Big Data: A Boon or Burden for U.S. Oil Industry?

Talk of new ways to harness data was among the key topics of discussion at this year's Offshore Technology Conference in Houston.

by Collin Eaton, Houston Chronicle / May 5, 2015

(TNS) -- Drilling offshore requires big equipment, so it only makes sense for companies to benefit from Big Data.

Talk of new ways to harness data was among the key topics of discussion Monday as the Offshore Technology Conference kicked off.

Smart sensors and Big Data analytics could help oil companies extract an additional 80 billion barrels of oil around the world, about three years' worth of global crude supplies, GE executives said.

"The size of the prize is really big," Ashley Haynes-Gaspar, general manager in the software arm at GE Measurement & Control, said during a luncheon.

Over the past three years alone, GE has invested $1 billion in a software center in California dedicated to advancing the "industrial Internet," which is the combination of GE's capabilities in data analytics and its understanding of how equipment is used, which can be translated into physical models.

Many in the energy industry have far to go in adopting Big Data. For example, one independent producer had 40 computer systems collecting data from 4 million streams before GE pared it down to one system.

Still, the nine-month slide in crude prices has spurred more conversations between GE and its customers about how to use analytics to pare energy costs and boost production. Oil companies have "been at the table telling us what we need to build, and we've been running those in 60- to 90-day spreads."

The industrial Internet mirrors a broader effort at GE to bring in technologies from different parts of its industrial conglomerate - aviation, health care - to the oil and gas business and other divisions.

For example, GE's new 20K blowout preventers, capable of surviving higher pressures and temperatures than most oil field equipment are a cross-section of modified parts from other GE units.

The blowout preventer has control systems originally designed for power plants and wind energy technology; sensors from an acquired firm that allows GE to listen for leaks in the emergency valve; and even X-ray technology from GE's health division, said Eric Gebhardt, chief technology officer for GE Oil & Gas.

If industry really wants to learn how to wrangle terabytes of oil field data surging through fiber optic cables from the Eagle Ford Shale to Azerbaijan, it will have to harness the powers of Silicon Valley and academia, a BP executive said during an OTC talk.

"We're going to have to be a lot more collaborative," said James Dupree, BP's chief operating officer of resource development and technology. "We can continue to build things better, stronger and that pump harder, but eventually we're going to have to get smarter."

Thirty percent of the British oil giant's research and development spending has chased "big leap" technological advances in seismic imaging, enhanced oil recovery, blowout preventers and subsea equipment that can withstand high pressures and temperatures, and what it calls "digital rocks."

Dupree said BP's supercomputing facility in Houston can calculate the permeability of a rock-core structure with just chips of rocks, not core samples. That information can tell BP what kinds of materials it needs to buy for subsea equipment in that region. Data like that is increasing dramatically.

At the same time, he said, that data is becoming more burdensome, as oil producers are deploying more and more autonomous nodes to the bottom of the ocean to collect and transmit oil field data to drilling rig operators.

"We've seen a new rig design where the driller has 11 screens in front of him," he said. "A human can't take on that much data. We've been experimenting with how potentially to get some analytics on that data through physics-based models and then get that data to the human being so they can make better decisions."

Still, the industry can't afford to wait through decade-long cycles to develop new technologies as it has in the past. The advent of U.S. shale plays, for instance, has forced the industry to learn faster. But developing the next generation of oil field technology is going to take much more collaboration with outsiders in Silicon Valley like Amazon and Google and cloud-computing companies, Dupree said.

He said he and his colleagues spend a lot more time now talking to academics and people in other industries, but he has found "they don't understand our business very well at all."

"It's very painful to sit through days and days of potential proposals to try and find one or two that actually match up," he said. "There's a massive amount of high-quality information and technology out there that's going to be very difficult but worthwhile to pull into our industry."

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