Making an impact

Elaine Maslin

September 1, 2015

Elaine Maslin speaks with new Oil & Gas Innovation Centre (OGIC) COO Ernie Lamza about his early career, his new role and the part technology has to play in the oil and gas industry.

Ernie Lamza.

Being left in charge of an oilfield start-up in Egypt’s Western Desert at age 26 could be a daunting task. It was – but, it was also a brilliant learning opportunity, says Ernie Lamza, who is now COO at the less than one-year old Oil & Gas Innovation Centre (OGIC) based in Aberdeen.

Lamza, who had previously been working on a ConocoPhillips’ North Slope project from their Oklahoma engineering center, went on to deploy new technologies in the North Sea with Hamilton Brothers, manage Penspen’s worldwide engineering and project management business and, most recently, support Dutch floating production specialist SBM Offshore’s research and development program.

Technology development is now his core focus and it’s an area in which he sees a definite need, particularly in today’s cash-strapped, low oil price environment. “Innovation should be at the forefront of everybody’s mind because of the role it can play in maximizing economic recovery in the UKCS,” says Lamza, who joined OGIC in February. “At OGIC, launched in November last year, we work to make the innovation process easier and provide funding for qualifying projects.”

Lamza, from the Scottish Borders, studied chemical engineering at Heriot-Watt University. Upon graduation in 1982, despite the downturn at the time, he secured a job with ConocoPhillips supporting the firm’s North Sea operations brownfield engineering projects, before being posted to Oklahoma, where he specialized in process engineering and worked on a new project in Egypt’s Western Desert.

Working on the Houston-based design team, he was responsible for 2-3 packages of equipment and then flew out to Egypt for the project start-up. But, when the lead engineer had to return to the US, Lamza became responsible for the start-up of the project on-site.

“I had arrived a week before the scheduled start-up, but delays meant the actual start was closer and closer to his departure date. Finally, we started up the day before he left and he worked on through the night handing back to me the next morning. We walked to the airstrip together, having a final handover and with last minute advice, said goodbye, and then I took over. There were a few exciting moments, but as a 26-year-old in the desert, it was brilliant – being given such responsibility, learning on the job, seeing a project through start-up safely to first production.”

After returning to the UK, working on a range of modification projects he went into contracting, working for Matthew-Hall Engineering, later acquired by AMEC, before joining Hamilton Oil, later bought by BHP. The company was “lean and mean,” he says, but also willing to innovate. Lamza was Hamilton’s only process engineer in Aberdeen at the time, tasked with projects including topsides clean-up of hydraulically fractured gas wells.

“Hamilton was willing to take a bit of business risk to try new technologies. As well as the well clean-up system, there were other projects like on-line compressor water washing and injection rate control devices, which were pretty novel at that time,” Lamza says. “To try these things offshore was very enlightened of Hamilton. My view is the operators nowadays are less willing to take that approach.”

Which is where OGIC comes in, to link companies with challenges in innovation and development with Scottish Universities. “Within OGIC, we are trying to help companies manage the risks of taking technologies offshore,” Lamza says. “The expertise within Scottish universities is well-placed to move technologies forward, advancing their technology readiness level to meet industry demand.”

OGIC’s objectives are aligned with Sir Ian Wood’s Maximizing Economic Recovery recommendations and the Technology Leadership Board’s goals of stimulating well activity, encouraging small field development and improving asset integrity.

Aside from connecting companies to world-class Scottish researchers, OGIC has also placed two pieces of cutting-edge equipment in the universities using money from the Scottish Funding Council, a rock deformation apparatus and a computed tomography scanner, to allow industry and researchers to apply new techniques to target increased recovery of oil and gas from reservoirs. And, OGIC has priority should any of its projects need access. So far four OGIC projects have been approved with another 10-12 close to sanction and 24 more under consideration. In a short period of time, OGIC is already making an impact.