PESGB May 2018
- COMMUNITY: 2017 In Review
- NEWS FEATURE: Extinguishing gas flaring at the ‘Supergiant’ South Pars gas field – Can Iran replicate Qatar’s LNG success story?
- NEWS FEATURE: Russia and CIS oil production growth to slow down
Plus much more inside
Peak Geoscience or a New Optimism?
At the end of 2017, the 50th anniversary of the discovery of plate tectonics was celebrated. Developing Alfred Wegener’s theories of continental drift earlier in the 20th Century, Dan Mackenzie and Bob Parker from Cambridge University published their Nature paper on plate tectonics in 1967. The contemporaneous exploration of the oceans played a significant role in this breakthrough and the impact has since been considerable, particularly for petroleum geoscience.
Fundamental changes to our understanding of the natural world can rarely be anticipated in advance. Sir Isaac Newton did not see that apple coming. Nevertheless, I wonder where and when we will encounter the next breakthrough in petroleum geoscience. If anything, I feel that we have been stagnating over recent decades. Our understanding of the subsurface and our ability to predict, image or engineer the rocks beneath our feet has long been driven by the resources contained in so-called “super basins” and the considerable investment power of the oil supermajors or large service companies.
Conventional exploration of the super-basins – notably the Caspian Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, the Middle East and Brazil – has dominated petroleum geoscience and engineering milestones since the dawn of the oil industry. The North Sea super-basin has played its own significant role in driving science and engineering breakthrough, complex rift geometries presenting new challenges to the prediction of hydrocarbon occurrence and harsh metocean conditions driving engineering at the cutting edge. Significant investment in marine seismic acquisition and processing occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, with the world’s first commercial 3D seismic survey acquired in 1975. The first floating production unit was deployed in the Argyll Field and the first tension leg platform in the Hutton Field.
In terms of science and technology investment, the super-majors have previously pressed annual research budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars into funding geoscience research. Apart from hydraulic fracturing – and this is where I step into controversial territory – one of the last step-changes in fundamental petroleum geoscience was sequence stratigraphy, which was pioneered by Peter Vail and colleagues at Exxon, not long after the work of Mackenzie and colleagues.
So – have we reached and passed peak petroleum geoscience?
Since the late 1990s, industry has been capitalising on the efficiencies of computer power, improving access to data and signal over noise, rather than pursuing a deeper understanding of the fundamentals. In addition, the management of larger data volumes has continued to enable deeper integration, whether it be improved definition of rock properties or full 3D petroleum systems modelling.
These incremental gains are all well and good, but the super-majors are now increasingly diverting research budgets towards their long-term survival in alternative energy sources. The big service companies are constrained by commodity prices and what their previously big-spending customers are willing to put out. As smaller companies pioneer the late maturation of the super-basins, or find ways of accessing tighter rocks at lower cost, they are often only problem-solving. The universities, who have done so much in the past, are the ultimate victims as they scramble for rare funding.
However, big disruptive ideas tend to emerge during difficult times and the past couple of years have been particularly bracing. PETEX 2018, which takes place at Olympia London between the 27th and 29th November, is entitled “A New Optimism”. PETEX always delivers the best of industry science and technology, but I hope that this year we see new breakthrough ideas emerging. The technical committee has established a stimulating set of themes, including “Big Data” and “Future Resources”. In addition, the University-Industry Collaboration Showcase is now at the heart of the event rather than on the periphery, bringing young minds together with experienced professionals.
The deadline for submission of papers is 25th May. If you have a disruptive “plate tectonic” idea for 2018, I am sure that the technical committee will be very pleased to hear from you. My hypothesis of “peak geoscience” is one that I would happily see disproved.