Advancing computer technology and increasingly sophisticated software packages are inundating the geosciences in exponential numbers – a trend that many say reflects and portends major changes in both the profession and the industry.
Simply put, computer programs are quickly chipping away at the risks and costs of exploration, turning the hunt for oil and gas into a more accurate and precise science.
“Software enables you to eliminate or minimize the number of dry holes,” said Nagaraj Srinivasan, vice president of Landmark. “It allows the industry to find more oil and manage its production over a substantial period of time at the lowest costs possible.
“In the past, it used to take 30 to 40 days to drill a well,” he said, “and now we are doing it in several days.”
While some sing the praises of software that can crunch numbers faster than any human ever could, others remain quick to remind that new technology has its quirks, and that the knowledge gained decades ago by people examining rocks in the field and drawing contour maps with colored pencils can never be rendered obsolete by a computer.
Every Last Drop
During the mid-1900s, the average success rate of a well was 5 to 10 percent. Today, that number has jumped to 60 to 70 percent, according to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Companies have good reason to believe those numbers will continue to climb as technology continues to evolve.
More than 30 years ago, Landmark introduced the first interactive 3-D seismic interpretation workstation, which was considered a major step-change in the industry, Srinivasan said. The workstation took hand-drawn and paper-intensive mapping workflows and digitized them for computers. Data could then be archived; repetitive workflows could be eliminated; and ultimately, interpretation and modeling could be automated, he said.
Vertical wells tapped many a reservoir until many believed hydrocarbons had reached the brink of depletion. The million-dollar question of “What’s next?” was then answered by a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas from shale.
“The easy oil is of a bygone era, and it’s getting increasingly more complicated to extract oil from offshore locations,” Srinivasan said. “And, onshore locations require a fundamentally different model as a result of unconventional plays.”
Today, companies must explore in smaller fields, in more subtle traps and in remote areas, making it more costly to drill wells. “The cost of drilling an offshore well reaches into the hundreds of millions of dollars. An onshore well can cost $4 million to $5 million depending on the area and completions that are added on, but overall costs can quickly add up for unconventional plays that require more wells,” he said.
In other words, before a well is drilled, companies want a high degree of certainty they won’t be staring into a dry hole. And these days, software seems to be the golden key.
“There’s a lot more companies in the software industry than there were 15 and 20 years ago,” said AAPG member and past elected treasurer Deborah Sacrey, owner of Auburn Energy, which offers neural analysis products that use neurons to find patterns with geological meaning in the numerous attributes of seismic data.
“Twenty years ago we had Landmark, the big boys, and not a lot of opportunities for competition,” she said. “Now, people are inventing new things to do with data everyday and creating packages around it. Nearly half of the companies at an AAPG conference are now software vendors.”
Devil in the Data
A couple of decades ago a handful of computer programs existed that allowed geologists to correlate logs, determine the size of reservoirs and create models based on well data, said AAPG member Mary Carr, associate research professor in the Geology and Geological Engineering Department at the Colorado School of Mines. She’s also Rocky Mountain regional director for the Petroleum Technology Transfer Council (PTTC), and a co-executive director for the national PTTC.
“However, significant time was wasted maintaining data and reformatting data in order to move it between software programs,” she said.
Today, geologists who are looking for the next new play or the undiscovered sweet spot in a known basin need look no further than the plethora of software applications that process pre-stack and post-stack seismic data, perform amplitude versus offset analysis, inversion data, forward modeling data and more. All are designed to extrapolate inordinate amounts of information in short periods of time to help make decisions about where to drill.
While advancing software has greatly improved data management, programs still can be cumbersome, and none of them do everything, said AAPG member Liz LaBarre, a senior geophysicist based in Denver. Interpretations derived from one program must continually be imported into other programs for further analysis, she explained.
“I am in and out of four packages on any given day,” she said, adding that the learning curve for new software can be steep.
For geologists fresh out of a university, analyzing data can be even more overwhelming, explained AAPG member Mike Simmons, a Technology Fellow for Geosciences at Halliburton.
“In exploration geology, a huge amount of time is spent by new geologists simply gathering data from past reports, well logs, seismic, geochemical data, sedimentological reports and other previous interpretations,” he said. “Industry statistics show that for a new hire, it can take an average of eight years before he is able to make independent, creative decisions.”
