While the COVID-19 pandemic ground the world to a halt in 2020, crisis led to creativity and opportunity in many parts of the world. For four geoscientists in Colombia, the pandemic became the perfect time to serve their country and their profession.
In May 2020, two weeks after oil prices dropped below zero, Colombia’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (with Spanish acronym Minciencias) launched a bidding contest allocating nearly $3 million (U.S. dollars) provided by the National Hydrocarbon Agency to finance geoscience research projects for the hydrocarbon sector.
The initiative aimed to support local research and increase the subsurface knowledge of the country’s hydrocarbon’s basins.
Colombian geoscientists Jose Jaramillo, Miguel Ramirez, Victor Ramirez and Camilo Dongo decided to participate in the bid, and they started working together remotely in June 2020.
Miguel Ramírez, AAPG Emeritus Member and former Latin America and Caribbean Region president, said the project provided a welcome diversion during a difficult time.
“We thought that participating in the contest was a good way to contribute to the knowledge of the geology of both Colombian margins and also, quite frankly, to keep us busy during the pandemic lockdown,” he said.
After three months of Zoom meetings, the team developed a research proposal and submitted it to Minciencias through GMAS LTDA, the research group of GMAS SAS, Jose Jaramillo’s Bogota-based consulting firm with a long trajectory working in Colombian basins.
The project’s scope was simple but novel: taking sediment samples along Colombia’s entire coastline, from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and testing the samples to predict reservoir quality and hydrocarbon potential.
The contest required applicants to have an alliance with a professional organization, so the team chose the Colombian Association of Petroleum Geologists and Geophysicists, a society whose outreach to local communities aligned with project objectives. ACGGP committed to help select team members and to reach out to coastal communities located in areas targeted for field work.
Their proposal, “Quality of Terrigenous Sediments of Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific Margins,” was one of 42 projects submitted for evaluation by Minciencias and a panel of national and international experts.
In October 2020, the ministry published the list of the top 10 projects to receive funding. The GMAS project took fourth place.
“Given the amount of work we put into the project, we were quite anxious to know the results of the contest. The day Minciencias published the results we were extremely happy but ironically could not celebrate together,” Ramirez said.
Seeking Energy Independence
Ramirez said the project will have immediate and long-lasting benefits for Colombia.
“Colombia needs to continue exploring the offshore frontiers. If commercial hydrocarbons are discovered, the revenues will help maintain energy independence, avoid costly energy imports and generate much-needed funds to move toward an energy transition in benefit of the Colombian people,” he said.
“This work hopefully will provide a significant boost to the knowledge of the reservoir quality as a critical parameter for the risking of exploratory plays and prospects in offshore Colombia,” he added.
In addition to enhancing the subsurface knowledge for government, industry and academia, the project has two additional benefits: training the future workforce and sharing geoscience knowledge with the Colombian people.
The proposal included funding to develop, publish and distribute the first-ever Atlas of Colombia’s Beach Sediments, a publication targeting a non-scientific public.
The Atlas will contain a photographic record of not only the geology and beach sediments’ composition, but also environmental and social aspects of Colombia’s coastal areas.
This publication will be distributed freely to public institutions, universities and schools.
Better Ingredients, Better Pizza
Ramirez said his work in basins throughout the world has shown him that reservoir quality depends primarily on the size, shape, sorting and packing of sand grains as they are originally deposited as well as on diagenetic changes during burial.
“This a complex issue, but the motto of Papa John’s Pizza also holds true for reservoir quality: ‘Better Ingredients, Better Pizza,’ or, in our case, better initial sediments (mineralogy and texture), better reservoir quality!”
The original idea came from a proposal developed for ExxonMobil’s Mexico City office in the early 2000s. Ramirez hoped to compare the U.S. and Mexican Gulf of Mexico reservoirs by sampling beach sediments every 100 kilometers, starting in the Florida Panhandle and moving South to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
His project in the Gulf of Mexico never materialized, but Ramirez imported the idea to offshore Colombia, and the rest of the team came onboard, adding additional input and local flavor.
