The ribbon cutting of the WPX Drilling Simulator Teaching Lab. Left to right: Gov. Dave Freudenthal; WPX VP of land Jerry Barnes, University President Dick McGinity, and university trustee Jeff Marsh. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

Over the past two years, the University of Wyoming has installed a supercomputer, a virtual-reality cave with 3-D graphics, and now an oil and gas drilling rig simulator.

University officials hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Energy Innovation Center last week to dedicate the new WPX Drilling Simulator Teaching Lab. Those attending included former Gov. Dave Freudenthal, representatives from WPX Energy, Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie), Rep. Glenn Moniz (R-Laramie), Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), and Petroleum Association of Wyoming president Bruce Hinchey. Academics, students, members of the university foundation and board of trustees were also in the audience.

University of Wyoming President Dick McGinity speaks at the dedication of the new WPX Drill Simulator Teaching Lab on October 2. McGinity previously served on the board of Canada Southern Petroleum Ltd. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

The centerpiece of the lab is a simulator called the DrillSIM-5000, which consists of virtual-reality screens with myriad gauges, valves, levers, buttons, and wheels. The simulator helps familiarize students with the mechanical operation of a rig, as well as how to manage potentially dangerous situations like well blow-outs.

University President Dick McGinity said he considers the drilling simulator an important tool for training students who will work as engineers or drillers.

“This type of benchmarking, in which this university clearly shows its dedication to this industry and to improving its operations, sets us apart from other universities,” McGinity said. “The simulator will prepare our students to compete and succeed in a global economy. The ability to learn and train on the drilling simulator is the envy of other academic institutions and it will launch our graduates on an arc to become future leaders of industry.”

The simulator is part of the ongoing effort to remake the College of Engineering. The outside task force leading the effort is made up of executives at international oil and gas companies like Shell and Hess who are alumni from the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering.

Former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) worked with UW Foundation President Ben Blalock to secure a $1 million gift for the lab from WPX Energy, formerly a subsidiary of Williams Companies.  (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
Former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) worked with UW Foundation President Ben Blalock to secure a $1 million gift for the lab from WPX Energy, formerly a subsidiary of Williams Companies.  (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

The drilling simulator was funded by a $1 million dollar gift from WPX Energy, a former subsidiary of the Williams Companies, and matched by $1 million in taxpayer money appropriated by the Wyoming Legislature.

“The match money that the Legislature put up made all the difference in these gifts,” said former Gov. Dave Freudenthal. “We can go to companies and say look, ‘Dollar for dollar we double your contribution.’ That distinguished us from a lot of people who were asking for gifts.”

Following the ribbon-cutting, University of Wyoming students provided a demonstration of the simulator under the direction of M.P. Sharma, professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. In a 15-minute presentation, the students demonstrated the operation of drilling, the appearance of a “kick” of high-pressure gas coming up the well, and a well blowout. The students had the capability to control the blowout by operating a series of manual choke valves.

“We’ve always said the only thing missing from this environment is just open up the windows, and let the wind blow in, and throw in some ice and snow, and let it really simulate what drilling is like in the state of Wyoming,” said University of Wyoming Foundation president Ben Blalock.

University of Wyoming students deliver a demonstration of the drilling simulator. Left to right: Thomas Smith of Eden, Wyoming; Shira Reyher originally from Comanche, Oklahoma; Jacques White of Pinedale, Wyoming. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

The drilling simulator was built by Drilling Systems, a British Company that sells simulators to companies like British Petroleum.

“Everyone around the world in the energy industry wants one,” said Dave Bagley, head of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Department, which has 400 students.

The simulator arrived in Laramie last spring and was installed in time to be used for the fall semester. The University of Wyoming’s simulator is the most up-to-date device of its kind operating at a university in this country, McGinity said. Other institutions like Colorado School of Mines and Texas A&M have similar drilling simulation labs.

Jerry Barnes, vice president of land for WPX Energy. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

Freudenthal credited Jerry Barnes, WPX vice president of land and former manager of the company’s Powder River Basin operations, as well as former president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, as the one who sold the idea of the simulator to Williams/WPX Energy. Gov. Dave Freudenthal, UW Foundation president Ben Blalock pitched the idea of the gift to Barnes, who then convinced Williams to make the largest gift in its 100-year company history.

“When Gov. Freudenthal approached me for a contribution to this it was an easy decision,” Barnes said. “Because I knew it was the right thing, and I knew that if we did it, it would all turn out to be the right way. I went and talked to management, and it wasn’t that difficult of a sell.”

Blalock said the participation of Gov. Freudenthal and Gov. Matt Mead is crucial in getting industry support for the university.

“We travel a lot around with this governor (Freudenthal), and we are traveling around a lot with Gov. Mead, and it puts us into some corporate settings that we, in all candor, sometimes couldn’t get into without governors that are willing to open those doors for us,” Blalock said.

WPX Energy recently sold its acreage in the Powder River Basin, after developing thousands of gas wells there during the coal-bed methane boom, said Adriana Scott, Talent Programs Administrator for the company. The sale came as WPX sought to balance its reserves of oil and gas, which at the end of 2013 were tilted 76 percent toward gas, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

WPX is active in the Bakken field of North Dakota, as well as in Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Argentina, and Colombia. In 2013 the company invested $1.15 billion in developing these resources. The company has about 1,200 employees.

The DrillSIM-5000 will provide training in drilling rig operation and blowout-prevention for students. Professionals seeking well-control certifications will also use the facility. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
Gauges on the DrillSIM-5000 in the WPX Drilling Simulator Teaching Lab. A UK-based company called Drilling Systems manufactured the simulator and shipped it to Laramie, Wyoming, in 11 separate crates. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
Gauges on the DrillSIM-5000 in the WPX Drilling Simulator Teaching Lab. A UK-based company called Drilling Systems manufactured the simulator and shipped it to Laramie, Wyoming, in 11 separate crates. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
The pump control station next to the main console of the DrillSIM-5000. The simulator provides controls for three separate pumps used for injecting drilling mud and other purposes.  (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
The pump control station next to the main console of the DrillSIM-5000. The simulator provides controls for three separate pumps used for injecting drilling mud and other purposes.  (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
Thomas Smith of Eden, Wyoming, listens to instructions from driller Shira Reyher during the drilling simulation. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
Thomas Smith of Eden, Wyoming, listens to instructions from driller Shira Reyher during the drilling simulation. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
A valve station on the DrillSIM-5000. The simulator allows students to reroute high-pressure gas and fluids through a series of “chokes” to lower the pressure and prevent a catastrophic blowout. In a real-world situation, a “kick” of high-pressure gas would be routed through the chokes to a flare, tank, or pipeline. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
The program from the drilling simulator dedication. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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  1. Is anyone in the USA working on alternative energies, or are we going to wait until we’ve extracted all the oil and gas we have thanks to state financing and state education support of private industry?