Oil Field Uplink

Efficiency is the name of the game at Southwestern Energy. Jim Vick explains how leveraging technology gives the company an edge in the oil and gas industry

This is an interesting time to be in the natural gas industry. Today, natural gas is creating energy security for our nation. If you look at the last thirty years, we’ve been depending on other countries for our energy needs, but today, because of the evolution of technology, we can control our future. Southwestern Energy is the fourth-largest provider of a clean, cheap fuel source in the lower forty-eight, and we are proud to provide supply to the US.

If you look at technology adoption in a majority of the industry, it’s at a critical mass. It’s exciting. All of this new technology is emerging and the way it’s used is changing how we operate. We’re taking technology from other industries and leveraging it to our advantage.

It used to take weeks to drill a well. Now, it takes days—in some cases, just six days. The ability to drill quickly also comes with a logistics challenge—and that’s where the technology comes in. When drilling, it’s a choreographed sequence; material and people have to show up on site, on time, and in order. There’s a shorter window and communication must be clean and clear. This has been a critical focus for our organization.

If you listen to people who have been in the business for a while, they will tell you stories about telephones not being present on rig sites. Today, we have the technology infrastructure, using satellites and cellular data, that allows us to communicate instantly and across multiple platforms. This builds efficiency into the process.

Previously we had a ratio of one to one—one drilling engineer to one rig. We now have the capacity to transfer data from a number of rigs, so one person can be managing four to six rigs at a time. It’s a more sophisticated process, and with satellite capability, data from multiple wells are being fed to systems in a central location. The information is digested, and any action to be taken on the rig is communicated back, allowing us to manage the drilling in a more effective and efficient manner.

The other aspect of this that doesn’t really get discussed is how this technology reduces the number of people on the rig floor, which increases safety for our rig employees. We can track and monitor all activity, take advantage of the information, and keep people safe while being more effective. It’s a win-win.

Southwestern Energy is eighty-five years old this year. For the first seventy years, we were a utility company providing natural gas to homes in Northwest Arkansas. After running our business on disparate homegrown systems, we decided to get serious about the way our systems are integrated due to the fast-paced evolution of our business.

Oracle is our ERP platform of choice, and it’s changed every aspect of how we operate, from HR to supply chain to finance. It’s provided a real foundation for our business. We use WellView to support our operations and integrate the information input at the rig to keep up with the drilling and completions activities. We combine information from these sources and our SCADA systems to manage the end-to-end find, develop, and production processes.

When putting new systems in place, your team is everything. Southwestern Energy’s formula is to have the right people doing the right things and wisely investing the cash flow from our underlying assets to create added value. Systems are tools, and our team develops solutions that solve problems using these tools. We’re nothing without our people, and we try to take a pragmatic approach to everything we do to create that value.

Our talent allows us to leverage technology that is helpful in the field—like iPhone technology, for example. We can push specific directions to rigs with iPhones, we can update our leadership on production, and can provide our employees access to various benefits programs. We have quicker access to information that tells us what’s going on in the field, and our people help us build solutions that make us operate more efficiently.

In my opinion, the best scenario for our IT team is that we quietly go about our business without any notice, because that means we are doing what is right for our business and customers. No one notices you until something goes wrong, and in that sense, we do not like being noticed.