Comparing the critically endangered species of the Black Rhino or the Amur Leopard to a paleontologist is not necessarily a far-fetched analogy: The paleontologist is a dying breed in the oil and gas industry.
This fact is not new, but it is quickly reaching a critical point. Retirement lies just ahead for the small pool of micropaleontologists still employed by major energy companies or who work as independent consultants.
With few remaining experts in biostratigraphy and paleoecology – two subsets of the discipline that determine the age of rocks and the environments in which they were deposited – many say operators will soon find themselves in a quandary.
“It’s definitely a problem, and it’s only a matter of time before the full effects are seen,” said AAPG member Nancy Engelhardt-Moore, a paleontologist with ALS Ellington in Houston.
“This is a critical topic. When you drill a well, you’ve got to know where you’re going, and rocks are the best records,” she said. “It’s called the ‘ground truth.’”
Despite the fact that many paleontologists were laid off during the economic downturn in the mid-1980s and then passed over for geophysicists in the 1990s when 3-D seismic proved highly valuable for identifying drilling locations, many geologists insist
they are as indispensable today as they were decades ago.
“There’s no question about their value,” said AAPG Honorary member John M. Armentrout, a retired exploration geologist and past AAPG vice president who co-authored several reports on the need for highly specialized paleontologists when their numbers began
plummeting. “Paleontologists continue to play a valuable role in exploration and production.
“Even as technological changes sweep the industry,” he continued, “integrating paleontologic data with these new technologies, such as 3-D seismic, should be a standard practice.”
The thinning of paleontologists from the industry could simply be seen as a product of natural selection.
However, scientists – who have witnessed countless dry holes as a result of a dearth of paleontological data – are challenging any notions related to the survival of the fittest.
In fact, many are currently brainstorming ways to sustain the languishing science and the people who practice it.
On the Verge of Extinction?
When crude oil prices dramatically dropped in 1986, marking an end to the oil glut, paleontologic staffs at major U.S. oil companies shrunk by 90 percent, leaving most companies at levels well below critical mass, Armentrout co-wrote in a report, “Fossils
in the Oil Patch” (October 2000 Geotimes magazine).
ExxonMobil employed approximately 100 paleontologists more than three decades ago. Today, fewer than 10 remain on staff, said AAPG member Keith Knabe, a biostratigrapher who has seen many cut-backs during his 34-year career.
The trend also hit the nation’s universities.
During the late 1950s, paleontology was the number one area of graduate study in North America, according to a 1997 report by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Today, there are fewer than 50 graduate professors of micropaleontology in the United States, said David Watkins, professor and chairman of the Earth and Atmospheric Department at the University of Nebraska, who also compiles data for the American Geoscience
Institute’s Directory of Geoscience Departments.
Since 2012, just 28 institutions have had graduate programs in micropaleontology – a decrease of roughly 40 percent between 2001 and 2011, Watkins added.
“In general, micropaleontology doesn’t bring in as much money at the graduate school level as other disciplines do, especially as state support dries up and it gets harder to obtain research grants from the National Science Foundation,” he said.
And, mirroring the issues in the industry, professors of micropaleontology are retiring as well.
“It’s something universities are going to need to come to grips with,” he said. “Companies are still hiring these people. My students graduate with more than one job offer. It’s just a matter of securing industry funding for research to support students’
graduate studies in micropaleontology.”
Furthermore, today’s students are drawn to cutting-edge technology in geophysics, reservoir modeling, chemostratigraphy and detrital zircon studies – pushing paleontology further into the realm of the old school. Three-D seismic, which relies on reflective
seismic waves to draw a detailed roadmap of the subsurface, is often hailed by the petroleum industry as a cure-all, said AAPG member Robert B. Blodgett, a consulting paleontologist based in Anchorage, Alaska.
As useful as 3-D seismic can be, however, like any dataset, it has its limitations.
New Technology, Same Ol’ Problems
Along the Gulf Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, paleontologists have examined well cuttings for more than 70 years and recorded thousands of biostratigraphic and paleoecological data points. However, most of these data points don’t extend below depths of
8,000 feet, leaving operators to choose between 3-D seismic and biostratigraphy when building a basin framework.
Oftentimes, they place more faith in seismic, not wanting to spend money on both, Engelhardt-Moore said.
The biostratigraphic analysis of a well costs tens of thousands of dollars compared to seismic’s multi-million dollar price tag. But in the eyes of Armentrout, “Misinterpretations of seismic data can limit or even negate its value.”
As operators continue to push the boundaries of drilling in remote places and deeper waters, they are finding that data from 3-D seismic is not always reliable.
“Today we have a situation where we have a shortage of paleontologists and we’ve discovered in the last 10 years or so that when drilling in the subsalt of the Gulf of Mexico, seismic doesn’t work so well,” Engelhardt-Moore said, explaining that it tends
to give false images when its waves run through salt formations.
“Seismic is interpretive, and people don’t like to think this because they’ve spent so much on seismic and then learn it’s not always accurate,” she said.
“However, if you run the rock samples and analyze the microfossils, you’ll see they are tried and true,” she added. “They can tell you where you are in the basin.”
