BY SCOTT REDEPENNING

EVERY OIL WELL IN THE WORLD EVENTUALLY STOPS PRODUCING. SOME LOSE PRESSURE ALTOGETHER, WHILE OTHERS BRING FORTH SO LITTLE OIL VOLUME THAT THEY CEASE TO BE ECONOMICALLY VIABLE. THIS DECLINE IS INEVITABLE, AND YET THE HARD TRUTH IS THAT SOME 60 PERCENT OF THE OIL IN THE RESERVOIR BENEATH THE WANING WELL REMAINS TRAPPED AND UNTAPPED. RISING GLOBAL ENERGY DEMAND HAS OPERATORS EYEING THIS IDLE RESOURCE, AND THE HIGHER OIL PRICES CLIMB, THE MORE THEY WANT TO BRING IT TO THE SURFACE. THAT’S WHERE NALCO CHAMPION AND INTEGRATED PARTNERS TIORCO AND FABTECH ENTER THE PICTURE.

Chemical EOR

At this moment, the vast majority of the world’s oil is produced “naturally.” Basically this means new wells are drilled, and about a third of the oil beneath flows out due to pressures in the reservoir. However, as new drilling becomes increasingly complex and costly, a rising percentage of the world’s production is achieved through enhanced oil recovery (EOR), in which artificial forces are introduced to those same reservoirs to push out much of the remaining oil.

In order to do this, a second well is used to inject fluids into the formation that prod the oil toward the production well. Typically the first activity is to flood the reservoir with water, which re-pressurizes the formation and squeezes out about 15 percent more of the reserves. Next comes EOR. Various methods can be employed, including pumping steam, CO2 or chemicals down the injection well to coax out much of the most elusive oil. The use of polymers and surfactants is known as chemical EOR, and according to Chuck Norman, vice president of global technical sales for TIORCO, no other provider in the world delivers chemical solutions more efficiently and effectively than the one-two-three punch of Nalco Champion, TIORCO and Nalco FabTech.

“To solve challenges with chemistry you need a lab, but we are so much more than a lab,” he says. “We are the only company that offers everything a client needs, soup to nuts. We have scientists who develop amazing polymers, but we also have reservoir engineers who collaborate with the scientists to solve real client issues. Then we have FabTech on the team to fabricate exactly the right equipment to execute the solution in the field on any scale we need. And of course we have Nalco Champion helping the client on the production end. Nobody puts it all together like we do.”

TIORCO and FabTech, both industry leaders in their own right, were brought into the Nalco Champion family in 2008 and 2010 respectively, creating a fusion of knowledge and capability unmatched in the industry. Operators who embrace chemical EOR are benefiting from the synergy. “We are breathing new life into assets that would otherwise be dormant,” Norman says. “We are helping clients take marginally economic fields and extending their lives by two or three decades.”

PRACTICAL, ASTONISHING CHEMISTRY

Norman adds that not every reservoir turns out to be right for chemical EOR, a fact that is openly shared with the client. “After thorough analysis, we will only move forward if we believe the solution can be economically viable. Our first mission is to solve our clients’ challenges today. We are a practical solution provider. We are not here to run science experiments.”

That said, this very sensible approach springs from astonishing science. Imagine a porous rock formation, full of oil, deep underground. Waterflooding pushes some of this oil out, but during the process the water seeks the path of least resistance, creating rivers through the rock that bypass much of the oil. These are thief zones. TIORCO designs polymers that activate at the right time and place in the formation to plug the thief zones and redirect subsequent flooding to the trapped oil. Other polymers thicken the floodwaters to dislodge thicker oil. Finally, surfactants (soaps) are introduced to scrub the most stubborn oil from the rocks. After all of this, about a third of the oil remains in the reservoir, unable to be economically extracted. Still, billions of incremental barrels are harvested through chemical EOR, and the numbers will inevitably increase.

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THE UNION OF SOLVERS

Christine Staples is director of marketing and business development for TIORCO. Part of her job is to make sure the teamwork works. She says any given project may have up to 45 people in different locations reporting to different parts of the organization, but all working to solve one client challenge. “We have engineers who analyze real rock and fluid samples from the reservoir to see what chemistry we need, then we have geniuses who come up with the cutting-edge molecules,” she says. “Next we test the reservoir conditions on a small scale in the lab to prove the chemistry, and finally our reservoir engineers simulate full-field results using complex mathematical models. FabTech designs and builds the equipment needed to get the chemical program effectively into the formation. Plus we have our Nalco Champion people right there in the field or on the platform servicing the job, managing the chemical programs and measuring the incremental oil. We work very hard to make the collaboration work, and make sure the customer sees only one entity.”

Senior R&D Manager Bill Andrews adds that the team works because its focus is always squarely locked on the customer. “The more we all work together, the more risk is removed for them,” he says. “We have people coming at the problem from all points of view: engineering, chemistry, process, manufacturing. They may butt heads a little but they always come up with the right solution. And it’s always a custom solution to solve the client’s exact challenge. No square peg jammed into a round hole.” Andrews says that even more risk is eliminated because Nalco Champion is there to help the client on the receiving end of the EOR program. Remember, the ultimate goal is to get more oil out, at the highest quality possible. “What really drives it home is that our expertise goes beyond recovery. Our clients want clean oil. We can adjust our chemistry to affect how the oil comes out. Plus, by having Nalco Champion resources on the team, we can use oilfield chemicals to solve emulsion and scale problems and deliver that quality end product.”

Staples says that as the team gets busy solving a challenge the enthusiasm is nearly uncontainable, and that’s a good thing. “This collaboration creates a lot of energy, which is infectious to the customer who then gets on board as a vital part of the team. The atmosphere here becomes pretty remarkable.”

