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The logic of petroleum science: finding ways to extend the life of hydrocarbon reserves

Mars Hasanov, Director for Science at Gazprom Neft, Doctor of Technical Sciences, Professor

Oil and gas are exhaustible resources. We live with the fear that they will soon run out, although the Russian oil industry continues to be successful at replacing reserves and maintaining levels of production. The reason for this achievement can be found in the research laboratories. Scientific and technological thinking creates the conditions for the viable development of deposits that, just a few decades ago, would have been considered unprofitable; innovations mean that oil workers can reach almost uninhabited regions and allow production under harsh conditions of the Arctic shelf. We talked to the Director for Science at Gazprom Neft, Doctor of Technical Sciences, Professor Mars Hasanov about the role of science in giving the oil and gas industry unlimited opportunities.

— Mars Magnavievich, the oil industry is highly knowledge-intensive. Until recently, the main progress related to extraction via artificial lift, whereas today these innovations are being used alongside cloud technologies. What changes have taken place and how would you characterise the current stage of industry development?

— The fuel and energy industry has always been at the forefront of scientific progress. When it comes to artificial lift, the problem was that, in Soviet times equipment manufacturers did not receive large-scale orders from oil producers for high-performance submersible pumps. And even so, the focus of oil engineers’ attention was on the early stages of field development, i.e. exploration, selection of optimal technological schemes for development, field facilities construction, drilling, etc.

New territories such as “The Second Baku”, Western Siberia, Central Asia, Timan-Pechora were actively developed during the Soviet period. This required careful analysis and rigorous engineering calculations at the earliest stages of project implementation. People paid great attention to modelling technologies, the investigation of reservoirs, and data processing.

The problem is that the most serious mistakes tend to be made during first stages of a project, but choosing the right solutions and minimising errors can yield significant gains. Decisions made in the early phases of a project carry disproportionate significance, whereas those made later — at the extraction stage — carry less weight.

Nowadays, the focus on oil engineering is even more intense.

— Is Gazprom Neft’s scientific strategy focused precisely on this area?

— Yes, the paradigm hasn’t changed. Whereas previously there were discoveries of fields such as Samotlor, with reserves standing at billions of tonnes, the recoverable reserves of those fields discovered today average 10–15 million tonnes.

In the past, we used to work on formations with a permeability of one darcy, but nowadays we are talking about one millidarcy. That is, the permeability has decreased to a thousandth of what it was. In the past, we could make mistakes in the very early stages of the project, and we were able to correct them, since oil from a large number of high-productivity wells covered the costs. But today we can’t afford to make mistakes. Requirements for the validity of technological decisions, the choice of development plan and methods for the construction of field facilities are becoming increasingly demanding. The oil industry has always been one of the most digitalised, so the new technologies of the digital age are actively used in design, modelling, decision-making and engineering throughout the entire oil and gas production chain.

— Oil production is becoming increasingly difficult every year. Does this increase the scientific intensity of the oil and gas industry?

— Scientific intensity increases with the increase of uncertainty, as we enter new areas requiring new knowledge. In its earliest days, from the 1930s to the 1950s, the oil industry was extremely knowledge-intensive. At that point the science of oil was created by the forces of only two countries: the USSR and the USA. From the 1950s to the 1990s, it was possible to work on an established scientific basis, by replicating proven approaches. At the turn of the 21st century, the highly productive deposits discovered during Soviet times began to be depleted. Companies were forced to switch to low-permeability formations, such as the Priobskoye field. And it took fresh approaches to design, as well as new technologies, to increase the productivity of reservoirs. The oil industry becomes knowledge-intensive when the class of reserves changes.

Today, the past provides little guidance for our decision-making; experience isn’t much help. Every decision needs to be calculated, modelled and validated from an engineering perspective.