Pillars of Industry

The Need for Change in the E&P Industry—Could Cross-Discipline Careers Be the Key?

A generalist or a specialist? This is an ambiguous and debatable topic that plays on the minds of many young professionals starting off in the industry. A generalist has the advantages of being able to better appreciate other disciplines and the information obtained from them, while a specialist may be better able to solve intricate problems.

Take a read of our featured article by Gerrit Nitters, who has alternated between research and working in the field to implement the ideas generated at the research centers—giving us a fresh perspective and new insight into crossing over between disciplines.

Tony Thomas

Here I am in June 1968, a freshly graduated chemical engineer. At that time, it was no problem to find a job. In fact, most of my classmates already had a job before graduation. So did I, on the condition I would pass all examinations, of course. I started in September 1968 with Shell Chemicals Research with a BS degree in chemical engineering.

When the Arabic world closed the tap to the Western world in 1973, there was a surge in demand for alternative sources and, hence, human resources. I moved over to the E&P side of Shell and started working on well-stimulation research. And I never regretted it! Over the years, I worked in both research and operations at various places. This allowed me to perform research and apply the products of research in the field. I am now Head of Well Stimulation and Impairment Prevention Research of Shell Intl. In addition, I am Shell’s global adviser on well-stimulation matters.

These are some of things I did in the course of my career:

Started development of an acid-stimulation design method in 1975 working in Shell Research.

When I moved from Chemicals to E&P, I knew nothing about the oil patch. I learned quickly that it was a very different game. The world had just come to realize that there were limits to growth. At the time, there was no limit to funds to increase oil production. Shell E&P Research expanded rapidly. The laboratory doubled in size within 1½ years. I started as a research engineer trying to understand the chemistry of sandstone acidizing. We developed the first model describing the reactions that take place when acid is pumped into a sandstone reservoir.

I moved to Venezuela in 1977.

It was my first exposure to the oil field. The idea was to gain hands-on experience in planning, design, execution, and evaluation of well-stimulation treatments, both fracturing and acidizing. I got an impressive job title: Jefe Ingeniero Estimulationes Lacustres. It meant that I had to put on boots and a hard hat and act as the company man on every single stimulation job carried out in Lake Maracaibo. I carried out around 40 frac treatments during the field assignment in Venezuela. In doing that, I introduced the use of a new frac-design program and some of the ideas we developed at the time on acid treatments. It showed me that research and practice are two entirely different worlds.

I went back to research in 1979.

I took up the further development of stimulation design method (predecessor of STIM2001). I worked on a range of topics related to matrix stimulation. I researched sandstone-acidizing chemistry again and various placement and diverting techniques. The two years in operations were of tremendous value.

After 3 years in research, I went back to the field in 1982, this time in Scotland.

I was tasked with the development of a stimulation policy for Shell Expro, both gas and oil fields. Again, it allowed me to directly apply research results such as using new fluids and newer versions of our design programs. Again, I spent quite some time on the wellsite. The conditions were very different though: from small single-well platforms in about 30 m of water depth in a relatively quiet lake to multistory, multiple-well production platforms in the northern North Sea.

In 1985, I returned once again to Shell Research in Rijswijk.

I continued working on various sandstone-acidizing and -fracturing topics. In addition, I wrote and edited well-stimulation manuals, both fracturing and acidizing, for the Shell Group. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that people started to see me as one of the few Shell specialists on well stimulation. I was beyond the point of return.

At the end of 1990, I was transferred to Shell’s central office in The Hague.

In the early 1990s, I initiated a Stimulation Promotion Plan for the Shell Group, resulting in widespread application of well stimulation in the Shell operating units. After 5 years, the production attributed to stimulation increased to 150,000 BOPD in 1996, more than double the volume obtained in 1991. Again, I supported the execution of stimulation treatments on site as design engineer, boots and hard hat on. Recognizing that there is a lot of valuable knowledge with the service companies, we teamed up with a service provider to develop a matrix-treatment design program, which is now widely applied in the Shell Group. It taught me that working with people outside your own company is very rewarding.

As a result of reorganization, I moved back to Shell Research in 1996 in Rijswijk.

Initially, my job remained the same as the one I had in the central office but with more direct contact and interaction with research and still supporting the field in the execution of stimulation treatments. Over the years, I was on jobs all over the globe. I also had the opportunity to work on the development of novel stimulation technologies, such as application of sound waves. At the same time, we started looking at ways to prevent impairment.

In 2001, I moved to Shell Research in Houston to become the team leader of Shell’s global well-stimulation research group. Since 2003, I am back again in Rijswijk primarily as the global adviser on well stimulation for Shell.

I am setting up stimulation guidelines and standards and teach our field people how to use them. It involves a lot of travel, and I meet a lot of people in the operating units. And still, the great thing again is the possibility to apply research results in the field and to learn from the field engineers what their needs are. This feedback allows me to steer the research such that we work on resolving these problems and needs.

In 1979, I joined SPE and had my first paper published in 1985.

Writing papers at Shell at the time was your ticket to visit conferences. Actively participating in SPE does a number of things for you:

  • You learn a lot from others.
  • You get a good perspective on your own work.
  • You create a network of professionals outside your own company.
  • You find new friends.

I have always maintained good working relations with my colleagues in the service industry. I strongly believe that only by combining their knowledge and experience with your own will you get the best results. A good example of that is the cooperation with the frac crews in Germany in the 1990s. In that period, a large number of the gas wells in northern Germany were fracture stimulated. In general, we took the data from minifrac tests to design the main frac treatment. I used the Shell proprietary design software to make a design. And so did the Halliburton or Schlumberger engineer. Then, we would get together and compare the designs and reach agreement on a final design, listening to each other’s arguments. Often it also involved discussion with staff from partners in the operations. Overall, the jobs were very successful, with a four-fold increase in production on average. Over the years, we had only three failures. It was real teamwork.

