While it is evident that the world will rely on oil and gas for years to come, some industry geoscientists are paving a path toward a future in alternative energy and other geoscience-related careers.
A panel discussion at the International Meeting for Applied Geoscience and Energy in Denver last fall featured speakers from the private and public sectors highlighting opportunities for industry geoscientists beyond oil and gas.
Stephen Hallinan, who specializes in multiphysics imaging at CGG, a global geoscience technology company that works principally in the oil and gas, mining, CCUS, geothermal and environmental sectors, said that, as CGG ramps up efforts to support the energy transition, 50 percent of its 3,300 employees work in its Geoscience Division.
Geoscientists are needed for research and development in areas of geothermal science, minerals and mining, and carbon and energy storage, Hallinan said. They also are needed for projects that require knowledge of geology, subsurface imaging, reservoir development, satellite mapping, geotraining, multiphysics and smart data solutions.
Subsurface imaging is particularly important as companies continue to process seismic data and conduct reservoir imaging in oil and gas fields.
“This has developed from frontier exploration work to increasingly more development work, looking at really high-quality images to try to help operators maximize efficiency during the energy transition phase,” he explained.
Geoscientists with reservoir development expertise are a natural fit for the development of geothermal resources.
“In regard to mining, there is a huge push for lithium,” he said. “There are huge lithium resources in a lot of geothermal fields. Industry colleagues have discovered recently that the lithium in the wells of one geothermal system in the western U.S. was about 10 times the value of the geothermal resources themselves.”
There also is interest in leveraging geoscientists’ exploration experience and advanced data analytics in sedimentary basins and volcanic regions for geothermal resources. The idea is to explore the entire geothermal value chain for critical minerals as well as heating, cooling, drying, power and other uses, Hallinan said. Geoscientists specializing in multiphysics look for structures and permeability flows in geothermal reservoirs.
Geoscientists also are needed to assist the private sector and government agencies to transfer the existing skills of their scientists to exploring for and developing new energy resources, Hallinan added.
“What are we looking at in the industry applications? Natural resources that include oil and gas, mining, geothermal – all part of the energy transition. So whatever that entails: using satellite imagery, it’s monitoring of the environment, the impact of pollution, plastics in the ocean, plumes, changes in air pollution across the planet. There is a lot of interest from different parts of the industry,” he explained.
Furthermore, the need for energy storage is growing by the day, he said. It is closely linked to industry reservoir work, except rather than using analysis of seismic data alone, scientists are also relying on downhole sensors to monitor the heath of a reservoir’s cap rock. Geoscientists are also looking at the potential for storing hydrogen in the subsurface – a much more difficult feat when determining the type of seals needed for storing the smallest molecule on the planet.
“Everything around evaluation and de-risking these sites for carbon and gas storage are of interest,” he said.
Just Below the Subsurface
Over the next 20 to 30 years, Hallinan predicts that traditional geoscience jobs that delve deep into the subsurface may be slowing, and new positions will concentrate just below and above the subsurface.
“We will still be looking at the subsurface for a long time to come. It’s all part of the energy transition,” he said. “There are jobs that are already available with mining, environment, water and storage and so on that will be expanding.”
In the government sector, opportunities exist for geoscientists both inside and outside of the oil and gas industry.
Having worked at Sandia National Laboratories for 22 years, Anna Snider Lord has seen many changes, most especially as the energy transition gets under way. However, there is still a need for geologists and geophysicists to carry on the mission of the government as it relates to oil and gas.
As the lead geologist and project manager for the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Albuquerque, N.M., Lord’s group – Geotechnology and Engineering – serves as the technical adviser for the SPR, essentially providing geotechnical guidance in ensuring the stockpile of crude oil that is stored in man-made salt domes along the Gulf Coast is both accessible and can maintain long-term integrity. One of many geotechnical tasks, Lord’s group maps the salt caverns and interprets how geologic forces affect the integrity of the caverns and well bores.
“The project is live, running and real, so anything we do has immediate impact to keep them operating to meet the needs of the nation’s mission,” she said. The group plans to place micro-seismic arrays into observation wells to monitor the health of the caverns, specifically caverns that are now abandoned and where access is limited.
Sandia, which has 14,000 employees, also has groups that specialize in geochemistry, geomechanics, geophysics, geothermal science and atmospheric sciences.
“Our umbrella sits under Energy and Homeland Security and now under the Climate Change Security Center. That’s our big, new push and that’s probably where we will be growing,” she said.
Sandia’s Geothermal Research group is known for its drilling science. It has been innovative in creating new drill bits that can effectively and efficiently drill through harder rocks, such as granite, to tap into geothermal resources, Lord said. The group also boasts world-class expertise in cement research and applications – especially in regard to understanding the cement in well bores to determine where and why leaking is taking place and researching new types of cement and other materials.
The Geochemistry group performs molecular modeling of tracers to understand underground flows and fractures in labs that can mimic the rock fluid interactions underground – up to 4,000 PSI at 350 degrees.
There also are efforts to perform electromagnetic monitoring of oil fields.
“The subsurface can be quite cluttered in an oilfield with so many wells, so we have developed a technology to identify and model where wellbore locations are and then model the integrity of those wells,” she said.
Preserving legacy data is another project that requires a background in geoscience. Sandia is currently leading an effort to preserve seismic data from historic nuclear tests, playing back the data and recording it digitally.
The Atmospheric Sciences group, located in Alaska, has begun trying to understand how atmospheric conditions and emissions are related to seismic activity as well as infrasound applications.
Funding for programs varies over time following the interests of the country. For example, greater attention is now being placed on hydrogen storage as the nation begins to look at new energy sources, Lord said.
Those with geophysical backgrounds can find prospects at the U.S. Geological Survey, especially in regard to earthquake monitoring, explained William Yeck, a research geophysicist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo. A “wealth” of positions at the USGS span from early warning systems to seismic hazard mapping, tsunami warning-related efforts and earthquake geology, he said.
Yeck noted that earthquake early warning data has become more important to the USGS as well as a push for hazard seismic mapping.
A combination of research, monitoring and outreach across the globe is helping to reduce the impact of earthquakes worldwide. “We process thousands of earthquakes each month. Then we process the data from them, such as ground failure, loss of life, specific characteristics of the earthquakes themselves,” he said. “It takes a whole team to report the economic impact losses that are useful to governments.”
The USGS also studies micro-seismic earthquakes from induced seismicity and other industry-related aspects of seismic monitoring.
“It’s a fun field to work in,” he said. “If you have a strong background in the physical sciences there are a lot of directions that you can go in your career.”