Oil fields that perform maintenance on themselves; production engineers who work from house boats; and digital assistants: Is this the future of the oil and gas industry in 2050?
A diver is gliding above gigantic steel skeletons. Her swim fins are hardly moving, and air bubbles rise from her mouthpiece only at long intervals. Her gaze sweeps from gorgonian sea fans to the rows of tube sponges that started colonizing the artificial reef below her, a former drilling platform, 20 years ago. Today colorful sponges and corals are growing all over the reef, creating a paradise for fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
The diver finds what she’s been looking for. She moves her wrist slightly, shoots — and suddenly an impressive sea bass is wriggling on the tip of her harpoon. Ten minutes later, Vanessa emerges from the water and reaches for the ladder. Once on board, she first gives her husband Alfredo the harpoon, then the fish she has caught. She wrings the water from her long hair and glances at the message on her waterproof smartwatch: “Oil price forecast: Falling.” Vanessa gives her husband a quick peck on the cheek.
“Honey, you’ve caught a real beauty again,” says Alfredo admiringly. He hands his wife a towel. As she dries herself off, she says, “Could you put the fish on the grill? I have to go to the holoroom.” Her husband raises an eyebrow: “Not again? You’re more addicted than the kids.” Vanessa smiles gently: “Alfredo...” Then there’s a long pause. “You wanted to live on a boat. I have to work now and then, that’s all. Or should we move back to Houston?” Alfredo doesn’t answer, turns around, and silently lays the fish on the table next to the hot charcoal grill.
Vanessa shoos her children out of the hologram room and starts to focus on her work. Her smartwatch had already predicted a fall in the oil price for the coming weeks even before she made her dive, and this trend has intensified in the past half-hour. She now urgently has to gain an overview of ￼the situation. “Hello, Vanessa. You look great, as always. I’m sure you want to look at the price forecasts in more detail,” says Geoff, her virtual assistant, by way of greeting.
Vanessa and Geoff are a well-oiled team. Geoff almost always knows what Vanessa wants to do next. While he prepares the presentation, she looks through an underwater window, and her gaze wanders across the artificial reef in the distance.
Turning platforms into reefs
Only ten years ago, oil and natural gas were extracted here. Back then, environmental activists were demanding an end to outdated and expensive oil and gas extraction via drilling platforms. Since then, several thousand such platforms, together with their steel skeletons — like the ones in this area — have been lowered to the bottom in an environmentally friendly manner and transformed into artificial reefs. In the past 20 years, the technologies for subsea oil extraction by means of automated production systems on the ocean floor have made considerable progress, and costs have floated downward.
Extraction equipment is installed on ocean floors by robots, after which production plants operate autonomously for decades. Oil flows through induction-heated pipes to land, where it is refined almost completely automatically. Specialized ships manned by skeleton crews are needed only for the initial installation and for drilling bore holes; they drive the drilling cores thousands of meters down into the ocean floor.
Vanessa puts on her 3D goggles and snaps at Geoff: “Why is the price going down so fast?” Her virtual assistant replies, “We’re assuming that a lot of capacity is being added to the market. Some shale gas fields in Argentina have been developed faster than exected. And somebody’s ordering a lot of new equipment on the automatic auction markets. That means additional oil fields will be developed in the coming months. Besides... there’s something else, you won’t like it.” Vanessa sighs.
Ever since oil production was largely automated, her life has changed. There are hardly any more jobs now on offshore stations. Thanks to fast data connections, authorized production engineers like Vanessa can monitor the status of oil fields from anywhere in the world and intervene as high level decision-makers.
That’s why Vanessa and her family were able to move to a houseboat on the high seas — something Alfredo always wanted. “I’m the last offshore worker in the oil and gas industry,” Vanessa jokes sometimes. Nonetheless, the transformation has not always been easy. “The only jobs that are left for me are the really hard ones that require intense concentration and the development of creative solutions,” she says.
At the beginning of her career, she still had to decide whether an individual valve here or there should be opened or closed — and in some cases she had to do it herself by hand. Today all the components of an oil field automatically communicate with one another and decide for themselves what they have to do to optimize production. This pro- duction volume, in turn, is determined by algorithms that are based in part on complex forecasts of supply and demand.
So it’s true that only the really tough problems are left for Vanessa to tackle: crises, unforeseen breakdowns, and decisions on whether or not to keep entire oil fields in the network. Such a decision can earn millions for her employer — or cost millions.
“Vanessa, hello!” Geoff calls. “Wake up, sweetie. Production in an undersea oil field west of Greenland has been decreasing for the past hour. It’s one of the older fields. For the past few months they’ve been pumping in CO2 in order to force out the remaining oil. But now one of the compressors has broken down.” A 3D image of the reservoir is projected onto Vanessa’s goggles. “Look here,” says Geoff as he turns the animated image, where a system lights up. “It has to be this compressor. It has turned itself off, for safety’s sake. It’s probably no longer water- tight.”
This would not be the first time such an incident has occurred. Twenty years ago, as the cost pressure on the oil industry was intensifying, Vanessa’s employer wanted to save money wherever possible. He bought compressors for undersea oil fields from a relatively new supplier. The compressors were about 40 percent cheaper than the equipment offered by leading manufacturers. But now the company’s previous thrift is proving to be costly. One component after another is breaking down — in some cases, 3,000 meters below sea level.
“We could take the field off the network until further notice, or we could immediately switch on a 3D printer in Greenland and produce a replacement part,” Geoff suggests. He adds mischievously, “I can see that you don’t know what to do next. But I can’t make the decision for you.”
Vanessa hesitates. The price of oil is dropping, so it might make sense to produce less oil for a while. On the other hand, the oil field paid for itself long ago and is operating cost- efficiently. “Let’s repair it!” she finally says.
Geoff had estimated an 83 percent probability that Vanessa would make this deci- sion. It’s true that it will cost a lot to have the part printed and launch the drone that will bring it to the mobile repair ship, which in turn will send out a maintenance submarine to install the replacement part in the deep sea. However... “You’re absolutely right, Vanessa. My calculations would also recommend that,” Geoff says.
Suddenly Vanessa smells something burning. Oh no! “So long, Geoff,” she murmurs, throws a kiss to the hologram, takes off her goggles, and opens the door. Alfredo is standing outside. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he says. “I’ve burned up the fish.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Vanessa calmly replies. “I’ll get us another one.” She starts to put on her diving equipment and takes another look at her watch. On it she can see Geoff, who is winking at Vanessa and smiling. He’s an assistant I could easily fall in love with, she thinks as she falls backwards into the water. Splash!
“It will take her at least 15 minutes to reach the reef and catch another fish,” Alfredo thinks. He couldn’t help noticing Vanessa’s look at Geoff... And yet he had imagined things being so different. Only himself , Vanessa, and the boys on the houseboat — it could’ve been so beautiful. But now... he looks over at the ignition switch, considers how quickly the hybrid electric motor could whisk him to the mainland.
“I could leave her here,” he whispers to himself. But then, looking down at the navigation system, sees Geoff’s face staring at him with a devilish smile. “Not a chance,” says the avatar.
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