These high-tech professionals use their problem-solving skills to develop and hone the projects and processes that deliver energy
It’s been just six years since Rachel Wiechman graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with dual degrees in mechanical and civil engineering.
But already she’s working to reduce power consumption on pumps and designing new pipelines to shrink Aera’s environmental footprint at the Coalinga and San Ardo oilfields.
Brandon Chisum is reconfiguring the flow of water in an oil treatment facility at San Ardo with a goal of significantly reducing electricity usage. It’s an important step for lowering emission levels and conserving California’s natural resources.
Both Wiechman and Chisum are facilities engineers who work for Aera. When you think about the energy that powers your daily life, you might consider the role they and their fellow facilities engineers play at Aera’s five fields.
These highly educated, high-tech professionals are responsible for overseeing the design, construction, operation and maintenance of surface facilities and equipment. They come to work each day with an intense focus on ensuring Aera’s oil and gas production is safe for people and the environment.
They are trouble-shooters and problem-solvers, splitting their time between office and field to find better ways to improve safety and production while minimizing Aera’s carbon footprint. It’s their mission to see that Aera’s projects and processes meet all regulations. Waste and inefficiency are not happening on their watch.
“We are detail-oriented people who care about executing a plan that helps others do their jobs better,” said Agustin Lee, a facilities engineer at Aera’s Belridge field.
Lee joined Aera in 2012 just after graduating from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Today, he oversees the reliability of rotating equipment – “anything that moves liquids or gas using an engine or motor,” he said.
Investigators at work
Aera’s facilities engineers fall into three roles:
- Project engineers like Chisum, who design and implement new capital projects, including facilities and equipment;
- Process engineers like Ventura-based Jessica Leung, who improve existing processes and ensure Aera meets all regulations, codes and standards;
- Reliability engineers like Lee, who ensure the mechanical integrity of all pipes, vessels and tanks as well as the performance of rotating equipment.
Facilities engineers can spend weeks or months analyzing new project needs or root-cause failures. They may be asked to build a pump station or tank. They may need to figure out how why a compressor or pipeline isn’t doing its job. They’ll talk with field operators, electricians, mechanics, specialists and supervisors. They’ll review data and then devise a recommended solution. It can take a year or two to complete bigger capital projects.
“We’re kind of like investigators or detectives,” said Chisum, a project engineer who joined Aera in 2010 with a degree in mechanical engineering from California State University-Fresno.
Steven Shihady is the sole process engineer for Aera’s Midway Sunset field near Taft. His days are spent troubleshooting problems, analyzing data and creating solutions. Are there unusual changes in flow rates, pressures and temperatures? Is equipment performing poorly? It’s Shihady’s job to develop new designs, processes, equipment or upgrades. He then helps implement those solutions.
“In everything I do, I consider safety, operability and constructability,” said Shihady, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UC San Diego and a master’s in environmental engineering from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.
To make better decisions for improving function and reliability, Aera’s facilities engineers work with a variety of technologies. Simulation software, 3-D modeling, wireless meters and transmitters, and ultrasonic testing are common tools.
At Belridge, Lee and his colleagues use vibration-analyzing software to learn more about equipment health. They also employ an oil analysis tool, which works like drawing a blood sample, to examine lubricant oil in equipment for clues such as metal debris.
At the hilly Coalinga field, Wiechman and her team are looking at using drones and planes to assess the terrain to help with future projects.
Leung recently provided the technical assistance to help unplug a key pipeline carrying produced water between two plants, ending a two-day operational shutdown at the Ventura lease.
Aera’s facilities engineers are making the most out of their STEM degrees and skills to build a better energy system. In order to meet the California’s aggressive climate goals, these problem-solvers are exactly what the state needs on its team.