Recent lessons learned in the Gulf of Mexico aren’t much different from other lessons learned long ago. Alaska’s Bear Creek No. 1 Well, which was featured in the June 2014 EXPLORER, is a classic case of a disaster that can happen in the absence of paleontological
data, Blodgett said. Drilled in 1957 and plugged just two years later, the well became known as the most expensive dry hole in North America in the 1950s at $7 million.
Some blame the well-site geologists who didn’t thoroughly test the rocks during drilling and overshot the targeted horizon by roughly 7,000 feet.
Blodgett works regularly with clients whose interpretations of seismic data in terms of formation picks can sometimes be off by as much as 50 million years, causing them to produce incorrect models, drill dry holes, abandon leases and waste millions of dollars.
“In order to know with certainty that you are drilling in the right place, you need to know the age of the rocks, and this can be done by looking at the fossils,” Blodgett said. “You really want to know where your target is. You want accuracy. Age is everything
in this game.”
Micropaleontology is classical training that most young scientists lack, and they struggle tremendously, especially when trying to locate hydrocarbons in new frontiers, Blodgett said.
“We’ve lost touch with rocks,” he said. “Kids fresh out of school often don’t know what rocks in the field look like.”
Geology on the Rocks
When companies bypass the analysis of paleontologic data, many end up simply “putting holes in the ground,” Engelhardt-Moore said, adding that while it is undoubtedly more expensive to rely on multiple datasets, it can actually be more cost beneficial in
the long run.
When building a basin framework, ideally, operators should incorporate biostratigraphy, well logs, seismic, lithology, hydrocarbon type, geochemistry, rock properties, ages and paleoenvironments, she added.
Paleontologist Mike Styzen of Noble Energy spent the first 12 years of his career looking through a microscope at thousands of microfossils – a process dating back to the 1920s when micropaleontology was first applied in the petroleum industry. He has worked
with foraminifera, nannoplankton and palynomorphs – the three main microfossil groups – identifying traps, seals and source rocks, all of which point operators to the sweet spots.
It’s fair to call Styzen a rare bird, as he has compiled an irreplaceable knowledge bank and skill set and has provided invaluable correlations to other datasets for optimal basin modeling.
For years, paleontology was limited to exploration, and paleontologists worked quietly behind the scenes. They supplied other scientists with information so it could be correlated with other data.
In the last 15 years, however, paleontologists have been playing a front-and-center role during production – ever since companies realized that seismic alone can’t accurately map the salt formations in the deep Gulf of Mexico, Styzen said.
Having once worked on the Gulf’s off-shore drilling rigs identifying fossils from cuttings and making major drilling decisions on the spot – Styzen noted that paleontology is getting its second wind.
Managing to operate with a skeleton crew of paleontologists over the years, companies soon will be facing a slew of ripple effects from attrition.
Like many, Styzen’s retirement lies just around the corner, and he expresses concern about how the industry will press on without paleontologists’ expertise and efforts to mentor young scientists joining their teams.
“You need a good four or five years of looking through a microscope at fossils in one particular specialty to become proficient,” Styzen said. “That’s the importance of having a mentor. You need someone to check your work. In the industry, a lot of this
stuff isn’t written down. It’s an oral tradition of sorts, handed down from mentors to protégés.”
Styzen has mentored many people over the years, including those with whom he currently works.
“Mentors are extremely important right now,” he reiterated. “Sooner or later, I’m going to have to start training people, because a lot of them have never been exposed to micropaleontology – even at school.”
Counting fossils is labor-intensive work, and as Styzen noted, “No one has invented a machine yet that can identify microfossils.”
In the eyes of Armentrout, the key to reviving the appreciation of paleontology lies in undergraduate education:
“Undergraduates exposed to the usefulness of paleontologic data for solving geologic problems will expect to use such data during their careers, no matter their career track,” he wrote in “Fossils in the Oil Patch.”
However, universities won’t hire professors if students can’t find jobs,” Knabe pointed out.
“A company just can’t commit to a university and say, ‘We will hire all the paleontologists you produce,’” he said. “It’s definitely a Catch-22.”
Staging a Comeback
While Armentrout noted that the mentoring of new scientists by highly experienced staff is “almost extinct,” paleontologists are working to keep mentorships alive.
Part of Engelhardt-Moore’s job description includes training young scientists. She also volunteers as a docent at the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Morian Hall of Paleontology, explaining the importance of the science to any visitor who will lend her
Another tactic she uses is fishing abroad for viable candidates.
“We’ve sent out ads worldwide and have been locating people both in the United States and other countries who have just graduated in paleontology,” she said.
The ALS Ellington staff now includes young graduates from Russia, Libya, Iran and Italy, where graduate degrees in micropaleontology are more widely offered.
In fact, the United States may be employing more paleontologists from Russia – “Things are much better for paleontology (there) than in the United States,” Blodgett noted.
His colleague, Boris Nikitenko from the A.A. Trofimuk Institute of Petroleum Geology and Geophysics in Siberia, recently reported that roughly 60 paleontologists are studying the stratigraphy and evolution of Siberian petroleum sedimentary basins.
“Maybe this explains why they are one of the leading exporters of oil globally, while we are still trying to recover from our energy crises with the shale oil boom,” Blodgett suggested.
“America must learn how to re-grow its former scientific excellence,” he said, “but I don’t see an easy solution.