Being in a commodity business is cool.
In conversation recently with Jon Arthur, the executive director of the American Geosciences Institute, about critical geoscience issues, I observed that one of the aspects I like about oil and natural gas is that as commodities they are building blocks for modern society.
A commodity, by definition, isn’t flashy but it is essential. And for many engaged in applied geosciences, this is the business we’re in. Whether it’s petroleum, minerals, aggregate, water – the list goes on and on – we find and develop the resources that other industries then take and use to create products, deliver services and generate economic growth.
“How do we communicate this to students, to encourage them to study geology and continue this legacy producing the building blocks for the future?” I asked him.
“That’s more of a mid- to late-career perspective, I’m afraid,” he said with a rueful smile.
Reminders that I’m not getting younger appear with increasing frequency these days, but I don’t want my thinking to be anchored in the past. Confronting the issues facing our profession requires us to consider and remain open to the reality of how conditions are shifting around us.
Geoscience jobs are changing, and quickly.
AI and the New Labor Pyramid
“You’re going to find engineers and geoscientists looking and acting more like technology scientists and programmers,” said Gladney B. Darroh of Piper-Morgan Search, in a May 22 article in Rigzone.
Artificial intelligence is much in the news today, and Darroh observed “brand new jobs will be around AI technology and will touch every single labor and process area in the development and production of hydrocarbons, both in professional and non-professional job roles.”
“Data analytics that have been applied already in recent shale booms into production engineering and reservoir engineering will evolve into more broad operations coverage with AI taking an increasing share of both field production engineering and reservoir performance evaluation, including more real time analysis and application of the analysis versus looks back on past performance,” said Dave Mount of OneSource Professional Search in the same article.
“We feel that plays with a large data set of wells drilled and on completion will apply AI more readily versus newer, more geologically challenging areas,” Mount continued.
A hollowing out of traditional geoscience jobs is a trend that AGI’s Chris Keane highlighted in his February 2022 webinar, “The Changing Face of the Geoscience Workforce” (available on YouTube) that I wrote about in my March 2022 column. In it, he described a new “labor pyramid” for geoscientists, differentiating between the Geologic Cognitive and the Makers/Sensors.
The Geologic Cognitives are domain experts who “fully utilize their geoscience problem-solving to tackle the hard problems,” while the Makers/Sensors are “multiskilled geoscientists who know the geoscience and can apply a spectrum of science and engineering to develop new data feeds.”
The hollowing out occurs in middle skills jobs, such as seismic and well log interpretation, where technology is now augmenting and displacing humans. My small-operator friends use it daily. It allows them to work more efficiently and to identify and assess opportunities very rapidly.
Embrace the Change
In previous columns I’ve expressed my concerns about how technology and the great crew change will cause us to lose skills and understanding. How do we help entry-level geoscientists up the learning curve to become experts?
When I asked Dirk McDermott, longtime AAPG member and managing partner of Altira Group, a venture capital firm focused on oil and gas and energy technology, about this, his answer revealed the flaw in my thinking: “They’ll take a different path,” he said.
My mistake is thinking that how I learned to practice geology is how the next generation will learn. Yes, there is value in learning how to hand contour a map. The paths you and I took to learn geology were good, but they’re not the only way.
That’s probably good, because changing geoscience jobs reflect a changing industry.
Late last month, ExxonMobil announced that it was moving into lithium, not because it sees demand for petroleum evaporating, but because it sees opportunity in this commodity as electrification of the energy system continues to expand.
Earlier this year, the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists, an AAPG-affiliated society, held the North American Helium Conference. The tagline for the well-attended conference was: “Geoscience – Exploration – Commercialization.”
I know several AAPG members actively exploring for helium resources.
In May, the International Energy Forum reported that in March 2023, global oil demand hit a new high, fueled by demand growth in China and the United States. Hydrocarbon demand is not going away; it’s growing.
Change creates opportunity. And as these examples suggest, there is great opportunity for AAPG, if we’re willing to adapt to our environment and to what is happening around us, accepting that both geoscience jobs and our industry are changing.
We are applied geoscientists. We are in the commodity business. We are the professionals who will shape the energy future, building block by building block. How cool is that?