Operators identify skills shortage in flow assurance

The oil and gas industry is facing a shortage of trained engineers as the cohort that joined the industry in the 1970s retire. This is particularly severe in the flow assurance field, which, according to Multi-Chem, a subsidiary of Halliburton, is something that oil companies need to focus on due to the threat of hydrate formation caused by the increased exploitation of deepwater fields.

Credit: 3dmentat

Paul Fairhurst, the Managing Director of Fairhurst Flow Assurance Solutions, told Upstream Intelligence that there was a “serious worldwide shortage of skills” in this area.

Skills crunch

According to Fairhust, this was being exacerbated both by a lack of formal training in flow assurance engineering and by the gradual disappearance of engineers who have acquired their skills through experience.

“There are very few courses in flow assurance. Can you base an industry on that? No, you can’t – it’s not until you’re a long way through the academic process before you see anything that looks like flow assurance,” said Fairhurst, who previously managed BP’s research into multiphase flow.

Kevin Lacy, the Executive Vice President of training organisation Petroskills, said there was “a demographic trend for skills to leave the industry. Most people don’t actively work past 60 and you would say that things are becoming more complex and it’s getting harder and harder for a single individual to keep abreast of developments given the complexity of operations. We’re halfway through the demographic bulge [of engineers who joined in the 1970s].”

Flow assurance and deepwater

The increasing risks associated with flow assurance stem from the industry’s increasing need to produce oil from deepwater fields.

This tendency clearly emerged in the recent Lease Sale 235 held by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on March 18, 2015. Of the 169 tracts that received bids, 100 were deeper than 2,624 feet. Furthermore, in the last quarter of 2014, work began on five deepwater projects in the GoM: Cardamom Deep and Cardona (Stone Energy), Jack/St. Malo (Chevron), Dalmatian (Murphy Oil), Tubular Bells (Hess).

Zubin Patel, Director of Deepwater and Flow Assurance Engineering at Multi-Chem, a subsidiary of Halliburton, said the "number one flow assurance problem" now faced by oil companies was dealing with the threat of hydrate formation caused by the exploitation of deepwater fields with tie-backs to platforms that can stretch as far as 100 or more miles.

“In deep water there are a lot of flow assurance issues when production fluids cool down in a flow line. The issue with hydrates is that unlike wax and scale, which develop over time, hydrate blockages can occur very quickly under the right conditions,” he said.

He added that hydrate blockages can take as long as a year to relieve, and the costs caused by deferred production and remediation in deepwater environments could stretch into the tens of millions of dollars.

In the past, the oil and gas industry has tended to avoid producing oil if there was a risk of hydrate formation, partly because clearing blockages is risky – lives have been lost as a result of damage caused by the release of melting hydrate plugs – and partly because the standard methods of preventing them from forming required high capital and operational expenditures.

Fast reactions

However, many companies have decided to take a risk management approach to flow assurance.

The goal is to set up a system to prevent hydrate formation and then to manage it continuously using real time data, with the aim of immediate intervention in the event of a malfunction.

Patel says an increasingly popular option in terms of price and effectiveness is the use of low dosage hydrate inhibitors, for example anti-agglomerants (AA) that allow hydrates to form, but prevent them from coalescing to block pipes.

“Advances in AA chemistries as well as better testing equipment and techniques in the lab have opened the door to long sub-sea tiebacks that would otherwise have been uneconomical to produce. As a result, the use of continuous AA – their injection 24 hours a day into wells – has grown considerably particularly in the Gulf of Mexico in the past six years,” he said.

This approach places a premium on the skills of platform staff and the service company engineers who monitor the performance of the system. A modern low-dosage system requires “the continuous monitoring of the wells and flowlines, every injection valve, the delivery system, the tanks, pumps, filters and umbilicals, always watching topside separation, continuously updating your modelling as conditions evolve”, Patel added.

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Meeting the challenge

As well as chemical and thermal systems, other technologies designed to promote deepwater flow assurance are being developed and deployed. One technology that has emerged in the past few years is the subsea separation of gases and liquids by the wellhead, which prevents the chemical interactions that cause hydrate formation.

Fairhurst, who was involved in designing the subsea equipment used on the deepwater Pazflor field off the coast of Angola, said: “It’s costly and risky to produce from deepwater but you have to prove you can manage the risk. You have to set up the [subsea separation] equipment, monitor it and always expect it to be not what you expected.”

There are signs that the industry as a group is responding to the combination of the skills squeeze and an increase in technical difficulty. Patel said there was evidence of an increased willingness among operators and service companies to share their experiences.

“I go to consortiums, conferences, congresses, and they’re starting to get better about that – they’re sharing knowledge, lessons learned, and that sort of thing has really helped. On top of that you have active research going on in areas such as multi-phase flow modelling and computational fluid dynamics,” he added.

“You have chemical companies all trying to come up with the latest and greatest new chemicals and equipment manufacturers and service companies trying to develop better insulation, active heating technologies, and better subsea separation techniques. At the same time, I think there’s still a lot of room in the future to develop even more advanced technologies to better manage hydrate risk.”