Erlend Kolve has used his time well since his first summer job with ExxonMobil. Results so far include 5000 extra barrels per day for the company and an international prize for young engineers.
- Astri Sivertsen and Emile Ashley (photo)
The 27-year-old reservoir engineer was born and raised at Voss in western Norway, but his family took up farming when he was 11 years old. “Growing up on a farm teaches you to think along practical lines and a bit of good, old-fashioned hard work,” he says. “That’s always appealed to me.”
He also had an uncle who supplied him with a popular science magazine and other reading matter, and who encouraged his eagerness to understand how things hang together.
This lust to learn took Mr Kolve to the University of Stavanger to study engineering. His choice of petroleum technology in 2002 was almost arbitrary, and contrary to good advice at a time when oil prices were very low.
“I was cautioned by the older students that specialising in petroleum was pointless,” he recalls. “We would soon have drained the NCS, so there was no future in it.”
During his course, however, Mr Kolve felt he had made the right choice. “I’ve seen that what we manage to achieve is incredibly advanced compared with other disciplines. That appealed to me, aroused my interest, and triggered my curiosity.”
Conditions in the industry had changed by the time he took his BSc in 2006. Oil prices had skyrocketed, and fellow students who no longer wanted to study got jobs on the spot.
“Graduating with the oil industry riding high was completely different from the days of slump,” Mr Kolve recalls. “I was very lucky, without having thought about it in advance.”
After a summer job with Statoil in his first two years as a student, he switched vacation work to ExxonMobil’s Norwegian head office at Forus outside Stavanger – and has been there ever since.
After his second summer job for the US company, Mr Kolve’s request to write his MSc thesis there was approved. It took six months to complete, and he found good use for his university lessons on reservoir technology while working with ExxonMobil’s proprietary simulator tools.
He studied the well and reservoir parameters which are most important for production rates and recovery factors in reservoirs subject to water coning.
The latter occurs because oil in the formation is thicker and heavier than water, which therefore flows much more easily. Wells will accordingly produce a growing volume of the water underlying the oil as output continues.
Well production rates can easily fall from 20 000 barrels of oil per day to 5 000 once the water breaks through, Mr Kolve explains.
As the water cut rises, problems can occur because gas, oil and water pile up. That in turn creates big pressure fluctuations in the separators. In the worst case, the well must be shut down.
“This was a very interesting assignment, because you’re working with real-life data, genuine issues and actual fields,” Mr Kolve explains. “That’s very motivating.”
He secured a permanent job with ExxonMobil a year before completing his MSc. The company needed his expertise for a project he had already been in contact with.
This involved a difficult well on the Ringhorne field in the North Sea, which had been shut down because it eventually produced only water.
A complex intervention to shut off this flow and recomplete the well was being studied. Were it successful, production could be resumed.
According to Mr Kolve, the job was very much at the limits of technological and financial feasibility. A well intervention usually costs many tens of millions of kroner, and is only launched if the investment is reasonably likely to be recovered.
By re-interpreting geological data and comparing these with production information and Mr Kolve’s knowledge of waterflooding, the project was able to secure a green light from management.
The producing liner was perforated, a sand filter was installed and production could thereby be resumed. Output was boosted by 3 000 additional barrels per day.
Another big challenge was to find a solution to the problems created by water coning in Ringhorne and nearby Balder, where Mr Kolve again benefited from work on his MSc. This had given him an understanding of the underlying mechanisms.
The solution is to produce as little water as possible, which can be achieved by better well planning – optimising which of them should produce, when, how and for how long.
In this way, it proved possible to maintain output without interruption. The result was a further increase of 2 000 barrels per day – at no extra cost to the company.
These 5 000 additional daily barrels were noticed in ExxonMobil. Eighteen months after joining the company, Mr Kolve was nominated for the 2010 Young Engineer of the Year award.
He duly won this prestigious prize, which was presented to him by the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) in early June.
“I think a key factor in the nomination and selection is his ability to apply the academic work he has done directly to the job,” says Dave Frye, technical manager of ExxonMobil’s subsurface operations and the man behind the nomination.
“Erlend’s made a significant contribution to our production volumes here in the North Sea,” he adds, and says the company could apply his methods to other wells on Balder and Ringhorne.
“He’s also very outgoing and enthusiastic about everything he does. So he’s a pleasure to be around.”
Mr Kolve has had a flying start as an engineer. Had he wished, he could probably have aimed at a career as a researcher. But pure research does not appeal, he says.
“It’s a little too dry. I like working with people and being part of a team. And I like getting hands-on experience by making mistakes or bringing in good projects.”
Nor does he have any more worries about global oil production going into decline, the way prominent geologists predicted when they appeared as guest lecturers during his university years.
These experts were convinced that the age of the “elephants” – the really big oil discoveries – was over, and that only small fry remained to be found.
“Then Brazil suddenly finds a field as large as Norway’s total reserves,” Mr Kolve notes. “It discovers something so incredibly large that I don’t think people can grasp it.
“That completely changed my view of the future. I don’t think the oil age will necessarily be over any time soon.”
Home and away
Erlend Kolve’s partner, Brazilian Ellen Borges, is a reservoir engineer with ConocoPhillips, and the pair are renovating a house they bought in Sandnes south of Stavanger a year ago. But they do not exclude the possibility of moving abroad eventually.
In his free time, Mr Kolve plays football for the ExxonMobil company team, goes to the gym, skis and goes hiking. “If you’ve been raised at Voss, it’s hard not enjoy the outdoors,” he says. He also likes to travel and spend a lot of time with friends.