The four original team members have a combined total of more than 130 years of professional experience, but working remotely was new for most of them.
“We had to get used to work via Zoom. It was a bit odd at the beginning, but with time it all came naturally and helped tremendously in putting together the proposal,” Ramirez said.
Before long, the team grew to include additional geoscientists, many of them more accustomed to virtual interactions
Paula Ordoñez, German Moreno, Andrés Vasquez, Fabián Molina, John Delgado and Daniel Figueredo joined the project for the execution phase.
Victor Ramirez, AAPG member and former president of both ACGGP and AAPG’s Latin America Region, noted that all planning, submission, reviews and project adjustments after the approval took place without a single face-to-face meeting.
“All the Zoom meetings discussing the project allow us to feel motivated during the harsh part of the quarantine,” he said. “It was a great catharsis!”
They stayed engaged throughout the project, developing the research proposal, then fine-tuning the project until July 2021, when funds hit their bank account.
The two-year project will run through July 2023 and involves five phases: logistics planning; field work; lab work; analysis and interpretation; and publications.
Victor Ramirez said the initial logistics and planning phase involved socializing the project and getting feedback from key stakeholders, including the National Hydrocarbon Agency, the Colombian Geological Survey, the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Colombian Navy and several universities.
Victor Ramirez, who spent most of his career working with Ecopetrol, Colombia’s national energy company, said the project taught him about the non-technical aspects of projects.
“I worked for more than two decades in a corporative environment where many administrative issues where covered,” he said. “Now, in a small team and as part of a consulting firm, many things beyond the geosciences need attention.”
The first phase also included securing labor contracts and medical insurance for team members hired to help with the project, developing safety and security arrangements for field work, and doing plenty of research.
Off to the Beach
After months of quarantine and project preparations, geologists were excited to return to the field.
“We started field work as early as we could,” Victor Ramirez said, “It was really refreshing to be back in the outdoors.”
In August 2021, the team started dry runs of the sampling methods in locations near Bogotá, and in mid-September they started sampling on the beaches.
Field work involves taking 93 samples in 21 locations on the Caribbean coast and 10 locations on the Pacific margin. The team plotted sample locations approximately 50-70 kilometers apart.
At each location, team members take three samples: of the lower fore beach, beach and berm or dune.
Miguel Ramírez noted that, in many parts of Colombia, sampling is easier said than done.
“Considering the poor infrastructure and the large geographical area, this field work is not a trivial matter. It involves complex logistics in remote areas that will require four-wheel-drive vehicles, boats and, in some cases, air travel to small communities – all that in close communication with local authorities,” he said.
Team members take the beach samples using a vibro core – a sturdy device designed and built at GMAS. The vibro core sinks a one-meter PVC tube into the ground using vibrations produced by a lithium battery-powered motor.
Victor Ramirez noted that another key component of the field work involved partnering with the National Core Repository, known in Spanish as the Litoteca Nacional, run by the Colombian Geological Survey in Bucaramanga.
The Core Repository will provide access to samples from 12 offshore wells, 10 Caribbean and two Pacific.
“We selected wells that reflected ample geographic coverage and are free of confidentiality restrictions,” he said. “Porosity values from well logs will provide a key element in correlating rocks characteristics in the wells with samples taken along the coasts.”
Under the Microscope
Samples taken on the beach travel inland to the GMAS Lab in Bogota, where team members prepare thin sections to analyze their mineral composition and texture characterization.
They separate the heavy minerals and carry out an experiment simulating an “express” diagenetic process, subjecting the samples to increasing temperatures through time. They also plan to measure the petrophysical properties of the consolidated samples. The analyzed lithologies and textures will provide key input to run diagenesis simulation and modeling using a software tool.
Training Future Generations
The lab work is made possible through the work of four junior geologists contracted to support the project.
