by Tony Morley

    Technology’s Unstoppable Thrust

    Exploration and Production Adventures with Tony Morley.

    It is three in the morning—and I awake to the cool night air of the outback. The nights in the outback always dip sharply into the cool side of the thermometer, reminding me of a ­Canadian spring. I am the last one out of bed, as is nearly always the case. The rest of the logistics crew are busy packing lunch, water, ­supplies, and downloading journey management plans. I pile my laptop bag and pelican case into the back of the four-wheel drive, and we head out of Chinchilla, Queensland. The only vehicles we pass along the way are marked by the classic colors of ­Schlumberger blue and Haliburton red.

    Like many small towns, Chinchilla, Toowoomba, and Roma have all been drastically changed by the oil and gas fields that sit below a comparatively thin crust of rock. The rush to secure access to gas-bearing fields is unprecedented in Australia, Canada, and the United States. Driven by a large domestic and even larger ­international ­demand in Asia, the coal seam gas sector here in Australia is ­signing a new access agreement every day of the week. The challenge set before the governments of Australia, Canada, and the United States is to juggle the balance of energy demand and environmental protection.

    The driving force behind the massive expansion in gas ­production in Australia and around the world is the unstoppable thrust of ­technology. The petroleum industry has changed beyond belief in just the span of my lifetime; when considered against my father’s lifetime, the industry is almost unrecognizable. There has been a noticeable shift in drilling equipment, and a push in portability has helped many rig designers evolve their rigs into trailer-mounted, ultra-portable systems. The push is to develop light, portable, and compact designs that can be shipped, driven, railed, or sailed around the world with unprecedented ease.

    I travel into the field along a network of dusty tan-colored tracks of volcanic soil, since the main fields are approximately an hour-and-a-half drive from our accommodations. The outback of central Queensland has a weather system with a bipolar nature, ­flicking between cold mornings and hot afternoons. All of this in an ­environment that is an arid grassland punctuated with periodic flooding. I have previously been stranded for days in a remote camp located about a hundred kilometers from my current location. The slightest amount of rain closes roads, making them impassable even with the most experienced drivers. Add water to slick ­volcanic soil and the tires ball up with thick volumes of mud before you ­inadvertently slide off the road into a boggy field.

    I am traveling to a drilling location to meet up with a very special ­logistics crew. Here in Queensland, Australia, CEO Arthur Foster from ITAC Services has developed a new dogma for moving and transporting rig equipment, and I am here to see what it is all about. In the modern oilfield and logistics business, it’s not enough to simply move equipment, you need to set a benchmark for safety achievement. It’s about securing clients and keeping clients by ­being the best and the safest.

    We arrive at the rig just before six in the morning. The air is still biting cold, and it is pitch black without the slightest hint of light pollution. Overhead, there are more stars to view here than nearly any other place on earth.

    Transporting a rig is a nightmare of a task. For this challenge, you might get a day’s notice before a rig release, and then the scramble is on to organize the logistics. The rig move has traditionally been one of the most dangerous aspects of the drilling process. Damage to equipment has always been a standard part of the rig-move ­process—it is the main reason older rigs show their scars so clearly.

    I have navigated a labyrinth of inductions and safety meetings before I have a chance to step a foot on the rig. As I step from my truck and onto the lease, I breathe in the cool air of a three-degree morning. I am meeting the team from ITAC Services and learning how to take the conventional rig move and introduce it to unconventional new technology, aimed at improving safety and production.

    Gone are the days of banging equipment onto a trailer and drawing a rig-move plan on the back of a steakhouse menu. Colossal new innovations in rig-transportation tracking and state-of-the-art loading systems have reduced damage, increased production, and allowed for advanced tracking via infield wireless tablet software.

    However, not even a state-of-the-art side loader can help when the rain hits. Add even the slightest amount of water, and the lease disintegrates into a mud bath, while the camp becomes inundated with beautiful tree frogs.
    A morning of sun and wind helps to harden the ground, and we are back at the lease site moving the last of the equipment. Lifting equipment with the ITAC side loader has remarkable advantages—it is extraordinarily gentle on buildings and equipment. The last time I traveled across the desert in central Australia with another crew, the jarring motion of a traditional-style, rig-truck unload rendered the contents of my entire office upside down and covered in bull dust. This newly developed technology will hopefully see an end to the rushed haphazard nature of rig moving.

    The crew has been going since early morning, and the last of the equipment is spotted. The tablet has generated a report for every load from start to finish, and the drilling crew has already started ­assembling the gear. I plug the camp location back into the GPS, and I head back for rest, followed by a line of four-wheel drives packed with guys excited for a hot shower and a good meal.

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