From the President- November 2019

Petroleum Exploration-- Then & Now

During mid-October, I attended the Data Science & Analytics event that was organized by HGS NeoGeos and co-sponsored by the Society of Petroleum Engineers. Though much of what was discussed by the panelists was Greek to me (e.g. “microservices in the cloud”—what the heck is that?), I recognize and respect the fact that computer science has revolutionized, and will continue to revolutionize, the ways in which we perform various activities, including exploration for oil & gas. As I look back on my career as an explorationist, I marvel at how streamlined the process of interpreting data has become over the course of a few short decades. The time and tools required to interpret horizons and faults on a seismic dataset have evolved from a matter of days or weeks using colored pencils on a drafting table, to a matter of minutes picking seed points and allowing a software application to autotrack the horizons and faults over a large area. And for me, the process of seismic interpretation is a whole lot more fun than ever, especially with the advent of 3D visualization technology. In any case, the modern-day petroleum explorer spends most of his/her career sitting in front of a computer in an air-conditioned, hermetically sealed building.  And with the new set of data science/analytics tools coming to the fore, this indoor working environment is unlikely to change. It wasn’t always that way, of course.

During the first half of the 20th century it was common for petroleum exploration geologists to spend a significant portion of each year in the field, carrying out surface mapping, measuring/ describing/sampling sections, and searching for oil seeps. There are still a lucky few of us, typically in government geological surveys and academia, that perform actual geological field work. But I think that most of us became interested in geology because of our love of the outdoors, and perhaps even imagined ourselves doing fieldwork on a regular basis throughout the course of our careers – so most of us treasure the chance to get out to the field, albeit a field seminar for a single week per year. I say a “lucky few” still perform field work – but of course the field has its hazards, especially in the early days, before the emphasis on safety. The following are some excerpts from The First Big Oil Hunt, Venezuela 1911 – 1916, by R. Arnold et al. (1960, Vantage Press, 353 pp.), and are taken from a journal kept by a then early-career geologist named W.L. Taylor, about geologic reconnaissance undertaken during 1912 in an area southwest of Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela. The story is a good reminder of the relative lack of risks, but also the lack of adventure, that characterizes the typical job of today’s explorationist.

“Arriving in Maracaibo, they (American geologists) called at once upon the American Consul, Mr. John A. Ray. When informed of their business and destination, he replied that his advice would be to take the next boat back to the States.”

“It had been the intention of the (geologic field) party to strike directly west into the jungle from El Guayabo… Here were great areas of mud flats and cane-breaks swarming with flies and mosquitoes. The mud and slime were from five to fifteen feet deep, so it was decided to move up the river about three miles to a plantation known as El Manguito… Having spent several days trying to reach high ground beyond the swamp, Taylor tried to obtain a view over the surrounding swamp by climbing a tall tree by means of the network of vines growing on its trunk and thus had his first experience with termite ants. In jumping for a vine slightly above his reach, his hand closed tightly through the bark, which was all that remained of the vine, and he fell a distance of about forty-five feet. Fortunately, he struck in soft ground, and the most serious effect… was the dislocation of two bones in the right ankle… He was carried out to El Manguito in a hammock tied to a pole and forced to remain there several days… Higher ground was found some six miles to the north and camp was moved to this new site, which was on a high bank overlooking a creek. The first night in camp was somewhat unusual. Shortly after dark, a terrific tropical storm broke out and the little creek, normally about twenty feet wide, became a raging torrent over a hundred yards wide within three hours. About 10 pm a large jaguar swam across the creek, landed in the midst of camp, but left with a bloodcurdling scream.”

“Taylor now experienced his only illness—a three-day siege of malaria. It was his first attack and during moments when not delirious he felt sure he was about to join the celestial choir.”

“He (Taylor) soon saw a large outcrop of unusual interest, and on rounding it, his attention was drawn to the movements of a dying monkey. About a dozen others already dead were lying beside it. Just beyond were a number of bows and arrows which had been dropped by five naked Indians who were drinking from a pool. They were immediately recognized as… Motilones. As they had seen Taylor almost instantly, he decided his best move would be to advance in a friendly, bold manner, which he did. The Motilones at once grabbed their bows and began to shoot arrows at him.”

You might consider remembering Taylor’s story from 1912 when you’ve had a bad day at the office.

Never stop exploring!