Emphasizing that the oil and gas industry will continue to play an important role in supplying energy to the world for years to come, past AAPG President Charles Sternbach shared what he called “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Energy Geoscientists” at the 20th Michel T. Halbouty Lecture at the International Meeting for Applied Geoscience and Energy conference in Denver recently.
“We need to be proud of our profession and we need to be proud of what energy and oil and gas do to bring good things to humanity,” said Sternbach, who is well known as chair of the AAPG Super Basins Committee. Super basins are, in Sternbach’s eyes, critical to the oil and gas industry moving forward, as they have a lot to contribute and some have yet to be discovered.
Super basins, as initially defined by Bob Fryklund, Pete Stark, and Leta Smith of IHS Markit, have produced a minimum of 5 Bboe with the same volume or more remaining, have two or more petroleum systems or source rocks, stacked reservoirs, existing infrastructure and access to markets.
Sternbach encouraged being mindful of key principles that not only play an important role for successful geoscientists, but also in the discovery and revitalization of future super basins.
Ever-evolving technology has broken countless barriers in the industry, ultimately leading to new discoveries in mature fields and super basins – essentially casting the concept of “peak oil” out the window. Sternbach credited breakthroughs in seismic imaging and unconventional plays for extending the life of the industry.
“Sometimes it takes things that already exist – like peanut butter and chocolate – or horizonal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. They both exist, but not together, and then a new golden age emerges,” he said. “If this can happen once, maybe it can happen again and again and again.”
Calling source rocks the “fuel” of super basins, Sternbach urged explorers to examine “underappreciated” source rocks that hold great potential in in-situ plays, migrated carrier bed plays, and migrated plays. “People find reserves by looking at the pathways. Let’s start in the source rock,” he said. He noted that thickness matters in the Permian Basin, yet in the Bakken play, the reservoir is sandwiched between two source rocks.
“It all affects how you complete it, and geology is fundamental to how you complete it,” he said. He urged explorers to look for reservoirs where enhanced oil recovery can be implemented and further discoveries can be made.
The concept of “source to sink” is crucial when looking at reservoir potential.
“There is a commerciality to the way these fan systems develop,” Sternbach explained.
Referring to the Mars field in the Gulf of Mexico, Sternbach noted how its footprint is small but its pay column is thick.
“Commercially, this is a gold mine,” he said.
In identifying potential reservoirs, clinoforms matter greatly, as recently seen in stratigraphic discoveries on the Alaskan North Slope.
“If you are in a super basin and you see clinoforms, look at all their different manifestations,” he said. “In Alaska, it is all about the topsets.”
Explaining that giant fields are typically concentrated in super basins, Sternbach said special attention must be paid to their attributes.
“There are a lot of structural traps in the Middle East, but most basins have a mix of structural and stratigraphic, therefore we are probably overlooking stratigraphic traps in the Middle East,” he said.
Michel T. Halbouty emphasized the importance of subtle stratigraphic traps in the 1970s.
“Finally, we are doing that because of technology,” Sternbach said. “Fifty percent or more of giant field discoveries are stratigraphic traps or a combination of structural/stratigraphic traps in sandstones and in carbonates.”
By taking note of the attributes of a super basin, one can look for similar attributes in other places for a potential discovery. The Permian Basin, for example, has multiple source rocks, ideal reservoirs, a tight regional seal and the basin is relatively undeformed. It also has enough burial that it is entirely in the mature oil and gas window.
“Look at the West Siberian Basin,” Sternbach said. “It’s the same motif.”
When AAPG Member Alfredo Guzman, a former vice president of exploration at Pemex, began comparing the Midland Basin to an unexplored formation with similar attributes in the Chicontepec Basin, the basin showed great potential.
“Spraberry (in the Midland Basin) made a lot of production with 500,000 wells, and this in Chicontepec is one of those basins waiting for capital – just waiting to be discovered,” Sternbach said. “It’s virtually undrilled.”
Of course, exploring for and drilling for oil and gas must make financial sense. With a focus on emissions being front and center, operators must make sound economic decisions moving forward. “We all know it’s about emissions and you can see the countries that are reducing emissions, and we’re all on one planet so we all have to work together,” Sternbach said. “But we have to be honest and not just talk about the bad things of oil and gas. We have to talk about the good things of oil and gas.”
Sternbach offered up side-by-side images of an oil field and an expansive wind farm. “We have to be fair,” he said. “Which of these two do you think is more environmental?”
Perhaps what has propelled the oil and gas industry forward throughout its history is creative thinking – and much of that has been driven by independent operators.
“When you look at some of the basins, 80 percent of the exploration and production gets done by independents. That’s a lot of innovation,” Sternbach said.
He surmised that the reason North America has leapfrogged over other continents is because of the creative thinking that launched the unconventional revolution.
“The Permian is one of those kinds of basins where everybody’s got a pickup truck, and they’re all trying something different, and they observe when their neighbors do something good,” he said. “And the big companies share best practices internally and help with the technology transfer through places like AAPG.”
“AAPG does well when we communicate with industry leaders, thought leaders,” Sternbach said. “We are of the industry. When the industry does well, we do well. When we are attuned to the industry, we do well.”