High-tech solutions to oilfield challenges a hot topic at Bakken conference

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BISMARCK — This year’s Bakken Conference and Expo showcases some high-tech solutions for solving pressing issues in North Dakota's oil patch, with speakers touting drones and a new use for excess natural gas that would otherwise be flared off at well sites.

The head of a drone company headquartered in Grand Forks told an audience gathered in the Bismarck Event Center on Tuesday, July 16, that unmanned aircraft systems are becoming increasingly popular for use within the oil and gas industry.

Drones are capable of using Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, technology to model terrain, said Matt Dunlevy, president and CEO of SkySkopes. The equipment uses lasers, which bounce off the ground to survey the landscape below.

“That’s one of the big advancements in the Bakken right now,” Dunlevy said.

He said drones equipped with LiDAR can help the oil and gas industry detect where ground has shifted. That could help pipeline operators identify where there’s a risk of a leak.

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Drones also can be equipped with optical gas imaging technology to help spot leaks.

Dunlevy showed an example on-screen, where a plume of smoke appeared to escape an oilfield facility.

“It’s invisible from the naked eye, but you can see it from an optical gas imaging sensor,” he said.

Methane — a potent greenhouse gas — and other emissions sometimes leak from well sites. To detect those emissions, crews historically have had to drive and park near a facility, then operate a camera by hand.

Dunlevy said further opportunities for drones in the oil fields will come as regulators allow more to fly beyond the operator’s line of sight and a new network developed by the University of North Dakota, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and Harris Corp. begins to operate to support those lengthier flights.

The co-founder of a different company spoke at the conference about his solution to another issue facing oil and gas drillers: flaring.

Oil production in North Dakota has outpaced the industry’s ability to capture and process all of the natural gas that’s extracted at well sites. As a result, operators sometimes burn off the excess gas at wells.

The latest state numbers available show that in May, operators flared 19% of the gas produced statewide, above the state’s 12% target.

Denver-based Crusoe Energy has a novel idea for addressing the flaring problem: Take the gas that comes out of a well, send it through a generator and use the electricity to power servers to help bring down the cost of cloud computing.

The idea came about when Cully Cavness was working for an oil and gas driller in Colorado, and the company found it challenging to comply with flaring regulations.

Meanwhile, he had taken up mining bitcoin, a type of digital currency, as a hobby.

“I realized this server requires so much energy, it’s incredible,” he said. “My wife’s getting mad at me because I’m heating up the house. It’s noisy in the basement.”

Cavness’s solution was to put servers in a shipping container and place it on-site in an oilfield. The servers would run off electricity from the excess natural gas that would otherwise be flared.

“We’re trying to put this gas to beneficial use,” he said.

So far, Crusoe Energy is operating servers alongside wells at four sites in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

The company plans to start six more projects by the end of the year.

North American Shale magazine is hosting the conference and expo, which continues through Wednesday.

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