Death of Seismic

For many decades, seismic has been the most cost effective way of understanding the subsurface.

First used to understand the structure of the subsurface, its utility has increased steadily.

Innovation and advancements in acquisition design, instrumentation, computer science and processing algorithms have now made it possible to acquire high resolution seismic and enhance our ability to predict and even image fractures, stress regimes, rock mechanics and fluid content.

Indeed, the compute/science behind imaging with seismic sits with global weather prediction and simulating nuclear explosions as the top three computing and analytical simulation challenges in the world.

So why does it feel like the geophysicist is an endangered species?

Indeed, despite the huge advancements in seismic imaging and quantitative interpretation, the acquisition of seismic in Canada has seen a steep decline in the past two years.

Furthermore, this started before the recent oil price collapse, seeming to indicate a diminishing importance or relevance of geophysics in the industry.

Anecdotally, conversations with geophysicists indicate that this is exactly the case.

More and more, geophysicists’ ability to enlighten the nature and content in addition to the structure of the subsurface is taking a back seat to the task of “show me the top, show me the bottom, and tell me if there are any faults in there.”

It seems that quantitative interpretation – enabled by decades of high science and innovation, is being supplanted by hazard avoidance, which seems the main task of many geophysicists these days.

Why is that?

Well, one school of thought says that we don’t need to explore for oil the way we used to, nor do we need to monitor its development the way we used to. We have a ubiquitous resource, and we no longer develop it, we manufacture it.

The business model is about supply chain management and procurement (sound familiar?), repetition, and driving costs out of the per unit manufacture, understanding that the production and decline rates are predictable and can be built into the business model.

It makes sense, and it is easy for investors to understand and compare to other industries. And best of all (or worst of all if you are a geophysicist), it largely fits reality. So repent geophysicists, the end is near!

But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral…

The patient isn’t actually dead yet.

One of the big things missing from the equation above is the ubiquitous resource. Not only is the distribution of hydrocarbons within the resource plays not consistent, but neither are the rock mechanics and stress regimes.

So producers are demonstrating a very familiar pattern in the way their wells perform; there are relative gushers, and there are relative dusters. So in a very real sense, we could be doing a better job of exploration than we are. And what better tool is there for exploration than seismic?

The current downturn in part demonstrates this.

Despite the rig count in the US being roughly half of what it was last year, shale oil production remains flat.

Yes, completions are becoming more effective and drilling more efficient, but producers are also focusing on the sweet spots in their portfolio.

The only problem there is that those sweet spots have largely been discovered with the drill bit, which is a very expensive way to explore.

In addition, the science absolutely backs up the assertion that seismic can identify localized stress regimes and match the ideal stress regime to areas of best hydrocarbons. When this is correlated to local wells, this can be a quantitative indication of the best areas to produce.

This overview of the resource can enable companies to design development plans that can maximize production, minimize the number of wells needed, and optimize completion programs. In short, geophysics can have a material impact on the development of resource plays.

If it sounds too good to be true, well it isn’t really. So what’s missing?

It seems simplistic to say that a lack of interdisciplinary communication is the problem, and it is – both simplistic, and a part of the problem.

So is the (excuse me for saying) over emphasis on engineering.

So is the overdependence on the ubiquity of the resource in a resource play.

The biggest problem so far, though, has been that none of this has undermined the effectiveness and profitability of the manufacturing resource play model.

But the world around us is changing.

  • The price of oil is down, and will probably stay down for a while.
  • The environmental impact of the way we develop these resources is under increasing scrutiny.
  • There is competition for our resource out there, and they see us as their competition

So we will need to look at the way we develop our resources – the entirety of that whole model – at some point soon, if not right now. And seismic, as it has for the past 80 or so years, has a very important role to play in that system.

And finally, the doctor needs to heal him or herself.

Geophysicists have all the data they need to make a business case for the value of seismic. We need to do that in terms that are easy for our colleagues to understand.

So in an effort to spread it around, I would say that the business needs to get a bit more geophysics, and the geophysicists need to get a bit more business.