Adapting to Change

15 Years of the Imperial Barrel Award

In 2007, the first AAPG/AAPG Foundation Imperial Barrel Award competition was held at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Long Beach, Calif. The program was the brainchild of AAPG Honorary Member Steve Veal, who was at the time director of the Europe Region office, located in the Geology Department of Imperial College, Royal School of Mines, University of London. Professor Howard Johnson had invited Veal to be a member of a panel to judge an internal technical competition called the Imperial Barrel Award, with teams from the petroleum geology master’s degree program. The “barrel” in the title was not a barrel of oil, but a barrel of beer, which was given to the winning team by the Petroleum Society of Great Britain, an AAPG affiliated society. Teams were provided with a seismic and well database, and were charged to analyze the basin, hydrocarbon system and prospects they identified.

Veal recognized the potential for expanding the program globally under the auspices of AAPG and, together with Johnson, wrote a proposal to the AAPG Executive Committee, detailing how the program might work. The EC embraced the proposal and assigned the AAPG Student Focus Coordinating Committee the responsibility of organizing the first competition. They faced many challenges in expanding the program beyond Imperial College. Those challenges included generating student and university interest, scalability, availability of adequate datasets and, of course, funding. Veal so believed in the importance and viability of this fledgling program that he diligently worked to acquire funding to hold the inaugural competition in Long Beach. Teams from seven universities participated, despite uncertainties surrounding the new program and the commitments required.

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In 2007, the first AAPG/AAPG Foundation Imperial Barrel Award competition was held at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Long Beach, Calif. The program was the brainchild of AAPG Honorary Member Steve Veal, who was at the time director of the Europe Region office, located in the Geology Department of Imperial College, Royal School of Mines, University of London. Professor Howard Johnson had invited Veal to be a member of a panel to judge an internal technical competition called the Imperial Barrel Award, with teams from the petroleum geology master’s degree program. The “barrel” in the title was not a barrel of oil, but a barrel of beer, which was given to the winning team by the Petroleum Society of Great Britain, an AAPG affiliated society. Teams were provided with a seismic and well database, and were charged to analyze the basin, hydrocarbon system and prospects they identified.

Veal recognized the potential for expanding the program globally under the auspices of AAPG and, together with Johnson, wrote a proposal to the AAPG Executive Committee, detailing how the program might work. The EC embraced the proposal and assigned the AAPG Student Focus Coordinating Committee the responsibility of organizing the first competition. They faced many challenges in expanding the program beyond Imperial College. Those challenges included generating student and university interest, scalability, availability of adequate datasets and, of course, funding. Veal so believed in the importance and viability of this fledgling program that he diligently worked to acquire funding to hold the inaugural competition in Long Beach. Teams from seven universities participated, despite uncertainties surrounding the new program and the commitments required.

Mobilizing Membership and Mentors

The program has grown dramatically since 2007, aided by the impact of IBA experience on a student’s résumé for many corporate recruiters. Having had experience on a team working with a real exploration dataset differentiates IBA alumni from many of their peers. IBA teams have access to training materials provided by leaders in petroleum geology and geophysics, and participants acquire invaluable technical and interpersonal skills while working with subsurface datasets that challenge their knowledge and ingenuity. Over time, the program has transitioned the emphasis and focus from the competition aspect to the goal of training and developing future petroleum geoscientists in an environment where there are only winners.

The complexity of the IBA program demands the time and energy of numerous volunteers and AAPG staff around the world. Participating universities are in different time zones and have differing schedules and course lengths. All teams have a faculty adviser to provide guidance. Some universities incorporate the IBA program into their curricula and many run internal, multi-team competitions in order to select the team representing them at the semifinals.

Mentors have always played a critical role in the success of the IBA. In the last two years the IBA Committee has kicked off a Global Mentor Program, which pairs highly skilled explorationists, including Young Professionals, with universities that don’t have an oil patch in their backyard or an alumni network to rely on. This initiative has attracted more than 70 mentors in 2021 from multinational exploration companies, independents, consultants and retired professionals. This has been a great addition to the countless mentors who have supported their alma mater or favorite university over the last 15 years.

Evolving Technology

Delivering data to universities around the globe on time was critical in the early stages of the program. Data were initially compiled on large external drives that could be lost or misplaced in delivery, which happened on a few occasions. Today this task is much easier as all the data can be downloaded via an file transfer protocol site managed by AAPG. This deliverability has allowed a more level playing field and has greatly reduced delays in accessing data. Other logistical issues are ongoing, such as slow internet speeds in some locations and arranging global travel and obtaining student visas during “normal” program years.

All region and section semifinals were initially conducted face-to-face, with student teams presenting their work to a judging panel. As the number of participating teams increased, the regions began to adopt virtual semifinals to solve issues with large-scale, international travel and funding limitations. Restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 required all semifinals to be held virtually, which will continue in 2021. Travel expenses and visa issues also favor virtual semifinals. That said, the experience of facing an expert panel of judges in person and the opportunity to meet other teams from around the world is important for the Global Final, and we hope to resume a face-to-face Global Final at the 2022 ACE.

Future of the IBA Program

The industry downturn and COVID pandemic caused a significant decline in university participation and corporate sponsorship. The decline in financial support has been addressed by increasing the virtual aspect of the program, which turned out to be essential during the pandemic. The number of universities taking part still declined by a third, with U.S. sections declining nearly two-thirds. In the future, we may see a further decline as petroleum geoscience courses are abandoned or transformed into those with broader energy and sustainability-related curricula. The IBA Committee is working on changes to the program in response, broadening the scope with more emphasis on sustainability. New datasets need to be continually acquired and financial and non-financial (such as software, training, mentoring, and organizing) sponsorship maintained. The program needs to continually evolve in order to maintain its impact and the interest of students, universities and sponsors.

The AAPG/AAPG Foundation IBA Program is an outstanding educational program for students, and its future success will result from adapting to the changing conditions of the energy industry and its workforce. Furthermore, it will depend upon the energy and enthusiasm of numerous volunteers fulfilling roles on the IBA Committee and as coordinators, mentors and judges, and also our dedicated headquarters staff. Please follow the AAPG Student Program pages on social media for the latest news, updates and results.

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