“South Australia is a geologist’s playground.”
That’s Mark Bunch, senior lecturer in petroleum geoscience at the University of Adelaide, talking about the veritable feast that is teaching in close proximity to such a cornucopia of petroleum possibility – much of it located right outside his window.
In other words, as in real estate, when it comes to the study of petroleum geology and the rewards that follow, it’s location, location, location.
The University of Adelaide is ideally placed near the Bight Basin, a large, mainly offshore basin that extends along the southern Australian margin, from the southern tip of Western Australia, across the Great Australian Bight to the western tip of Kangaroo Island. It is regarded as one of the world’s most prospective frontier sedimentary basins and a future world-class petroleum province. The Australian School of Petroleum, housed at Adelaide, has had a long-term involvement in geological research at Bight, aimed at unlocking resource potential within the Bight Basin, including a collaboration with the International Ocean Discovery Program.
So what’s it like being that close to so much promise, so much history?
“South Australia’s main petroleum province,” said Bunch, “is a Permian-Cretaceous continental system situated within the Australian interior. The vast potential of the Bight Basin off the state’s south coast has long been known, but rarely tested, and was always believed to hinge on the presence and viability of source rock and sealing units.”
Bunch can hardly wait.
“The main technical challenge appears to be the deepwater drilling required to target the most prospective areas. In particular, there is palpable anticipation of what may lie waiting to be discovered within the Ceduna sub-basin,” he said.
To put Bight in context with other basins worldwide, he said its potential lies in its Gulf of Mexico/Niger Delta scale and its jurisdiction being under a welcoming, low-risk regulatory culture.
“In the petroleum context, well-preserved outcrops showing salt diapirism serve as excellent analogues for the salt tectonics that have influenced and modified Gulf of Mexico petroleum systems,” said Bunch.
As part of a pre-competitive exploration program, the geological survey of Australia – Geoscience Australia – ran dredge surveys along shelf-edge canyons that demonstrated the presence of viable source rocks at stratigraphic levels, where such sub-cropping units may have been exposed by erosion. Then, in 2017, the IODP mission sought to drill a number of locations along the Australian Southern Margin to answer questions related to stratigraphic signals of past climate fluctuation.
“Researchers at the Australian School of Petroleum took this opportunity to propose a drilling site that would intersect and sample prospective source rocks in order to narrow uncertainties as to the nature and timing of hydrocarbon generation,” said Bunch.
And that’s where students in the masters of petroleum geosciences program at the University of Adelaide came in.
“They undertook group research to define and characterize petroleum systems within the Ceduna sub-basin on the basis of existing pre-competitive exploration data.”
Thesis students, as well as those that preceded them, have made a difference.
The university is Australia’s third oldest and consistently ranked in the top 1 percent of universities worldwide by numerous publications. It counts Nobel laureates among its alumni, along with a number of important figures in politics, the arts, medicine, engineering and the natural sciences. The two most notable Adelaide luminaries in the geological sciences are the legendary Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, who served as professor of geology and mineralogy, and one of his star students, Reg Sprigg, who was at the forefront of early petroleum discoveries in South Australia and played a leading role in the formation of two major oil and gas operators that remain based in Adelaide today. His work indicated impressions of complex, soft-bodied Pre-Cambrian organisms.
Bunch said the university prides itself on offering fully integrated teaching and research programs in the disciplines of petroleum geoscience, engineering and management.
“It is,” he said, “the way the industry works.”
To that end, each year at Adelaide, masters petroleum geoscience students, as a part of their capstone experience, go on an eight-day field-trip to examine Permian and Triassic strata in spectacular outcrops along the New South Wales coast to integrate many of the classroom learnings, exploring the various outcrops along the New South Wales coastline, and to build a sequence stratigraphic reconstruction of how the vast, coal-prone Hawkesbury Sandstone developed. Prior to going, students examine and interpret well logs and core photos of parts of the succession. Their interpretations can then be compared and contrasted with new observations and interpretations in the field.
“This experience builds better perspectives on how to interpret subsurface data especially in areas with limited data,” said Bunch, “as well as being a great learning experience. Students find it a great bonding experience, making friends for life.”
It’s also a history lesson.
“In particular, they must predict the distribution and properties of elements of the notional petroleum system over geological time.”
The university community is driven by a state government emphasis on valuing the subsurface and can point to its collective expertise in the exploration and development of South Australia’s petroleum, minerals and geothermal resources. The recipe at Adelaide is that students receive a thorough grounding in the principles of exploration and development, while being exposed to the practical aspects of the oil and gas industry through internationally experienced staff.
“Research projects within the Australian School of Petroleum often involve collaboration with government and industry partners and the curriculum is developed in consultation with industry, and regularly reviewed by an advisory board. This all ensures that graduates are highly sought after.”