BP tech chief: Enhanced oil recovery key to world reserves

HOUSTON – Most of the world’s future oil and gas reserves won’t come from new discoveries, but by finding ways to get more oil from regions the industry already has already developed, BP’s head of technology and research said Monday.

“We’ve probably reached the time, amazingly, when there’s as much to be got extra out of the oil fields we have discovered as there is to be found in new fields,” David Eyton, BP’s Group head of research and technology, said in an interview with Fuelfix at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston.

Based on existing technology, he said, the industry expects to leave more than half the oil t it discovers in conventional reservoirs.

London-based BP, however, has embarked on a number of projects it believes will significantly boost the amount of oil it can extract from its existing wells or oil fields, helped in part by its new super computer in Houston that can make 2,200 trillion calculations in one second.

The behemoth calculator is designed to create much better images of reservoirs in places like the Gulf of Mexico, where salt canopies had forced oil companies to drill almost blind for decades.

“It’s the lab for seismic,” he said. “We do it in the virtual world. And then when we find out that something works, we can build models and fields and geology. We can go out and try it for real.”

BP’s also planning on expanding a new water-flooding technique across its offshore portfolio. One of BP’s big “ah-hah” moments came two decades ago when it discovered that injecting fresh water into offshore oil fields inexplicably harvested more oil, he said. High-salinity sea water – the kind of water close at hand at offshore drilling sites – doesn’t get the job done as well, he said.

“When we realized that fresh water in some occasions helps you to get more oil out, we set out almost for 20 years to figure out why is that,” he said. That insight and advancements in nano-scale measurement techniques paved the way for BP to deploy its first low-salinity water-injection technology to an oil field 200 miles north of the UK mainland, he said.

The industry, he said, is still in the early stages of understanding the full potential of advanced chemistry applied to water-flooding in oil and gas reservoirs.

“Our focus is on low-cost techniques with water flooding to get more oil out,” he said. “Low-salination is well known. But actually, all the money we’re now spending on research and development in this area is on things that nobody yet knows about. There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes.”

The company  also has applied its digital technology more broadly across its footprint over the past five years, wrangling a mess of rig data and other information that can – if all the pieces are put together – signal risky drilling operations.

“Until about five years ago, you’ve got lots of people working on rigs, and they’re all measuring stuff, but it doesn’t come together in one place,” he said. “Regrettably when things go wrong in drilling operations, you go back and you download all these data sources and you try and figure out why did that happen, and then you see the signatures and tell-tale signs of something when you’ve joined it all together.”

The company has been working to increase how much it relies on digital data through a program called BP Well Adviser. Integrating its data has saved BP a lot of money by predicting pipe damage and other risks, he said.

Some of BP’s resources, he said, are in increasingly harsh terrains, set in high-pressure, high-temperature reservoirs that present huge technological challenges in the offshore Gulf of Mexico and other regions.

Enter BP’s new project. A decade ago, BP and several partners including FMC Technologies developed subsea equipment that could be used in its deep-water Thunder Horse field in the Gulf of Mexico, which faced pressures of 15,000 PSI.

Now, BP and other companies have made discoveries in the ultradeep waters of the Gulf and other regions that require resistance to even more pressure, 20,000 PSI.

“The technology just does not exist to make something that hefty, that thick and that many miles long,” he said. “You just can’t manufacture it.”

That’s why the company announced two years ago it would embark on another multibillion-dollar project to develop technology that can withstand 20,000 PSI of pressure at the bottom of the ocean. It will take a few years to develop, but BP has begun its front-end engineering and design on the project, he said.

“We felt we were well places and would benefit from moving the industry another 5,000 PSI forward,” he said. “It will enable a number of our developments in the Gulf of Mexico, Azerbaijan and other places that could unlock very large quantities of oil and gas.”