Oil Tech Research Goes Beyond Just Big Data

Evolution might be the hottest topic in oil and gas technology research right now, and Charles Darwin has nothing to do with it.

This evolution involves the changing landscape for energy research as it tries to address the oil industry’s current need for more efficient operations and lower-cost production, while it also copes with evolving environmental and social demands.

Researchers generally say they are scrambling to keep up with the changing needs of the oil industry combined with the emerging, broader concerns of society.

Amazingly, technology research for oil and gas continues to flourish even now, despite some recent problematic headwinds. And even though computing-related technology gets most of the attention these days, today’s energy research extends far beyond Big Data and its applications.

“My perspective is that petroleum research is evolving,” said Mark Shuster, Energy Division associate director for the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Like everyone else in the industry, researchers have had to cope with a significant oil price downturn that affected available funding, followed by a global pandemic that slowed research operations and, in some cases, seriously interrupted university research programs.

Post-Pandemic Petroleum Industry Trends

“The 2020 pandemic has affected every facet of the petroleum industry and has set in motion several long-standing trends in the petroleum industry,” said Rasoul Sorkhabi, research professor in the Energy and Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

“These trends will push the existing science and technologies in new directions, and the petroleum industry will have to evolve to meet the challenges and incorporate new technologies,” he noted.

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Evolution might be the hottest topic in oil and gas technology research right now, and Charles Darwin has nothing to do with it.

This evolution involves the changing landscape for energy research as it tries to address the oil industry’s current need for more efficient operations and lower-cost production, while it also copes with evolving environmental and social demands.

Researchers generally say they are scrambling to keep up with the changing needs of the oil industry combined with the emerging, broader concerns of society.

Amazingly, technology research for oil and gas continues to flourish even now, despite some recent problematic headwinds. And even though computing-related technology gets most of the attention these days, today’s energy research extends far beyond Big Data and its applications.

“My perspective is that petroleum research is evolving,” said Mark Shuster, Energy Division associate director for the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Like everyone else in the industry, researchers have had to cope with a significant oil price downturn that affected available funding, followed by a global pandemic that slowed research operations and, in some cases, seriously interrupted university research programs.

Post-Pandemic Petroleum Industry Trends

“The 2020 pandemic has affected every facet of the petroleum industry and has set in motion several long-standing trends in the petroleum industry,” said Rasoul Sorkhabi, research professor in the Energy and Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

“These trends will push the existing science and technologies in new directions, and the petroleum industry will have to evolve to meet the challenges and incorporate new technologies,” he noted.

Shuster cited several trends affecting oil and gas technology research today:

  • Refocused research on technologies and studies to find, develop and produce oil at lower cost
  • A focus on integrated research that links oil and gas development with above-ground environmental and societal issues
  • An accelerated pace to pilot and implement solutions for geological CO2 storage
  • Requirements and research needs for geological hydrogen gas storage, for large-scale hydrogen utilization
  • Deep learning/analytics applied to reservoir characterization and prediction, for both unconventional and conventional reservoirs
  • Artificial intelligence-based seismic interpretation allowing for very rapid, structural and stratigraphic interpretations of 3-D seismic data, as well as AI-based well log interpretation

He said leading environmental and social issues include management of produced water, oilfield electrification, minimized land usage, risk assessment and mitigation of induced seismicity.

In computing, “the AI approaches require human insight to develop training data sets and calibrate results,” putting geoscientists squarely in the process, Shuster observed.

Sorkhabi identified three major trends that could shape the course of energy research and influence the future of the oil and gas industry overall.

“The first trend, especially in Europe, is that many oil and gas companies are vigorously pursuing an energy transition toward low-carbon energy resources in the next three decades,” he said.

“This will compel many petroleum companies to invest in new technologies, not only wind and solar power, but also critical minerals that can be extracted from sedimentary basins and can support the energy industries,” he added.

Geoscience is Key to Cost-Reduction

He predicted the oil industry will increasingly see what he calls an “energy-mineral nexus” in the business structure and operations of major petroleum companies.

“Critical minerals, however, require not only production engineering but also detailed geoscience to locate and measure them,” he noted.

A second trend lies within the U.S. shale industry, Sorkhabi said. Financial limitations will increasingly motivate shale operators to create workflows and develop technologies that drastically reduce their production costs per barrel, he predicted.

“This is a serious challenge to shale petroleum, not only because of competition from the overseas conventional oil and gas but also in order to make their companies profitable,” he noted. “Toward this end, the shale oil and gas companies will have to integrate geoscience into their workflow, to apply the petroleum-system analysis vigorously, and to locate profitable production sweetspots,” he said.

Drilling and fracturing are expensive operations and the decline rate of shale oil wells is relatively short, Sorkhabi noted. Those factors also imply that shale companies will go after shale sweetspots, he said.

“In this sense, I see a repeat of how the oil industry grew in the first place. From the 1860s to the 1910s, the oil industry largely engaged in drilling, and paid little attention to science. Beginning with the 1910s, the industry realized that there is indeed a valuable place for geology in their workflow,” he observed.

“That is why AAPG was established in 1917, not decades before that,” he said.

Studies indicate that petroleum-system analysis involving geology, geochemistry and petrophysics is critical to locating shale sweetspots, Sorkhabi observed. He said that, for financial reasons, the shale oil industry will have to go beyond merely continuous drilling and fracturing, and incorporate geoscience-based workflows.

“For instance, in a study of the Permian Basin, I and my colleague Palash Panja found that there was significant migration of oil and gas within shale formations, or what we call intra-formational oil migration,” he said.

“In other words, the most prolific parts of a shale play are not necessarily their high TOC (total organic carbon) spots. We have to examine every element and process of the petroleum system in shale,” he added.

In a third major trend, environmental considerations will probably become even more pressing for the oil and gas industry in the coming years, Sorkhabi said.

Those demands will move shale oil and gas companies in the U.S. to invest in technologies that reduce their carbon footprints and environmental impact. More specifically, he noted, five areas need to be addressed:

  • Avoiding gas flares (which Sorkhabi said are “really a waste of energy and money”)
  • Reducing the use of water in hydraulic fracturing, possibly by switching to dry gas fracturing
  • Controlling induced seismicity
  • Reducing fugitive methane from shale oil and gas fields
  • Expanding carbon capture, CO2 storage or reuse plants

“All of these are serious challenges and will require technological developments. In both the energy transition technologies and the low-price, environment-friendly shale oil and gas technologies, we will see increased integration of geoscience and engineering,” Sorkhabi said.

He foresees a coming, major shift from previous decades in which the petroleum industry was clearly divided into exploration geology and production engineering.

Integrating Geoscience and Engineering

“Big Data has been a mantra in recent years,” he noted, but a problem is, “in energy transition and in shale petroleum we do not have Big Data – both of these are relatively new and emerging fields. This means that we need to generate big data based on research, observations and experiences.”

“This factor, aside from financial and environmental considerations, will push integrations of geoscience and engineering in developing new technologies,” he added.