In an attempt to integrate all the data generated by multiple software packages and from multiple databases within a company, geologists are working with service companies to help develop holistic and integrated platforms on which all data can be combined, analyzed and manipulated.
“On a quarterly basis I talk with a few different software companies to discuss my needs and what improvements I’d like to see,” LaBarre said. “They’ve been pretty responsive.”
Over the years, oil and gas companies have created hundreds and thousands of models that show a myriad of images of the earth’s subsurface, Srinivasan said. Landmark’s DecisionSpace Enterprise Platform aims to pull all those models into one and integrate them.
“This is a fundamentally different approach,” Srinivasan said. “The earth is one, so the model has got to be one. Holistic exploration and production software is the step-change that we are looking for.”
Imagine what the smart phone has done for people, he explained.
“It allows you to absorb information from the outside,” he said, “such as traffic reports and weather updates – and helps you improve the quality of your decisions in your daily life. For example, based on today’s traffic and weather reports, what time should I leave the office?
“The quality of a decision is affected by the holistic view that you take into account before you make that decision,” he added. “Holistic software can play a big role in deciding where to explore.”
Platform technology is eliminating fragmented point solutions and creating a model with all geological constructs in place. It describes rock properties, fluid properties and the structure of a reservoir and improves your understanding of the subsurface.
“You can make a plan to design a well or series of wells, complete them, execute the well construction process, and produce and operate that well on an on-going basis,” Srinivasan said.
Until now, the majority of industry efforts have been spent on defining traps and reservoirs through seismic acquisition and processing, and software solutions have mainly focused on tools for defining structure and reservoir quality, explained Alexander Neber, a technical marketing manager for Schlumberger Information Solutions.
“However, a significant percentage of exploration failure is due to a lack of understanding of charge and seal,” Neber said. “Tools to assess charge and seal have, in the past, been difficult to use and integrate.”
Integrated platforms, such as the Schlumberger Petrel E&P software platform, enable team members across the board – from geologists, geophysicists and reservoir, drilling and completion engineers – to work together to develop a single, volumetric earth model that is static and dynamic, and scalable for exploration and development projects.
“This eliminates workflow gaps in traditional systems, and there are no handoffs from one technical domain to the next,” he said.
By seeing all the data at one time and in one place, geologists are given the opportunity to be more creative in exploration, Simmons said.
“If you can visualize all the data and interpretations in a 3-D environment, it generates ideas for new exploration targets very readily,” he explained. “You’re not going to find oil unless you are inventive.”
As technology continues to improve, Sacrey said she believes more software packages will be designed around attribute analysis.
“We have biases when looking at data because we are human. We may be biased to the point of seeing the forest and not the trees,” Sacrey said. “The computer is unbiased when looking at statistical information. Using computer power to analyze data will be more of a game change in the next few years.”
To Simmons, platform technology will become mainstream in the oil and gas industry.
“I hope not very far down the road an exploration geologist will come into his office and there will be one software platform with the whole of his company’s data, published data and all global interpretations,” he said. “He could zoom into an area he is interested in, like West Africa, input new data his company has just received from acquiring new wells, and make an interpretation on the fly.
“That previously took months,” he said. “Now it can take days.”
Although advancing software is improving exploration and field development, the ultimate decision about where to drill still resides with humans. And, many with extensive knowledge from invaluable field experience will soon be retiring. Some companies are responding by bringing former employees out of retirement on a part-time consulting basis and to conduct field trips to pass on their knowledge.
It’s a reality that has prompted companies, which have been stretching their seismic and software budgets, to now focus more on mentoring early- to mid-career geologists, LaBarre said.
“I’ve been a software junkie my entire career,” said LaBarre, who began her career in 2006. “I’m not part of the colored-pencils group. One thing to say is software is no substitute for experience.”
The intrinsic knowledge of reservoir rock behavior learned from working as an explorationist for 30 or more years cannot be captured by any software package, she said.
The economic conditions for the past five-plus years have stalled retirement plans for many geologists and geophysicists.
“In the next few years or so we will likely see a significant exodus,” LaBarre said. “It’s something the industry is aware of and is starting to come to grips with.”