The heart and soul of AAPG is exploration. We are here because we are seekers and – if we are lucky – finders. We are not here because we fit in to society’s 9-to-5 lifestyle. We are pirates chasing buried treasure using maps we make ourselves – sometimes with fancy computer mapping software and 3-D visualization rooms, sometimes with a dry-erase marker on the side of a van, sometimes with a stubby pencil on the back of cocktail napkin.
We are the dreamers. We aren’t stuck at a dusty chalkboard thinking up new ways to make atom bombs like those physicists. We aren’t stuck in the lab washing glassware and “cooking” like those chemists. We have our hands in the dirt, our feet on the ground and our heads in the clouds. To paraphrase a former Kansas Geological Survey student and employee, Wallace Pratt, “Oil is first found in the mind.”
The activities of AAPG members are well showcased by our annual convention, an exhibition where even a mid-career professional like me can find such a wide assortment of science, engineering and business on display to make it feel like you’ve stumbled into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It is that diversity that makes our organization strong and resilient to whatever changes in global makers and politics throws at it.
The Energy Minerals Division is key to AAPG’s strength and resilience because EMD provides fertile ground for AAPG’s “X-Files” to grow into tomorrow’s game-changing, market-making resources. EMD devotes separate committees to a wide variety of technologies (Bitumen/Heavy Oil and Tight Oil, Coal and Coalbed Methane, Critical Minerals, Energy Economics and Technology, Geothermal, Gas Hydrates, Hydrogen, Uranium) that today are rather niche or boutique. Some of these are relatively new on the scene, like hydrogen and critical minerals, while others like bitumen/heavy oil and gas hydrates have truly enormous potential. These might sound spooky to more traditional conventional oil and gas folks. They might sound “not like petroleum geology” to some more stalwart colleagues. But they all require the same skills in subsurface science and engineering. They all require a deep understanding of markets and infrastructure. They all require a level of comfort with uncertainty and an appetite for risk.
The true value to AAPG in pursuing “X-Files” is twofold. First, these technologies are weird. Pursuing them in earnest forces AAPG members to stretch their skills and knowledge to tackle. Second, it is by studying these edge cases that we can understand our base business better.
Hydrogen and Critical Minerals
As the new president of EMD, my goal is to build this community so it can operate as a vital organ of AAPG. I get a column every quarter so I’d like to highlight two of our committees each time.
This quarter, let’s talk Hydrogen and Critical Minerals because they are the two newest EMD committees and the two I feel have the most potential for explosive growth over the next 10 years. In the same way AAPG has specific conferences for unconventional resources and for carbon capture, utilization and storage, I think these two have the biggest potential for becoming entirely new divisions at AAPG.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, yet it is relatively rare on Earth. Its value to society is as an energy medium and as a chemical feedstock. The most important fact to know about hydrogen to a petroleum geologist is that it solves our “carbon problem.” We all know that CO2 from burning fossil fuels is causing global warming. Hydrogen technologies promise to split the carbon from our hydrocarbons, allowing the hydrogen to be used for energy and the carbon to be used for a chemical feedstock or returned to the subsurface via CCUS technologies. The U.S. Department of Energy currently is undertaking one of its largest granting processes to identify up to 10 “hydrogen hubs” where it will invest up to $7 billion. Hydrogen will not only save the oil and gas industry, but will also make us a more attractive industry to work for among Generation Z.
Critical minerals are those minerals that are vital to our national or economic security. Established by executive order during the Trump administration, the federal critical minerals list maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey lists 52 different materials for which the United States relies extensively on foreign imports to supply to our economy. (Oil, gas, water, sand and gravel are specifically excluded from the list.) The federal government seeks to develop domestic sources for 100 percent of these mineral needs as soon as possible. Recently, China reduced exports of gallium (used in aluminum smelting) and germanium (used in computer chip manufacturing). China similarly reduced exports of rare Earth elements to Japan in 2010. It is this sort of market action that the federal critical minerals policy is meant to avoid and deter.
For traditional oil and gas operations, critical minerals technology might offer another revenue stream to monetize produced waters. The killer application would be to take produced waters that we have already brought to the surface, extract and market their mineral content, and then market the freshwater to agriculture, municipal utilities or hydrogen producers.
These are two facets of the spectrum of truly fascinating and lucrative aspects of the global petroleum industry that the Energy Minerals Division will be covering this year. Please consider joining one of our committees to help learn more about these technologies and bring that knowledge to the broader AAPG community.
AAPG’s X-Treme Division
My final pitch is that EMD is the “X-Games” of AAPG. For those of you who don’t remember or can’t understand a world without the X-Games (they began in 1995), they are a series of extreme sporting events that didn’t fit into the Olympics or professional sports and were popular with a younger demographic. They include skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, mountain biking, motocross, climbing, bungee jumping and “aggressive inline skating.” Some of them remain in the X-Games to this day, never making it to primetime, but you might recognize a few that were in the most recent Olympics (such as snowboarding, surfing, mountain biking).
EMD is AAPG’s “X-Games” because some of what you see in EMD today will be the subject of entire AAPG conferences in the not-to-distant future (e.g., URTEC). Our mission is to provide an open and fertile community for AAPG members to explore the fringes of the petroleum industry. That’s our mission. Will it be yours?