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Execs Look to ‘De-Manning’ to Take Work Force Out of the Tar Sands/Oil Sands

With oil hovering stubbornly below US$50 per barrel and pundits asking whether Canada’s tar sands/oil sands can stand another price crash, the country’s fossil execs have come up with an extreme solution to their economic woes: “de-man” the oilfields and take people out of the picture. Even if it means abandoning the long-standing industry meme that fossil production is about creating jobs and building community.

“For new next-generation SAGD [steam-assisted gravity drainage] projects, it’s a longer-term vision to move towards zero manning in the field during production operations,” Cenovus Energy Executive Vice President Kiron McFadyen told his company’s 2017 investor day earlier this month. Making much of the fossil work force obsolete is “a tough challenge, but one that we are addressing. If we can put production systems on the seabed, we can de-man oilsands.”

The language of “de-manning” may be new (and odd), but the concept has been gaining traction. When oil prices began to climb earlier this year and U.S. shale production ramped up in response, a fairly large share of the jobs had been automated. Canada’s biggest drilling rig contractor, Calgary-based Precision Drilling Corporation, has been working hard to automate the SAGD process that has driven the growth of tar sands/oil sands production since it was commercialized in 2001.

“Directional drilling technology is one of the foundations of North America’s current oil and gas abundance, enabling both hydraulic fracturing for conventional wells and in situ reservoir drainage in the oilsands,” JWN Energy reported last month. And “by next year, Precision Drilling expects to have achieved a major change in the way directional wells are drilled, enabling de-manning of the process using intelligent algorithms and digital infrastructure.”

So far, “the company’s directional guidance system (DGS) creates a coordinated work flow between the rig driller and a remote directional driller,” JWN noted. “And that can be taken even further, the company says, extracting the directional driller from the process.”

Since it began testing its DGS in 2014, Precision has drilled 121 wells using the technology.

In March, meanwhile, Digital Oil & Gas cast automation as one of several lifeboats that could extend the operating life of the tar sands/oil sands.

“Despite the relatively few jobs in oil and gas, the industry is still designed around people, and the presence of people in a dangerous industry drives a high overhead cost in safety, training, equipment configuration, and housing, and the work force commands high salaries as a result,” the industry blog stated. With time, equipment, plant, and vehicles all on the way to being automated, “anything with a chair in it today (and anyone whose job is to sit in that chair) is on a sunset path.” The blog adds that “taking people out of the office is another de-manning goal,” courtesy of robotic process automation technology that mimics human keystrokes.