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BUILDING SUCCESS

On the outskirts of Casper, Wyoming, sits the world’s premier facility for the custom design and fabrication of oil and gas field plants and equipment. FabTech occupies 17 buildings sprawled over a 34-acre complex where 165 exceptionally skilled team members build about 360 projects a year. The facility is 280 miles away from Denver-based TIORCO, but FabTech President Larry Rubis says from a teamwork perspective the two companies are in the same room.

“When TIORCO designs a solution, the client needs to know if that chemical recipe can be delivered in the field. Since we’ve been involved from the start, we can provide a quote very quickly so the client can assess the economics and expected returns,” Rubis says. “When a project comes in, we evaluate the polymer, the location and the operating requirements. We design the right system to deliver the solution into the formation in the right way. We build the plant, test it, deliver, install and commission it, and train the client’s people to run it.”

Oilfield economics are straightforward. Operators want to produce more oil sooner. FabTech Process Engineer Zach Logan says this organization is set up to deliver. “Polymer injections are held to a very high standard, and they will shut down an operation if something is off-spec. Teaming with TIORCO gives us an advantage others don’t have,” he says. “If there are changes to the chemistry, we know early on and we can make modifications very quickly, sometimes on the fly, to adjust.

“When TIORCO is engaged with a customer, we are right there with them,” Logan adds. “The communication and adaptation is in real time, so when the time comes to build, we are ready. Plus TIORCO is better at designing solutions that will succeed in the field because they work with us. If they had to go to an outside fabricator, there would be a lot more hiccups along the way.”

So far, virtually all chemical EOR programs have been on land where equipment size usually isn’t a deal-killing issue. The next frontier is offshore where platform space is severely limited, and FabTech and TIORCO are at the forefront. They are designing compact equipment units with enormous capacities that can feed multiple wells, and simultaneously creating innovative polymers that allow smaller hydration tanks and less storage.

Recent tests for a client in Brazil proved out a system that can pump a new polymer four miles down into an offshore rock formation without degradation. Plus, having the ability to dovetail the chemical program with Nalco Champion’s production program is a real advantage for the client, because the collective team can predict and solve production challenges that may not arise for years. While Rubis never doubted the team could do it, he says this is no easy feat with a compact system, especially when factoring in safety and serviceability. “Safety is everything to us. Our units must be easy and safe to run and service, which is very hard to do in tight offshore confines. This focus is one of our biggest claims to fame,” he says. “Our people thrive on the quality and safety culture here.”

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“SAFETY IS EVERYTHING TO US. OUR UNITS MUST BE EASY AND SAFE TO RUN AND SERVICE, WHICH IS VERY HARD TO DO IN TIGHT OFFSHORE CONFINES.”

LARRY RUBIS PRESIDENT, FABTECH

EOR = EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITIES RISING

There is no more easy oil. The era of conventional supergiant discoveries has long passed. Now operators are taking on the difficult challenge of producing the huge reserves left behind in old reservoirs, and Nalco Champion is helping them get it done. One of the greatest obstacles has been finding acceptable water to blend with the polymers before injection. A typical mature oil well produces far more water than oil, much of it dirty enough to be mistaken for week-old coffee. Instead of fighting it, TIORCO is developing technologies to swim with the current.

Christine Staples says recent research and development has focused on putting the nastiest water to work. “We have adapted our chemistry to the trend, which is allowing us to perform with really bad water. Plus we are developing equipment that can handle widely fluctuating water quality so we can change the formulations without changing the equipment,” she says. “We call this approach ‘lock and key,’ and it is the essence of everything we do. We lock and key the chemistry to the equipment so it works together perfectly. That’s how we provide value to customers where one plus one equals three.”

Chuck Norman says operators are coming to understand this value, some the hard way. “Some companies don’t like a single source. They want to break the pieces up and try to get the best price for each piece. What happens is you save a dime, but you spend a dollar when you try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. With us there is no miscommunication, no misapplication, no mismatching of equipment and chemical, no finger pointing, no excuses. We verify our solutions in the lab before rolling them out. If there’s going to be a failure, we would rather do it in a test tube, not in the field,” he says. “We mitigate both technical and economic risks, and in the end we help clients achieve the production volumes and timing they expect. That’s what it is all about.”

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#1 Neeraj Rohilla simulates reservoir conditions for chemical testing with the TIORCO EOR core flooding system.
#2 FabTech-fabricated heat exchanger skid package, staged for shipping to Cabinda, Angola.
#3 Baharak Barzegar Alamdari determines incremental oil production from a core flood experiment.
#4 FabTech Field Welder Dave Burnett welds one of hundreds of stainless steel spools connecting CO2 Water Alternating Gas (WAG) injection/production facilities to the lines from the wellheads.
#5 FabTech’s winch truck pulling an 18’ wide x 65’ long x 20’ tall WAG building from the shop.
#6 TIORCO’s ASP conformance trailer, designed and fabricated by FabTech to assist in enhanced oil recovery chemical injections.
#7 FabTech Quality Control Inspector Steve O’Neal inspects stainless steel pipe welds.
#8 Cutting steel with FabTech’s 60,000 psi waterjet.
#9 Danny Zhu prepares anaerobic polymer samples for thermal stability testing.
#10 FabTech-built, CO2 WAG 16-well injection facility.

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RIGHT OF WAY

Right of way in a production unit is determined by kinetic energy and inherent ability. Pedestrians yield to railroad, heavy equipment operations and emergency vehicles. All other traffic yields to pedestrians.
Kelly Lenz
SH&E Advisor

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