Oil and Gas in the U.S.
Since the 1850s, the United States has extracted oil for use in a variety of industries. Today, it produces roughly 17 million barrels per day1, holds the world’s ninth-largest oil reserves, and is the leading oil producer worldwide.
Until recently, most of the crude oil extracted in the U.S. was taken from carbonate and sandstone reservoirs. With advances in technology, oil extraction from source rocks became more accessible and financially viable. This increased the number of possible reservoirs, which in turn led to higher levels of production. To distribute the produced oil, the U.S. began using pipes to efficiently transport it to various locations.
A critical aspect of moving oil in any oil and gas sector, (upstream, midstream, or downstream), is controlling the flow. Industrial valves assist in this process and can be enhanced by utilizing automated actuators to remotely control the opening and closing of valves.
While the industry has seen numerous changes and transitions, some applications have remained relatively unchanged. For example, the pneumatic actuators seen today are very similar to the actuators in the 1940s. With proper maintenance and seal changes, these actuators can be used reliably for decades. It is the technology, the ‘controls,’ that are in constant need of change to improve feedback, real-time information, and continued monitoring for anomalies.
Although automation and actuation has recently stepped into the industry’s limelight, the technology has been around for decades. “I was told to start putting wires on everything, or we are going to become extinct like the dinosaurs,” recalled Toups. “Even in the 80s we knew that automation was the way of the future.”
The Rise of Automation
To adjust manually-operated valves an operator, or technician, must be in attendance and use a direct or geared mechanism attached to the valve stem. Power-operated actuators, alternatively, use gas pressure, hydraulic pressure, or electricity, to adjust a valve remotely2. “When considering a valve, one can think of automation as the brain, and actuation as the muscle,” explained Toups. “If your brain is smarter, it gives better feedback and control of the muscle, which makes the whole body function more efficiently.”
In general, automating valves reduces the risk of operators being exposed to dangerous situations and decreases travel time to desolate areas.
“In the current geopolitical climate, the use of automated valves offers companies an additional advantage,” stated Vaughn. “The majority of the oil and pipeline companies in the U.S. are looking to reduce staff, in order to comply with the newly implemented mandates and physical distancing rules. In order to continue to meet the demands of oil consumers, and achieve a similar workflow, automated valves are in demand.”
Benefit of Valve Automation
“One thing I have seen over the years – keeping in mind, I am an old school guy – is that operators literally drive from site to site to determine if a valve is working properly or if there has been a failure,” relayed Toups. “If there had been a failure, these operators would end up looking for the ‘mystery valve’ that had failed, along miles and miles of pipeline; it takes time to track it down.”
With a reduction in staff, discovering the location of a malfunctioning valve or responding to a decrease in pressure could be significantly delayed. The aid from automation could not only help discover the compromised valves more quickly, but could ensure that the day-to-day tasks of the operator are not interrupted by these types of issues.
The remote communication offered by valves equipped with actuators and controls is especially helpful for field operators involved in pigging operations. Operators responsible for operating pig traps are required to open and close the valves manually to launch and receive pigs. If this process is automated with an automated pig launcher/receiver, the need for four operators, a maintenance truck, and all other ancillaries is eliminated. Long-term, this saves costs and additionally, reduces time and risks associated valve failure. The industry has adapted, thrived, and utilized handheld devices, including the overlooked smartphones, to control pieces of equipment in real-time.
WHAT DO END USERS WANT?
With no lack of companies providing products and services for valve actuation, customers today often turn to businesses that provide controls that will differentiate their actuators. This is often referred to as a ‘smart unit’. At the same time, the controls must follow the environmental standards provided by the EPA, as it tightens restrictions on the industry.
According to Vaughn, right now is the perfect storm, “We are in a very unique period of time, where the EPA is playing a bigger role in the industry, and the youth are entering the industry as well. The millennials coming in are willing to look at this new technology and understand the numerous benefits of utilizing it. That is what it really boils down to.” Additionally, providing cost savings to customers, upgrading existing equipment, and providing new technologies is what will help excel business.
Innovative Actuation Technologies for Today’s Economy
Along with saving time, money, and reducing health and safety risks, valve automation and actuation is necessary for operations to comply with current environmental safety, as today’s geopolitical world pushes for stricter environmental regulations. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is starting off slow, but I can almost guarantee that before the end of 2021, our industry will not even resemble what it is today, due to the regulations and several other changes in the economy,” Vaughn predicted.
The actuators that are in the field do not currently notify operators of a fugitive emissions issue or anomaly regarding leak detection. There are other separate technologies that can play that role. The actuators have controls which recognize a drop in pressure or an anomaly. Once the actuator controls notice the drop in pressure or issues, the controls signal the actuator to close. In some cases a control room operator can remotely close an automated valve. Whether or not the actuator control shuts the valve, or a control room operator shuts the valve, having the automated actuator in place with the controls assist with mitigating the risk for an accident or potential leak to the environment.
The EPA, along with various other government agencies are utilizing their power to regulate and to influence how operations are conducted in the oil and gas market. There are several companies that have recognized the need to decrease emissions and continue to protect the environment. It will be up to leaders in the industry to provide the services and product to help these major oil and gas producers reach their goals.
With today’s market challenges, the shift to smarter automated processes will overall reduce the number of workers needed for operations, decrease wasted time, eliminate unnecessary risks, and uphold the environmental regulations put in place by the EPA. This implies that there will be a steady growth in demand for automated actuation valves in the industry. To stay a front runner in the oil and gas industry, the adoption of technology is therefore necessary.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ivy Davis began her career in 2007 with a Bachelors of Business Administration in Marketing from Texas Lutheran University. She was awarded the ‘Outstanding Marketing Award’ for the highest GPA in her graduating class and has since excelled as a marketing professional. Ivy continues to pursue her passion for marketing and regularly consults with organizations to facilitate marketing plans for exponential growth in their industry. She has worked in Houston, Texas for the last decade and focuses predominantly on the oil & gas and technology sectors.