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Assurance as it could be: A not-so-costly investment

Since October 2023, we have had plenty to reflect on at Rockflow.  We hosted a technical assurance event for upstream oil and gas professionals – perhaps you were there – and while we started by talking around quality decisions and the types of assurance you can use to deliver greater value, our conversations acted almost like a review process, and the event gave rise to new questions that we need to be asking.

For instance, are we still thinking of assurance as a one-time event? Is assurance costly, or are we simply assuming it’s costly because of how we’re defining assurance? What would happen if small independent oil companies found an approach to assurance that was agile, rigorous and affordable?

To independent oil and gas companies, assurance can seem to be bureaucratic, process-driven, and expensive – a step in the decision making process that has the potential to send everyone back to the drawing board and delay a critical venture.

However, as we began to explore at our event, if we’re wise about the type of assurance we use, if we see it as a way to deliver more value, and if we broaden our definition of the role of assurance, there’s no reason for it to be a slow or costly process at all.

 

The final review – and why it’s usually more costly than it needs to be

There is value in reviewing a field plan right before a project is greenlit, or bringing in independent reviewers at the end of the planning stage to address specific issues, but upstream companies often place too much emphasis on it. This is, we would argue, an extremely limited kind of review unless it’s supported by other forms of assurance.

When reviewers are given a PowerPoint and a single meeting to uncover the gaps in a project, it’s very difficult for them to provide value. Several members of our team were involved in review processes like this earlier in their careers, and they know first hand how difficult it is to provide meaningful insight as a reviewer in this context.

There are three main issues with this type of assurance:
  1. There’s rarely enough time and space to get a holistic view of the process. Though this can be mitigated when the reviewers are given more time to review the project as a whole and draft their own questions for the technical team, based on high-level frameworks.
  2. It’s hard to put the brakes on a project right before it’s due to be greenlit. A subsurface team has far more influence over the project during its early stages. Acting upon a reviewer’s advice at the last minute can be costly and hard to swing with decision makers.
  3. There’s not enough time to build trust. The last thing any subsurface team wants is a reviewer who parachutes in and sends them in a new direction at the eleventh hour based on a limited view of the project.

When this is the only form of assurance at play, entering into a review process can feel like stepping off a cliff edge and hoping your work-to-date will catch you. The stakes are too high. Everyone is on edge. And no one wants to face the financial, operational and mental cost of undoing their team’s hard work – especially on the recommendation of someone who might be perceived to be an outsider.

 

Three ways assurance can be less costly for everyone

1. What if assurance was completed via an ongoing relationship?

At first glance, the idea that we should have more assurance, more often, sounds like a way to increase its cost. But in fact, the opposite is true.

Let’s say you have an assurance team that comes in three times during a project cycle: once at the beginning when the workflow is being planned, once for a mid-project check in, and once more for a close-out review meeting.

While this involves using reviewers more regularly, it actually makes the entire review process less expensive. It gives your team a chance to challenge their own assumptions early, address weaknesses in evaluations sooner, and reduce the chance of investing resources in pursuit of an unachievable outcome.

If the reviewers are involved throughout the process, the quality of feedback goes up enormously too. Insights can be tested early. They can help teams to plan how they’ll investigate complex opportunities, they can ensure the team has the right skill sets for the task, and there’s greater room for dialogue between reviewers and the in-house team. All this makes quality assurance more consistent, reliable and effective.

Most importantly, this approach mitigates the risk of sudden large and expensive surprises at the final review stage.

2. What if we saw assurance as a form of learning rather than a form of technical assessment?

When the concept of assurance is only seen as a way to impact one product, plan, or decision, much of its value is overlooked. Reviews should add to and build your internal capacity for making quality decisions both now and in the future.

Assurance certainly shouldn’t feel like you’re bringing in people to mark the quality of your team’s work and adjudicate on their ability.

First, we should establish this as a premise: major decisions involving the subsurface are simply too complex to conduct without external input. Most professionals will only contribute to five or six major decisions in exploration projects throughout a 30-year career. Alone, there’s simply not enough time for anyone to become experienced enough to ensure they’re asking the right questions and covering all angles.

Assurance can be a way to circumvent this experience-gap, enabling the passing on of wisdom from professional to professional, and from team to team. Reviewers are there to ask questions, after all, and this can imperceptibly become a form of coaching. They might prompt a team to consider new workflows and ways of handling uncertainty, for instance, which the team might be able to consider in years and project cycles to come.

And while a reviewer might draw on their own experiences, they might also draw on the experiences of others, on the many conversations they’ve had with other professionals over their career, and with the mentors and reviewers who once coached them.

If we can see assurance as a way to raise the water level of our collective wisdom, so we can make quality decisions now and in the future, we won’t be so protective of our own workflows and products, and we’ll realise that a rising tide really does lift all boats.

3. What if we didn’t limit assurance to the beginning of a field’s lifecycle?

When we reframe how we approach assurance reviews, it becomes an easy and affordable process – not only throughout a project-cycle but throughout a field’s lifecycle as well.

Upstream companies can sometimes struggle to make the case for assurance for the production of oil when the expense is all operational. But what if assurance became such an effortless part of our decision making process that we could justify introducing assurance into our year to year management of fields and assets? What if we could ensure subsurface continued to feed through their insights into safe and reliable operations? What if we could maximise the value of the field over time?

Calculating safety and risk

Chemical engineers, for instance, have many ways of monitoring a reactor so it continues to be safe. Likewise reservoir engineers, petroleum engineers and production geologists play a key role in this for subsurface oil and gas projects

When you’re operating a water injection system, for example, the injectors are often being operated at pressures higher than the reservoir has seen – so how do you know that it’s a safe thing to do? Can you calculate the geological risk? How do you know you’re not going to burst the cap rock? Similarly if you’re managing a gas field and you’re lowering the pressure, do you know if there’s a minimum pressure associated with rock strength? Will you lose the integrity of the rock?

It might seem overwhelming for a smaller oil company to assure such production issues, but if you’re already involving affordable assurance throughout your exploration processes so that they become more successful, further assurance no longer seems like an ordeal but an opportunity.

Of course, assurance isn’t the whole answer to safety and value, and you certainly might have other internal processes that result in quality decisioning. However, reviews can still be an important part of creating a culture of assurance that makes it easier to manage value and safety over time.

For more on technical assurance, see our articles on how assurance can aid businesses to deliver greater value, and how you can make quality assurance more consistent, reliable and effective.

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