We need development at the level of the whole country

Gazprom Neft Science & Technology Center (STC) CEO shares his opinion on how changes in the quality of petroleum reserves affect professional requirements for specialists, where to look for and how to educate real engineers, and how the STC builds up an innovative infrastructure throughout Russia

— Could you tell us what the tasks the STC is facing today are?

— The main task of the STC is to create, test and implement technologies. It is no secret that our fields in traditional regions are being depleted, and all new ones are much more difficult to develop than before. So today, when the share of hard-to-recover reserves is growing, technologies play an increasingly important role in our work. I mean not only new equipment and new materials but also innovations in other areas: labor management, paperwork and decision making methods, information processing and storage techniques. It is only through the use of comprehensive integrated solutions that our company can bring many projects to where they become profitable. We should not just keep up with the times but always be one step ahead, use all our skills and experience to develop and implement advanced solutions that increase efficiency of oil production.

— No doubts, the STC has already had such solutions in place?

— If we talk about those projects that were developed in the Science & Technology Center, it is, first of all, about 40 software solutions within the ERA (Electronic Asset Development) strategy which is one of the key areas of GPN’s Technology Strategy. All of these software products are aimed at improving efficiency of exploration, geology, field development, drilling, construction of infrastructure facilities, production. We pay great attention to oil production modeling: 3D digital models of reservoirs and basin models. We were the first in the industry to create a digital model of the Achimov formation whose petroleum initially in-place potential is estimated at more than 34 billion tons of oil and gas.

— And do you know how similar research centers are structured in other major international companies?

— In the West, the structure and purpose of science and technology centers is almost completely identical to what we do, with only one exception: we have engineering calculations performed completely by the STC personnel. In Western companies, such calculations for each field are performed by project teams which, among other people, include specialists from science and technology centers. Both these approaches have the right to exist. During the times when we were just beginning to apply the modern oil engineering methods, gaining competence, it was more reasonable to do it all on a single basis of the STC. Today we are ready for engineering personnel to be distributed among different projects. Our goal is to achieve a uniform level of competence in the company: avoid situations when the best specialists are concentrated in the corporate head office while the oil production subsidiaries are stretched thin.

— You mentioned the Technology Strategy adopted by Gazprom Neft in 2014. What is the role of the STC in this Strategy?

— Our main task is to ensure radical improvement in efficiency. Usually, when people talk about efficiency they mean an improvement of performance indicators by 10–15%. However, when working with hard-to-recover reserves this result cannot be considered relevant: we need radical changes and an increase in efficiency by at least 60–70%. Today, we are working with fields whose reserves are several times smaller and many times more difficult to develop than before. So we must introduce technologies that would allow us to increase production while reducing costs. Of course, optimizing the production process when the field is already in operation is not impossible. But a radical increase in efficiency (for example, by a factor of two) can only be achieved at the very beginning of the project, when the field development concept is being formulated. This is why it is so important for us to create software products that would allow analyzing a variety of different options of the initial stage of the project in a situation of high uncertainty, when we conceptualize the key decisions. The expected effect of the Technology Strategy for the period till 2025 is the involvement of about 100 million tons of extra reserves, with the economic benefit of about 100 billion rubles. Overall, we estimate the total annual production from our company’s portfolio of new technologies to be 50 million tons of petroleum by 2030.

— How do the digitization tasks faced by the company change the work done by the STC?

— Many of these tasks are not new for the STC. This is due to the high complexity of the projects we are engaged in. The reservoir is a huge accumulation of formation fluids. We can measure something directly only in a well which is, roughly speaking, a hole in the earth with a radius of 10 centimeters. For everything outside the well, we can only make our best estimates on the basis of indirect data, with a certain probability. In order to come to making such a decision, we have to perform a huge scope of engineering calculations, and we use any additional information to clarify our vision. Besides, the main competence of any oil company is not drilling wells or building infrastructure facilities but working with information, formulating strategies, making decisions. Therefore, we have been engaged in information technology and digital projects for a long time.

— Can you give any examples of such projects?

— The first work area is the traditional, so-called deterministic, modeling which consists in creation of deterministic digital «twins» of the reservoir. If we can determine parameters of these models and know the conditions at the reservoir boundaries then (by conducting numerous mathematical experiments, or model runs) we will be able to «tap into» the optimal field development concept: the required number of wells, their design and location, characteristics of infrastructure facilities, and so on. Although such simulators are based upon empirical laws that do not sufficiently take into account the subtle physical and chemical processes occurring in the reservoir, the accuracy of such simulators is high enough to work with the «good» fields. But today, when we work with low-permeable rocks, for example, the Bazhenov Formation, these subtle effects, relationships and mechanisms have become increasingly important. Therefore, we improve existing simulators and create new ones to solve these problems. The second work area is the creation of new hybrid models for those cases where traditional models are no longer applicable. As I said before, to perform engineering calculations we need to set up input parameters for the models. As reservoir heterogeneity increases, the error in determining these parameters becomes more and more significant, i.e. the models cease being deterministic. In this situation, using the old models is pointless: uncertainties must be explicitly included in them. To create such hybrid models, today we use cognitive technologies: neural network training, big data analysis with the use of artificial intelligence methods, etc. Unfortunately, Russia does not have a developed infrastructure of research centers capable to solve such tasks. For this reason, for the recent 5–6 years we have been establishing scientific ties with various institutions, purposefully building up insightful working teams that can understand what we need and solve the tasks that we set for them.

