Celebrating Our Heritage

As many readers already know, AAPG will celebrate its 100th anniversary at the 2017 Annual Convention and Exhibition in Houston. While 100 years is a great milestone, it is also true that our profession is younger than the other scientific professions that serve as cornerstones of our modern industrial society. It is possible to track the history of other scientific professions for millennia – think of civil engineering and the Romans, for example.

So, despite frequent predictions of the end of the hydrocarbon era, it is entirely possible that our profession is still in its early and formative stages, and that geoscientists of the future will continue to play a vital role in providing the energy that powers the industrial world.

It is undeniable that the success of our profession has been enhanced by the revolution in technology and computing capability that have impacted all aspects of modern life. I would also suggest, however, that our continued success in finding and developing new hydrocarbon resources reflects much more than improvements in the tools of our trade. Instead, I think the ability to find and economically develop new hydrocarbon resources requires adherence to some fundamental principles that underpin what successful geoscientists have done in the past, do now and will continue to do in the future.

Embracing the Unknown

Founding AAPG Member and former chief geologist for Humble Oil Company, Wallace Pratt, summarized these principles in 1952 in one of the classic petroleum geology papers ever written, “Toward a Philosophy of Oil Finding.”

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As many readers already know, AAPG will celebrate its 100th anniversary at the 2017 Annual Convention and Exhibition in Houston. While 100 years is a great milestone, it is also true that our profession is younger than the other scientific professions that serve as cornerstones of our modern industrial society. It is possible to track the history of other scientific professions for millennia – think of civil engineering and the Romans, for example.

So, despite frequent predictions of the end of the hydrocarbon era, it is entirely possible that our profession is still in its early and formative stages, and that geoscientists of the future will continue to play a vital role in providing the energy that powers the industrial world.

It is undeniable that the success of our profession has been enhanced by the revolution in technology and computing capability that have impacted all aspects of modern life. I would also suggest, however, that our continued success in finding and developing new hydrocarbon resources reflects much more than improvements in the tools of our trade. Instead, I think the ability to find and economically develop new hydrocarbon resources requires adherence to some fundamental principles that underpin what successful geoscientists have done in the past, do now and will continue to do in the future.

Embracing the Unknown

Founding AAPG Member and former chief geologist for Humble Oil Company, Wallace Pratt, summarized these principles in 1952 in one of the classic petroleum geology papers ever written, “Toward a Philosophy of Oil Finding.”

Pratt described the inherent conservatism of the trained scientific mind, and how this has caused the most well informed geoscientists of each generation to constrain their thinking to what was known, and to dismiss what was unknown. He cited specific examples of the best geoscientists of their respective eras failing to predict vast amounts of oil and gas that were later discovered because of their inability to expand their thinking beyond what was known at the time.

To quote Pratt: “There exist more formidable barriers to success in oil-finding than the lack of perfected methods and techniques of exploration: the ultra-conservatism of the trained scientist and engineer, (and) the tendency of the human mind to discount or to ignore the significance of what remains unknown to it.”

He then went on to summarize his philosophy in his now-famous statement (paraphrased for modern times): “Where oil is first found, in the final analysis, is in the minds of (explorers).”

There is probably no better example of the timelessness of this statement than today’s unconventional oil and gas revolution, which has dramatically changed the outlook for world oil and gas supplies in ways that were inconceivable only a decade ago. One need look no farther than Pennsylvania, the site of the world’s first oil well (the Drake well), to get a modern example of Pratt’s philosophy in action. During the early 2000s, the accepted wisdom of the most knowledgeable experts in the United States predicted that the main natural gas supply basins would continue to be the Gulf Coast and the Rockies, and that LNG imports would eventually be required to balance growing market demand. Fast-forward 15 years and the industry has witnessed what is arguably the most dramatic resource development story anywhere on the planet in the Marcellus and Utica plays, which have grown gas production from only about 1 bcf/d in 2008 to about 22 bcf/d in 2016 (or approximately 30 percent of the North American market). The Marcellus play alone (at about18 bcf/d) now produces more gas than any other country in the world except for Russia, making Pennsylvania arguably the largest gas field on the planet.

To demonstrate that the Appalachian Basin is not a “one-off” fluke, the Permian Basin provides a corollary example for oil. Oil was first discovered in the Permian in 1921 and by 1976 reached a peak production of approximately 1.5 mmbo/d, after which it went into a 30-year decline as conventional fields matured and capital went elsewhere (mainly offshore) in search of larger fields.

By the end of the century, the basin was considered played out for new discoveries.

All of that changed with the advent of horizontal drilling and multistage fracturing, and by 2016 the Permian reached a production level of about 2 mmbo/d. In November of last year the United States Geological Survey announced its updated Mean Technically Recoverable resource assessment for the Wolfcamp shale in the Midland Basin of approximately 20 BBO to be the largest ever estimated for an unconventional oil play in the United States.

The startling fact is that perhaps the largest oil and gas fields ever discovered in the United States have been brought to market within the past decade by geoscientists working in areas long thought to have been played out, thinking creatively for opportunities to reinterpret old paradigms, and recognizing and separating what is known from what is unknown.

These events demonstrate that Pratt’s philosophy is as valid today as it was in 1952.

Passing Along Our Heritage

As AAPG celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is timely to honor the central role that creative geoscientists have played in bringing new hydrocarbon resources to market, and to motivate the next generation of geoscientists with a rich legacy of lessons learned to help them properly apply Pratt’s philosophy for the next 100 years.

To this end, the annual Division of Professional Affairs (DPA) luncheon will present a sequel to the 2002 “Heritage of the Petroleum Geologist” luncheon titled “Toward a Philosophy of Oil Finding: Then, Now, Tomorrow!” The DPA will honor 58 accomplished geoscientists, bringing the total of recognized honorees from the two combined events to 101: 100 to celebrate AAPG’s centennial, plus one additional individual to symbolize the passing of our deep heritage to the next generation of petroleum geoscientists. Attendees will also receive a print edition of our 2017 Heritage Volume that summarizes our honorees’ experience – including successes, disappointments, anecdotes and advice.

My thanks to Charles Sternbach, Andrea Reynolds, Bob Shoup and Diane Keim for their efforts to bring this event together. We hope that you will mark April 4 on your calendars for the DPA Heritage Luncheon at the 2017 ACE!

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