Energizing Kingdom's northern frontier
Saudi Arabia’s first unconventional project taps delivering to promises
Hidden snugly hundreds of meters beneath the wide northern horizons of the Kingdom’s rocky an-Nafud desert sands lies a formidable, but sweet, gas.
Three years ago, Aramco set out to tame the energy treasure trapped a few kilometers from the Kingdom’s northern borders, sleeping within the ancient gateway to the Arabian Peninsula.
Significantly, by successfully releasing the elusive gas by natural pressure out of its sandstone corners into commercial production, Aramco’s greenfield North Arabia project has cost-effectively commissioned Saudi Arabia’s first unconventional gas project.
Unconventional Resources Gas Operations Development Department manager Mazen A. Al-Khayyal said the high aspirations the project set for itself saw North Arabia record historical rates of sales gas production last summer during peak demand.
During the peak demand period of summer, North Arabia worked with exceptional reliability, and to the company’s highest environmental standards, to deliver clean fuel to Wa’ad Al Shamal’s energy efficient combined cycle power plant.
- Mazaen A. Al-Khayyal
“Aramco is contributing to the prosperity of Saudi Arabia’s far northern region by providing clean energy to the Kingdom’s residents and businesses, a rapidly developing vibrant economy and creating direct and indirect jobs,” he said.
Above 90% local employment
For North Arabia, Al-Khayyal says Aramco heavily invested in local communities by reaching out to hire and train young staff from the region’s settlements such as Turaif, Arar, and Al-Jouff.
“More than 90% of Aramco staff in North Arabia are locals,” said Al-Khayyal. “Our recent record milestone in sales gas production, achieved in a safe and efficient manner, is reflective of the significant investment in training for local staff.
“We provided technical and safety training to our employees to enable them to work with high-tech equipment such as state-of-the-art gas power generators, air and gas compressors, and renewable solar technologies,” he added.
Delivering unconventional future
Unconventional gas is an important energy source for the Kingdom’s future, providing clean fossil fuel for power generation, and as a feedstock for petrochemicals. Saudi Arabia’s first unconventional gas project is delivering on its expectations — supplying cleaner energy, developing a thriving local economy, and flattening the company’s unconventional learning curve.
Yet, until relatively recently, conventional thought was unconventional gas was too complex and costly to extract. Currently the company’s unconventional efforts focus on three areas: North Arabia, South Ghawar, and the Jafurah Basin.
In February, regulatory approval was received to develop the Kingdom’s largest nonassociated gas field to date, the 170 × 100 km Jafurah unconventional gas field, with an estimated 200 trillion standard cubic feet of rich raw gas.
Unconventional gas, with less porous and denser rock structures, such as shale rock or tight sands, cannot be explored or produced by conventional processes. Generally, North Arabia gas accumulations are within channel sands.
Scattered along the channels are numerous porous sands — called sweet spots — which are saturated with commercial quantities of nature gas, and enclosed by tighter rocks.
North Arabia gas is a premium hydrocarbon. It is both sweet — requiring minimal treatment as no hydrogen sulfide is present — and dry, meaning no liquid hydrocarbons require removal. The only fluid requiring separation from this finest gas is water.
Distinctive modular difference
With a first cursory glance, North Arabia may appear similar to many conventional onshore Aramco production facilities. However, take a closer look in the field operations, and you will discover distinctive differences. Stubbornly, North Arabian gas will not economically come to you. Instead, you have to go to the gas.
This puts the gas firmly in charge of the extraction and processing infrastructure design and configuration. Instead of one centralized process facility, North Arabia has five smaller dispersed separation facilities, newly termed satellite processing facilities (SPF).
North Arabia Unconventional Resources Operations Division superintendent Sultan S. Shehri said the gas is being brought naturally to the surface through its own pressure. “More costly compression, however, would be required to push the gas to a typical conventional setup of one central processing facility,” said Shehri.
“Multiple satellite facilities is more economic for North Arabia.”
The satellite processing facilities and their 50 wells are a modular design, meaning they have the capability to be relocated for reuse at another location. “The modular design of North Arabia’s processing infrastructure supports the circular economy, where resources are continually reused rather than wasted,” added Shehri.
Our pioneering operational spirit
Humble enthusiasm surrounds the operators as they work to care for the highly automated five processing facilities and associated wells on North Arabia’s front line. To operate the site’s highly automated facilities, the Unconventional Resources Gas Operations Development Department both expanded and developed specific training for North Arabia’s workforce.
The project’s different operational set-up saw the scope of the company’s standard training widened to include identifying and resolving specific operational scenarios. Outside operator Abdulelah M. Alotaibi joined North Arabia in 2017.
On an average workday, he will typically travel around 200 km on skid roads with sharp rocky surfaces, which become muddy when it rains. Previously working at Hawiyah gas production unconventional, Alotaibi, describes North Arabia as “exciting.”
