e-Field struggles as 4D seismic wins over SPE

Oil IT Journal Editor Neil McNaughton reports from the Houston meeting of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. He noted that 4D time lapse seismics has finally ‘arrived’ in the petroleum engineering community. Paradoxically, the same cannot be said for real time simulation and optimization—another promising technology for the e-field. Perhaps something to do with an installed base?

We decided to ‘embrace’ the Society of Petroleum Engineer’s Annual Conference and Technical Exhibition (SPE ACTE) back in 2001. So our coverage of the 2004 SPE ACTE (to appear in next month’s Oil IT Journal) is our fourth show. As a relative newcomer to the SPE, what still impresses the erstwhile geophysicist that I am is the breadth of the technology on view. I still wonder at the shiny spikiness of magnetic flux leakage ‘intelligent’ pigs, the greasy wobbliness of the shale shakers and the steely power of the blind rams.


My first conclusion was that what showed up at the SPE was a most peculiar ring-fencing of technology. One which could hardly be said to define a cultural or domain ‘silo’ in the way that geophysics defines the SPE or geology the AAPG. Now, three years later, I believe that this is indeed an eclectic community. But that in the developing field of intelligent oilfield operations, the technologies on display at the SPE are only a part of the story.

4D seismics

But first, back to our early visit to the SPE. In 2001 we had a mission. To fearlessly seek out and report on the promising new field of 4D seismics. We were disappointed. It has taken three years for 4D seismics to migrate into the mainstream of petroleum engineering— with a whole technical session devoted to the subject and perhaps more significantly, regular presentations of real-world applications on the software vendors stands. More of which next month.


At that same 2001 SEG we first encountered the real time, simulation optimization movement. An equally promising new technology that seeks to combine process modeling and real time measurement to control production operations. A technology at the heart of the much-vaunted ‘e-field’ and one that a priori would seem closer to the petroleum engineer’s heart than 4D seismics. I am sorry to have to report however that in the intervening period, real time and sim-opt seem to have made little or no progress. 4D seismics has come of age, real time remains on the drawing board.


4D time lapse seismics met with relatively quick take-up because of successful proselytizing—notably by BP. The message was focused and simple—use seismics to see what’s happening in parts of the reservoir that can’t be reached by other methods.


The same cannot be said for real-time optimization which somehow has got caught up in, and to believe some presentations, almost defines, the e-field. This in turn has been the subject of an untold amount of industry hype—much originating in the Cambridge Energy Research Associates’ report on the ‘Digital Oilfield’. I suppose that ‘digital’ in this context is supposed to represent that which is technologically shiny, new and improved. I find the very notion ‘digital oilfield’ to be ridiculous on two counts.

Digital not new

First it just doesn’t make sense! Second, digital is not new. Seismic data has been recorded digitally for thirty years, the plain old telephone system (apart from the end of the subscriber line) for as long. Computing is nearly 50 years old and has been used in the home for twenty years. As indeed has the (digital) music CD.

Technological dinosaur?

So is the oilfield the last bastion of analog technology? A technological dinosaur waiting to be brought into the modern (digital) era? Of course not. In this month’s Oil IT Journal, announcements from Okagawa, OSIsoft and Aspen Technology report on enhancements to off the shelf digital technology that has been deployed all over the world for a decade or more.


In this month’s Journal we have a short report from the IQPC Fields of the Future conference. What emerged there was not so much hype but exasperation at the slow take up of new technologies. Proponents complain that ‘industry isn’t ready’ or that ‘people haven’t understood the value proposition.’ In short that conservatism and stupidity are holding things up. This may be partly true. But if you contrast the successful adoption of 4D with the halting beginnings of SimOpt you have to ask, ‘Why did one great technology get near instant take-up and another get the cold shoulder?’

No installed base!

The problem is easy to recognize coming from the IT world as one of selling new technology into sites with and without an installed base. Whereas 4D seismics had relatively little competition from existing reservoir management technologies, RT SimOpt is confronted by the complexity and multi-disciplinary world of oil and gas production metering and management. There is not a single element of the RT space which isn’t already squatted by ‘legacy’ technology. Most of it is already ‘digital,’ and under constant development.

Ancient and modern

The world into which the modelers are selling their technology is both ancient and modern, hi tech and low tech. It is only partially within the ring-fence of the SPE. And it spreads beyond the G&G-based software units of the major vendors—as SIS president Kjell Eric Ostdahl recognized at the Paris Forum (see page 6 of this issue). For SimOpt to work, folks will have to look at other industries, notably refining, visit other trade shows, such as the metering and process control community and most importantly, to realize that there are many stakeholders beyond the reservoir community—not least HSE who need some gentle persuading that modelers are going to enhance production without blowing up the facility!

This article originally appeared in Oil IT Journal 2004 Issue # 10.

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