December 2017

Energy Issues

New Year’s resolutions
William J. Pike / World Oil

At this time of year, my wife often asks for my New Year’s resolutions. It is a tough question, because I generally don’t have any, or, at least, do not have any fully formulated resolutions. I am trying to improve this year to stay on her good side. Here’s how it is going. In the New Year, I promise to be:

Less judgmental: As a contractor to the National Energy Technology Laboratories, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, I am often asked to review proposals for research, and to recommend whether or not that research and development should be funded. This last year, I received a proposal broadly entitled, “Sealing Nuclear Storage Wells with High Explosives.” When I picked myself up off the floor, after a few minutes of laughing uncontrollably at the idea of sealing a nuclear source with explosives, I actually read the proposal. Much to my surprise, the idea was brilliant, using thermite to create a melted metal seal at the top of the well. I had been extremely judgmental, jumping to a conclusion without examining the material.

It has happened often. Very early in my career, I assumed that a trailer had been fastened securely to the truck that would be hauling it and, coincidentally, the truck I would be driving, by my colleague. It had not. When it came unhitched from the truck at a speed of about 50 mph, and went roaring along the side of the road, taking out power poles and a gas loop, I was more than judgmental about my colleague’s failure to attach the trailer firmly. After consideration, I realized it was my responsibility to check the trailer’s connection to the truck. So, I will try to be less judgmental in the coming year.

More up-to-date: I wasn’t born when dinosaurs roamed the earth, but I came along shortly afterwards. My experience stretches back to bolted derricks, cable tool units, 1950s-era pumping units, and fluid levels obtained using 12-gauge shotgun shells (without pellets). In the process of wading through this aged technology, I broke three ribs, ruptured an ear drum, and got second-degree chemical burns over a significant part of my body. It was memorable—too much so. I tend to relate things today to things back then. When dealing with evolving technology, that creates issues. 

Sure, I have caught up: My job working in government research laboratories demands that I must. I can talk “big data.” I can talk sophisticated reservoir imaging. I can talk evolving EOR techniques. But, there is a tendency to relate all the new technology to that which has passed, often long ago. It makes the new technology seem magical. But, I have to give it up and realize that all this amazing new technology is merely a set of stepping stones to the truly magical technologies of the future—to the days when fiber optic seismic sensors will be the covered wagons of subsurface imaging.

Wary of assumptions: A number of years ago (see “More up-to-date” above, to see why I should not mention this) I accomplished something amazing. I launched a 20-something-foot-high heater treater over a 6-ft fence. I did it, because I made an assumption. I had depressurized the treater to work on its gas output valve. I thought I had fixed the problem but was not sure. I opened the input valve to allow fluids to enter the vessel, assuming that, if the valve was not fixed, the pop-off valve would open, and vent the separated gas before anything dire could happen. 

Of course, the pop-off valve did not work, the gas over-pressured the vessel, venting through corrosion in the bottom, and the heater treater became airborne. While the treater got to experience the joys of flight, I got to endure the pain of an extended lecture on safety. This was followed by another lecture on safety soon after, when I assumed that a hook on a vehicle lift in the company yard had not engaged the bumper of my truck. It had and, as I backed up, the lift toppled over onto my truck, smashing the windshield and denting the hood. There followed another well-deserved safety lecture.

I suspect that I am not the only one who is making these New Year’s resolutions. To those of us who are, good luck. They are worth a try, especially in the wider industry. And, with regard to our industry, perhaps the most relevant New Year’s resolution would be to resolve to engage the public more. One such engagement should be about fracturing. In the last week of November, The Dallas Morning News carried a story above the fold on the front page entitled “Scientists dispute EPA fracking study.” It detailed the ongoing discussions about the dangers that fracturing poses to drinking water in various states. The two-and-one-half-page article did not have any input from our industry (the writer most probably did not want it). In the larger, national/global debate on the dangers of fracturing, the industry is seldom represented. That is our mistake.

We have to step up as an industry. We have to acknowledge that there is a very slight danger that drinking water may be contaminated during fracturing, due to failures in well integrity. But we also have to make the public aware that our safety record, especially with regard to water contamination, is much better than most of the other energy options. If you don’t believe me, take a drive through the coal mining regions of eastern America. In places, you will see purplish, highly acidic coal mine water running by the road. 

With regard to our industry, you can’t supply more than 50% of the world’s total energy supply without some risk. We have, as an industry, always had a target on our back. But we can’t lock ourselves in the closet and expect it to go away. If we stay in the closet, it will only get worse. wo-box_blue.gif

About the Authors
William J. Pike
World Oil
William J. Pike has 47 years’ experience in the upstream oil and gas industry, and serves as Chairman of the World Oil Editorial Advisory Board.
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