Establishing Data Ethics in Oil and Gas Operations

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The use of data-driven cognitive solutions represents a major advancement in the management of oil and gas operations. The authors of this paper discuss data systems that enhance traditional, human-based monitoring systems, with the aim of approaching risk-free operations.


Aside from incidents in the oil and gas industry that have caused human and environmental harm, less widely publicized incidents known as financial fatalities have also been matters of great concern. The traditional approach of relying on a voluminous list of regulatory and standards-based manuals provided by professional organizations cannot be considered a substitute for proper learning and practice of ethics and risk management and for real-time data access and analytical tools to monitor operations. The net result has been a growing list, both domestically and internationally, of tight regulations for the industry.

Unfortunately, the general public's distrust of the oil business has also affected companies that have maintained the highest standards of safe and ethical operating practices. While the industry is changing rapidly through innovations in automation and smart digital technologies, negative perceptions persist in the minds of many. And unfortunately, despite impressive evolutionary changes that have taken place in data systems in the management of oil and gas operations, very little is heard about important positive, life-saving contributions made by petroleum products and the industry that supplies them in health care and transportation.

While handling process hazards within the industry, professionals are expected to provide domain expertise and follow the highest ethical standards for risk management. And although schools excel at imparting domain expertise to students, risk management and ethical decision making have not received similar attention in formal educational processes. 

A source of past weakness has been a lack of transparency. The traditional competitive nature of the industry has led to reluctance in sharing best practices and documentation about failures among competitors. The emergence of organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute and SPE has helped somewhat in the establishment of best practices and standards. Lessons learned from documented records of incidents in the past also have been motives for developing excellence in operating standards.

Oil and Gas Accidents and Related Injuries

Most major past oil and gas industry-related incidents have been caused by compromised occupational safety conditions; a specific contributor has been carelessness and recklessness on the part of workers, supervisors, and, sometimes, top company decision makers. Companies that have promoted responsible practices to minimize such incidents have done so by focusing on enforcing proper training enhanced with digital monitoring systems. Key elements include timely equipment repairs and maintenance and worker certification. Effective communication and data access must now become a part of the certification process before professionals can be permitted to function as decision makers.

Despite the many safety standards set by various organizations, oil and gas accidents can still occur at worksites in the presence of negligent employers or employees or defective products. Neglience has been a key feature of many past incidents and has led to significant environmental and safety impact.

A major problem also develops when workers are not adequately prepared for the potential risks associated with given operations. While steps can be taken to fortify regulations, the most critical thing is the operator’s attitude toward preparing workers for recognizing emerging vulnerabilities and understanding the various risks associated with any operation. This can be accomplished by equipping them with access to relevant data.

Managing Risks in the Industry

To serve its purpose in satisfying the world’s demand for oil and natural gas, the industry still needs to invest in challenging production areas, including reservoirs under ultradeep waters, unconventional resources, and assets in challenging environments such as the Arctic. While the oil industry cares very much about the protection of its critical infrastructure, in coming decades, what will matter more is how a company will obtain a license to operate. To obtain such privileges, oil and gas companies will have no choice but to further enhance the manner in which they conduct their ethical and regulatory business compliance. Companies can improve their value systems through attention to detail, accuracy, and transparency to minimize financial and operational risk and prevent operational underperformance. The management of oil and gas companies is also limited by the ability to find and hire qualified professionals who can apply their skill sets and ethical standards to make these operations safe.

Digital solutions can help particularly in remote monitoring and in simplifying complex asset management. The infusion of digital solutions in industry operations is what has been termed “smart” operations. Greater attention is now placed on the incorporation of digital solutions in both upstream and refinery operations. Safe and ethical operations require investing in the digital technologies to overcome the weaknesses associated with human factors.

