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Shale Play Water Management discusses how technological innovation and advanced automation are optimizing fluid management processes and how SitePro is making a contribution to digital oilfield shift.

DIGITAL WATER: Fluid Management Through Advanced Automation

Affordable computing power and machine learning algorithms improve treatment and disposal operations and profitability.

Handling the flood of produced water from oil and natural gas wells has always been an issue for operators. Depending on the basin, produced water can outstrip oil by ratios of 4:1 to 10:1. The problems of managing such large volumes of produced water are true everywhere but have become a significant pain point for operators in the Permian Basin in West Texas which now, according to recent reports, is the world’s top oil producer.

While most of the energy world keeps an eye on factors such as oil production, price, rig count, lease sales, etc., upstream and midstream operators are keenly aware of the problems, and opportunities, associated with handling such large volumes of produced water.

Before the shale revolution, there was less focus on how to handle produced water. The majority was hauled off, untreated, to a saltwater disposal well for injection. Early hydraulic fracturing methods involved hauling in fresh water and hauling out produced water. Most tracking of volumes was done by hand or with rugged, but very simple devices known as Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC). PLC devices are useful but provide little control or management of data.

Today, complex disposal and pipeline systems collect, transfer, treat, and inject produced water by the millions of barrels into safe formations deep underground. Within the process, produced water is treated for varying amounts of bacteria, scale and other impurities with carefully controlled chemical blends before storing or injecting.

The old way of managing produced water and other fluid management operations is just too slow to keep pace in the modern oilfield. It is also ill-equipped to process the massive amounts of water moving around. Hand tickets, manual monitoring and overly-simple PLCs cannot provide the precise measurements and minute-by-minute control required to maximize profit and reduce overhead, especially with current pricing levels.

To overcome the inadequacies of outdated technology, SitePro, a digital oilfield solutions provider, developed an automation system using industrial personal computers (IPCs) that helps optimize fluid management processes.

For example, an operator looking to get the most productivity out of a system, may want to run at the upper limit of permitted pressure and volume. For a system permitted at 1,300 psi and 25,000 BWPD, the automated system can monitor and control these parameters to maximize operational efficiencies without over pressuring or underperforming.

Much of the data an automated system collects are from real-time movement of water around the oilfield. This includes volume, flow rate, fluid type, and origin among key data collected. By accurately measuring information in real time, linking the data points, aggregating the data, then pushing it by way of reports, operators can quickly and more accurately make short and long-term business decisions that enhance operations.

Hand tickets, manual monitoring and simple logic controllers cannot provide the precise measurements and control required.

At a minimum, operators have instant access to actual ticketed information which improves understanding of where water is coming from to optimize existing operations and plan future expansion. When operators fully integrate their systems, true economies of scale can be realized.

The primary concerns for SWD facility managers are the storage and disposal of produced water. A secondary concern is in identifying and capturing “skim oil” that arrives mixed with produced water.

Skim oil is removed before water is disposed or recycled and then it is sent into the sales line. Additional revenue generated from the sale of skim oil is a vital part of the SWD business model. Identifying the source of the greatest amount of skim oil also plays a part in operational planning at SWD facilities.

Data gathered at an SWD is not just important to the facility operator, that data can be used all along the supply chain by various stakeholders.

Trucking companies and disposal facilities need accurate information for billing purposes. Electronic Ticketing (eTicketing) systems disseminate this information to customers in realtime, eliminating lost tickets, illegible handwriting and endless hours of data entry at multiple points along the supply chain.

The speed and accuracy of eTicketing systems provide more accurate information, faster reconciliation of incorrect information, faster time-to-invoicing and ultimately, shorter times to collect payment from customers. While this might not be readily apparent to facility operators, an office worker responsible for manual ticket reconciliation will say it is a big headache that can cost the operator in lost time and inefficiencies.

The added security eTicketing and automation systems provide allows producers to control access to their sites by oilfield service companies including the water haulers. Access permissions can change as trucking companies evolve and consequently, utilizing an eTicketing system at a fully automated facility allows the operator absolute control over security and access.

Automation and secure access points increase the overall security of a facility. In addition, onsite cameras that log motion-capture events in realtime add another layer of protection. Video monitoring of real-time events can be retrieved if a manager has reconciliation and invoicing questions about transfer volumes that may look suspicious.

Onsite cameras are useful to verify site visits, investigate possible theft, or to see if certain out-of-parameter readings are due to leaks or some other issue.

Regarding leaks and potential health, safety and environment events, system alarms can be configured for any sensor or “sensor equation.” An equation can be written based on data trends that show when certain parameters indicate the likelihood of a potential failure. This allows the operator time needed to react and prevent an incident.

Monitoring sites remotely with the ability to fully control operations not only improves site security, it allows facility managers to operate a site as if they were standing on location, directly over a pump.

