Friendly Geology, Tough Crowd

' … Proud of Our Environmental Bent'

AAPG member, Karen Christensen remembers well the time the head of a local anti-oil group summed up her feelings about Venoco: "For being in the most evil industry the world could ever imagine," she told her, "you guys are doing the best job you can."

These experiences come with the territory when you work in coastal California, site of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. The industry here remains highly restricted, and Christensen attributes much of this to a "vociferous minority" that doesn't necessarily represent public opinion. But anti-oil sentiment remains common.

"All of us have been asked at dinner parties what we do, and people say: 'How can you live with yourself?' So you always think about how to describe your job, and you expect some hostility."

Christensen volunteers in the community, leading field trips for teachers and students and mentoring others interested in science careers, among other activities. She enjoys this element of Venoco's company culture. But even more, she enjoys the mysteries of the Santa Barbara Channel.

"This is an extremely prolific basin, where oil migrates through faults, fractures and excellent reservoirs into a great variety of structural and stratigraphic traps," she says. "The Monterey Shale is one of the most interesting reservoirs in the world — it's both a rich source rock and an excellent, though complex, fractured reservoir. The Channel is one of the richest oil provinces in terms of density of fields, huge proven structures, and huge undrilled structures containing billions of barrels."

This is also where the technologies for deepwater exploration and production were first developed.

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AAPG member, Karen Christensen remembers well the time the head of a local anti-oil group summed up her feelings about Venoco: "For being in the most evil industry the world could ever imagine," she told her, "you guys are doing the best job you can."

These experiences come with the territory when you work in coastal California, site of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. The industry here remains highly restricted, and Christensen attributes much of this to a "vociferous minority" that doesn't necessarily represent public opinion. But anti-oil sentiment remains common.

"All of us have been asked at dinner parties what we do, and people say: 'How can you live with yourself?' So you always think about how to describe your job, and you expect some hostility."

Christensen volunteers in the community, leading field trips for teachers and students and mentoring others interested in science careers, among other activities. She enjoys this element of Venoco's company culture. But even more, she enjoys the mysteries of the Santa Barbara Channel.

"This is an extremely prolific basin, where oil migrates through faults, fractures and excellent reservoirs into a great variety of structural and stratigraphic traps," she says. "The Monterey Shale is one of the most interesting reservoirs in the world — it's both a rich source rock and an excellent, though complex, fractured reservoir. The Channel is one of the richest oil provinces in terms of density of fields, huge proven structures, and huge undrilled structures containing billions of barrels."

This is also where the technologies for deepwater exploration and production were first developed.

"Where else", she asks, "can you walk on the beach, enjoy porpoises swimming past, and pick up your own source and reservoir rocks in the sand?" Indeed, Christensen's husband, also an AAPG member, collects, cuts and polishes them, creating beautiful cross-sections with oil clearly visible.

"The oil oozes out of the cliffs and the mountains," she says, referring to the area's seeps. "The same rocks we're producing from offshore can be seen on the beach three miles away. It is structurally complex, stratigraphically complex — it's fun to come up with a geologic model and then take a walk on the shore and say to yourself: There's no way I can be right!"

Drilling on untested leases here has long been blocked by moratoria and lawsuits. But otherwise, she says, "In federal waters you can generally drill and produce any prospect that you can reach from existing facilities. I'm having as much fun, and more field work, exploring the innards and fringes of mature fields as I did doing rank exploration in the Chukchi Sea in the late '80s."

Christensen knows some dismiss the Channel as a regulatory dead-end. But she sees it as a harvest area with upside, not yet sunset. Doing business is often difficult, but not impossible. One can still explore around the big legacy fields.

"We have a large, untested fault block in our South Ellwood Field, updip and on the flank, reachable from the existing Platform Holly. There's also a deeper-pool sandstone reservoir there with excellent shows, never tested."

Reachable from Venoco's Platform Gail, she says, is "a beautiful, untested strike/slip pop-up structure, with large bright spots." These wells are permitted with reserve estimates in the tens-of-millions of barrels, and easily reachable with existing technology."

Christensen knows this partly because when Venoco bought its mature offshore fields, she made sure to get all the regional seismic data as well. Trouble is, there are tens of thousands of tapes — and other voluminous Channel data also worth preserving. So she is informally working with seismologists, professors and the U.S. Geological Survey to preserve the data for public use in structural geology, earthquake research and other beneficial activities.

Further, the day may come when the nation needs the Channel's undeveloped resources.

"You could say that oil is in the bank until the time when people will allow it to be produced," she said. "Meanwhile, we're proving that drilling and production can continue."

As for public hostility, Christensen offers a hypothesis on why this is so frustrating to geoscientists. Most didn't choose geology for the money, she believes, even though it often leads to lucrative careers. Geology suits people who naturally enjoy "camping, hanging out in the outdoors, drinking beer around the fire and figuring out how the mountains got there."

Many fellow professionals, she believes, "are very proud of our environmental bent. We recognize the complexity of all Earth systems — we're the ones that perhaps best understand it! We're always dealing with natural systems — water, carbon, rock, paleo-climatic systems, which get into public issues like global warming. We really care about it, so we're personally hurt by the hostility."

Geoscientists also are more likely to be offended by irrational expectations of easy solutions to obviously complex scientific problems. The public and politicians want simple answers — take away production, but don't change our lives.

So, if geoscientists don't cause high gasoline prices and they didn't create the Enron scandal, is it fair to expect them to step up and fix public perceptions?

"We geologists, we're clean," she jokes. "We feel people shouldn't blame us. But the fact is, we have to live with our industry's reputation." Any small or individual effort is better than doing nothing.

So she's currently designing a museum exhibit on oil migration and the oil seeps, another step toward demystifying energy for the public.

"You're just making a subtle impact," says Christensen. "You don't always have to ask, 'Is this the biggest bang for the dollar?' Just keep doing those little pieces."

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