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ESG - Sand management for a low-carbon, digitalized future

Transitioning the world to a low-carbon energy system is a difficult challenge -- one that will take time and require contributions from a diverse range of energy sources. While accelerating the deployment of renewables, such as wind and solar, will be crucial to meeting climate targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, hydrocarbons will remain an important part of our energy system for the foreseeable future. In the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix declines from 2020 levels. However, they remain nearly 35% of all energy consumption in 2050¹ .

Moving forward, the key to success for companies across the oil & gas industry will be staying agile and adapting their business to remain competitive in a low-carbon, digitalized future. Reducing environmental impacts from production activities will be critical as regulations continue to tighten and the focus from investors on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) grows.

This article discusses the role that sand management plays in the context of ESG and sustainability and outlines steps we are taking at FourPhase to prepare our products and technologies for the future.

How poor sand management impacts sustainability

Excessive sand production is a significant issue in many oil & gas fields across the globe. Proper mitigation is crucial to ensuring high production rates and well integrity, as well as preventing unnecessary downtime of processing equipment and minimizing OpEx.

Although it is often less discussed, sand production also impacts the sustainability and carbon footprint of production facilities in several ways, including:

Continuous production – In fields where there is excessive sand/solids downhole, it is common for oil production to regularly be “choked” back, which means a longer time to fully exhaust the reservoir. This impacts the total carbon footprint of the facility in multiple ways (e.g., higher total power consumption, more personnel transportation to and from the site, increased flaring, etc.) Effective sand management enables producers to keep production rates high, which can shorten the lifecycle of the well, potentially to the tune of multiple years, thereby reducing emissions from production.

Jetting of oil-contaminated sand - After being produced from the well into the production separator, sand must be removed and cleansed through a multi-stage process so it can be safely disposed of. Accurately monitoring and logging the volume of hydrocarbon-contaminated sand particles in the process stream has historically been a challenge for the industry. The lack of visibility often results in insufficient removal of hydrocarbons and the jetting of tonnes of oil-contaminated sand into the sea/environment. On the Norwegian Continental Shelf, for example, in 2022 jetting of oil-contaminated sand represents roughly 3% of all hydrocarbon discharges.

Flaring – Inefficient removal of sand from the wellbore can cause plugging and reduced production rates, which may lead to the need for increased stimulation or production activities. These activities often result in well flow back effluent consisting of gas, oil, water, oily solids, and oil-water emulsions. In many fields, particularly offshore, gas is typically flared off, increasing CO2 emissions from the facility. There is also potential for water pollution in the form of solids dropout due to inefficient flaring practices. Proper sand management can help reduce the need for excessive flaring by minimizing the need for well stimulation.

Coiled tubing clean-out (CTCO) – CTCO operations have a significant carbon footprint and can result in the production of gas or other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which may need to be flared. The process is also energy intensive and requires additional power to run pumps, compressors, etc. In offshore facilities, this power is typically generated via diesel generators or gas turbines, which increases overall emissions. Efficient solids management can prevent these emissions by reducing the need for CTCO interventions in solids-producing wells.

Utilizing best available technology

Using a smart desander to proactively separate solids at the surface represents an effective solution for addressing the above issues and improving the sustainability of production operations. With a smart desander, like the DualFlow 5K psi the best available technology (BAT), 99.8% of solids can be eliminated from the process facility, which means almost no oil-contaminated solids are discharged to sea.

Additionally, by removing the solids before they enter the production separator, many manual handling activities can be eliminated, as well as heavy intervention activities, such as CTCO. Or, if the well requires CTCO, the use of a smart desander alongside the estimated calculations provides operators with valuable data to boost the efficiency and quality of coiled tubing operations.

Embracing digital transformation

Companies across the oil & gas industry have to become more efficient and agile by accelerating their adoption of digital technologies and prioritize decarbonization.

While the industry may have initially been slow to fully embrace digitalization, low commodity prices and travel restrictions during the pandemic magnified the need for advanced capabilities, such as remote monitoring, automation, and data-driven decision-making. Digital transformation is now seen as a key driver for improving safety and efficiency, reducing costs, and enhancing the sustainability of operations.

This is something we recognized early on at FourPhase. We’ve been capturing solids data since 2013 and have one of the world’s most comprehensive data sets. In combination with machine learning, our technologies enable operators to identify trends and continually optimize production through more efficient solids management.

Data is also integral to our unique 3D planning process – where we simulate use of our technology prior to installation.

Additionally, we have invested heavily in technology to facilitate the automation of solids management. When the IT infrastructure allows, our systems are capable of being remotely monitored and operated. The DualFlow 5K desander is the first solids management system with automated and remote operation capabilities on the market. This enables operators to recover hydrocarbons more sustainably by reducing the number of persons on board (POB), which lowers transport-related emissions (i.e., fewer helicopter trips to and from the facility). Through automation, production operations can ultimately become leaner and more efficient, paving the way for smaller, safer, and less carbon-intensive platforms.

The Way Ahead

Global energy usage is expected to increase by nearly 50% by 2050² . Ensuring that all three tenants of the Energy Trilemma are met (e.g., sustainability, affordability, and security) will require the world to tap several different sources. Hydrocarbons will continue to be an important part of the overall energy mix.

However, with decarbonization and ESG as top priorities, organizations must pull every available lever to improve efficiency and reduce environmental impacts. Effective solids management combined with increased digitalization and automation can meaningfully contribute to these objectives. Øyvind Heradstveit, CEO of FourPhase, adds, “As the energy transition progresses, we must embrace the idea that the future of oil and gas will be different than the past. Creating a world suitable for our children and future generations will require a fundamental change in how things have traditionally been done. ESG can no longer be viewed simply as a box to check. It must be at the core of every decision we make. At FourPhase, we firmly believe and are acting on this by developing innovative solids management solutions that enable our customers to improve the sustainability and efficiency of their production operations.”