Texas surveying contractor finds niche in oilfields and stays competitive with up-to-date technology.
Chains, pencils and charting paper were the height of surveying technology when Bill Bartlett joined Sempco Surveying in 1968. Today, Bartlett’s team documents and dissects the Texas oilfields with satellite positioning, 3-D scanning and computer-aided design, but they still have the same personal touch.
“We’re a bunch of surveyors, we have mud on our boots and we believe in doing a good job,” says managing partner Isaac Grier. “We believe that is how we’ve kept our clients and stay competitive. We listen to what they need and we accommodate and use the latest technology.”
Bartlett has spent close to five decades with Sempco Surveying. His father co-founded the company in 1967, and when Bartlett came on board, crews were using chains, charting paper and pencils to plot points.
Today, Sempco crews are using the latest GPS and 3-D scanning technology to get the job done.
While the technology has changed, not much else has with the Fort Worth, Texas-based company, which offers GPS services, boundary and topographic surveying, mapping, planning and consulting services. The company also provides complete computer-aided design (CAD) support including map conversions, digitizing, specialized color plots and as-built mapping to oil and gas exploration and operating companies, owners and builders of pipelines, property owners, land developers, electric utility companies, architects, engineers and designers.
“Surveying is often called the second oldest profession in the world,” says George Hill, partner and manager of the oil and gas division. “Surveying is basically establishing points and areas and boundaries. It takes the concept of ownership and it turns it into the reality of possession.”
FOCUSING ON ENERGY
Sempco — an acronym for Surveying, Engineering, Mapping, Planning and Consulting — has been providing its services to the oil and gas industry in Texas since the company was founded.
“We enjoy the clients,” says Grier. “They appreciate the value of the survey. They will pay what we ask for as far as rate and they give us the leeway and the latitude to perform the amount of surveying we need to perform in order to feel comfortable with our product.”
The company offers several surveying services to the gas and oil industry, including lease and unit surveys, pad location and staking, pipeline surveys and alignment sheets, drilling pad and rig details, surface use exhibits and easements, legal descriptions, topographic surveying and profiles, GIS database management and shape file submittals to the (Texas) Railroad Commission and other regulatory agencies.
Between 80 and 90 percent of the company’s work is oil and gas driven, including about 30 percent in exploration.
“Typically our job is to locate property corners and determine their location using GPS surveying and lock that in with the adjacent property surveys and build a computerized map of a boundary,” Hill says. “These days there’s a lot of infrastructure that has to be surveyed in conjunction with the unit survey.”
Crews are required to survey anything within the boundary that could impact the location of a pipeline or drill pad. The size of the area they are surveying varies based on what type of drilling is taking place.
“Back in the good old days when it was just a vertical straw that got stuck in the ground and went down to a pool of oil, it was a 40-acre unit,” Hill says. Now, with horizontal drilling technologies, a unit can be up to 700 acres.
“Our crews are instructed to find corners, use their heads, use their eyes to be our eyes out in the field and survey the route so we can effectively represent the area that’s being utilized for a pipeline, a drilling unit, a well, a pad or a road,” Hill says.
To accomplish those tasks, Sempco uses a multitude of technology both in the field and the home office where five licensed surveyors are based.
Field crews are equipped with Trimble R8 receivers, Trimble 5800 base stations and Trimble TSC2 data collectors. They also operate a Leica C10 scanner, which can scan in 3-D.
“Most of our work is done with Trimble GPS equipment,” says Bartlett. “Trimble was the first company to come out with GPS equipment and we started with them and stuck with them because they are reliable.”
The office is equipped with 10 AutoCAD stations along with Leica, Autodesk, Carlson and Esri ArcMap software. In the field, crews are able to transfer files to the office using the TSC2 data collectors — hand-held devices about four times larger than a smartphone.
“We use those to collect and store data that the crew is gathering when they are taking readings,” says Grier. “All the data is collected and then we convert that into usable coordinate systems and those files are then uploaded to an FTP site from the data collector using our cellphone or modem service.”
Once back at the office, Grier or one of the other partners will gather the information, stream it into the AutoCAD program and plot out points. Grier says it’s easier and more accurate than having the field crew attempt to calculate it in the field on the hand-held devices.
Hill says they’ve used the equipment on job sites 500 miles from the office and have had the data transmitted to the office and back out to the field crews within a half-hour. Crews will then stake the points for construction of the pipeline or boundaries of a property.
