Helping Workers: Artificial Intelligence Supports Better, Safer Energy Sector Operations


This is part 2 in a series this week on AI in the energy industry. For part 1, click here.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning can be looked at as tools to help those in the energy sector do their jobs more quickly and with better accuracy, says Roman Shor, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary.

“I’ll just do a parallel into programming: ChatGPT is extremely good at suggesting code. It’s amazing at it,” he told the Bulletin. “The code doesn’t always work, but it gives you the construct you can use as a rough draft. There have been a couple of studies where they allow or encourage their engineers to use it as part of their daily workflow.”

He added: “The overall productivity of each individual person goes up by 10-15 per cent. For the superstars, their efficiency goes up by 50 per cent, because there’s a lot less time now spent doing the low-level details. It’s now more high-level concept and algorithm generation. It’s the same for geologists, reservoir engineers, petroleum engineers, et cetera. These tools can really help augment what they already do and know, and accelerate what they’re doing.”

Juliana Leung, engineering professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Alberta, told the DOB that she has not encountered instances of people losing their jobs due to some artificial intelligence or robotics. She does anticipate work dynamics to evolve with automation, though.

“Maybe [companies] do expect the engineers they have to have some data-analytics skillsets, or maybe the ability to work with these tools,” she said, adding that future oilfield service workers likely will require training in automatic machines, but those workers will still be required. She sees intelligent systems making operations safer for workers as well, particularly in harsh environments that benefit from AI maintaining wellsite consistency.

She added: “Some of my colleagues look at how you can continuously take data from the field, analyze it, and tell the operator how to operate all basically in automation. And so, you basically collect the data, analyze it, and spell out what you want it to do for the next three months if you want to optimize your production.”

As a tool, AI should make the worker more productive, suggested Shor. However, he does not foresee it replacing many skilled professionals in the energy sector. “I don’t think AI is anywhere close to replacing someone whose role it is to make an inference or judgement, and then making a business decision on that.”

Further, as the tools for accessing large amounts of data continuously get easier to use, he added, the ease of setting up workflows will increase, which will allow these workflows to become more complex, pull in more information, and ultimately produce better results for the energy companies.

“Ease of use of data, how the data is used, how much the data was used — all that will increase. And then the availability and knowledge will also increase, because finding summarized knowledge will get easier and easier.”

The Ensign experience

Ensign Energy Services Inc. has been on “a long trek” of acquiring more data, using it to help its employees make better decisions, said Bob Geddes, president and chief operating officer. Ever since the automation accomplishment of electronic data recorders, the amount of data collected has grown exponentially as costs have fallen. The company can “remote in” and conduct investigations and performance maintenance on some of its machinery, saving time and cost.

“We have, using automated technologies, reduced drudgery of repetitive manual tasks,” he told the DOB, adding a major constraint will be the demand for higher-skilled personnel who can operate increasingly-sophisticated machinery and processes. “We believe that the evolution will continue, allowing us to do more with less, save money and produce a better product, all at the same time.”

There will be particular tasks that AI will impact more than others, noted Geddes, but in general the industry requires workers who can understand and utilize AI, seeing it as way to help them do their jobs more safely and accurately. Workers who cannot operate with AI should view AI as a threat to their jobs.

ARC’s approach

For ARC Resources Ltd., AI is viewed as an opportunity. The company considers innovation essential for responsible and successful energy development, a company spokesperson noted. AI complements the existing workforce, enabling ARC to scale more efficiently. “Ultimately, AI, when applied appropriately, can bolster our work and how we do it, allowing us to be more efficient and to make better decisions, faster.”

The spokesperson added in an email response that AI will transform various aspects of business, both in the field and the office. ARC is already benefiting from AI in its operations, but this is just the beginning. AI holds potential for areas such as drilling, field production, supply chain, health and safety, and asset integrity. It can enhance predictive capabilities, improve risk management, optimize practices, and drive efficiencies.

“In the office, AI-driven toolsets stand to enhance worker productivity in a multitude of ways — streamlining process, automating and speeding up repetitive tasks, enabling increased collaboration and shifting the focus to higher-value, more strategic work.”

Reviving old wells

If enough data on old wells were available, then developing an AI screening tool to filter through those potential wells for ones that deserve deeper inspection would become much easier, Shor suggested. This is especially true with improved tools for estimating subsurface characteristics.

“There are some new ideas out there. You may have heard of those AI image generators, where you describe what you want and the image pops up. Could something similar be developed for the subsurface, where now the description is either the wells, which then creates a subsurface model that may be better or worse than the geologist can come up with through their geo-statistics? There are new ways to look at the subsurface, quite potentially.”

He added: “I think that for screening and identifying, AI will probably help. Whether or not it will tell you, ‘Well-6 over here should be reactivated,’ we’ll see.”

Keeping up with the AI

Technology is advancing quickly, with innovations such as ChatGPT and image-generation tools continuously changing the world at an accelerated rate, according to Shor. For leaders in the energy sector, the challenge is keeping pace. While executive management may be eager to adopt these advanced technologies, information technology and security departments might lag behind in identifying and comprehending these tools.

“A big challenge is: How do you keep up with current developments and any of the data and security risks that come from developing training data for those companies, et cetera? How does that all come together, and then how do you all work within the company itself to leverage the tool as much as possible, maintaining whatever needs you have for corporate processes, corporate information security, et cetera?”

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