Simulator helps operators recognize warning signs of blowouts

Dave Bartenhagen, right, instructor for the TrainND petroleum program, leads a well control class Wednesday, July 24, 2013, in Williston, N.D. with students Sam Rathbun, center, and Craig Willard. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – A state-of-the art drilling simulator is helping Bakken oil and gas operators work more safely.

The TrainND workforce training program at Williston State College houses a full-sized drilling simulator used to train supervisor-level oil industry employees.

The only other equivalent simulators are at training centers in Texas, Louisiana and Abu Dhabi, said TrainND petroleum instructor Dave Bartenhagen.

“It’s a pretty neat piece of equipment,” he said. “The level of realism is just tremendous.”

Bartenhagen, a petroleum engineer who retired after more than 30 years with Hess Corp., uses the simulator to teach a course on well control.

It trains participants on how to detect when they’re in danger of losing control of a well and how to react so that it doesn’t become catastrophic.

“The adrenaline gets going because it’s pretty real life,” Bartenhagen said of the simulations.

During routine oil drilling and production operations, the well can take what is referred to in the industry as a “kick,” or a bubble of high-pressured fluid.

“A kick is when you have formation fluid that comes into the wellbore when you don’t want it there,” Bartenhagen said.

If that “kick” gets out of control, the situation can progress to a blowout, or the uncontrolled release of oil, gas and saltwater.

A blowout can be deadly as well as cause significant environmental damage. In addition to the flammable liquid that spews from the well, the pressure can be so great it can shoot heavy drill pipe out of the well like a soda straw, Bartenhagen said.

“It’s important that we’re getting more and more people trained in well control to prevent it from getting to that point,” Bartenhagen said.

The cause of the blowout often is equipment malfunction or human error. Sometimes it can only be minutes between detecting a problem and losing control, he said.

Don Parker, a completions supervisor for Hess Corp., recently completed Bartenhagen’s course. The training, which Parker repeats every two years to be certified in well control, prepares workers to handle a worst-case scenario, he said.

“We take it very seriously,” Parker said.

Having access to the simulator provides real-life training, Parker said.

“The equipment they have is really high-tech,” he said.

Sam Rathbun, a Hess consultant who also recently completed the course, said it’s important to repeat the training course every two years, which is required by the state.

“You’ve got to know what you’re doing out there or you can hurt someone,” Rathbun said.

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