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Article # 0047


Urban Gas Drilling: New challenges in data security, physical security, monitoring and control

By Greig S. Latham, BlackHawk Networks, Fort Worth, TX


Abstract—Urban Gas Drilling has ushered in a new and demanding need for an advanced, private network solution to handle high-volume video traffic, two-way Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) communications, increased SCADA traffic while supporting a whole new approach to conducting energy production business in a metropolitan setting.

Current technology exists to answer the current demands and provide a platform for extensions required after the industry gains early operational experience.  At present, two industry leaders, Devon Energy and EnCana Oil & Gas are using these systems.


Index Terms— Oil, Gas, Production, Data Security, Physical Security, Video Analytics, Private Network, Access Control


Unconvential gas plays are becoming more conventional; if you don’t believe it, look around – there’s a good chance there’s a gas well nearby.  With $100 oil came intense interest in gas shale plays across North America.  The test bed or proving ground for these plays must be considered the Newark, East Field otherwise known as Barnett Shale.  This large formation sits under the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States.

One can find gas wells within 100 feet of residences in unincorporated areas; elsewhere, city managers are trying to figure out how to deal with the traffic, noise, possibility of well blowouts and myriad other issues that come with the wells.

At present, the number of wells completed and permitted exceeds 11,000.  At these levels, there are many opportunities for trouble.  That trouble comes in many forms.  This paper considers the security of infrastructure data in addition to the challenges of physical security in an urban environment.  With the energy infrastructure this close to civilization, more data monitoring and production control is indicated, this paper considers these aspects too.

II.     Data Security

In 2002, the Homeland Security Act resulted in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  The responsibilities of the DHS include reducing the vulnerability of vital physical and computer-based assets.  Together, these assets are called ‘critical infrastructure’.  There is a working definition of ‘critical infrastructure’ and much discretion is granted for the submission of information about these assets.

This paper does not explore whether Barnett Shale assets are ‘critical infrastructure’ nor does it attempt to present past and current activities related to the Act.  However, to lay people in and around the Barnett Shale, the hard and soft assets of this slice of infrastructure are very valuable and critical.

Without proper planning and operational controls, the proliferation of data associated with the exploration, production and maintenance of gas wells in this metropolitan area will create vulnerabilities.  As common sense indicates, these vulnerabilities are either preventable or manageable.  Common sense also dictates that the prevention and management requires its own specialized infrastructure to support these activities.

Increasingly, energy companies are looking to their contractors for well-engineered systems and management practices consistent with the principles of ISO 9001 for quality management systems and ISO 27001 information security management systems.

A.     Protecting Infrastructure

Barnett Shale operations are distributed over 18 counties and over 5,000 square miles (12 000 km2).  The operations involve electrical, mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, drilling, pipeline disciplines using an army of personnel and equipment.

Advances in mobile communications and computing have enabled producers to deal with the increasing well count and well spacing.  However, only recently have the latest technological advances been leveraged in the Barnett Shale to provide better situational awareness and improve operational postures.

Private backhaul networks represent the best alternative to rapid improvements in providing real-time management information aimed at protecting the infrastructure, reducing operating expenses and increasing productivity.

B.     Security management

The oil patch has been around for a long time.  Some say things don't change very much or very fast in the oil patch.  Despite these type accusations, energy producers leverage some of the best technology and management practices available today.  Increasingly, contractors wanting to provide services to producers are turning to safety management systems and quality management systems such as the ISO 9001 series of standards.  ISO 9001 certification may not guarantee quality, but it goes a long way to determining if management is interested in providing quality.

ISO 9001 also provides a foundation from which to extend best management practices.  Perhaps there is no better extension for security management than 'bolting on' a certification in ISO 27001.

It is comforting to know a company has a security policy backed up by a detailed Statement of Applicability and implemented in view of a Risk Treatment Plan when dealing with 'critical infrastructure' such as natural gas wells.  The ISO 27001 framework calls for this combination of applicable policy and appropriate planning.

C.     Private networks

When considering the security of 'critical infrastructure' data, it becomes immediately clear that the best security is available on a private network.  Those providing networked services to energy producers are well served to invest in private networks for this and other considerations.  While it may not be practical or necessary to extend a private network to every end of the energy producer's operation and a public network will do, every bit of segregated, private network is that much less network vulnerable to outside attack.

Another key consideration when considering a private network is the available bandwidth.  Just as there are applications waiting to consume the power of the next PC offering, so there is demand for more data carried by the latest networks.  Fortunately, improvements in networking hardware and software components combine to deliver increased bandwidth that stay in front of even the early adopters.

