Past, Present and Future of Petroleum Research Consortia in the Geosciences

Commentary

The current booming economy appears to have largely bypassed the U.S. oil patch, though that could change at any time. As a more than 40-year geologist in both the petroleum industry and academia, I have cycled through many such changes, some good and others not so good, depending upon whom you talk to.

One notable change I have seen is a growing reluctance of the younger collegiate generation to commit to the ups and downs of the petroleum industry in favor of careers that might not be as stressful, and even less lucrative, but more stable. While “back in the day” students were willing to sacrifice their own money and time for an education that promised a rewarding career, students today – particularly at the graduate student level – demand financial support when selecting a university, often irrespective of the quality of education they will receive. During this time of dwindling resources for education by the government, academia and industry, where are the funds to come from to support quality graduate students? With dwindling funding, so go the best and brightest students.

A significant, traditional source of funding has been through industry-sponsored consortia – groups of companies, that fund academic research. Back in the 1970s, consortia typically sponsored broad, basic topics not necessarily related to the petroleum industry. But as funds began to dry up and thriving intra-company research facilities altered strategies toward “tech service,” consortia turned more toward sponsoring targeted applied research projects, which tied into the company’s specific activities and goals.

Based on my own observations and experience over my four-decade career in both academia and the petroleum industry, the consortium concept works well as a funding and research source. Consortia have mainly fueled me and my more than 100 graduate students’ applied research during this time span and as well illustrate the progression of the consortium concept and applications.

Over my career I have organized and operated four consortia, each with its own approach and goals. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, research labs within companies were thriving, yet funds were budgeted for both general and targeted research themes – in short, times were good.

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The current booming economy appears to have largely bypassed the U.S. oil patch, though that could change at any time. As a more than 40-year geologist in both the petroleum industry and academia, I have cycled through many such changes, some good and others not so good, depending upon whom you talk to.

One notable change I have seen is a growing reluctance of the younger collegiate generation to commit to the ups and downs of the petroleum industry in favor of careers that might not be as stressful, and even less lucrative, but more stable. While “back in the day” students were willing to sacrifice their own money and time for an education that promised a rewarding career, students today – particularly at the graduate student level – demand financial support when selecting a university, often irrespective of the quality of education they will receive. During this time of dwindling resources for education by the government, academia and industry, where are the funds to come from to support quality graduate students? With dwindling funding, so go the best and brightest students.

A significant, traditional source of funding has been through industry-sponsored consortia – groups of companies, that fund academic research. Back in the 1970s, consortia typically sponsored broad, basic topics not necessarily related to the petroleum industry. But as funds began to dry up and thriving intra-company research facilities altered strategies toward “tech service,” consortia turned more toward sponsoring targeted applied research projects, which tied into the company’s specific activities and goals.

Based on my own observations and experience over my four-decade career in both academia and the petroleum industry, the consortium concept works well as a funding and research source. Consortia have mainly fueled me and my more than 100 graduate students’ applied research during this time span and as well illustrate the progression of the consortium concept and applications.

Over my career I have organized and operated four consortia, each with its own approach and goals. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, research labs within companies were thriving, yet funds were budgeted for both general and targeted research themes – in short, times were good.

Atlantic Shelf Sands Project

In 1978 I entered the petroleum industry through a major exploration company, but in 1980, I relocated to a mid-size company as a research supervisor. Part of my new job was to co-chair an ongoing consortium named the Atlantic Shelf Sands project, focused on understanding productive linear sand ridges found in the Cretaceous Interior Seaway and elsewhere. This consortium was funded by several petroleum companies and both industry and academic scientists actively participated. We would meet periodically to discuss study results and plan for shared research. Proprietary issues were not well established at that time, which worked out in favor of results shared among the participants.

Two major conclusions emerged from this project: (1) study of modern sedimentary environments to resolve questions concerning subsurface reservoirs was possible and (2) the ‘shelf sands’ – thought prior to the consortium research to be piles of sand deposited and reworked in continental shelf waters – were actually submerged (transgressed), attached- or unattached-shoreface deposits. These results and applications have since been documented in at least one book and numerous publications.

With time, the philosophy of sharing ideas and data among companies became more restrictive, as did both industry and academic scientists, until proprietary activities within companies became the norm. Consortia began to suffer with this constriction, though more focused research was still funded, but more to individual topical experts in academia and industry research labs.

New Zealand Miocene Deepwater Outcrops Study

In my case, I was able to form my second large consortium of companies to sponsor the study of fabulous Miocene deepwater outcrops on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The goal was to document the strata as an outcrop/core analogue for companies drilling for similar deposits in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to outcrop characterization, we drilled and cored two shallow wells behind the outcrop to compare core and more laterally extensive outcrop features. We teamed with Schlumberger’s Bob Davis (now retired) to log both wells. Our focus was on lateral attributes of thin-bedded turbidites. Although about 15 companies provided funds for the research and ensuing periodic reports, it proved difficult to get them to provide employees to what was considered by many managers as a “boondoogle.” I can still hear some managers stating loud and clear “you want to go where, to do what!?”