— Are you not pursuing the goal of recruiting all of the most talented people?

— Let’s assume we gather 2000 people. But to achieve large-scale results we would need 200,000. It is important to ensure that technology development occurs not at the level of one company but at the level of the whole country. And Gazprom Neft plays the role of a sort of an accelerator of this process.

— And where are the best «brains» found, those whom you seek to cooperate with first of all?

— If we talk about new technologies, new software products, digitalization — we need people with good physical and mathematical background. These people graduate from the classical universities, or engineering universities with strong physical and mathematical schools. Some of the examples include the Theoretical Mechanics Department of the Saint-Petersburg Polytechnic University, Mathematics and Mechanics Department of the Saint-Petersburg State University, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Moscow State University, SkolTech… Of course, we also cooperate with such industry-specific universities as the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas in Moscow and the Saint-Petersburg Mining University. The innovation belt of the company includes 25 universities and research partners. Our STC is a link between advanced achievements of the fundamental sciences and the real business processes. Being engaged in scientific engineering, we find applications for scientific developments in practical activities.

— In addition to a good fundamental education, what other qualities make up the ideal image of a person employed by the STC?

— In addition to a good education, there needs to be another mandatory requirement: the passion for work, the desire to do something, realize your potential. And it is very important not only to be active personally but also to involve and motivate others. Besides, I think, being a patriot is also important, which means understanding of what your country needs today. Maybe it is just blind luck, but there are a lot of such guys here, at our Science & Technology Center. The average age of the STC employee is 32 years. This is a new generation of motivated people who come here and find a place where they can realize their professional aspirations.

— How can this attitude be maintained so that it does not disappear with time?

— The influence of the environment and, first of all, senior and more experienced colleagues and managers who are creative and passionate people too is very important. In addition, we tend to recognize and encourage the achievements of our young employees. And it is very important that our employees have a large degree of independence: we give people projects and opportunities to implement them. Of course, this implies a high degree of responsibility on their part. But feeling independence, they are always ready to be responsible for the result. With each new achievement, with each new project, I am more and more convinced that our STC is home for personally involved, passionate professionals. Almost 10% of our employees are candidates of sciences which means that the future of our oil industry is in safe hands.

— At the STC, you use such an approach as the systems engineering. Could you tell us about what it is, and what tasks it is intended to solve?

— Systems engineering is an approach to design work which assumes that the entire system as a whole is first analyzed, all necessary calculations are made, all possible solutions are examined, and only then the project is implemented in practice. As a scientific discipline, it took shape around the 1930s in the United States. Then, many universities established engineering departments with different specialization. In the USSR, the founder of the systems engineering in the oil industry, I think, was my teacher Azat Mirzanzhadzade whose ideas we still continue to develop at our Science & Technology Center. But in fact, in Russia there is still not a single university department which would really teach systems (or integrated) engineering. In the West, the systems engineering approach today is most developed in the nuclear and chemical industries. We believe that we can develop oil engineering in Russia to this advanced level. However, this is difficult to implement in a single R&D center, like our STC. We need that new professionals are graduated, new R&D centers are established, certification courses are opened across the whole country so that the level of our petroleum engineering could be increased.

— You said that the systems engineering is not taught in Russia. How come that the universities do not have training programs to graduate ready-made scientific engineers?

— They just never had this task. Our training is based on centralized programs. Students are given knowledge of individual subjects but they do not have enough practical skills to combine this knowledge into a single whole and start applying it. For example, how can a person apply their knowledge of higher mathematics in practice when developing design of any technology process? Perhaps the only example of a new approach to training of engineers is the Polytechnic School which we set up at the Tyumen State University and where they teach the basics of system engineering with the help of our specialists.

— And what are the advantages of those who came to engineering from the fundamental sciences? They were not taught this way too, were they?

— It is easier for them to work with formulas, equations, mathematical apparatus, and you cannot do anything without these things today. When you work in a region which is familiar for you, for example in the Western Siberia with its conventional fields and well-established technologies, you can rely on the experience gained by your predecessors. But when you go to new fields, to new regions — it is impossible to develop them without formulas, without calculations. The old experience is no longer applicable. And a new one can be obtained either by «spoiling» several fields, or using the scientific approach and creating digital twins of reservoirs on which new technologies are tested in the course of mathematical experiments. This requires fundamental knowledge.

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