GIS mapping does more than scratch the surface. Managing assets and working around existing pipelines, wells, and environmental restrictions makes GIS more necessity than luxury.
by Paul Wiseman
Remember the days of carrying a Rand McNally road atlas in the car on road trips—madly flipping pages when crossing state lines and trying to find the next rest stop?
No? Well, it’s been a while since Google, MapQuest, and others made mapping much easier and more convenient. Now that kind of mapping, known as a GIS or Geographical Information System, is making life more efficient in the oil field as well.
Understanding what GIS is and isn’t is a great start, said Nathan McIntyre, VP of technical operations for Ft. Worth-based Purple Land Management (PLM). “GIS is not just a map. In fact, cartography is by definition the practice of creating a map. GIS is an information system, built to capture and manage data, of which some of that data has geographic location(s). We need to stop thinking about GIS as a mapping environment and realize that, when used correctly, it is first and foremost a data management platform.”
In truth, Google Earth, Zillow, and weather maps are all GIS applications. “They aren’t thought of as GIS because they are a flawless medium allowing a user to accomplish a task by tying geographic information to a user interface,” he continued.
PLM is a land management company, offering title services, lease negotiations, A&D due diligence, and a long list of other land services. As part of that, they recently partnered with GIS powerhouse Esri to adapt Esri’s existing products to fit the oil and gas industry. The resulting product is called Overdrive.
McIntyre said the target customer for Overdrive will be small- to mid-sized operators who are large enough to need asset management, but lack the resources necessary to have the software and GIS professionals on staff.
“By using Overdrive you have access to GIS professionals who listen to what you need and set you up with the technology to solve those problems,” he said.
Recent advances in GIS technology are leveling the playing field, allowing smaller companies access to the same technology as the larger firms, minus the overhead. Front-end reporting, lease/well/contract summary reports, dashboards, and other features now let smaller producers manage their data in ways to improve operational efficiencies.
The downturn is sending energy companies to technology solutions in droves and GIS is part of that, said McIntyre. “We are seeing a large uptick in smaller firms: operators, non-ops, and mineral shops who are looking to onboard new technology to manage their assets and who have not been pleased with software they have previously used,” he said.
He continued, “We are also seeing companies that are aligning themselves for future divestitures, who seek our help to get their asset organized and ready for market. More organization means quicker closings, more confident buyers, and ultimately more money for your assets. It’s an age-old logic: when selling a used truck we all know that taking the extra time to clean and detail it improves resale value. That logic absolutely holds true in oil and gas.”
The GIS industry is evolving into less focus on GIS professionals and more on the end user. Before, “A GIS professional would create data and produce maps to the end user as requested. With modern technology, a GIS professional is in charge of creating the data, and the web mapping delivers it to the end user. The end user can now do a lot of analysis themselves that they would not typically be able to do from a traditional wall-map or PDF,” he said.
For Geospatial Chairman and CEO Mark Smith, the focus is on software that lets clients manage GIS data on mobile devices. The Sarven, Pa., based firm’s Geounderground does just that.
In its early years the seven-year-old company concentrated on the municipal market, wherein cities and towns needed to locate pipelines or buried cables. “As we were doing that, we developed Geounderground as a method to deliver that data to the client,” Smith said.
They were already doing piecemeal projects for oil companies, occasionally mapping pipelines as needed. It began to occur to management that the oil and gas sector was large, active, and something they should pursue full time. So in August of this year, they opened an office in Houston.
This fit with the larger ambitions they were developing overall in mapping underground features. Smith said, “We started to look at this and say, ‘You know, as we look at this and piece these all together,’ we joked that we were actually building Google Underground.” If they added the bits of data together and “connected the dots, we would have a complete map of that client’s facilities.”
The evolution continued as they moved from locating pipelines to mapping them in 3D. “That means we can show you where they are in X, Y, and Z,” including depth and ground cover over the pipeline.
