A peek inside the world of oil today shows an industry moving more and more toward automation, both for safety and better economics.
These trends were mirrored in the water world as well during a water and oil tour Wednesday afternoon in Williston that included Nabors Drilling, ONEOK, Western Area Water Supply, and the Confluence. ONEOK said any material, other than their participation in the tour, could not be published.
The tour began in Williston at the headquarters for Western Area Water Supply, which was cosponsor of the tour with the North Dakota Water Education Foundation.
WAWS is also getting in on the automation game.
“Everything we have can be controlled from an iPad,” said Curtis Wilson, executive director of Western Area Water Supply Authority.
WAWS, Wilson said, is a unique partnership in the state. It was set up as a way to serve an oil and gas industry that suddenly needed millions more gallons of water than the region could supply, while at the same time bringing safe clean water to a dramatically increased population in the northwest region, many of whom also came here to work in the oil and gas sector.
The idea was to use the sale of industrial water to build out the system that the region as a whole needed.
Population in that region had more than doubled at the time, Wilson said, and supplying all of them with clean water was the overall mission of WAWS.
“We want to do it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the rural customer with debt,” he said.
That mission has brought water systems in Watford City, McKenzie County, Williams County and Williston together to create a system that today can deliver up to 21 million gallons of fresh, safe drinking water per day.
The water begins at the Williston Water Treatment Plant, situated along U.S. 85, which has an intake on the Missouri River.
The water goes through a series of processes that includes activated charcoal to remove organics and chlorine to kill bacterial agents. Minerals are also taken out of the water, and the pH is lowered from 11 to about 9.
Once the water has been purified, it is pumped out with 800 hp engines in 36-inch pipe, with an exit pressure of 160 psi.
“It has a long way to go,” explained Jeff Bryson, Williston Water Plant Supervisor.
The plant itself just needs half a megawatt to run, but it has two backup engines of 2 megawatts each. In the event of a power outage, the plant can be back up and running within 10 seconds, Bryson said.
By having two engines, the plant has some redundancies that ensure it will be able to keep operating, no matter what.
Redundancies are also an important concept out in the oilfield. At a rig, if there is a total power outage — a rig blackout — there is a machine on site that is capable of closing off pipe, ensuring that gas does not come to the surface when it shouldn’t.
Jim Shackleton, with Nabors, helps train new rig hands in a nine-day school that pairs hands-on practice with trips to actual rigs, where practice can be put into action.
The school itself also includes an actual working rig with a 550-foot cased hole.
During peak times, the school has trained 600 to 700 people annually.
Rig hands generally don’t pull pipe by hand any more, Shackleton said. There are automatic pipe spinners for that, which are run from an air-conditioned or heated control room, depending on the time of year.
“It’s a lot of hands off now,” Shackleton said. “Safety is No. 1.”
Taking men out of the hazardous parts of the job improves incident rates — something oilfield companies want to know about before they will sign a contract with a service company.
Appropriate automation helps to do just that, Shackleton said.
Cameras placed on rigs, for instance, can be used to monitor what is going on from a corporate office. If there is an issue, control of the rig can actually be transferred to a more experienced operator in that control room.
Shackleton said he’s not worried that automation will get rid of all the jobs in the Bakken. While Saudi Arabia has rigs on shallow wells that are near totally automatic, that was an expensive solution that cost many, many millions of dollars, he said, and indicated that really only works there because of the terrain.
“It won’t be like that here,” he said.
Instead, he suggested automation here would be judiciously used to improve safety, with turnkey types of solutions to processes that have proved dangerous in the past.
Another benefit to automation, Shackelton said, is streamlining processes, making them faster, and thus ever cheaper.
“That’s why you won’t see so many rigs here,” Shackleton said. “We’re drilling as much as we did then, but we’re drilling so fast now.”