Zoback: Bridging the Gap Between Lab and Industry

Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award

Did seismology suddenly become sexy?

AAPG member Mark Zoback started his career with an interest in obscure areas of geoscience, trying to figure out how research could help solve practical, real-world problems.

And they truly were obscure areas - things like geomechanics, in-situ stress, natural and generated seismicity and the effects of hydraulic fracturing.

At that time, "I had no idea hydraulic fracturing and induced seismicity would be important 30 years later," he said.

Not only did his areas of research become important, they went straight to the forefront of what the oil and gas industry is doing today.

Zoback, professor of geophysics in Stanford University's School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Science, has been named a 2015 recipient of AAPG's Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award.

"What I feel like I've tried to do in my career, and what I'm most proud of," Zoback said, "is bridging the gap between the concepts in the laboratory and in academia with real-world problems faced in the petroleum industry and related industry."

(Can Get) Satisfaction

AAPG bestows the Robert R. Berg Award in recognition of a singular achievement in petroleum geoscience research.

Zoback's research has advanced the industry's understanding and application of geomechanics, but he's also done important work in other areas.

His colleagues and other experts cite him:

As a pioneer in the science of modeling geomechanics using well data, pore pressure, rock properties and other information.

As a researcher whose work has helped to mitigate the risks of wellbore stability.

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Did seismology suddenly become sexy?

AAPG member Mark Zoback started his career with an interest in obscure areas of geoscience, trying to figure out how research could help solve practical, real-world problems.

And they truly were obscure areas - things like geomechanics, in-situ stress, natural and generated seismicity and the effects of hydraulic fracturing.

At that time, "I had no idea hydraulic fracturing and induced seismicity would be important 30 years later," he said.

Not only did his areas of research become important, they went straight to the forefront of what the oil and gas industry is doing today.

Zoback, professor of geophysics in Stanford University's School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Science, has been named a 2015 recipient of AAPG's Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award.

"What I feel like I've tried to do in my career, and what I'm most proud of," Zoback said, "is bridging the gap between the concepts in the laboratory and in academia with real-world problems faced in the petroleum industry and related industry."

(Can Get) Satisfaction

AAPG bestows the Robert R. Berg Award in recognition of a singular achievement in petroleum geoscience research.

Zoback's research has advanced the industry's understanding and application of geomechanics, but he's also done important work in other areas.

His colleagues and other experts cite him:

As a pioneer in the science of modeling geomechanics using well data, pore pressure, rock properties and other information.

As a researcher whose work has helped to mitigate the risks of wellbore stability.

As a developer of proven, and now industry-standard, techniques for determining in-situ stress.

As a leader of research into the characteristics and geomechanics of shale reservoirs and unconventional reservoir stimulation.

As conceptual developer of the critically-stressed-fault hypothesis.

As co-founder of GeoMechanics International.

As principal investigator for the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth Project.

As an outstanding teacher for dozens and dozens of students who later established careers in the oil and gas industry.

As author of the textbook "Reservoir Geomechanics."

Add to that Zoback's contributions to public policy and social awareness, notably his service on a National Academies committee investigating the Deepwater Horizon accident, on a U.S. Secretary of Energy's committee on shale gas development and environmental protection, and on a Canadian Council of Academies panel on the same subject.

"Twenty years ago we had to explain what 'geomechanics' was. Now hundreds or thousands of times the industry uses our work as routine models," he said. "That gives me tremendous satisfaction."

Testing, Testing ...

After growing up in Tucson, Ariz., Zoback became the first member of his family to attend college. He received a degree in geophysics from the University of Arizona, then earned his master's degree, then doctorate in geophysics at Stanford University.

He felt an early attraction to geology but wanted "something less descriptive and more quantitative," switched to seismic and Earth-stress studies, and in the end "did my Ph.D. studying rock deformation in earthquakes - rock deformation and fluid flow in the Earth," he said.

That started him on the path to post-doctoral work with the U.S. Geological Survey, where he served as chief of the In-Situ Stress Measurement Project from 1976-80 and of the Branch of Tectonophysics from 1981-84.

His formative experiences as a researcher included work with the oil and gas industry and an early attempt to understand the process and effects of hydraulic fracturing.

"I first did some work on hydraulic fracturing as a researcher. Then I went into the field and probably did a hundred small hydraulic fracturing projects myself," Zoback recalled.

"We actually built a logging truck to house the instruments," he said, "and ran the instruments ourselves."

Work in the oilfield appealed to him, and he called that experience the most fun he's had as a researcher.

"Early in my career I had to work around drilling rigs, a lot. I spent a lot of time in the field. That has had just tremendous benefit to my career," Zoback noted.

"A drilling project is a giant experiment, right?" he said.

Needed: Solutions

He served as chairman of Stanford's Department of Geophysics from 1991-97, and since then has become involved in numerous research projects, many directly related to oil and gas. In 2014 he became director of the Stanford Natural Gas Initiative, which examines the implications of tremendous growth in natural gas production.

Zoback called himself "a very strong proponent of responsible oil and gas development" and of environmental quality, and said "the enhanced use of natural gas is a big part of what we can do."

Much of his research in recent years has been devoted to unconventional resources, including the development of production from shale reservoirs.

"For the last seven or eight years I've been focused on understanding the geomechanics of these unconventionals, for all the obvious reasons," Zoback said.

In March, the U.S. Department of the Interior released new regulations for the use of hydraulic fracturing on federal and tribal lands. Zoback served on the panel that advised the government on hydrofracturing and that helped devise the regulations.

The new rules drew criticism from some parts of the oil and gas industry, and Wyoming and North Dakota have challenged the regulations in court - but in comments Zoback has defended the government's position.

"In general I thought it was all steps in the right direction. The devil is in the details, of course," he said. "Like-minded people might disagree on the details, but there are real problems out there that need solutions - meaningful, impactful, but not burdensome."

Something Big

Another high-profile issue attracting Zoback's attention is the recent increase in earthquake activity in the middle of the United States, especially the question of induced seismicity in Oklahoma.

He noted that Stanford has nine professors working on the subject of induced seismicity, and said he has co-authored a soon-to-be-published paper that directly addresses the Oklahoma earthquake situation.

Zoback sees environmental concerns having an ever-larger effect on the oil and gas industry, as it is pressed to meet the world's growing energy needs.

"I think the big challenge is the coming challenge of providing energy for society while protecting the environment," he explained.

"When I talk to my students today, I tell them it's not just a case of switching from dirty fuel to clean fuel. It's a long-term process, to decarbonize the energy system while doubling it in size, and allowing for economic growth while protecting the environment and meeting societal norms," he said.

And Zoback said his students are responding to that challenge, as they see the energy-environment story playing out on a global scale.

"I think it's compelling to students because they feel like they're part of something big," he said.

Zoback plans to continue "doing research in fundamental science that has applications to real-world situations. The most important part comes down to being able to quantify and measure forces in the Earth to solve practical problems.

"I don't want to pretend I'm sitting in a rocking chair in a self-satisfied way," he said. "Good researchers are never satisfied."

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