It has also become possible to make “smart wells” that include sensors that can survive the extreme temperatures and pressures found deep underground. These allow oil companies to detect, for example, when water, instead of oil, is being pulled into the well, and to quickly shut off production from that area, while continuing to produce from other sections of the well.
Such smart oil fields have started to become more common for international oil companies such as Shell, Exxon-Mobil, and BP. But they still aren’t used in most oil fields. And their use is particularly low in fields run by national oil companies, says Larry Schwartz, a longtime researcher and scientific advisor for Schlumberger, a Houston-based company that provides various services to oil companies.
Schlumberger historically focused on providing services at the “front end,” he says, which includes taking measurements, such as of the amount of oil and how easy the oil will be to produce, and “drilling sophisticated wells.” But since oil prices have been high, the company’s biggest revenue stream has come from projects related to improving existing wells, such as by fracturing rock underground to try to improve oil production at conventional wells that have stopped producing as much as they used to.
Steven Koonin, BP’s chief scientist, says that cutting-edge research could lead to automated oil rigs on the sea floor, ultra-deep-water ocean drilling, and arctic exploration and production, as well as to technology for extracting oil from unconventional sources, such as shale. But although oil prices have been higher than $60 a barrel for almost three years, Koonin says that for the most advanced technologies, “oil prices will have to stay high for a couple of years longer before companies think they can make big investments.”