Changes in technology and ways of thinking have taken the industry places hard to imagine just scant decades ago.
In the area of geophysical exploration, new ideas and techniques continue to evolve.
Where will they take us?
Two experts in the field, Andy Williamson, founder of New Wave Exploration, and Paul MacKay, president and CEO of Shale Petroleum Ltd., both located in Calgary, Canada, offered their take on what future decades might look like for geophysicists.
Both agree that geophysics will continue to play a pivotal a role in the world’s energy future.
“The quality of interpretation and the ability to integrate geologically sound principals into the seismic data is still the most important step. This means that geophysicists should be geologists first. It seems obvious that if looking at seismic to give a geologic interpretation the interpreter should understand geological principles, but that is not always the case,” MacKay said.
“Interpretation software development has stalled over the last decade. We’re ready for a paradigm shift in the way we work with data. There have been some interesting enhancements in visualization that were catalyzed with the increased use of microseismic data, and there is now much more power on the desktop for true 3-D seismic interpretation. In retrospect, the pace of this development is disappointing,” Williamson said.
Men and Machines
In the near term, many experienced geoscientists will retire, but Williamson and MacKay say new people will step up to fill the gap.
“The supply of a trained work force will balance the demand,” said Williamson. “The bigger question is, what will the demand for geophysical interpretation be into the next decade? I do expect that less experienced professionals will face steep learning curves and many technical challenges before they’re completely ready, but I have no doubt that the work will get done.”
“The crisis in qualified workforce will not be restricted to only geophysics. It is simply the nature of a commodity-based business. We saw the same thing in the 1980s and the late 1990s. I don’t really see it as a problem to be solved; the market forces will address it,” MacKay offered.
Artificial intelligence is seen by some as a threatened replacement for the human element, but MacKay and Williamson see it as another tool for experienced interpreters.
“Geophysics has always been a leader in technology, especially advances in computer technology. Artificial intelligence will be used, as well as learning programs, for instant turn around on acquisition to interpreted data volumes. This will not put geophysics out of business but will make geophysics more important. One of the great advances in geophysics has been 4-D acquisition and microseismic These technologies are directed to better production practices; this will become a more important process in the future as we begin to unravel the complexities of the reservoir, “MacKay said.
“We’ve seen neural networks play a significant part of data analysis, but these do not replace interpreters. I think this will continue, and maybe we’ll see artificial intelligence implemented in ways we cannot even think of now. But I think geophysicists will still need to condition the data and the inputs and evaluate the results,” Williamson said.
Independents and Innovation
Some of the super major oil companies that have existed over the last 100 years have their internal R&D groups, but lately have left it to the smaller companies to generate new technology ideas.
Williamson said that in the late 1990s, research and development began to shift from major oil companies to larger service companies.
MacKay sees the trend continuing.
“The majors developed the R&D groups as a competitive advantage. With the growing use of Big Data, analytics and new data sources, the institutional approach of directing research is antiquated. I don’t see how large companies with their onerous overhead and need to justify quarterly returns on capital will be able to keep up with small groups that are prepared to work out of humble settings and direct themselves. Many of these groups may fail but the ones that succeed will do so faster, with greater returns, than cumbersome institutions. I think we have gone through the shift where small research groups are more efficient, more productive and develop a better product,” he said.
Could any new technology supplant the seismic method?
“The seismic method has been the benchmark in oil and gas exploration. We have seen the emergence of new technology, such as airborne stress field detection, met with significant speculation and intense review of the underlying science. The purveyors of new technologies are forced to document believable case histories and compare their results to seismic data. The challenge for innovators is to find risk-takers who are willing to invest in testing new methods. That’s a tough sell in a risk-adverse environment,” Williamson said
“The issue in the short term is with commodity prices low, the industry has less patience for risk, including testing new technologies. In the future this may change but at this point in time the question is, ‘Why look to make an affordable product more affordable?’” MacKay said.
“First it is incumbent on geophysicists to be aware of and knowledgeable about all the tools and types of data at their disposal for analyzing and mapping of the geology. At that point, the interpreter is limited only by their intuition, creativity, imagination, and what is fit for purpose for a particular problem or situation. Where it goes depends on the success gained by a certain technique, and the cost associated to deploy it. Historically, computing power has played a significant role in the universal availability and usage of many techniques, so I expect this trend will continue in the future,” Williamson said.
“Interpretation software development has stalled over the last decade. We’re ready for a paradigm shift in the way we work with data. There have been some interesting enhancements in visualization that were catalyzed with the increased use of microseismic data, and there is now much more power on the desktop for true 3-D seismic interpretation. In retrospect, the pace of this development is disappointing,” he continued.
“Geophysicists should be able to see in 3-D as they interpret. The power of visualization software is to allow other members of the team to see it that may not have the same ability. So I see this tool as a communication tool, not an aid to interpretation,” MacKay said.
Will the exploration projects of the year 2050 or 2075 will require different resources or skillsets?
“Emphatic ‘yes’ in the same way that our approach 50 years ago would be unacceptable today,” MacKay said
“Without a doubt. Thirty years ago I would never have predicted what we do today. There’s no way I can predict what our world will look like in 30 to 50 years,” Williamson added.