Resolving Common Barriers to Digitalization in the Upstream Oil & Gas Sector

Resolving Common Barriers to Digitalization in the Upstream Oil & Gas Sector

Technology will be a critical tool in helping upstream companies in the oil and gas sector detect and lower methane and gas emissions to thresholds soon to be defined in the Inflation Reduction Act. Yet the investment by small and mid-sized companies in tools like sensors, mobile devices or 3D twins is lagging behind that of larger companies with more resources. 

This reluctance to embrace the digital oilfield is often attributed to several concerns or conditions that are seen as barriers to deployment. It is important to address these concerns by looking at the way technology can surmount most obstacles, driving improvements to operational performance and measurement platforms that deliver real, quantitative returns on this important investment.

The first concern centers around the connectivity at remote locations of some well pads or stranded assets. With too few local residents to justify expensive 5G cellular communication networks, data collection and streaming from the site can be problematic. It is still not uncommon for the smallest of these facilities to be completely analog, with field staff having to drive to the wellsite to verify if artificial lift is operating correctly, identify downtime or other equipment failures. 

Even though they can’t always stream real-time data, edge computing devices can either serve as historians or transfer batch loads of calculations as soon as a connection is found. A new generation of devices are equipping wells with mobile hotspots that roam constantly for connections to cell towers. These mobile hotspots can be carried by field staff or mounted somewhere secure at the well pad. And as satellites are launched in increasing numbers through companies like Starlink, connections are improving, and latency time is being rapidly reduced. 

Another common barrier to digitalization is the self-reliance mindset common in the industry, or the belief that ‘I can just get out there and do the work myself.’ While this attitude might underlie the incredible engineering feats and resourcefulness that built the oil and gas sector, it no longer works as an operational strategy in today’s oilfields. Nor as the way to optimize human resources and reduce risks to workers when headcounts are low.

Technologies like telemetry or mobile sensors are helpful in reducing windshield time and enhancing field crew safety. Digitalizing equipment and processes are also an opportunity to add value by improving decision-making. It improves the quantity of real-time information flowing to the office, which can help optimize performance and predictive maintenance. Mobile devices also help less experienced workers make better decisions in the field by providing historical data and digitizing checklists, as well as enabling remote access to experts.

A further concern is that existing systems created in-house by specialized staff or engineers are difficult to integrate with new technologies. While designed by clever people, these legacy systems are dependent on the architects remaining on staff for continued support or updating. Their compatibility with new technologies, platforms and network systems can be problematic and introduce the potential for equipment failure or shutdowns during integration. Nor do they always deliver clean data needed for analysis. 

Digitalization introduces a level of standardized, high-quality data in quantities that can help realize improvements that lower costs, reduce unplanned equipment maintenance, and optimize production. Technologies like telemetry, 3D twins and using AI to analyze data in the cloud are already proven tools in other sectors, like refineries and chemical plants. Upstream oil and gas companies need to catch up to a similar level of deployment, using digital tools created by experts in data collection and analysis. 

While not a cure-all for every issue — and certainly not a wholesale replacement for engineering know-how — technology can address most commonly expressed concerns by upstream owners and operators. It is important to start with a plan and address the highest-value problems. With some effort, investment and the help of expert guidance, technology will become a value-added, one that owners and operators will rely on to successfully meet operational challenges and gain new business insights for optimized operations.  

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