Prospecting for black gold

Prospecting for black gold McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 8, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 10
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > February 8, 2001 > Prospecting for black gold

Prospecting for black gold

While the Friendly Giant regularly exhorted his viewers to "look up, way up," Bruce Hart does the exact opposite. He looks down, way down.

Photo Before oil wells are built, high-tech approaches are used to determine where the oil is.

With the help of three-dimensional seismic technology, Hart, an earth and planetary sciences professor, has developed expertise in determining what's going on hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth. That expertise has made Hart a popular fellow in the oil and gas industry where companies have a special interest in knowing what's happening underground.

"Three dimensional seismic technology is to the oil industry what magnetic resonance imaging is to the medical world," says Hart.

"The technology is able to produce pictures, really remarkable in their clarity, of where structures are."

The appeal for the petroleum business is obvious. "They want to be able to optimize their drilling. They want to avoid drilling in places where they shouldn't be drilling. Millions of dollars are at stake."

Hart says the oil business, as practised by the big players in the industry, places a high emphasis on sophisticated scientific approaches. "The oil patch is really a high-tech place to be. There are virtual reality environments, rooms you can walk into, where you can feel as if you are moving around below the surface."

It's a far cry from the popular notion of the industry "of guys making business deals in the back of a pick-up truck."

Hart says the major companies use imaging technologies to help conduct "surgical strikes" in how they set up their wells. Wells don't necessarily just go straight down, they are constructed to twist and turn to where the oil is located.

While the big petroleum companies generally collect the data themselves, they need people like Hart to interpret the material. Some of the data sets Hart works with are worth over $5 million. It isn't straightforward stuff.

Oil doesn't flow freely in gooey black lakes underground. It is embedded in porous rocks. And if you want to get access to the oil, you need to have very precise information about the rocks you're dealing with.

Apart from the 3-D seismic information, Hart also uses engineering data (fluid volumes, pressure histories) and geological know-how to make his underground diagnoses.

Today, one of Hart's graduate students is analyzing data stemming from a request made by a company in Saskatchewan. "They've got a problem and we've made it a class project," says Hart. Below the surface in parts of Saskatchewan lie old coral reefs, hundreds of millions of years old, containing oil.

Beneath them are "bumps" that sort of look like the oil-bearing coral reefs above. But are they? The company doesn't want to blow a wad of cash drilling down further only to discover that there is no oil there, that the rocks only mimicked some of the properties of the coral reef material.

Only through a careful, exacting comparison can a precise prediction be formulated.

"The U.S. oil industry is going through a huge transformation right now," Hart says.

"To a large extent, Exxon, Shell and the other big players are getting out of the U.S. All the elephants [the industry's term for big petroleum deposits] have been found. What's left are smaller fields that smaller companies are trying to exploit and develop."

Some of Hart's research, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, focuses on helping some of the smaller companies that don't have access to the same kinds of high-tech tools the bigger companies employ.

Working with these smaller companies and with researchers at the University of Alabama and other universities, Hart is examining tight gas reservoirs containing hard-to-get-to petroleum reserves. The challenge is in finding natural fractures and pores in the rock through which the gas can be drawn out.

"Potentially, it's a huge resource. The problem is, unless you know how to work the fractures, the gas comes out so slowly it isn't profitable."

One of Hart's collaborators, Texas A&M geologist Wayne Ahr, recently noted that older oil fields, though largely abandoned, contain a surprising amount of oil still to be collected.

"Only about 30 per cent of the available oil is recovered from any field during primary recovery. Nearly 70 per cent of the oil stays there in the rock where it is trapped."

Hart uses seismic records to determine which rock zones appear to contain trapped oil. The plan is to use fluids like detergents or gases like carbon dioxide to force the oil out of the rocks.

Apart from his McGill teaching, Hart also offers a crash course in 3-D seismic interpretation for geophysicists, geologists, engineers and managers from the industrial sector. In his McGill courses, Hart tries to impart the technical, analytical and interpersonal skills students will need to work in the industry.

It's a good time to be looking for jobs in the petroleum sector.

"The opportunities tend to be tied to the price of oil and gas. But the work force is greying in the oil patch. There aren't a lot of young people and the industry is staring to realize that."

Hart's teaching is abetted by $250,000 worth of seismic interpretation software given to him by the companies Geographix and Hampson-Russell Software. They weren't entirely altruistic gestures. The firms are betting that some of Hart's students will become decision-makers in the oil industry one day and that they'll like the software so much, they'll push their companies to get it.

Hart is part of another research team, one that is using his 3-D seismic skills for a much different cause.

An NSERC-funded multi-university effort headed by Université Laval, the group is studying underwater landslides in a bid to better understand what causes them.

"For something like an off-shore drilling platform, there is the risk of destabilization with underwater land slides. That goes for pipelines, power transmission cables, fibre optic cables -- anything that you place on the seafloor. The information we're coming up with will be used for risk assessment."

Hart joined McGill last summer. A native of Hamilton, he had been trying to get back to Canada for years but couldn't find a good job after heading to the U.S. for a postdoctoral fellowship. He ended up working as a petroleum geologist for the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources, making plenty of contacts in the oil industry.

With former oilman George W. Bush in the White House, press reports predict a new golden age for the petroleum business. Hart says industry insiders aren't so sure.

"Living in New Mexico and talking to the people there and in Texas and Louisiana, [you know] they're not Democrats. But the people in the oil industry there still claim they've done their best business under Democrats."

Ronald Reagan, for instance, no anti-business tree hugger to be sure, kept oil prices artificially low as part of his plan to put intense economic pressure on the Soviet Union, a major oil producer. "It worked, but the oil industry paid a big price for it."

In Canada, the big petroleum companies are downscaling their operations in Alberta. They're in search of the next "big elephants" to be found, possibly, in the Northwest Territories, the Mackenzie Delta and off the east coast.

"Those are the kinds of areas I would really like to get into next," Hart says. He'll be looking down. Way down.

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