Victor Ramirez said that including the young geoscientists is one of the Minciencias initiative’s key objectives – training professionals in petroleum geology and sedimentology techniques.
“The project supports, both financially and through mentorship, two geologists pursuing MSc degrees and two geology students completing their undergraduate theses,” he said. “That means that we not only are helping to prepare our country for future hydrocarbon discoveries; we also are helping to prepare the professionals who will make them.”
Fabian Molina, master’s student at the National University of Colombia in Bogota, works full-time with GMAS conducting research. He credits his service with professional associations as a key factor in securing this opportunity.
“Since starting my studies at the University of Pamplona, I have been part of the student chapters of the AAPG and the ACGGP, and I have had the opportunity to participate in programs like the Imperial Barrel Award,” he said.
“Based on all this, the ACGGP called me to be part of the project, bearing in mind that I was interested in developing my master’s degree project and that my objectives and interests were similar to those being studied.”
Molina’s master’s thesis focuses on diagenesis and predicting petrophysical properties of reservoirs, and he has been a part of all project phases.
“At this moment I am in the laboratory phase preparing samples for analysis, and I’m researching constantly to help with interpretation,” he said.
Molina said he finds experimental diagenesis to be both the most challenging, and most meaningful part of the work.
“I believe that being able to simulate the pressure and temperature conditions in unconsolidated sediments will give us a lot of information about how the how the diagenesis process affects the rock properties. Testing sand samples under different thermal conditions provides the information that helps to make better predictions about the reservoir sands and petrophysical properties of offshore Colombia’s subsurface,” he said.
“Building the equipment that simulates these conditions and generating a methodology based on trial and error has been not only a challenge, but an exceptional experience,” he added.
Molina works alongside Daniel Figueredo, an AAPG, ACGGP and Colombian Geological Society member and final semester geology student at the University of Pamplona.
Figueredo’s undergraduate thesis in sedimentology focuses on analyzing the origin of current sediments in beach areas of the Caribbean and the Colombian Pacific.
“What motivated me to join the project was realizing that it’s something that never has been done before in our country,” he said, adding that he feels honored to have the opportunity to contribute knowledge from his thesis research while learning alongside some of Colombia’s most experienced geologists.
“My most memorable experience so far is being able to work hand-in-hand with senior scientists who respect and support the opinions that I have as a junior geologist about the development and execution of the project,” he said. “Working on this initiative has helped me cross that barrier that exists between the academic world and the workforce, which is something we always fear as students. I have also strengthened some soft skills while developing my technical skills.”
Figueredo said he is proud to be a part an initiative that benefits his country.
“This project is innovative, in terms of sampling techniques, experimental equipment used, data acquisition, and I believe it will help to activate exploratory interest in the Colombian offshore. This all leads to both scientific and economic development for our country,” he said.
The team will spend most of 2022 performing lab work and data analysis, and they plan to have the technical report and Colombian Beach Deposits Atlas ready for publication by 2023.
For Figueredo and Molina, the research journey has just begun.
Figueredo said that after graduating as a geologist he will pursue master’s studies at the National University of Colombia.
“I will focus on deep water systems in the Colombian offshore and hope to do my part to help to solve challenges faced by the hydrocarbon industry in Colombia and beyond,” he said.
Molina plans to continue developing his skills in petrography and laboratory techniques.
“This project has made me a better geologist and a better person, and my research experience has generated many more questions for me. I hope to continue conducting research to answer them, and I hope to apply knowledge generated from this project both in industry and in academia.”
Victor Ramírez said the project is a perfect example of how challenges lead to opportunities.
“This project was conceived in a crisis environment, with zero face-to-face interactions, keeping the optimism of creating science, sharing experiences and with the overall objective of reducing exploratory risk in offshore Colombia, where the reservoir knowledge is limited,” he said. “Projects like this one provide hope to current and future generations, and they remind us that even in the most challenging times, there is opportunity for those who are willing to work hard, be creative and persevere.”