Getting all three—X, Y, and Z—accurate can literally be life and death in some cases. But even simply locating the right-of-way with a high degree of accuracy is important because multiple pipelines may be located in the same right of way, Smith said.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity in the oil patch, however, may lie in the fact that more operators are mapping their directional wells.
With directional drilling there are often multiple pipelines stacked on top of each other—perhaps one on the surface, one at 10 feet, another at 50 feet and on. Mapping those lines when they’re installed allows the operator to find the lines later. “We see a huge market for us in utilizing our technology to map those lines,” Smith said.
Mapping above ground is relatively easy—satellites, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) do the job nicely. Underground, it’s a bit more challenging, but possible nonetheless.
“We have gyroscopic tools that are like the conventional smart pig,” Smith explained. “But ours are used for very accurate positional information.” Geospatial can track pipelines as small as an inch and a half in diameter up to municipal lines 20 feet in diameter.
Smith feels these services will allow Geospatial to partner with what he refers to as, “condition assessment companies. They may be able to detect an anomaly, but by coupling their technology with our technology, mapping the pipe in three dimensions, we can tell you where that anomaly is.” He listed leak detection companies, physical inspection companies, and caliper companies in that category. “Those are all technologies we’re partnering with… to offer a complete solution to the facility owner.”
Geounderground aggregates all types of files—pdf, video, CAD files, and anything else related to a location and makes them easy to access from a smart phone. Everything is tied to Google Maps and includes all Google apps.
Smith said Geounderground would be sold on a SaaS (software as a service) basis with a monthly fee, so there is nothing to download—setup will take about 15 minutes on a typical smartphone.
He added that users could include surface information at installations, such as serial numbers of machinery and other inventory information, so everything about a site is available in one place.
Actually, surface locations are still an important component of GIS usefulness. It can help locate environmental issues such as endangered species habitats and rainwater runoff patterns. Permits West, a small firm based in Santa Fe, N.M., specializes in using surface and sub-surface GIS data to help clients with permitting for wells, right-of-way for pipelines, and more.
When the topic of endangered or threatened species arises, most Permian Basin denizens immediately have visions of dunes sagebrush lizards and lesser prairie chickens dancing in their heads. Permits West President Brian Wood said they have had clients move well pads due to their proximity to certain habitats.
Mapping an exact location for a habitat is not always simple, said the company’s GIS Analyst/Project Director, Mike Deutsch. He said Washington-based regulators for entities such as the Bureau of Land Management often use GIS to needlessly mark off whole areas as potential habitats for endangered species. But “On the ground, you may not actually be in [a potential habitat], but you’re in that area, so you need to be mindful of that.” In the case of the dunes sagebrush lizard, “If there’s no shinnery oak there on a dune, they’re likely not going to be there,” he said.
It’s still important for operators to check for restrictions before surveying a drill pad or pipeline because, said Deutsch, they need to be aware that there could be endangered species habitats in the area, which will restrict where they can place those pads or pipelines.
In fact, with the proliferation of wells, pipelines, and environmental concerns in recent years, using GIS has become more a necessity than a luxury for the oil patch. It wasn’t that long ago that surveyors could go out and mark off a drill pad and be done. It’s more complicated now.
“If you can wade through the spaghetti of GIS, it’s a lot better than when you’re standing on the ground out there and you’ve got poly lines going in all directions,” he said. “Sometimes it can be hard to know” where everything is.
That’s why it’s more efficient to look at a property through GIS before sending surveyors out. “A lot of times we’ll lay it out in GIS first, get it sorted out, the rough idea, and then let the surveyors go out.” If surveyors do their work without using GIS first, “A lot of times they’re not aware of something—there’s some sort of stipulation for wildlife, for caves or karst or something on the lease.” If they stake off the area in conflict with those stipulations it will require a second trip to move everything into compliance.
More and more industries including the oil and gas sector are relying on computers to efficiently manage the massive amounts of data that is required for survival. This is one reason for the significant growth in the percentage of technical jobs as opposed to those in the field in recent years.
Paul Wiseman is a freelance writer in Midland, Texas.