ENERGY company Santos is investing $10-$15 million to build a communications network linking its Adelaide headquarters with upstream gas facilities in the Cooper Basin.

It will be the third collaboration centre at the Flinders St office to improve liaison with Santos assets in the basin. The gas collaboration centre will link Adelaide to Tirrawarra, Dullingari and Ballera plus 14 satellite sites scattered around the basin. It follows the recent deployment of two collaboration centres – firstly for oil facilities and then the Moomba processing plant.

“We had a vision around improving our operations by creating greater situational awareness of what’s happening in the field in remote locations,” Santos general manager for the eastern Australia business unit Nick Lagonik said. “Then there was a lot of travelling for meetings which was inefficient. “This gives us the capability to bring people together quickly, understand what’s happening and make good decisions – make the right decisions with the right people in the room. “This happened as the east coast market opportunity began to become a reality so we wanted to expand our operations. We’re spending a lot of capital in Moomba and the surrounding areas – about $800 million of infrastructure upgrades. So we wanted to get the people and processes side right with state-of-the-art communications capability to match the two up.”

The collaboration centres consist of banks of television screens which show video of people in meeting rooms, real time data charts from the field or the plant and information shared from a worker’s laptop. Moomba gas plant manager Stephenie De Nichilo said the processing plant’s centre which opened earlier this year was geared toward efficiency.

“We’re trying to bridge that 800km gap between Moomba and Adelaide,” she said. “Sometimes there’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality when it’s easy to forget how much support there is in the Adelaide office for the Moomba site. This has helped us bring the two parts of the puzzle together.”

Previously, Santos relied on conference telephone calls, internet sharing of data and on rare occasions a video conference. “You couldn’t see people and you couldn’t interact with the data in the way that we can now,” she said. “There’s two parts to it – firstly execution efficiency and secondly providing technical support to minimise risk at the plant. “We’re still going through the journey of making these rooms as effective as possible. It’s not a case of just putting in the technology and all your problems are solved. It’s probably 40 per cent the technology and 60 per cent the culture of how people work together.”

Ms de Nichilo said nothing could replace actually being in the field and talking to people face-to-face. But once you understood the plant and had a relationship with the people, travel could be minimised. “I go up once a fortnight now but without the collaboration centre I’d be going up every week,” she said. Using the high definition cameras, staff in Moomba can hold up a component they may need advice on from Adelaide.

“That’s saving us eight to 12 hours in not having to bring the piece back to Adelaide,” Mr Lagonik said. Moomba operations superintendent Eric Bloem said the links were a strength.

“It’s given us a step change in how we operate, how we relate to people and the level of support we can get,” he said. One of the key gains was being able to resolve any safety issues more rapidly. You don’t want to be flippant with how you manage risk,” he said. Mr Lagonik said the project began with about $9 million spent on the first two centres on Levels 4 and 5 of headquarters. More than 30 contractor companies have been involved.

“We decided to start small, get it right and then go to this third phase to the more complex gas operations,” Mr Lagonik said. Real-time monitoring was already paying an efficiency dividend. “We’ve been able to improve recoveries – yields – by about 0.5 per cent by having up-to-the minute collaboration and fine tuning optimisation,” he said. “So that’s the big stuff.”

The network uses a mix of microwave, radio and fibre operated by Santos and Telstra fibre links. Next step will be taking portable cameras to the wells and pumps for live feeds back to Adelaide. At this stage the collaboration centres only communicate with the Cooper Basin and do not control operations. The decision to stop short of control is for two reasons.

Firstly the cost of retrofitting plant in the Cooper Basin would be considerable.

Secondly, because petroleum is such a hazardous material any remote control system would need to have back-ups with alternative communication paths in case the principal line failed.

Santos also has established a communications centre in Brisbane which links to the gas fields in Queensland. Some of that network was to greenfields sites and was installed to be remotely operated.