Virtual exploration

Visualisation centres are relatively new to the region’s oil & gas industry. However, they are already helping companies cut costs and maximise oil & gas extraction.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  February 2, 2003

I|~||~||~|Despite the Middle East’s seemingly abundant reserves of oil & gas, new fields are getting harder to find. Those that are discovered are usually in hard to reach locations and, as a result, exploration and drilling costs are soaring. Other factors, such as the need to revisit old wells and the spiralling cost of insuring operations in the current political climate, mean that greater accuracy and higher levels of efficiency are a must for all involved in the local oil & gas industry.

“As more and more of the [region’s] known oil & gas reserves are exploited, all oil companies need to find new reserves. These new reserves, however, are in more difficult geological environments and this pushes up the cost of exploration. At the same time, there is increased competition to get to these remaining reserves and every company has to improve its operational efficiency and accuracy in order to compete,” explains Hesham Al Nouri, general superintendent of Kuwait Oil Company’s (KOC) information technology department.

“There are a number of factors that have contributed to the need for increased efficiency and accuracy, including higher drilling and finding costs, the search for more subtle hydrocarbon traps and smaller accumulations,” adds Steve Farmer, head of visualisation at Petroleum Development Oman (PDO).

In order to achieve these higher levels of accuracy and efficiency, the local oil & gas sector is turning to technology. IT has, therefore, become a key part in every core upstream activity carried out by an oil company, from exploration through to development and production. For example, massive amounts of seismic data is processed on huge Linux clusters for interpretation, while collaboration tools and high speed secure networks allow geoscientists and engineers to plan the drilling of oilfields.

“You are not going to be able to discover and produce oil today without leveraging technology. Even from a drilling perspective it is integral because you have cameras and sensors down holes and all kinds of whiz bang new things — all of which are related to IT,” says Keith Herndon, telecommunications & computing manager at PDO.

“The importance of IT cannot be underestimated… IT is probably the single most important factor in modern [oil] exploration and production,” adds Farmer.

The growing importance of technology has led oil & gas companies to increase their IT budgets year on year, despite the spending slowdown experienced by virtually every other industry in the world. Gartner Group, for instance, reports that the energy sector will increase its IT spend by more that 8% through to 2005, with approximately US$79.6 billion being spent on technology in two years’ time.

In recent years, a significant amount of money has been invested in visualisation centres. Growing out of a need to view more data faster, visualisation centres have gained in popularity since the mid 1990’s, when the research groups of large multinationals oil companies first began building them.

“Only about four years ago did some of the early adopters of this technology start utilising visualisation centres in day-to-day activities. It hasn’t been until the past two years that visualisation have become a required technology,” comments Al Nouri.

||**||II|~||~||~|Costing upwards of US$1 million each, these centres normally comprise an image generator, edge-blending hardware or software, projectors, a large screen, stereo graphics glasses and stereo signal emitters. They take cubes of seismic data that have been generated by field surveys and processed on large Linux clusters and form them into 3D models, which are then projected onto huge screens. This data can then be viewed by a multidisciplinary team that is able to immerse itself in the data and slice and dice it to create different views of an oilfield. From here, engineers and geoscientists can decide where to drill the next well and decide which zones to perforate, as well as judging current production levels and estimate future production.

“Visualisation centres give us the ability to visualise the subsurface in terms of geological structure. They show the resolution of the data at a sufficient scale to see the details in the data that was acquired,” says Al Nouri.

Saudi Aramco was the first oil company in the region to build a visualisation centre. Inaugurated in September 1999, the Dhahran-based building boasts a SGI Onyx 3000 graphics supercomputer with 16 CPUs, 32 G/bytes of memory, four graphics pipes and 3.6 T/bytes of local disk space. Three overhead projectors display the generated image on a large screen with 120 degrees curvature. The first centre was so successful that two more were built in Dhahran and another in ‘Udhailiyah.

“Saudi Aramco realised the importance of this technology, especially for giant fields like Ghawar, and established four visualisation centres. [There are] additional centres under development,” says Robert Sung, an exploration systems analyst in Saudi Aramco’s exploration applications services department.

Elsewhere in the region, PDO has one visualisation centre and KOC is currently building a centre that is scheduled to go live in September. The PDO site has been operative since July 2001 and is made up of a 24 foot curved fibreglass screen, three Barco CRT projectors and a Silicon Graphics Onyx 2 computer, which has four CPUs and 8 G/bytes of RAM. It generates 3D images from data that has been processed on the company’s 196 node Linux cluster.

“We have been visualising data since we started processing it. It was first done in one dimension, then two and now in three dimensions,” says Herndon. “The visualisation centre allows us do more collaboration, so instead of one person sitting in front of a screen we can have multiple people looking at the data in a studio. This help confirm interpretations,” he adds.

Such centres mean that engineers and geoscientists no longer have to view data in 2D, something that was becoming increasingly difficult as the amount of data that needed to be analysed grew exponentially. “Visualisation centres provide an ideal environment in which asset team members can view huge amounts of data, correlate interpretations with models, pick well bore targets, geomorph and geosteer the well bore in real time and investigate field production problems,” says Sung. “Visualisation centres… [also] provide high immersion with the data that enable human eyes to spot subtle subsurface features that are not seen using traditional techniques,” he adds.

Collaboration software and knowledge management tools allow the results generated by visualisation centres to be shared throughout the enterprise. For instance, Aramco has developed specialised collaboration technology that allows the company to send visualisation data back and forth between its production engineers in its ‘Udhailiyah Collaboration Centre (UCC) and the geoscientists, reservoir engineers and exploration & production visualisation specialists located at its EXPEC Visualisation Centre. “Well production problems — for example water shut offs — identified in ‘Udhailiyah, and geological model and reservoir development strategies developed in Dhahran, can be visualised by experts in both locations and interrogated using the same images,” explains Sung.

||**||III|~||~||~|Furthermore, a web-based knowledge management system has been established to capture, share and transfer various asset teams’ geosteering and collaboration knowledge. The system has been tailored to meet the geoscientists and engineers’ needs and it sports easy drag-and-drop features for image and text, annotation and a drawing feature for interpretation. Via the tool, geoscientists and engineers can go to the company’s intranet to view proprietary and external technologies, learn from other asset teams’ experiences and capitalise on the integrated know-how of the oil giant’s human resources.

Within PDO, remote locations can collaborate on the same applications running within the visualisation centre, as 256 M/bit lines carry the onscreen image to various locations, rather than the large data cubes themselves.

“Across this 256 M/bit line we can share that 3D application and people can pull up a seismic line, a map and do a peer review on the same data from thousands of miles away.

It reduces the time spent on a project and the costs involved. It also brings down the number of mistakes made on a project. The cost savings of a single remote collaboration session have been estimated at about US$50,000,” explains Farmer.

The cost and time savings generated by visualisation centres are massive. Although local oil companies are reluctant to reveal exactly how much they save through them, Al Nouri says they can reduce decision times by as much as 90%. He also gives the example of an eight well oilfield in Norway, where one company has supposedly documented a US$82 million dollar saving.

PDO’s Farmer says it is more about risk mitigation than naming bottom line figures, as visualisation centres allow the company to see problems and solve them before they happen in the field. “The [visualisation] centres allow you to shorten the time it takes to firm up a prospect and get it onto the drilling programme. Not only can you lessen the chances of failure when it comes to drilling a new well, but you can produce more oil faster and manage the reservoir better. So, although it is difficult to quantify the cost savings that visualisation centres deliver, when you consider that a single well in Oman can cost more than US$4 million, the more you can do to mitigate that risk the better,” he says.||**||

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