When one finally has access to a private network with sufficient bandwidth, reliability & maintainability are the next items on the 'must have' list.  Here again, the companies doing business with private networks are rewarded with making quality choices among networking vendors.

III.     Physical Security

Physical security in the oil patch has never been much of an issue.  Oil wells were in far-off places with no one around.  Any people that were around lived there or worked there – they knew what was going on, how things worked and idle curiosity had long been displaced by more interesting activities.

Then, two things happened: 9/11 and urban drilling.  The former demanded distance and separation from the Public; the later brought the oil patch closer than ever.

A.     Protecting the Infrastructure from the Public

Gas wells need to be protected from the public.  Inadvertent or intentional damage to wells and support equipment is expensive at best and catastrophic at worst.

Judicious use of spacing, bollards and other physical barriers has greatly improved since the earliest days of urban gas drilling.

With the advent of advanced video analytics, it is now possible to erect 'virtual fences or barriers' that act to deter unwanted traffic.

In addition to obvious choices in physical and virtual barriers, there are many exploration and production best practices that protect the infrastructure.  The design of wellhead gear, casing materials, workover methods are among the list of less obvious, but no less beneficial, improvements in the urban gas environment.

B.     Protecting the Public from the Infrastructure

The public needs to be protected from gas wells.  A quick and simple review of Railroad Commission (Texas) archives reveals that oil and gas wells can be very dangerous and often lethal.  From well control events (i.e., losing control of the pressure in a formation) to environmental impact to vehicular wrecks – statistically it stands that there will accidents.  As the gas field moves closer to the playground, something must change.

Change has been seen in the form of access control monitoring and tracking at gas drill sites.

Video surveillance has begun appearing on more and more energy-related facilities.

Another development is the coordinated response of government entities – the 'first responders'.  Knowing the nature of the threats and how to meet them requires education of, planning for and practicing response scenarios.

C.     Trends in Municipal Ordinances

Urban gas drilling has caused a tectonic shift in municipal response – and more change is on the way.  Local governments are getting involved in unprecedented ways and in ways, perhaps, that have caught state-level agencies by surprise.

Setbacks vary greatly but can get larger the closer a well comes to schools, churches, stores and other high traffic areas.  Spacing of wells has also received a good deal of attention.

Ordinances have only just started to included mandates for video monitoring solutions at the wellhead.

These same ordinances are requiring monitored access control to wellhead sites and other production facilities.  Obviously, the intent here is to limit access to only those authorized to visit the site.

D.     State-level control

In Texas, the Railroad Commission is tasked with regulating the oil and gas industry's activities in the field.  As long as gross, coarse controls protected spills, releases and the water table everyone seemed to get along without trouble.

With the oil patch in city dwellers back yards, everybody is finding out that State-level control is not enough – hence the need for the municipal response mentioned earlier.

Many in the industry have drawn or are drawing the conclusion that the existing gaps may not be covered well enough without change at the state level.

Actions in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas and several coastal states highlight the level of concern related to exploration and production activities.

E.     National involvement

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long had oversight in E&P activities on federal lands.  Their involvement has trended to more quantity and more granularity.  Add to this the involvement of the Department of Homeland Security and the demands placed upon the energy sector become mountainous if not onerous.

IV.     Monitoring

In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon said, "Knowledge is power".  It stands to reason that the more you know about a situation or process, the better equipped you are do handle that situation or process.

For this reason, two leaders in their industry, Devon Energy and EnCana Oil & Gas, have both recently fielded secure, high bandwidth video and data solutions that ride on a private network.  These two use the system primarily for production management; however, time is showing that other data may well traffic the network.

A.     SCADA limitations

Legacy, low bandwidth networks have traditionally provided the means by which Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems gathered their data.

While coverage and cost has always been an issue, rapidly expanding well counts combined with the diverse spacing have made it tougher for traditional SCADA systems to keep up the pace.

With broadband, private networks in place, producers have an alternative to the antiquated SCADA solutions.  The improved capability comes at a good time too; more and more data is required from remote sites.

B.     Noise & Other Hazards

It may be hard to imagine unless you have lived next to a well site, but noise is the biggest urban concern.  Noise is #1.  Producers have found cleaver ways with which to deal with noise.  These include sound shields, sound dampening blankets and restricted operating hours.  Monitoring this noise for compliance and excess is another key task for advanced surveillance and monitoring solutions.