Oil Patch at a Crossroads

When Colonel Drake struck oil in Titusville in 1859, did he know that the event would change the face of the Earth? That it was the start of the most important change in the history of modern times? Probably not! He sold the oil as lamp oil and medicine. It took the perseverance of other visionary men and women and years of hard work to turn oil into the lifeline of our modern world. But how long will it stay that way? Is the end in sight? Are the oil and gas reserves getting used up? And is that really necessary for the Oil Age to end?

The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones.

Likewise, the Oil Age might end because something better comes along. Or something cheaper. But not necessarily because we run out of oil. At the last SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, one of the general sessions centered on oil prices. How it could soon pass the U.S. $100 line! If it actually happens, it would be the beginning of the end of the Oil Age. Solar energy, wind energy, etc., currently costs around $50–60/BOE. And with investment in research, the costs of alternatives will drop! Countries like China, India, and developing countries elsewhere would simply direct investment funds into the further development of the alternatives and skip the Oil Age, at least partly.

So to stay in business we, as an industry, have to change. More than ever, the survival of the oil industry depends on research. We have to invest in research to produce the remaining oil and gas (there is still a lot) and to pursue alternative uses of oil and gas, while we can.

The industry is now making lots of money. But money is not enough. Perhaps even more important are men and women with a “Drake spirit”: people who can think outside of the box and are willing to persevere in realizing their ideas.

The Need for Change

Although I always stayed with Shell, my career is characterized by change. First I moved from Chemicals to E&P, and then I changed positions on average every 3 years. Over time, I had 11 different positions in The Netherlands, Venezuela, Scotland, and the U.S. And I had about 20 bosses (I lost count). Never a dull moment!

The willingness to change constantly is key to a successful career and life in the oil industry, whether you stay with one company or not. This is now more important than ever perhaps. Change is the only constant factor. This is true for an individual because the world changes constantly. It is also true for the organizations we work in.

Let’s have a look at the history of well stimulation. When the first acid treatment was carried out in 1895, this was probably considered to be a novel idea that would not last very long. Although it took another 40 years before it became a standard oilfield technique to boost production, it has never gone away again. Then, the first frac job was carried out in 1947 in the Hugoton field, Kansas. Also, fracture stimulation has become a standard treatment of wells that produce below expectation.

Well stimulation is here to stay. Over the years, it delivered billions of barrels of oil to the industry worldwide. The exact volume is difficult to establish, but one major oil company estimates it amounts to around 1.8 billion BOE over the last 50 years. Acidizing and fracturing are two technologies that still form the bulk of all stimulations.

Well stimulation requires input from many disciplines. Selection of candidates needs the input of well engineers as well as reservoir engineers. Treatment design cannot be done without proper knowledge about the geology of the reservoir and its petrophysical properties. But production chemistry also plays an important role. Execution can be done properly only with the support of operations engineers and well services. Even facility engineers need to be involved, because the back-produced fluids might affect the water/oil separation in the plants. It is the task of the stimulation engineer to make sure that integration of all these disciplines actually happens.

Over the years, an oil or gas well has evolved from a “hole in the ground” to a highly sophisticated multilateral smart well. Acidizing or fracture treating such wells is almost impossible. These methods are also getting increasingly costly and difficult to apply in the challenging environments (deep water, arctic) our industry is working in today. Modern completions, such as multilaterals and smart wells, call for new technologies to be found and applied. Incremental changes, as were done over the last few decades on conventional stimulation methods, are insufficient. We need a step change.

As Head of Well Stimulation Research, I am now involved in new initiatives on well stimulation for which we coined the name WAVES. It is about reviving and improving acoustic and ultrasonic stimulation methods and application of new methods. We cannot do this alone. Research institutes around the world, including some new players, are working on novel alternatives, such as various forms of sound waves. Also, application of heat is being revived. Can we use electrical heaters to stimulate wells?

At the same time, diagnostic technologies that analyze what is wrong with the well are emerging, as well as new ways to interpret these data. Together with developments on downhole power generation, this opens the door to self-maintaining wells. It would change the face of well stimulation completely. I don’t think that conventional methods such as acidizing and fracturing will go away. If not for anything else, it is still there to make sure we start off the well in optimum condition. There is a long way to go. Further improvements in a variety of technologies need to be made so that the well is producing at its optimum throughout its full life cycle. The challenge that lies ahead of us is to develop technologies that maximize productivity with a minimum of intervention.

Gerrit Nitters is Head of Well Stimulation and Impairment Prevention Research of Shell Intl. and is Shell’s global adviser on well stimulation. He earned a BS degree in chemical engineering and has 30 years of experience in research and practical application of well stimulation. Nitters has worked in a variety of jobs in The Netherlands, the U.K., Venezuela, and the U.S. He has authored and coauthored many papers on well stimulation and actively promotes stimulation technologies by participating on organizing committees for SPE conferences and events. Nitters served as Chairperson of the Program Committee for the SPE 2005 European Formation Damage Conference. Currently he is Distinguished Lecturer for SPE on the subject of well stimulation and serves on the Forum Series implementation committee for the eastern hemisphere. In addition, he is a member of the Well Stimulation Subcommittee for the 2006 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition. He is married with three children. His daughter Ella Nitters, a professional illustrator, provided the illustration for this article.



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