I was here from the beginning and saw every inch of pipe.
“When you leave your family, you are challenged to build up your mind, and North Arabia is a good chance to work with unconventionals,” said Alotaibi.
Dispersed self-generating processing
North Arabia has five smaller dispersed separation facilities; each named a “satellite processing facility” (SPF).
Their core role is to remove water from the gas through their dehydration system. The produced water is then evaporated in a settling pond.
The Kingdom’s Northern Borders region is remote. There are no local power grids to energize the facilities, so, self-sufficiently, each SPF produces its own power from a localized gas generator, and solar panels energize the control systems.
Outside operator supervisor Abdul Aziz Reweli lives south of Turaif and worked for eight years at Safaniyah, in the Tanajib plant. Joining the North Arabia team in November 2019, he says the facility is geographically scattered, with many wells, requiring operators to travel long distances.
“Sweet gas processing is relatively easy,” said Reweli. “There is only one treatment, the dehydration system.” “Advances in technology mean unconventional gas now costs less to produce. “Unconventional gas is the future. It is a new energy source producing fewer emissions.
“It is exciting to have an Aramco production facility here in the Kingdom’s northern region,” he beams.
Two local customers
Sounding out into the quiet air of North Arabia’s custody metering area is the high-compression swish of sales gas racing through 16- and 30-inch pipes.
The gas is on a direct journey to deliver cleaner energy to Turaif’s remote mining and industrial project, Wa’ad Al-Shamal. Outside operator Ali M. Asiri says in the custody metering area, the gas exits the company’s pipes into the outgoing customer pipes.
“The bigger 30 inch pipe goes to the Saudi Electricity Company, and the 16 inch pipe is for the Ma’aden Phosphate Company,” explains Asiri, who holds a chemical engineering diploma, and studied for one year at Aramco’s Ras Tanura Industrial Training Center. A Turaif resident, Asiri has worked as an outside operator for two years, and is proud to be part of Saudi Arabia’s first unconventional project.
“I do routine checks on the SPFs, take the gas test, look for abnormal things, and do housekeeping like cleaning sand off the infrastructure and motors,” said Asiri. “Thank you Aramco for giving Turaif citizens this chance. I hope it expands more.”
Designed for climate extremes
A region of climate extremes, northern Saudi Arabia has long hot summers, cool winters with frost, and snow is possible.
Outside operator Abdulmajeed E. Alenazi explains a methanol injection skid at each North Arabia well prevents low winter temperatures from crystalizing the gas (hydrate). He says the central control room monitors the temperature of the gas, and adding methanol avoids hydrate formation.
Coming from Arar, the Northern Borders region capital, Alenazi has worked for two years at North Arabia. Previously at ‘Uthmaniyah for two years, the outside operator trained as an operator at Dammam Industrial Training Center for 18 months.
When asked if he would be interested to work at North Arabia, he welcomed the opportunity, “It was a chance to be close to home, with my wife and family.”
“North Arabia is a new project uplifting the local economy, and making the region and its services better than before, and a cleaner energy supply without hydrogen sulfide,” said Alenazi. Asked what he would do if Aramco asked him to work at another facility, his immediate answer is, “Of course I would go, it is my duty.”
Digital eye on operations
Technology is key to unlocking unconventional gas.
North Arabia’s five processing facilities and their associated wells operate substantively through automation. Many electronic eyes are permanently fixed on North Arabia’s values, pumps, and other infrastructure.
The eyes feeds bytes of monitoring data into the central control room, and keeping a human eye on the electronic information is console operator Turki M. Almughamisi.
Starting as an outside operator 18 months ago, he has been a console operator for 14 months. “You learn how things operate by working outside on the facilities,” said Almughamisi. “You see the valves, the motors, you do the trouble shooting.
“The control room is a lot of responsibility as you can open or close the facility. “Opening the wrong valve will cause a mistake, and an important part of my job is keeping the operators safe,” he said.
Born in Turaif, Almughamisi studied for an electrical apprenticeship, before joining Aramco’s Ras Tanura Industrial Training Center for 18 months.“Aramco is bringing prosperity to Turaif through North Arabia,” he adds.
North Arabia unconventional project
- Gas processing facility
- Located in Saudi Arabia’s Northern Borders region
- Saudi Arabia’s first unconventional asset
Unconventional gas commercial production
- Commenced May 2018
- sales gas supplied to power plant in Wa’ad Al Shamal
Production from four fields
- Umm Wual
- Jalamid North
- Jalamid South
- Above 90% local employment
- Ma’aden Wa’ad Al Shamal Phosphate Company
- Saudi Electricity Company 1,390 megawatt combined cycle power plant for new local industrial city, Wa’ad Al Shamal, operating with high industrial efficiencies, producing power for local residences, businesses, and industrie