In my opinion, the dogma of only doing studies in places where a company is active still persists within many, but fortunately, not all companies. One company did send its development team on a field trip with us and used the information acquired to improve understanding and ultimate production of a thin-bedded deepwater reservoir in a Gulf of Mexico field. This study was highlighted in an AAPG book and some publications. The area has been studied more thoroughly since that time and is still a popular commercial field trip area.

Cretaceous Lewis Shale

Having successfully drilled wells behind the New Zealand outcrop, I turned my attention a couple of years later (early 2000s) to the Cretaceous Lewis Shale, not as an exploration target, but as a nice analogue to productive submarine slope-to-basin facies in many places. This consortium of about 20 companies fully supported about ten student master’s theses, a couple of which have been used by some companies for deepwater reservoir analogues. Also, to my knowledge, at least two companies followed an exploration lead based upon an excellent 2016 master’s thesis on the oil potential of the Lewis (previously considered a gas sand), by an astute consortium and University of Oklahoma graduate, Carolina Mayorga. Based upon some early successful drilling results, this thesis became very popular, as did some of the earlier publications by graduate students of the caliber of Dr. David Pyles and Elizabeth Whitten. Carolina is currently completing a doctorate at the Colorado School of Mines.

Devonian-Mississippian Woodford

My most recent and last venture into consortia has been devoted to study of the surface-subsurface Devonian-Mississippian Woodford unconventional resource shale in Oklahoma. This consortium, out of the University of Oklahoma, thrived during the first few of its six-year life, receiving support from more than 20 companies. An amazing 36 master’s and doctoral theses, ranging from the pore to the regional scales, have emanated from this consortium, as well as many publications and presentations. It has received numerous kudos for the high quality and employability of its students. One AAPG EXPLORER article in 2018 was titled “OU Consortium makes ‘profound impact’ on industry and education.” In 2019, another consortium company honored us with a Woodford-mounted plaque at OU which claimed, “In appreciation and Recognition to: Institute of Reservoir Characterization: Dr. Roger Slatt and his Graduate Students at The University of Oklahoma: For their outstanding research work and innovations done in the geologic characterization of the Woodford Shale, showing the importance of well-grounded science in the exploration and development of unconventional resource plays.”

Much of this work is still proprietary to sponsoring companies, many of which have used the results in their unconventional work on the Woodford, as well as an analogue to other siliceous shales globally. I cite here two examples of the talented students representative of our talent pool: In 2019, Dr. Richard Brito completed a thorough study of the exploration potential in the Marietta Basin, which though still proprietary, is highly sought after. The second is Dr. Jing Zhang, who for a master’s degree in 2016 illustrated the application of cuttings for wellbore correlation by x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, followed by a doctorate in 2019 to develop a multiscale fracture analysis scheme using both Woodford and Barnett shale rocks. She emphasized the interbedded depositional structure have a dominant control on natural fracture occurrence, which usually get neglected for the previous decades; she already has published a number of papers on this application.

Many other students of similar caliber have graduated with consortium financing and are now productive members of the petroleum industry.

Even with the success of the Woodford consortium, it now has gone the way of many companies, and only operates marginally as a result of the reduction of company support, the corporate shift (guided by Wall Street in the United States) from production to cash flow, and the discouragement and reduction of recent graduate students to work the many remaining projects.

The Shrinking Role of Consortia

In conclusion, through the years, my consortia and others have contributed many qualified and well-educated students to the petroleum industry. Creative ideas and applications have followed them. Not only are funds provided to such students, but lifelong personal and professional contacts are made.

But, through word-of-mouth, layoffs, the apparent need for quick turnover, rapidly advancing computing capabilities, and other factors mentioned above suggest to me and others that the days of industry-supported study and applied research are numbered. If true, the quantity of applied research and the quality and number of graduating students to conduct those studies and educate themselves for petroleum industry careers will surely dwindle further and more permanently. Let’s hope not.

(Editor’s Note: Dr. Slatt submitted this commentary to the EXPLORER about a month before his passing on Saturday, Feb. 22. See In Memory in this issue for more information.)

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Comments (1)

We will miss you
Such insightful commentary from our friend, the late Dr. Roger Slatt. He was always on the crest of the wave of intersecting academic and industry trends, and we shall miss his clear vision, excellent teaching, and most of all, his mentorship. Rest in peace, Roger.
3/4/2020 12:25:09 PM

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