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Petroleum Geoscience
Jim Handschy

Petroleum geoscience is an exciting and complex combination of science and business. To understand the challenges facing petroleum geoscientists in 2004, it is important to look at recent trends and events.

Technology advances in petroleum geoscience during the last two decades have been remarkable. We are now able to cost effectively image the subsurface in 3-D and 4-D better than ever before. In addition, we now have 3-D geological modeling tools that allow us to do everything from tracing multi-phase fluid flow through 3-D architectural models of hydrocarbon reservoirs to unraveling the 4-D structural, thermal, diagenetic and fluid flow histories of entire basins.

Despite these technology improvements, exploration during the last several years has failed to find enough new petroleum resources to offset global consumption. Within the next few years, global consumption rates will exceed global production capacity. Therefore, the industry must find new hydrocarbon resources at a faster rate and it must extract more hydrocarbons from fields that have already been discovered. Many of the emerging new technologies that will help meet these challenges for both exploration and field development are focused on characterization of reservoir properties and their distribution.

For exploration, pre-drill reservoir characterization has become a critical tool for quantifying risk, predicting reservoir quality and managing prospect portfolios. Since the mid-1990s, substantial advances have been made by combining quantitative seismic analysis techniques, such as amplitude vs. offset (AVO), acoustic impedance and elastic impedance, with petroleum-systems modeling to predict reservoir quality, probability of hydrocarbon charge and hydrocarbon type. Unfortunately, these techniques have not yet provided reliable information about hydrocarbon saturation or quality. Within the last few months, the application of electromagnetic seabed logging techniques is starting to provide the added promise of distinguishing low hydrocarbon saturations and tar from producible hydrocarbons. If these electromagnetic techniques prove successful, they will further enhance our ability to quantify exploration risk in offshore settings.

Once a field has been discovered, 3-D geologic models are becoming increasingly more important for designing development plans and constraining reservoir simulations for production history matching. Research and development by petroleum companies, vendors and academic groups is providing significant new tools for populating geologic details into these models. First, quantitative seismic techniques are being refined to more accurately estimate reservoir properties from seismic attributes. One of the most intriguing new seismic techniques is the use azimuthal velocities and azimuthal AVO to map fracture orientations and densities. Second, several structural geology groups are building tools to construct topologically and kinematically correct structural models that allow more accurate predictions of fault and fracture properties in reservoirs. Third, several sedimentology groups are working on different techniques to populate depositional fabrics into geologic models to assess their impact on anisotropy and fluid flow in a reservoir.

Beyond these scientific techniques for quantifying subsurface petroleum accumulations, we were reminded earlier this year that there are often other considerations that impact the business side of petroleum geoscience: Two international petroleum companies announced significant reductions in their SEC Proved Reserves. Both companies saw an immediate drop in stock price and the business community is waiting to see what the ultimate effect of these reserves cuts will be.

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Handschy has a Ph.D. in geology from Rice University and has worked in the petroleum industry for 19 years. He is currently the manager of global geology for ConocoPhillips.

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