One such job came up in December 2014 when Sempco crews were staking a location for a 1,600-foot pipeline in the middle of Palo Pinto County, Texas. The only condition was that the pipeline had to stay 15 feet away from an existing pipeline because of a 30-foot-wide easement.
“The operations manager of that company just told us where he wanted the pipeline to start and finish,” Hill says. “There was a riser in one area and there was a pipe sticking out of the ground in another area.”
Field crews took the measurements and photos at the beginning and end of the pipeline location, surveyed the location and transferred that information to the office. The data was then reviewed and points were selected for the field crew. The field crew received the information back and was able to begin staking that same day.
“This technology is invaluable,” Hill says. “It beats the old days of chaining something with an engineers chain and hand-writing your notes and coming in and translating the information and hand-drawing it all on a map. It was very tedious and time consuming and an engineer or developer would have to spend days, sometimes weeks, to get the data.”
ON THE LEADING EDGE
Bartlett, president of Sempco Surveying, says the company has always been on the leading edge of technology.
About 12 years ago the company partnered with a local GPS network provider that wanted to expand its network. Bartlett and the other partners at that time invested in a Continually Operating Reference Station – a permanent Global Navigation Satellite System receiver, antenna and support equipment.
“In return for establishing that base station, the local network provider gave us a subscription for five separate GPS units,” says Hill. “Typically back then a company may have had four or five crews, but they would all share one GPS unit and base station because technology was just expensive to get.”
Bartlett says the GPS units are beneficial because there is very little human input, which results in few errors.
“When we were chaining and turning angles and stuff like that, every time you wrote down a distance or angle, there’s a chance you wrote it down wrong,” Bartlett says. “With the GPS equipment it’s hard for anybody to mess up.”
The Leica C10 scanner allows crews to conduct complex surveying that would normally take hours. “The laser scanner will scan a site, whether it’s a building, a transmission tower or drilling rig, and it’ll collect millions of points in a half-hour,” Hill says.
The scanner has a 360-degree horizontal arc and a 270-degree vertical arc and collects 50,000 points per second.
“You end up with a point cloud that is huge, larger than what most computer systems can store,” Hill says. “We’ve had to upgrade our hardware and software to manage that program.”
Sempco used the equipment recently in north Texas at a location where an oil company was using a 135- to 150-foot-tall drill rig they were going to install at a well pad. As the rig manufacturer completed the rig at the plant, Sempco crews scanned it in before it was dismantled for shipping.
“We were able to provide 3-D models of all the different components to the oil company so they could rebuild the rig on a variety of drill site locations,” Hill says. “That’s cutting-edge technology.”
IN THE FIELD
Typically the company has six field crews out daily, but that fluctuates with demand. Crews consist of two people, but will expand to three if they are staking a pipeline, tower or pad site.
“We’ll do the three-man crews so we can distribute the work and do the work in a manner that we know is accurate and safe,” Hill says. “We have also sent land surveyors from the office out with one of the field crews to perform on-the-spot surveying and development work, so it’s a real flexible situation that we have here. It works well for us.”
Two overlapping projects have kept the company’s crews busy the last several years.
The first project, beginning in 2009, was one of the biggest surveys the company has conducted. An oil company purchased thousands of leases across Northeast Tarrant County, Texas, and hired Sempco to survey the area.
Hill says the area was 4,800 acres, but there were 5,800 tracts of land ranging from 1/10 of an acre to 30 acres.
“We had to create eight different production units, each heading in a different direction from the monster pad site,” Hill says. “We ended up surveying all 5,800 tracts of land and created multiple maps of these different units so that the drilling company was able to effectively develop the mineral resources on all 4,800 acres.”
That project was completed in 2012, but Sempco continues to work on the property as the oil company adds new wells and needs the records updated.
While that project was ongoing, Sempco took on another project from a large drilling company that wanted more than 5,000 tracts of land surveyed in south Tarrant County.
“We were able to use multiple crews with multiple GPS units to effectively survey and map both huge projects,” Hill says.
KEEPING THE STATUS QUO
Sempco’s future plans are to do exactly what they’ve been doing since 1967.
The company plans to continue competing with the larger engineering firms that offer turnkey services with engineers on staff. While Sempco has considered that route, they’re comfortable doing what they have always done.
“We’re just trying to maintain the status quo,” Grier says. “We put a lot of stock in our past success and the business models that have worked. We want to continue to thrive as a land surveying company.”