The seeds of modern well integrity management were sowed in the early 1990s in the fields of corrosion assessment and materials selection. Even as recently as 12 years ago, it was still a function struggling for definition. With only a bare understanding of the terminology, it was seen by many in the industry as a reactive process for analyzing well failure rather than a proactive function that could extend the life of the well.

The development of well integrity management, a hot topic in the industry, has coincided with and been driven by a number of factors. There’s the tightening of regulation around HSE. There’s the growing awareness that working toward the long-term sustainability of wells and platforms can deliver much more than short-term safety measures. Significant developments in IT enable far greater levels of automation and data management, making advanced analysis and real-time assessment possible.

Integrity management today
The industry’s current experience with well integrity management remains fairly broad. Some companies have yet to embrace it as a dynamic, automated and real-time risk and asset management process. They have turned paper records into electronic ones and have a dedicated folder in their office-based system, but that is about as far as they go.

These businesses still find it hard to add context to new information as it comes in. They don’t have ready access to the inventory of equipment installed on wells. They have to search through different documents to see what a given well looks like and then piece details together to find out what is installed on it. These companies still face operational inefficiencies and can end up prioritizing work that is not critically needed.

More forward-thinking operators have attempted to instill more of a management approach by using generic spreadsheets to record well information. Depending on the parameters they choose, this enables them to identify which wells look worse than others and develop some form of risk ranking capability. It is, however, still very manual and prone to human error.

More problematic is the fact that a spreadsheet can only provide a snapshot of what’s happening. Whether data are updated once a week or once a month, they still don’t provide trending information or give users the ability to look at historical data and identify recurring anomalies or issues.

Integrity management tomorrow
A growing number of proactive operators are integrating more data-driven and specialist well integrity software into their operations. Greater well instrumentation along with a drive for more automated data collection has created a situation that lends itself to using database software systems that can process and analyze data in real time.

This is the immediate future for well integrity management: a move away from tolerating daily or weekly snapshots of well activity to insistence on a real-time capability that enables operators to respond quickly to any change in circumstance or potential problem. This kind of software can identify immediately when a well goes out of its safe operating envelope and alerts relevant personnel that there is something that needs attention.

These kinds of database systems give operators all the information they need about the well in a single view plus access to background documentation. An efficient, single source of truth, the system is easy to interrogate so that pertinent information can be readily extracted. Crucially, it also ensures that everyone involved in a well’s management has access to exactly the same information at exactly the same time. When decisions have to be made regarding clashing priorities, everyone involved understands the precise status of the well.

Greater automation also allows global pooling of nonproprietary data for better understanding of operational effectiveness. For example, by comparing performance of a piece of equipment in use on the North Sea with other deployments of the same kit worldwide, operators can see whether their installation has a below-average or above-average lifespan. From there, they can establish whether it is the environment that is affecting performance or whether training, maintenance or other controllable factors are at play.

As the idea of the digital oil field becomes more firmly established in the industry, this type of system will be seen as the standard to aspire to. More operators are opting for dynamic real-time data over static snapshots to give decision-making an immediacy it did not have previously.

This serves two purposes: On one hand, it helps operators identify whether they have a problem that needs immediate mitigation. On the other, it enables a degree of production optimization where operators can set and monitor an individualized safe operating envelope for each well. In other words, well integrity becomes an enabler of smarter well management.

This is welcome news for operators currently wrestling with rapidly diminishing margins caused by the precipitous drop in oil price. The oil business has always been a series of careful balancing acts between safety, profitability, efficiency and regulation. The current market conditions have thrown that into stark relief and highlighted where the industry has been running itself too expensively.

Those that have implemented modern well integrity management software are in a better position to address some of the resulting challenges and ensure that every dollar spent on the well brings in a return.

Companies that have real-time insight into the status of their wells can optimize operations to extract maximum value out of their assets at minimum cost. By providing operators with a realistic view of a well’s risk status, essential interventions like chemical treatment or workovers can move to an appropriately timed schedule. Unnecessary shutdowns are minimized, maintenance time is optimized and even the use of a descaling or anti-corrosion agent becomes more efficient.

There’s an increasing drive from operators interested in extending the life of existing wells that had previously been considered at the end of their life, or even bringing older well sites back into production after being suspended for long periods. The same system that can assess real-time operations of live wells can determine whether there is value to be gained from rehabilitating old wells with relatively straightforward casing patches or tubing replacements. It could deliver another 10 years of active service at a fraction of the cost of drilling a new well.

Further into the future, well integrity will play an important role in shale gas operations. There’s plenty of scope for optimizing equipment to prevent well leakage and ensuring much faster detection of and response to potential leaks. In particular, it can support the smart control of chemicals injected to achieve optimal fracturing characteristics. Equally important, well integrity can provide the reassurance and confidence that will be needed to bolster public support for the shale gas sector.

Well integrity management has become a proactive, highly automated and data-driven process. It’s just one example of the big data phenomenon that has swept through every industry and an illustration of how that “data lake” can be turned to advantage. With high-performance software offering real-time insights, it will be a vital component for realizing the digital oil field.