Digital Solutions for Managing Ethics

To implement and honor plans that are effective while ethical, these digital solutions can indeed help professionals who may be faced with the task of making decisions under risky conditions. The concept of so-called “big data” is by itself ethically neutral and no perspectives can be formulated directly from raw data. The use of machine-learning algorithms and effective digital interpretation tools, however, can help reveal insights. Eventually, it is the individuals and companies that must use their value systems to select appropriate solutions.

The smart oilfield concept can provide input for reducing operational risk in areas of high vulnerability.  The primary ethical concern must be the minimization and mitigation of harm. A systems approach must avoid human bias and incorporate data sources that can identify potential problems by collecting facts and information. The data system needs to include static information such as manufacturing defects, dynamic information related to the continuous recording and monitoring of changes in operating conditions, and historical information. While focusing on data systems, a weakness to be addressed is the availability of real-time data to all decision makers and the administrative roadblocks and bottlenecks that affect the dissemination of real-time data alerts for engineering decision systems. Digital solutions must be accessible without administrative red tape and with sufficient access to various data sources including past-failure data.

A concern associated with the use of digital data systems and controls has been how to properly protect, secure, and maintain the integrity of the data. Data systems must also incorporate measures to safeguard against cyberattacks. Fortunately, many oil and gas companies are gradually adopting such measures and increasingly deploying other solutions.

The advent of the Internet of Things allows new strategies to be developed to fine-tune operations. The objectives are improving reliability, optimizing operations, and creating new value. The derived business values include machine-learning applications for systems monitoring and automated fault detection and surveillance.

Teaching Ethics: A Step Change for Reducing Risk

Certainly, decision-making with integrated data systems can help enable collaborative and ethical decision models. The integration of data-based ethics in engineering education will be crucial for the future of the industry. Through such education, a practitioner will acquire principles that can be applied in cases in which gray areas are encountered and conflicts among options exist. 

Fostering a culture of ethical professional behavior necessitates that a multitude of educational components be in place. New engineering graduates should be exposed to case studies of failures, and engineers in general need to be engaged academically in consequence studies that embody ethical and safety-related issues affecting operations. Safety training must engage the professional to realize a sense of personal vulnerability and responsibility. Risk perception is essential in safety-related behaviors. To prioritize the safety of workers over corporate profits, support from top management must exist.

The good news is that such systems have been and are being implemented in the industry. Various technologies, including in-memory computing, enterprise mobility, and analytics to integrate processes, are helping the industry make better decisions. Digital-oilfield services are assisting in data integration and analytics for production, maintenance, and engineering operations. Increasing operational insight in data collection, validation, surveillance, systems tracking, and real-time notification processes is improving the decision-making processes.

In the oil and gas industry, ethical decision making has been treated as an optimization process, with the objective function controlling the decision-making process being human safety and optimal environmental impact. What distinguishes risk vs. safety is the extent to which professionals running the industry can distance these objective functions from operational economics.

Knowledge Discovery From Big Data

An ethical decision should be based on readily accessible options for inquiry, relevant analysis methods, and timely actions. These will help to substantially improve organizational capability. The critical elements are data security and the variety of possibilities that arise from correlating available data. Information technology tools adopted by the oil and gas industry are quite sophisticated.

A brief review of a few technologies developed for extracting useful information from oilfield data can demonstrate the complexity in innovating smart data-management systems. In the development of these new technologies, information-technology scientists must collaborate with oilfield specialists. To highlight a few, the authors list, in the complete paper, a series of technologies developed at the Center for Interactive Smart Oilfield Technologies established in 2003 by Chevron at the University of Southern California.

This article, written by JPT Technology Editor Chris Carpenter, contains highlights of paper SPE 190117, “Data Ethics in Oil and Gas Operations,” by Iraj Ershaghi, SPE, University of Southern California; Milad A. Ershaghi, SPE, Consultant; and Andrei Popa, SPE, Chevron, prepared for the 2018 SPE Westen Regional Meeting, Garden Grove, California, USA, 22–27 April. The paper has not been peer reviewed.



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