Other hazards include oxygen depletion and releases from the well.  Noxious vapors and fumes can push oxygen away from homes and other areas occupied by people and animals.  Again, advanced surveillance and monitoring solutions are called upon to provide advanced warning for these potentially fatal events.

C.     Water Use, Brine and NORM

Barnett Shale dwellers are getting an education on water use, brine generation, brine disposal and Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM).

As diverse and potentially damaging as all these may be, they can all be monitored.

V.     Control

The monitoring discussed in the previous section is but half of the proposition.  Advanced communication networks improve and extend the level of remote control actions.  These actions may be in direct response to a detected threat – whether accidental or intentional.

A.     Hi-Lo Valve

Just about every Barnett Shale gas well has a locally controlled or automated Hi-Lo valve.  This valve shuts in the well if the pressure in the line is too low (e.g., the downstream line might have ruptured) or too high (e.g., abnormal formation pressure might cause a well 'kick').

Increasingly, these wells are being upgraded to remote-controlled functions to augment and supplement the local control.

With Network Operation Centers (NOCs) monitoring the wells, NOC-based immediate action control is also now possible.

B.     Compressors

Perhaps the most complicated piece of equipment in the delivery of natural gas is the compressor.  Whether the compressor is small and serves one well or is large and serves a whole field, the equipment is large, complex and noisy.

If compressors need to be included in the monitored and controlled 'critical infrastructure' context now, they certainly will in the future.  As the number of wells increases, the existing pipelines will fill.  Once full, the gas will be compressed to add capacity to the pipeline – so, expect more compressors.

With added compressors come the compounded issues of noise, operational hazards and access limitations.

C.     Other Flowline Equipment

Other, less involved equipment is also on the rise.  Separators, heater / treaters, tanks and local piping all add to the infrastructure that must be monitored and controlled.

VI.     Solutions & Answers

Fortunately for the Barnett Shale, its producers and its inhabitants, work began in 2006 to address the aforementioned issue and more.

An aggressive and independent applied research and development effort to field a robust, oil field-ready technical solution for remote video monitoring, access control and advanced SCADA operations was begun long before it was needed.  The result, the Energy Management System (EMS) is ready and available for missions in the Barnett Shale, other urban gas drilling projects and deployment to worldwide oil and gas locations.

A.     Video Monitoring & Advanced Video Analytics

EMS uses fixed camera analytics, Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) analytics and PTZ tracking for the most advanced surveillance service available to commercial users.

Automated patrol functions for cameras combined with these analytical functions are combined with NOC-based control to ensure complete coverage.

By using the advanced technologies coupled with well-trained NOC personnel, false alarms are eliminated.  Some providers even provides a no false alarms warranty.

B.     Data Monitoring

With the broadband, private network in place and designed to carry full motion video from several cameras, there is no stretch when asked to carry advanced SCADA traffic.

Parameters like noise, releases, site conditions and more can be carried easily and securely.

C.     Two-way audio and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP)

The ability to combine two-way audio with video extends the management capabilities of EMS.

 Emergency, 'Blue Phone' capabilities are an available option.

NOC personnel are also able to activate a remote microphone and listen to ambient conditions to validate noise monitoring alarms or noise complaints.

D.     Advanced Management Practices

EMS provides its highest and best service by providing Management and Production personnel immediate and complete access to cameras for their own, specialized use.

These Management and Production cameras can be used for Safety Monitoring / Training, Subcontractor Management, Situational Awareness, Investor Relations, First Responder Coordination and much more.

VII.     Conclusions

There is a clear need for new technology to deal with the demands created by drilling for gas in people's backyards.  Any such solution must provide a secure and robust platform to meet the Homeland Security Act standards.  Early results from industry leading producers in the Barnett Shale confirm the applicability and value of this type technology.


[1]     "Homeland Security Act of 2002",  The Department of Homeland Security, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/hr_5005_enr.pdf, 2002

[2]     "Railroad Commission of Texas Rules, Texas Administrative Code (TAC), Title 16.  Economic Regulation, Part 1.  Railroad Commission" , http://www.rrc.state.tx.us/rules/rule.html, 2007

[3]     "Ordinance B-775-07 Regulating The Drilling And Production Of Gas Wells", City of Burleson, Texas, 2008

Manuscript prepared 26 July 2008

Greig S. Latham is a Managing Member of BlackHawk Networks, LLC, Fort Worth, TX 75002 USA (817-870-1844 fax: 817-870-2824; e-mail: Greig.Latham@BHNetworks.com).



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