Global events of recent years have driven the oil and gas industry to make major changes to its workforce and operations, and the professional and scientific associations that serve the industry have had to evolve and adapt to accommodate those changes, particularly with regard to the programs they offer.
The Imperial Barrel Award competition is no exception.
The IBA – an AAPG staple since 2007 and one of the Association’s most prestigious and visible programs – has undergone multiple changes during the past two years.
Adjustments included holding virtual competitions, combining the U.S. sections and Canada Region into a single Region in the global finals, adding new data sets and including “sustainability” to scoring criteria.
While the program has seen some major changes, for IBA committee members, participants and supporters alike, the competition remains more relevant than ever in an evolving industry and academic landscape.
From a Barrel of Beer to $20,000
The Imperial Barrel Award competition is a global contest in which teams of up to five graduate students receive a well and seismic dataset and have eight weeks to analyze the data, develop prospects and present exploration opportunities to a panel of industry judges.
The competition started at Imperial College London in 1976 as a North Sea field development project. Later, professor Howard Johnson turned it into a basin exploration project.
The winning team received a barrel of beer donated by the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain, an AAPG-affiliated society.
In 2006, AAPG member Steve Veal saw the program’s global potential and brought the program to the Association. The first AAPG IBA competition took place at Annual Conference and Exhibition in 2007. Soon, IBA expanded geographically, financially and in scope, size and influence.
AAPG’s six U.S. sections and six international regions held regional competitions, and winners advanced to the global competition held each year at ACE.
In 2019, the competition included 130 participating teams and received $474,000 in corporate sponsorship.
The first, second and third place global winner took home $20,000, $10,000 and $5,000 cash prizes for their universities, and the runners up from international regions and U.S. sections received $1000 each.
The opportunity to compete on a global stage attracted students from around the world both to IBA and to the universities that supported the program.
First-year master’s student and 2022 IBA participant Michael Young chose to study at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette because the school offered the IBA program.
“Simply getting into the IBA competition was always my highest academic goal,” he said. “The IBA competition clearly is recognized by industry as the pinnacle of academic success in the geo world. IBA is acknowledged for its value in the real world as the fastest-paced learning of your life. UL’s prominence and success in the IBA commercial realm is what drew me to the university.”
A Pandemic – and a Pivot
The 2020 competition started off like every other year. Team members received datasets and started meeting to analyze them. When COVID-19 emerged, students went home and competitions moved from corporate offices and convention centers to computer screens.
Jensen Angelloz, IBA Committee co-chair and former IBA participant, described how the global pandemic and changes to AAPG’s events calendar has affected the IBA format and timeline long after the return to in-person work and school.
“The pandemic forced the program to go fully virtual. The committee has been having discussions on how to successfully bring the program back to an in-person format,” he said. He noted, however, that IBA involves much more than flying teams to the United States to compete.
“Many things have changed since our last in-person event, namely that AAPG’s annual conference became the International Meeting for Applied Geosciences and Energy and moved to the second semester,” he said. “Prior to the pandemic, the Global Finals were held at ACE and allowed participants to network with industry professionals. The adjusted dates for the new conference do not work with academic schedules or the fiscal year for the program.”
Jim Ferry, co- coordinator of the IBA industry mentor program and 10-year mentor himself, said the switch to an all-virtual competition met resistance, particularly among participants along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
“A big part of the program in my early years was hosting the Gulf Coast sectional competition at an oil company office in Houston. That gave the students even more experience to see what it is like to work as a petroleum geologist and experience Houston. When we first went virtual, the faculty advisers really pushed back because they thought it was a very important part of the IBA experience,” he said. “Although it is a lot less expensive and fair for all teams to have an identical format, the students do miss out on the in-person presentation, meeting the other students and petroleum professionals and visiting an oil company office as part of the experience.”
While 31 teams from U.S. sections signed up in 2020, sections registered 14 teams in 2021 and 12 teams in 2022. The Gulf Coast Section participation declined from 10 participating teams in 2020 to five teams in both 2021 and 2022.
Reorganizing the Global Competition
Angelloz said the IBA Committee took a proactive approach to keeping it competitive.
“We have seen a decline in IBA participation the past few years due to the pandemic forcing the program to transition to a virtual component as well as a shifting climate in industry and society related to oil and gas,” he said. “The U.S. sections and Canada Region were realigned to the U.S. and Canada Region to address this reduction in participation.”
In 2022, 13 teams participated in the combined U.S. and Canada Region. The new region’s participation was on par with others, particularly the Africa and Europe regions, which had 12 participating schools each in 2022. Both the Asia Pacific and Middle East regions had seven participating schools while the Latin America and Caribbean Region had 18.
Combining the U.S. and Canada groups upped the stakes for schools like the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which has a strong tradition of competing in IBA.
Young said he found it “surreal” to be recognized as one of the world’s best teams.
“The competition of prestigious schools was daunting,” he said. “We were humbled to represent North America and perform well for the U.S.A. This was our one shot to show the world what we could do, and at every turning point it was challenging and we leaned into the effort, giving it everything we had.”
Combining the U.S. and Canada into a single region was good news for region coordinators like Stefanie Hormaza, who oversees the competition in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Before 2022, teams within international regions had to fight for one spot at the global finals, while the United States got to send six teams,” she said. “Having just one team from the U.S. allows the other regions to have a better shot at winning the global prize.”
