Nuclear Explosion Technology Adapted for Oil, Gas Seismicity Monitoring

Managing injection rates may be a useful tool to minimize the likelihood of induced earthquakes. One company, GeoEMS Energy Monitoring Systems, has been providing operators with seismic monitoring technology that can monitor hydraulic fracturing and waste water injection. The company’s technology has been adapted for oil and gas monitoring from technology initially developed for the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Air Force to monitor nuclear explosions.

GeoEMS provides seismic field monitoring for oil and gas fields, carbon dioxide sequestration, geothermal fields, volcano monitoring, and for seismicity monitoring and slope stability for underground and open pit mines. The company’s standalone system identifies and reports induced seismic activity back to an operator in near real time. The time to relay information back is typically less than three minutes, using the system’s onboard processing capabilities. Information is relayed through email or text alerts to an operator and a pre-determined list of employees or relevant third parties.

“Nobody can predict earthquakes, but the technology allows us to provide daily or monthly reports to operators so they can see what kind of seismic activity is taking place in the vicinity of their injection fluid facilities,” said Dr. Steven Taylor, chief scientist with GeoEMS, in an interview with Rigzone.

Shutting in wells to address high-volume injection can cost a company $100,000 to $200,000.

“What we try and do is provide large and small operators with an inexpensive means of complying with government regulations.”

Taylor, a seismologist who retired after a career working at the U.S. national laboratories Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos, and his partners used a Small Business Innovation Research Program to develop their business. SBIR enabled them to build the system for government purposes, but also encouraged them to go out and market the product and create jobs. To qualify for an SBIR, numerous commercialization forms must be filled out, indicating the commercial applications of a product. The company recently partner with Vancouver, B.C.-based Weir-Jones and Associates, to manufacture GeoEMS’ oil and gas systems to meet ISO standards.

“What we have done is taken knowledge we have learned over the years helping the government monitor the world for nuclear explosions and scale it down to the induced seismicity problem all on our little unit.”

Taylor and his partners’ experience has been that the businesses that provide monitoring services use high-end equipment. For example, one station can cost at least $20,000 alone. They perform near-real time analysis, which means that they have to have the units connected via cell phone or the Internet that continuously transmit seismic waveform data to a central processing center. However, in remote areas, cell phone service can be intermittent or not available at all, which requires the installation of cell phone “repeater” stations on hilltops in order to make the connection. This costs more money and the logistics can be huge and the communications are prone to failure, said Taylor. To fix them requires site visits by trained technicians often travelling from out of state, which adds another expense. Couple all of this with a six to 20 station deployment and the costs for monitoring each year can be huge – more than $100,000 a year once the stations are installed.

“The monitoring companies do a great job, but all the operators really need to know is whether or not they are violating regulations, which only requires monitoring down to about magnitude two near their wells,” said Taylor. “The operators are oil and gas guys, not seismologists. Given the typical traffic light induced seismicity protocols currently used, monitoring for induced seismicity does not have to be somebody’s big, expensive science project.”

Taylor noted that the company has incorporated sophisticated on-board processing technology from nuclear explosion monitoring and communicate via satellite. The system’s 32 bit microprocessor has many functions, but its primary job is to process and analyze the seismic waveform data in the little box and send back the results. This consists of a simple list of event time, magnitude, and distance and other parameters from the well, which is all that is needed by the regulators.

“If something significant happens, we can quickly send the operators to the site to collect the continuous data and send it to us via the Internet. If cell phone service is available, that is used to send waveform data and perform the processing at a central facility. However, this makes the unit more complicated in terms of power and size, such as bigger batteries and solar panel.”

In the case of operators that the company has been working with, no specific monitoring of this type was being done before. Earthquakes believed to be linked to oil and gas production have been detected by the U.S. Geological Survey, which has seismic stations sparsely distributed around the United States, said Taylor.

To date, all of GeoEMS’ customers have used the company’s technology for wastewater injection and in enhanced geothermal fields. In the United States, there are very few documented earthquakes from hydraulic fracturing itself, and these are typically small. However, the story is different in Canada, where the fact that hydraulic fracturing is causing many of the felt-earthquakes is well-documented. One of the company’s deployments has bene for a coal-methane field, and the company expects to start monitoring soon at a CO2 sequestration site.

Karen Boman has more than 10 years of experience covering the upstream oil and gas sector. Email Karen at kboman@rigzone.com

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