replaced ROV operations with electric actuators while others have retrofitted electric actuation to manifolds and chokes. This has led to a much faster response time and optimized the TOTEX of their tie-back projects.
At Baker Hughes, this future vision is a fundamental part of our design and execution processes. The work we have done over the past decade, and the investments we have made, are in the service of ensuring that our industry remains technologically advanced and relevant in the face of these broader societal changes.
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