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Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Geophysical Technologies - The challenges for Non Seismic

David Bamford [email protected]

Many years ago, my first boss at BP said something along the lines of "If you have $100 to spend on geophysics, spend $99 on seismic and the $1 on a good cup of coffee!"

However, as we moved into the 21st Century, I began to wonder if he was no longer right - there seemed to be enough 'fuss' around the non-seismic methods, namely gravity, magnetics and especially electro-magnetics, that I wondered out loud - and wrote about - whether as acquisition and processing techniques improved these neglected technologies of the geophysical world would finally take their place alongside seismic as powerful contributors, especially to exploration. About two and a half years ago, I wrote in the on-line magazine OilBarrel about four companies offering such technologies along these lines:

GETECH is an enterprise of relatively long standing that was founded in the University of Leeds in the UK almost 20 years ago, floating on the London AIM market in September 2006. Their speciality is potential field data; although they offer consultancy in gravity and magnetic interpretation, their forte is compiling large, homogeneous, quality-assured data bases from a myriad of historic, heterogeneous surveys. For example, a current major offering is of Siberian gravity and magnetic data bases compiled from the many years of Soviet surveying, and an earlier offering was a similar compilation of data over Iraq. This type of data lacks resolution but is important when an explorer is faced with a huge onshore area and has to decide where to focus - potential field data can show the shape and depth of sedimentary basins, imply where source rock might be deeply buried enough to be mature and so on; these insights can focus the next stage - the shooting of expensive seismic data.

OHM of the UK, and EMGS of Norway are both players in the electro-magnetic (EM) arena; this type of data has received quite a lot of publicity recently to the effect that it can significantly improve exploration success rates. This assertion is based on the fact that normal oils and formation waters have completely different electrical conductivities, and that therefore the presence of an oil-charged reservoir at depth should lead to an 'anomalous' EM signal being recorded as compared to the water-filled case. Applied technology may be winning through, and with the addition of higher frequency sources and a change in the basic geophysical technique, EM methods have recently undergone a metamorphosis and the new Controlled Source Electro-Magnetics (CSEM) techniques are now showing that modern EM techniques can and are being used to help evaluate the fluid content of reservoirs and define reservoir extent. MTEM is another UK company that works in the EM arena, using a different approach that may offer a more 'seismic-like' method. Like other geophysical tools EM results are proving of value when integrated with other geoscience data and understanding.

Unfortunately, I seem to have been wrong about all of what I said above - I have to confess that over the last couple of years I have seen and heard no evidence that experienced explorers - as opposed to the marketing departments of the 'niche' service providers - are willing to stand up and be counted by pointing to transformed exploration success rates as a result of using these non-seismic techniques.

In fact, you can see that two markets are providing their own judgement. In the oil field services market, two of the leading electro-magnetics acquisition companies, EMGS and OHM, have in their latest Trading Updates reported weak revenues and order books, on 12th August and 2nd September 2008 respectively, at a time when seismic companies report unprecedented revenues, full order books and 3D vessel day rates driven sky-high by a skewed demand/supply imbalance. This has not passed unnoticed by the investment community with the shares of some 'niche' non-seismic companies trading in the market at 20% - or less - of the price seen two years ago.

It seems like these non-seismic technologies are hovering over what some technologists would term the Valley of Death! To explain briefly, if you think of the proof-of-principle of a new technology as one mountain peak and the successful commercialization of that technology as another peak, then the space representing the period of time between those two peaks can be seen as a valley. This period in the transition from discovery to market is littered with the good ideas that never completed the flight across the valley. In technology commercialization parlance, this graveyard of inventions and intentions is known as the Valley of Death!

As when any new technology sees zero or low take-up, it is easy to blame the customer - perhaps they are too lazy, conservative, untrained or disinterested to bother with the new ideas? However, my observation of explorers is that exploration is so difficult - and nowadays ever more so - that they will leap on and devour any new idea that will help them succeed more often, drill less dry holes.

However, when my first BP boss said what he did, he was relying on an understanding of classical physics that was written down in the 19th Century - a hundred years before either of us joined BP, by gentlemen such as Laplace, Poisson, Maxwell and Zoeppritz. For reasons buried in the subtleties of their equations governing potential fields, electro-magnetic radiation and seismic wave propagation, if they had thought about it these gentlemen would have recognized and declared that "Seismic is King!"...and so it seems to remain.

I pin my final hope for the fortunes of non-seismic techniques on integration - perhaps working inside the frame work provided by the fantastic seismic data we have nowadays, there is still a chance for a premium contribution to exploration success?

Or perhaps I should just lean back and smell the coffee!

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posted by The Rogtec Team @ 11:34 


Anonymous Charlie H said...

Fair comment. Many years ago, I did my PhD on electromagnetic geophysics, but subsequently couldn't get a job doing that, so switched to seismics. It's nice to see people having another go at EM, now that instrumentation is so much better, but the fundamental problems remain.

4 December 2008 17:01  

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