Despite the best wishes for renewable energy, the West, and indeed the whole world, is still massively dependent on oil and gas. As a result, the need to develop existing resources, while also searching out new reserves, is perhaps more pressing than ever.
This becomes more urgent when one considers that we have already found what are believed to be the more easily accessible reserves on the planet. Oil fields in the Arabian Peninsula or North America may yet yield considerable reserves given the right technology and processes. However, in order to feed our insatiable appetite oil and gas companies need to spread their wings wider, meaning looking towards reserves that will be difficult to extract and often even harder to findFinite resources
This presents a considerable challenge to those geoscientists charged with finding fresh reserves. After all, their employer will be backing their findings with huge amounts of resources: an unsuccessful play for hydrocarbons can siphon as much as $3 million per day from a company’s bottom line. Conversely, every week without finding new reserves is a week closer to the eventual depletion of existing supplies. As a result, geoscientists need to be able to answer a number of questions about a potential reserve in as much detail as possible before a more in-depth, on-the-ground investigation ever begins. These are:
- Is there a potential hydrocarbon system?
- What are the geochemical and geophysical characteristics of the play?
- What is the volume and quality of the oil or gas?
- How accessible is the location, and what will it cost to extract it?
Each of these questions raises its own issues for the company: do the geological characteristics of the play support the existence of hydrocarbons? If they do exist, is it in sufficient quantities to make immediate extraction worthwhile? If not are there alternative options that the company can take? What special considerations need to be borne in mind, such as in the case of deep-sea reserves or those locked in shale deposits?
Prior planning prevents poor performance
In order to successfully and swiftly answer these questions, and so make the search for new resources as streamlined as possible, geoscientists must accurately identify the best point from where to start their search, quickly accumulating, assembling, and formatting credible facts and evaluations. This requires relevant, high quality maps and data to gain knowledge and insight into the nature of a prospective play to fully understand both its potential to hold reserves and the best way to approach them.
Thorough analysis and interpretation of this data is essential. However, standard research methods often result in more time spent finding, synthesising, transcribing, and converting information into compatible formats than on actually analysing and interpreting that data. As part of dealing with this, geoscientists need to carefully consider how they attain data in the first place: in the information age there are more and more sources of information that they can use, although the data itself can be distilled into two essential types.
Commercial and academic
The first of these is commercial (economic) data on existing reserves, which can provide information such as the size, productivity and expected lifespan of those reserves as well as more in-depth detail for the surrounding area. However, this information is of limited value to geoscientists for several reasons. First is availability: the data may be held by competing organisations or only be publicly available in a limited form. Second, commercial data will by its nature be focused on the output of currently identified and exploited reserves: as a result it will provide little to no information on the previously unexplored areas where geoscientists must now search.
The second type of data geoscientists can use is publicly available academic data on the geology of prospective areas for exploration: for example, academic journals will contain geological maps, data tables and cross-sections.
For instance, a geoscientist might use maps from an academic journal such as the International Journal of Coal Geology to not only evaluate a basin conventionally but also to take a detailed look at the source rock, gauging its suitability not just for conventional exploration but for the unconventional resources that are needed more and more. Until recently, igneous rocks, shales, and tight sandstones were treated as no-go areas for exploration, but now some of these are prime targets, meaning that any academic data on the geoscientist’s disposition is of huge value.Search: falling at the first hurdle?
It is obvious that the academic geological literature can provide a wealth of information for geoscientists. The challenge then is how best to actually investigate and use this literature. A simple search on Google or other internet tools may seem the easiest method but it is also the most labour-intensive and inefficient. After all, in order to divine the information needed a geoscientist must perform multiple text searches of relevant terms, ensuring that all known permutations are used to avoid missing crucial evidence. They then need to sift through all of this information, first discarding that which is irrelevant and then poring over the remaining articles, spotting and cross-referencing any relevant information and then exporting that to other programmes to actually use in their predictions. This is a time consuming and inaccurate way to work. And while the technological ‘Big Data’ solutions, which use high-powered computers to search through enormous amounts of complex information in order to sift out that which is most relevant and useful, exist to help search through the wealth of information presented they are currently at a level of cost and complexity that would make many organisations balk at the perceived cost-benefit analysis.
To take advantage of the hidden treasures that lie within the academic literature, geoscientists instead need an intuitive and efficient means of locating and formatting relevant content in a single space, leaving more time to spend on data analysis and interpretation. Easy access to peer-reviewed content can boost confidence and cut the risk of overlooking critical geologic insights. Simply put, geoscientists need new ways of looking at old content.
Essentially, the academic information must be centralised: rather than having to search the entirety of academic publishing, or even the whole Internet, when investigating new opportunities geoscientists should only need to investigate the existing, relevant publications. This will instantly cut down on a number of the challenges associated with searching for relevant data: there will be no need to filter out irrelevant information while a well-prepared source should have all of the relevant information that a geoscientist needs regardless of age or obscurity. However, there are still several factors that need to be understood before this information is usable.
First, users must remember that while geological formations are mostly unchanging, political formations are not. Due to various political changes collections of information for some areas, especially more unsettled ones such as Eastern Europe or South-East Asia, may well be indexed under the names of countries that no longer exist. Instead, all information should be recorded and referenced by more permanent means of identification, such as latitude and longitude, to ensure that it can be swiftly found regardless of political upheavals over the course of time. Second, academic records may not be exhaustive: there is no guarantee that a resource will have covered every square inch of the globe and uncovered the exact information that geoscientists need. As a result, there is still the chance that more in-depth or even on-the-ground research will be necessary. Yet it is also important to remember that academic resources are always growing. As a result, a centralised resource should grow with these to become more and more complete over time.
As with most industries, data and intelligence are vital in locating and exploiting new oil and gas reserves. The more geoscientists can do before performing in-depth exploration, and the faster and easier they can do this, the better it will be for ensuring the supplies that keep the world turning.
Friso Veenstra, is director of market development at Elsevier, the world’s leading provider of science and health information serving more than 30 million scientists, students and health information professionals worldwide. Headquartered in Amsterdam, the business employs over 7000 people in 24 countries..
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