School of Energy's well pad simulator offers hands-on training

James Fenton
The Daily Times

School of Energy Dean Randy Pacheco said the simulator facility - which takes up about a half-acre just steps from the new 65,000-square-foot building located on the northeast corner of the college's main campus - will give students the ultimate in hands on training for today's oil field work.

"I travelled the U.S. to obtain some ideas for the building before we began construction, even just looking for curriculum, and you can't find it. This is the only facility like this in the United States, that I know of. Traveling around the country I saw bits and pieces, but nobody had the complete (package). We're the only school that has the complete oil and gas process technology for power plant training in the United States."

The school's training facility and cutting-edge building is an example of a successful collaboration between industry and higher eduction with the goal of providing training for careers for people who want to work in the oil and gas industry. Officials from area oil and gas companies will work alongside the school's roughly 25 instructors to train students in the latest technologies, like horizontal drilling, Pacheco said.

"Whether it was President(s) Bush, Clinton or Obama, every president has believed that community colleges should partner with industry, that there's a great connection there," Pacheco said during a tour of the new outdoor training facility. "If you can assemble that connection ... then the opportunity to provide education and training for students (with) a job at the end, that's the goal. That's what Obama is constantly talking about, community colleges working closely with industry. Well, that's what we do."

The well site is identical to many of the 25,000 well pads throughout the San Juan Basin. Unlike real well pads, however, the facility is strictly for producing graduates with the newest oil field certifications, not hydrocarbons.

Pacheco said commercial cooking oil will stand in for crude, and compressed air will pose as natural gas.

"Enterprise (Products) measures the gas for us, just like they do in the field," Pacheco said. "You can't tell that this well site is not producing hydrocarbons. It looks like it. It'll sound like it." Much of the well site equipment, including process simulators, was moved in June from the school's former locations at 800 South Hutton Road and the school's 30th street space.

"So now it all comes together and makes sense for the students," Pacheco said. "You come in, you understand the drilling, the production, the compression, the automation and the refining. So, you can see it clearly. If you have no experience, you can say, 'I get it. I know how they produce hydrocarbons around the world.'"

The well pad installation, which was installed outside the new $15-million building, was finished last month.

Arizona Public Service Company, ConocoPhillips and Calder Services helped transport and install the well site equipment, Pacheco said. The facility's simulated well site includes storage tanks, compressors, dehydrators, a pump jack, well head and meters, plus a centralized air compressor to run air outside at the well pad and inside the building - all painted the BLM's regulation juniper green.

Ken Johnson, petroleum technology coordinator at the School of Energy, said the simulator installation will be ready for students by the start of the fall semester. Half of the school's students are in their mid-30s seeking to improve their training to secure higher paid oil field positions, Johnson said.

Each semester, students in two groups of 30 people each training in two programs - petroleum production operations and natural gas compression - will use the equipment at the well pad simulator, Johnson said.

"Everything that my students will be working with, they can eat," Johnson said, referring to the installation's fossil-fuel-free simulation. "It's a safe atmosphere. It's all roar."

Inside the building, the school's two-story-tall labs will help students learn about oil field equipment, inside and out.

"The engines hook up to the compressors and then you compress the product and put it into the pipeline. We're going to tear the engines apart and rebuild them and fire them up," Pacheco said during a tour of the recently completed School of Energy's natural gas compression lab of the challenges students will face. "We couldn't before. We didn't have enough natural gas (pressure) by volume in our old facility. Now we can."

The hands-on training also includes learning how to rebuild valves for engines and other oil field equipment - a practice that has gained favor as companies look for cost savings - rather than replacing them, Pacheco said.

In the school's new dual oil and gas production labs, separators and dehydrators are cut open to reveal their inner component parts.

The new building has a well control lab, which for the first time will train students in the latest drilling technologies.

"This is where you learn to drill a well. It's a $300,000 miniature drilling rig, just like you'd find out in industry. It's all simulation," Pacheco said. "You know what happened in the Gulf (of Mexico)? We teach people how to not lose control of the well. ... You have pressures in the San Juan Basin. You have pressures below (ground). You can see a lot of potential for human error when you're dealing with a lot of pressures, so here's where you train."

The lab runs students through simulated problem scenarios like blowouts and kicks, he said. "We're teaching the new technology, vertical and horizontal drilling, so the new technology for the horizontals, the multi-stage (hydraulic fracturing), we're teaching that here," Pacheco said. "The horizontal drilling is new (this year). That's what's revolutionizing the industry. ... This technology here for the first time will help us teach it. Our program is certified, recognized worldwide so our students can drill wells around the world."

Though the college shuttered its renewable energy program last year, Pacheco said the loss is balanced by other colleges in the state that offer programs in biomass, solar and wind powers. Pacheco said the school sets the standard for overall energy training. "The most important thing is all the hands-on stuff," he said.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.