Remote control and location flexibility allow changes to operations as situations arise and not in reaction only if a pumper happens to be on site. Capturing pump data, tank levels, fluid volumes and other variables gives operators a level of control not held in the past. And when a facility is fully automated, it can run efficiently with very little input from a human operator.

If human intervention is needed, the operator quickly can make changes remotely with an integrated automation system. The effect of adding new wells or decommissioning old ones can be monitored closely for a time to help balance flow rates and keep water flowing at maximum capacity.

The ability to change operations on-the-fly allows operators to react to conditions outside of normal operating procedures. That may include responding to alarms remotely, shutting down equipment before failure, or sending accurate failure diagnosis before a technician arrives on location.

The ability to remotely monitor and control is more than just oversight and reporting dashboards. It is control over every aspect of an operation. It has been said that “vision without action is merely a dream,” but for SWD operators, “monitoring, without the ability to act is a potential incident.”

As water treatment and disposal facilities become more complex and greater volumes of water are transferred across the oilfield, the need for automation and data analytics becomes an operational necessity.

Remote monitoring and system control capabilities are more than just oversight and reporting dashboards.

Fully automated systems can manage SWD facilities ranging from a one-to-one, pumper-to-facility ratio to a one-to-five ratio during the day, and then transition to a one-to-twelve pumper-to-facility ratio at night. The personnel cost savings for field operations allows operators to scale faster than their competitors and helps break the retention cycle for good, experienced field personnel.

This shift in the way SWD facilities are managed provides impressive cost savings, but the bigger story is that facilities can be managed by a single pumper and allowed to operate independently and with almost no human intervention.

Integrating multiple facilities also allows the system to monitor the entire water lifecycle and identify changes to operating parameters for more efficient water movement through the entire supply chain.

The next stage in the evolution of water management for the oil and gas industry is integration of predictive analytics and built-in machine learning. In the near future, pulling in relevant data from a variety of sources, even unlikely ones, will have a significant impact on SWD operations and oilfield fluid management in general.

Machine-learning algorithms compare accumulated data to failure episodes and search for links between a potentially infinite amount of data points. For example, a system using this type of advanced analytics might identify problems that regularly follow an increase in power usage of a certain amount and duration. The system could then potentially take action while simultaneously sending alarms to appropriate personnel advising them to take preventive steps. As a result, downtime and repair costs would be reduced.

The integration of historical data helps with facility planning and upgrades. Once a system reaches the saturation point, engineers can use data to better plan the next phase of expansion. Using relevant data, the system can recommend expansion plans or an optimal site for a new facility. Planning and engineering costs for builds and upgrades would be reduced when future volumes can be anticipated.

Machine learning working on top of an automated system can also reduce the amount of physical equipment required, such as the number of sensors needed for existing infrastructure.

Recently, a customer in the water midstream business planned 26 risers that needed remote pressure readings. Instead of installing 26 sensors, source company engineers programmed a single IPC to calculate values at each site. This saved the customer $130,000 on sensor installation while giving readings that were within the parameters needed. Industrial PCs and advanced analytics automation systems are becoming more affordable which helps reduce projected capex and operating costs.

Automation provides tremendous benefits in terms of human efficiency and safety. Gone are the days when a pumper was required to drive hundreds of miles every day to visit a site and simply perform a status check. Today, computers relieve people of the need to monitor the monotonous flow of normal data and instead bring them in only when corrective action is needed.

By fully automating a fluid management operation, most system checks and routine maintenance can be done from an office or a smartphone. This eliminates pointless trips from facility to facility. When maintenance or repairs are required, sensors and cameras improve efficiencies by informing the technician what tools and parts to take to the site.

Affordable Industrial PCs and advanced analytics help reduce project capex and operating costs.

The SitePro monitoring system is available as Software as a Service (SaaS) to oilfield companies. The company includes system upgrades at regular intervals and with minimal involvement by customers. Operating changes and upgrades are pushed out over the cloud and eliminate costly downtime.

In 2019, the company will add water chemical treatment and monitoring capability. Before produced water can be blended with fresh water and reused for fracturing, contaminants such as bacteria, scale, iron sulfide and more, must be treated.

With this upgrade, the chemical treatment and monitoring system will adjust chemicals as needed and start and stop injection to coincide with fracing operations. This will reduce waste compared to systems that use a preset injection rate and continue to operate when fracing has paused.

The cyclic nature of oil and gas prices will continue and as a result, operators must maintain profitability by cutting costs and making people more efficient and safer. Gone are the days of throwing people at a problem when times are good and cutting personnel when the industry takes a downturn. Operational efficiencies at the scale our industry needs can happen when advanced hardware and software solutions are included.

Making the transition to a truly digital oilfield will require adopting best practices and being at the forefront of technological innovation. The market is already making the shift. How will you compete in the new digital oilfield?

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