SPE News

Technology Focus Topics Reflect Industry Growth, Evolution Over 25+ Years

The topics covered in JPT’s Technology Focus feature span the breadth of the upstream industry. A review of these topics over the years illustrates the changes that have affected E&P professionals.

JPT August 1997 cover
JPT August 1997 cover: The Marathon-operated South Pass 86/89 “C” platform is one of several developments that Marathon Oil Co. has established or in the works in the Gulf of Mexico.
Source: Mieko Mahi, Houston.

No matter your field of expertise or geographical area of operations, JPT’s Technology Focus feature addresses your career and research paths. During the more than 25 years of its appearance in the magazine, the feature has presented synopses of important papers in summarized form. A review of the Technology Focus topical calendar through the years reflects milestones in industry developments and innovations, and the magazine’s ability to adapt to meet the needs of its readers. Indeed, the inception of the feature was a response to such a challenge.

Each year, thousands of high-quality technical papers are presented at SPE conferences and the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC). These papers are the embodiment of SPE’s mission to collect, disseminate, and exchange technical knowledge about the world of upstream E&P.

In the late 1990s, JPT staff recognized a need to expand the intersection of SPE’s members with the crucial work outlined in the technical papers written by their colleagues. While SPE’s stable of peer-reviewed journals had always played a critical role in its mission, the rigorous review structure meant that these papers, published in full, might not see audiences for some time. Annual proceedings volumes collected the year’s research literature, but time constraints also limited the number of members who could explore these publications.

The solution was the Technology Focus feature, in which conference papers dedicated to a broad spectrum of industry topics were chosen by subject-matter experts and condensed by SPE staff to convey key findings and illustrative case studies. The Tech Focus concept meant that SPE readers could find the best research and industry innovation at their fingertips each month. These papers were not peer reviewed, but the members of the JPT Editorial Review Board charged with their selection were recognized experts who reviewed hundreds of abstracts in order to choose only a few papers for inclusion. Since the feature’s launch, hundreds of SPE members from a wide range of major operators, service companies, technology specialists, academic institutions, and research facilities have served as reviewers.

Tech Focus’ first decade-plus of publication, from 1997 through 2010, established and refined the pattern by which tech papers were selected, synopsized, and organized for presentation. Before 1997, JPT had run Technology Briefs that had the same idea, but these were irregular, applied only to tech papers with a length that would make publication in JPT impractical.

For the first couple of years of the Tech Focus, however, each issue of JPT contained between two and three topical groupings of synopsized papers. The initial topics were broad, familiar ones (EOR, Drilling Technology, Fracturing, Offshore Development, Stimulation, and Reservoir Management, for example) as JPT Technology Editor Dennis Denney, who was responsible for the development of the feature, tested the waters and built a review board of industry volunteers to assist with the task of reviewing abstracts, reading full papers of interest, and selecting papers for synopsis.

For the first few issues, JPT staff wrote a short introductory column for each topic, though by the end of 1997 the reviewers were writing that introduction, detailing the state of the topic and offering insight into their selections.

Industry professionals have lived, much less grown familiar with, the cliché of things remaining the same the more they change. An excerpt from the April 1997 introductory column of then-Statoil’s Svein Tollefsen, reviewer for the topic of Offshore Drilling and Production, illustrates this truth: “We must face higher risks and tighter budgets while the same profitability requirements remain.” If that sounds familiar, however, so does his note that “What was previously considered impossible is suddenly possible,” illustrating the importance of the synopsized papers that followed in keeping members abreast of constantly evolving upstream technology developments.

As the aughts passed, the number of Technology Focus topics appearing each month expanded quickly. By 2002, they had grown to 36 topics spread over the calendar, with each issue offering at least nine synopses in total. This expansion reflected the growth of the E&P industry into the reality of more-challenging hydrocarbon exploitation, as topics such as Reservoir Visualization, Extended-Reach Drilling, Tertiary Recovery, Intelligent Systems, and Tight Reservoirs made their debut. The reviewing body, soon known as the Editorial Review Committee—it would eventually become a Board, a designation it holds at the time of writing—also expanded, with a reviewer assuming selection duties of each featured topic.

The Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and its subsequent effects on the whole of the oil and gas industry, can be used as another temporal marker for the development of Tech Focus topics in the period from 2010 to roughly 2017. While Health, Safety, and Environment had made its debut as a topic years before, its offering in the August issue expanded to include six synopses rather than the usual two or three. In his 2010 column for HSE, reviewer Emmanuel Garland of Total pointed out that many papers in the discipline had begun to “address general issues, developing ideas or concepts, and fewer deal with true technology. While there are good reasons for this trend, the industry must not underestimate the importance of technology development to reach our goal.”

The heightened need for a sense of social responsibility demanded, simultaneously, a higher view and a dedication to operations-level technological detail that would allow goals of safety and sustainability—an addition to the industry lexicon that quickly became one of its pillars—to be achieved. More papers on well control and integrity began to appear even in other topics, and Decommissioning and Water Management were added to the topical calendar.

Also growing in importance and frequency during this period were selected papers concerned with CO2 and its use and impact within, and outside of, the industry; while related to the broader topic of HSE, the topic demanded its own dedicated allotment of the magazine’s pages. CO2 Applications had been added to the calendar in 2008, but in the years that followed, papers in a wide range of topics were aimed at carbon-footprint reduction and, increasingly, carbon sequestration.

Another important topical shift in this period came in 2013, with the retitling of the Knowledge Management and Training topic to Data Management and Communication. While the selected papers that year remained geared toward training of, and engagement with, the next generation of industry professionals, the change in the title reflected a growing awareness that “data,” long a lexical umbrella, was assuming a new meaning and importance within the world of E&P. Eventually, data-related topics would multiply, with the emphasis shifting from training—a subject taken on by other JPT features in print and online—to the acquisition, analysis, and application of data from a myriad of technologically advanced sources.

A third demarcation in the feature’s development can be identified in 2018, as awareness grew that JPT would soon require a substantial online presence. The feature calendar had been fine-tuned most years, but a comprehensive discussion involving JPT staff and the review board arrived at a number of changes that year to both align features more closely with their corresponding conferences and introduce, rename, or sunset topics that had fallen out of step with industry momentum. Trialed and later renamed was the topic New Frontier Reservoirs, an acknowledgement of the fact that unconventional resources such as shale and tight gas had grown past that label.

The following year, the decision was made to introduce Digital Data Acquisition, another dedicated data-related topic to join Data Analytics and Drilling Automation and Innovation. It would not be long, however, before the importance of “big data” to virtually every Tech Focus topic became evident. Intelligent Fields had meanwhile become Intelligent Operations, as the scope of the “digital oil field” grew to encompass the entirety of the E&P world. This shift, the most topically significant one of the past decade, will continue to shape the Tech Focus calendar well into the future.

It should be pointed out that, no matter the industry interest in a particular topic, a dearth of conference papers on that subject means that it will not work for Tech Focus. For instance, during the most recent period discussed in this article, Decommissioning and Nanotechnology—both topics that, anyone would agree, are critical to the industry—did not survive within the topical calendar because there simply were not enough papers to sustain them. This underlines the fact that, while this feature will always be reactive to, and proactive with, industry trends, its lifeblood is the SPE or OTC conference paper.

Any hyperbole one might apply in describing 2020 would be justified. As the world struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting upheaval felt by every layer of society and commerce, JPT transitioned to, first, a combined print-and-digital, and then all-digital, publication format. The difficult choice to go paperless was but one facet of SPE’s strategy to endure the economic instability that rocked the industry while still providing value, and a professional advantage, to its members. The Tech Focus feature, however, thanks to the dedicated work of its reviewers at an extremely demanding time that saw several of them coping with layoffs, corporate restructuring, and personal crises, did not miss an issue.

As conference attendance recovered in 2022 and 2023, the availability of high-quality technical papers increased once more. Currently, 48 reviewers serve on the JPT Editorial Review Board, reviewing an annual cumulative average of over 5,000 abstracts as they carry out the mission of identifying the latest and best papers for JPT’s readers. The Tech Focus papers remain among the most-valued and most-read offerings in the magazine, maintaining the magazine’s standard as a golden one within the industry.

Editor’s Note: For more information about the origin of the Technology Focus feature, read the companion piece to this article, “Q&A With Dennis Denney, JPT Technology Focus Creator.