Usage of digital technology in the oil and gas sector is rising exponentially, with advancements over the last decade proceeding at a pace unseen over the previous decade, according to industry experts.
A CIO UK spot poll of 17 senior executives from 10 leading International Oil Companies (IOCs) at the recent IRN/Oliver Kinross 2014 Libya Oil and Gas Forum, found an overwhelming majority (80%) opining that digital advancements in diverse arenas such as land seismic imaging and e-learning had "revolutionised" the industry.
The remaining 20% stopped short of describing the pace of change as revolutionary, instead choosing to use the words "tangible impact" in their verdict.
The arena of seismic imaging is where most experts felt digitisation is clearly ingrained. Before drilling commences at an exploration prospect, all exploration and production (E&P) companies commission a land seismic survey.
In a conventional survey, a line of vehicles with vibrating plates stop at regular intervals in the prospection area to send sound waves into the ground one at a time, so there is no interference between their signals when the sound waves are reflected off the rocks below, and picked up geophones or receivers spread across the grid.
The reflected sound waves are then analysed and fed into a system to give a 2D picture of where the resource, for instance natural gas, might be. However, E&P companies are fast moving to 3D mode. In fact, most major oil and gas firms have already done so in various jurisdictions.
"When looking at an exploration prospect, 2D seismic data had become the norm. Now, 3D imaging is considered the norm – all of it in a relatively short space of time. Progress is inevitable; it's the pace of the progress which is the pleasant surprise," one respondent noted under the Chatham House rule.
However, one executive noted the cost of acquiring high-quality 3D seismic data is often prohibitive. "It's even more expensive to conduct one on land than it is at sea because of the human resources, infrastructural support and effort required."
But another said costs had to be deemed as "palatable" given the industry's high risk, high reward model. Furthermore, digital has also got geophysicists and IT professionals working tandem to lower costs.
BP's Independent Simultaneous Sources technology sees trucks operate independently of each other as any interference between their signals is removed later by advanced processing. It enables E&P companies to cover much larger areas, reduce the survey time and acquire 3D seismic data for pretty much the same cost as marine seismic, claims a spokesperson.
Additionally, IT 'specialists' and 'generalists' at oil and gas companies are also getting increasingly split with CIOs providing the platform for enablement and largely staying out of the way.
Ed Evans, CEO of management consultancy NDB, says CIOs move from sector to sector, and may not have an understanding of geology. "But what they do have is an understanding of the need to break down the barriers between digital systems delivery and the business of E&P. To that effect, at oil and gas companies ranging from independent upstarts to the blue chips, there will specialists within the wider team of IT specialists.
"The latter lot will work on anything ranging from remote management of a rig to virtual data rooms, information submission to data analysis, with minimal interference but maximum digital enablement via the group IT director's office."
Evans also flags up computer based training (CBT) as another digital enablement aspect the industry is reaping benefits of.
Education providers within the sector such Atlas and Veritas are bringing the e-learning concept to a largely contact driven world of E&P with digital courses ranging from health and safety training to process efficiency programmes.
"The digital medium gives educators the opportunity to offer bespoke products to companies, wherein E&P engineers and executives can learn while they earn on the job, in their own time via a device of their choice. The concept is catching on," says Steve Martin, managing director of Veritas.
"Furthermore, the digital economy is helping us bag oil and gas companies as clients with whom our first point of interaction is via the Internet, which often is also the last point of education product service delivery."