Hormaza noted that, while the move to virtual competition affected Latin America team participation, the region had more teams than any other registered for competitions in 2021 and 2022.
“Our region seems to thrive during challenges,” she said. “Brazil suffered terribly during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Federal University Rio de Janeiro team won the global finals in 2021. That was the first time our region the whole contest!”
In 2022, the Industrial University of Santander from Colombia took third place in the global finals. Though the team won the region finals several times in recent years, this year was the first time they placed among the top three global finishers. It is quite an accomplishment for a team comprised of undergraduate students. (UIS, like most Latin American universities, does not have a graduate geology program.)
UIS team member Margarita Sierra Peña, final year undergraduate geology student, said the accomplishment brought a mix of emotions for team members.
“It was a very happy and exciting moment to have reached this level of competition. Placing among the top global finishers was an accomplishment for us since our university never reached this level before,” Sierra said. “However, even though it was an excellent result, because of our perfectionism we always expect better.”
While some changes were responses to unforeseeable events, others were intentional and strategic.
A notable addition to the IBA competition was the inclusion of project sustainability to the scoring criteria. For the 2022 contest, sustainability aspects, including environmental impact and social responsibility, made up 5 percent of teams’ total score.
Miriam Winsten, president of the AAPG’s Division of Environmental Geosciences and member of AAPG’s Sustainable Development Committee, was one of the primary advocates for including a sustainability component to IBA.
“Sustainability reports exist for all energy companies where they report on three areas: ESG (environmental performance, social responsibility and corporate governance). Every geoscientist hired today will most likely play a role in contributing to these factors, in addition to their technical contributions,” she said.
“The most obvious is the major contribution we play in improving environmental performance in the field or at our locations. Another is how the well or project impacts the communities near and around the project, as well as in the office. Today’s fresh outs need to be aware of the impact they make in the workplace and in the field, as their actions and project impacts are being measured and reported by the companies, NGOs or whomever they work for,” she explained.
Winsten said she was pleased to see how students rose to the challenge.
“Each team had a slide describing the impacts of their project in the categories of environmental performance and/or social responsibility. The team that really did a phenomenal job was the winning team from France,” she said.
The French team, University of LaSalle, won the global competition in 2022.
UniLaSalle participant Matthieu Dadou said team members thought the sustainable development component was the most important part of the competition for them.
“Our school prepared us to be the future exploration geologists of tomorrow and this necessarily requires strong values and a real awareness of current issues,” he said. “As was the case during the golden age of hydrocarbons for our ancestors, we are part of the generation of the energy transition, and it is up to us to initiate the step. What better way than the IBA to take the plunge?”
Angelloz said the Committee is dedicated to keeping IBA relevant and attractive, not only to potential participants but also to the sponsors and universities who support the competition.
“The Committee is continually examining how the program can provide the best educational experience to students interested in joining the oil and gas Industry,” he said. “We have seen our namesake, Imperial College London, and other universities drop their petroleum program for more environmentally focused programs. This led to the program incorporating sustainability this past year.”
Imperial College London suspended its petroleum geoscience and petroleum engineering master’s programs, and its IBA competition, in 2021. The university website currently displays the following message:
“Suspending both MSc Petroleum courses provides us with the opportunity to reassess the skillset needed in today’s broader geo-energy industry, and to be able come up with a new, fit-for-purpose MSc course offering for 2022 and beyond.”
David Cook, AAPG member and IBA Committee co-chair and adviser, said Imperial College is one of several universities in the United Kingdom that are changing their petroleum geoscience courses in response to the changes in the energy industry and declining enrolment.
“Imperial College has added a large amount of data science and analytics to their courses and other universities are adding different aspects of geoscience as it relates to the energy transition,” he said.
Cook, a 14-year veteran of AAPG’s IBA Committee, stressed the importance of delivering a competition that helps prepare participants for careers in the energy sector.
“The IBA recently has evolved from a purely hydrocarbon exploration project to one that includes environmental and sustainability aspects,” he said. “We need to move with industry towards the goals of the energy transition and sustainability is an important aspect of that transition.”
Cook, who spent years working with the IBA at Imperial College of London, recently visited the school and met with faculty members working in sedimentary geology and carbonate systems and carbonate reservoirs. Their discussions covered changes taking place in university courses that previously focused on petroleum geoscience.
“Many courses are changing to encompass broader aspects of energy geoscience to include carbon capture, utilization and storage, data science and analytics, and geothermal energy,” he said. “The IBA program, and more broadly the AAPG, will have to change to take into consideration the changing energy environment and the needs of young people entering the energy workplace.”
For Young, the 2022 competition was essential to helping him and his team members become prepared to enter an ever-evolving energy workplace.
“Competing in IBA gave us the opportunity to bring together all the diverse geoscience specialties in a way that was eye-opening and surpasses the classroom experience. We learned not only how to explore a new area, but the best way to present it as well, considering if the project is even worth pursuing. The inclusion of sustainability was a great exercise in broadening our mindset to understand how to mitigate the natural balance of science and nature,” he said.
To learn more about the program and found out how you can support IBA visit iba.aapg.org.
Interested in meeting the 2022 global finalists? Check out the August 2022 Explorer to meet team members from UniLaSalle, France; the University of Louisiana - Lafayette, United States and the Industrial University of Santander, Colombia.