What is the Value of Old Data?

Gordon Beattie
Gordon Beattie

Imagine you have a collection of old eight-track tapes in a box in the attic; unfortunately, your eight-track player is long gone, sold in a garage sale in the late ’70s and by now, no doubt, in a landfill.

The music in that box, though – some brilliant, some forgettable – is still important to you, still helping to unravel adolescent and philosophical mysteries.

The key thing is this: the music is still good.

Making matters worse, you never transferred any of it to cassette, never burned it to a CD, didn’t upload it to an MP3. You can’t find it on iTunes and the guy at Best Buy laughed when you asked whether anyone was selling eight-track players anymore.

What do you do now?

Gordon Beattie, a geologist now based in Kilmarnock, Scotland – about 25 miles south of Glasgow – believes the petroleum industry is facing a similar dilemma.

Beattie was both a drilling fluids engineer, mudlogger and wellsite geologist for MB Petroleum Services during the past four decades, but now he has a new mission: Making sure others see that data preservation is a crucial concern that must be addressed.

The industry, he says, soon will be losing important historical data because there will no longer be equipment available to decipher it.

It’s a novel on a floppy disc; a wedding shot on an old reel-to-reel.

It’s Back to the Future.

And it’s a problem that’s been concerning him for 40 years.

“I was leaving a well site,” he recalled, “at the end of a well, when the tool pusher stopped my truck, and said, ‘You had better take this.’

Beattie remembers the moment with a clarity of something that occurred weeks ago.

“He passed me a thick roll of Geolograph charts,” Beattie said. “At my base, I opened this roll, and found that this contained not only records from this well and earlier work for the same client, but records from earlier clients.

“This led me to question how much other data had been dealt with in such a cavalier manner.”

In other words, he began thinking about all the geologic work out there – how accurately was it recorded, catalogued, protected? And where is it now?

The Downfall

Admittedly, Beattie knows there’s not much he can do in technical terms to help save this day.

“I do not have any great knowledge of data storage systems,” he said, “but I was hoping that creating an interest might bring someone with experience in this field forward.

“I am hoping (to) instigate a trawl through the memories of some AAPG members for old data – and to introduce some of the younger members to a variety of material they have not considered,” he said.

Part of the problem, he believes, had to do with the sheer volume of the activity back then.

“During the boom of the 1970s-’80s the average rig count peaked at almost 6,000,” Beattie observed. “Since then the average has fallen to below 3,000.”

But because of that boom, much of the record-keeping may not have been as professional as one might have hoped.

“While the vast majority of this activity was carried out by well-established oil companies in proven areas,” he said, “there was some work done by short-lived exploration groups.”

And he talks about what he calls the “doctors and lawyers oil companies:” “The scale of novice personnel recruitment and technical innovation meant there was a variation in appreciation of results and in data storage.”

The point, he says, was that not all exploration or record keeping was done to or with precise instructions.

More problematic is that this “treasure trove” of information, as he calls it, now needs to be examined or transferred before the storage technology is completely lost and nobody can remember how to access the computer languages used.

“The information collected at that time is still relevant,” he emphasized, “but is held in a diversity of formats – cassettes, HP cartridges, large floppy discs, tapes, etc. There is also raw data, in the form of Geolograph charts, IADC reports, well logs and rig diaries.”

Back to the Future

Getting back to that fortuitous meeting with that tool pusher and the information handed him, he said, “Indeed there were many wells drilled with only Geolograph and microscope giving running data.”

And knowing not just how the data was collected but also its location today is “anyone’s guess.

“In some locations they went to specified storage, North America and Europe,” but he says not all, joking at one point that some might be upstairs in some Chinese restaurant.

So what can be done about it and, equally as important, who could and would do the necessary transfers and updating?

“The gap could be filled by a trawl carried out (e.g.) by members of AAPG or PESGB, who can remember where the material obtained from, and (more importantly) where it was stored,” he suggested.

He also believes, in the case of electronically stored data, there may be a case for a specialized unit being able to access and apply current standards to early material.

“There was such pressure to reach the target formations that smaller, more marginal shows were frequently overlooked,” Beattie said. “These may only be discovered by examining the raw data obtained during drilling.”

Until then, he seems to be saying, important geologic information, like your old Janis Joplin “Pearl” eight-track, will sit in an attic and a truck or a Chinese restaurant, waiting to be unearthed. 

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Preservation of Rock Material a Daunting Task

AAPG has long been involved in the preservation of geologic data – an effort that now continues through the Preservation of Geoscience Data Committee.

The committee’s chairs are Michael D. Laine, with the Utah Geological Survey in Salt Lake City, and Beverly Blakeney DeJarnett, with the Houston Research Center at the Bureau of Economic Geology in Austin, Texas.

And they agree with Gordon Beattie’s concern.

“There is a serious need ... for a strong push to preserve all kinds of geoscience data – not just well site information, but rock samples such as cores and cuttings, as well,” DeJarnett said. “Without the proper preservation of much of this rock material, the geosciences will truly be at a disadvantage in the future.”

Industry technologies alone “have evolved at such an incredibly rapid pace,” she said, “and we can now do analyses that many people never even imagined on older, already acquired cores and cuttings.”

But without the rock material to begin with, “none of this would be possible.”

New technologies utilized on older data already have revitalized many old oil or gas fields and have contributed to the discovery of new resources, she said.

“We as geoscientists do not know what questions will become critically important in the future – we don’t know what questions will be asked or what problems will need to be solved,” she said.

“Without preserving the already acquired geologic material and associated data, we will have to start from scratch.”

As an example, DeJarnett said “the very popular concept of CO2 sequestration owes part of its success to the ability of geoscientists to re-analyze existing cores and other data to quickly assess the feasibility of CO2 sequestration for certain reservoirs and regions.”

But DeJarnett has something more urgent to add to the situation – namely, her committee’s mission, which is to promote collection, preservation and utilization of geoscience data and bring greater awareness of these issues to the public.

The committee accomplishes this through:

 Annual meetings, where geoscientists share their various perspectives on problems associated with, best practices for and innovative ways of finding funding for geoscience data preservation.

 Working closely with other entities involved with geoscience data preservation, such as the state geological surveys that are often the repositories for geoscience data (such as geophysical logs, field notes, cores, cuttings and other geologic samples).

 Working with and disseminating information from the U.S. Geological Survey and other federal bureaus involved with the same problem.

“We HAVE to make this preserved data and rock material accessible to the geoscience community,” DeJarnett said. “Otherwise, what good is it?”

– BARRY FRIEDMAN

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