It is a challenge as old as oil itself: how to maximize energy production to meet people’s needs, while minimizing the impact on the planet. Fortunately, Jason McGillivray — project manager at Shell Canada’s Groundbirch asset — loves a good challenge. His team has created an innovative solution with a new multi-well pad design that dramatically lowers well-site methane emissions while also increasing production at lower cost.
Changing careers: A chance to improve the world
It was McGillivray’s ability to embrace challenge that eventually brought him to the oil and natural gas industry. At first, armed with a Bachelor’s degree in forestry, he spent 18 years working in the forest products industry. Though he grew up in southern Alberta, his career took him to northern Alberta, southern B.C and North Carolina before the housing market crash in the United States dimmed prospects in the forest products sector. When he heard from former colleagues there were opportunities with Shell back in Alberta, he decided it was time to come home.
“I had some project management experience in forestry so I applied for a similar position in oil and gas,” said McGillivray. “I was looking for an industry that was less ‘boom and bust.’ I may have been a bit naïve on that front, but I don’t regret the choice.”
From his first role with Shell’s heavy oil assets in Peace River, he progressed through a number of projects before landing his current role at the Shell Groundbirch project in 2015. Groundbirch consists of four natural gas processing plants and more than 490 producing wells located in northeastern B.C.
“My role was to develop well pad designs. We wanted to have a standard design that could be replicated so we didn’t have to re-engineer it every time we built a new pad.”
Though Shell was meeting regulatory requirements around methane and greenhouse gas emissions, Jason and his team wanted to get ahead of the curve and transform Shell’s clean energy ambition into tangible results.
“Methane is 25 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, so for us it’s paramount that we capture raw methane emissions and not impact the environment in a negative way. When we had the opportunity to re-design our well pad, the timing was right to drive improvement.”
The trials of moving to zero-bleed
That drive prompted the team to look at where greenhouse gases were being emitted from their well pad facilities, and whether there was some technology or design that could reduce or eliminate those emissions.
“We had pneumatic actuators [the mechanism that works to open and close a valve] on our valves that are designed to vent methane gas each time they cycle. In doing some research, we discovered that there were zero-bleed electric actuators available which don’t bleed or vent methane gas. That got us thinking that rather than going half way on a solution that met current greenhouse gas requirements, we could take the next step and go to zero-bleed.”
Though the technology was out there, it wasn’t typically used in this fashion. McGillivray’s group had to re-design the well pad to accommodate this new approach. In the process, they encountered some obstacles but were able to resolve them in ways that ultimately improved the final product.
“There were some startup issues that caused delivery delays and added expense, but we subsequently found alternate actuators that worked better and cost less,” notes McGillivray. “We also had a bit of a learning curve and some growing pains with the first pad that took us several weeks to resolve. As well, we had to overcome the comfort level with the prior way of doing things and the natural human resistance to change.
“As project manager, you wonder if you did the right thing. Are we going to have struggles all the way along or will things stabilize with the technology and do what we expected it to do?”
All’s well that ends well: A new standard for well-pads
As it turned out, McGillivray didn’t need to worry. Once they got the well pad properly tuned, it went on to earn a number one rating in B.C. for initial gas production from the AltaCorp report, a third party that reports on all producers. The new pads remove 90 per cent or more of greenhouse gas emissions from the well pad.
In addition to reducing emissions, their redesign lowers the price of pads by 15 per cent, while increasing production on the pad by 46 per cent. For Jason, those numbers speak volumes.
His team’s well-pad design has now become the standard for Shell to be replicated in future well pads at Groundbirch as well as other company assets. As well, Shell conducts regular external benchmarking with the other producers in the basin. During these sessions, each producer reviews their current well-pad design. Even though they are competitors, companies freely share this information so that the industry as a whole may benefit from advancements in emissions reduction.
That acceptance of his design means a lot to Jason, yet he’s similarly moved by the smaller gestures of support.
“I recall moments when I would get an email from an operator in the field saying the system was working well and they were really happy with it. That sort of feedback is rare in this business, so the fact that someone felt strongly enough to take the time to write me was very special.
“I knew on the technical side that things were proceeding as we hoped in terms of emission reduction, but to know it was operable and working for folks in the field who had to run it every day was equally satisfying.”
“The message is that you don’t have to look at these things as just another expense and wait until regulations force us to change,” says McGillivray. “We were able to benefit the environment while saving money and boosting output, so it shows that you can have it all if you have a good team and really work at it.”
Looking to the future
While looking at how far they’ve come is pleasing for Jason, he’s also enthused about what this project could mean for the industry going forward.
“The results have prompted a focus on what we can do next. Now that we’ve removed 90 per cent or more of greenhouse gas emissions from the well pad, how can we generate electricity more efficiently for off grid pads that aren’t connected with BC Hydro? It’s hard to tackle everything at once, but our success has given us confidence and built momentum to keep innovating.”
From a personal standpoint, Jason also values the implications of his success for those closest to him.
“I want my legacy to be that I kept our impact on the environment to a minimum while still providing for society’s energy needs. As a father of a seven-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son, I can show my kids how to be good stewards of the environment and leave the world a better place for their kids.”
In a world where there are many compelling challenges, McGillivray’s focus on finding creative solutions for this generation and the next is a success worth dwelling on.