Unconventional Thought: Get Out of the ‘Zone’

Truths’ turned upside down

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Bobby Ryan, vice president of Global Exploration for Chevron Global Upstream Oil and Gas, challenged AAPG’s members to choose the “unconventional” route forward, relying upon creativity – coupled with technological advances – to fundamentally change the way they view geological plays.

Ryan, an AAPG member and chairman of AAPG’s Corporate Advisory Board, drew on his experience of more than 30 years in the oil and gas industry to deliver a thought-provoking presentation at the All-Convention Luncheon in New Orleans titled “Beyond Zone Six: The Imperative of Unconventional Thinking.”

Citing the innovative design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge – completed in 1937, it was the longest span bridge in the world and held that honor until 1964 – Ryan challenged AAPG’s members to think the impossible, to “build the bridge that could not be built.”

Ryan’s presentation on the imperatives of unconventional thinking set the tone for the 2010 Annual Convention & Exhibition in New Orleans, and left many geologists saying: “What if?”

“As explorationists, we often get framed by things beyond our everyday control – conventional thinking in these areas holds us back,” said Ryan, a petroleum geologist by training and career experience. Those things, he said, include technology, economics, the environment, and public and corporate policy.

“Many people view Zone Six as a depositional environment, a limit,” he said. “Actually, one might say that Zone Six is a state of mind ... How do we move beyond that?”

Defined in geological terms, Zone Six sits seaward of the continental shelf – in the lower slope to lower bathyal regions – in water depths ranging between 1,500 to 6,000 feet. In 1979 when Ryan started his career with Texaco in New Orleans, the commonly held industry belief was there were no commercial prospects in waters deeper than 600 feet, and there were no sands – thus no reservoirs – in Zone Six.

For decades, these hard-and-fast rules limited creativity, and, accordingly, oil and gas exploration.

“At Texaco, the term “deep water” used to be a four-letter word,” Ryan said.

Earlier in his career Ryan was assigned to Texaco’s deepwater team, and was told to “get us back into the deep water.”

At the time, Ryan’s skeptical response was: “What did I do wrong?”

Two decades later, Chevron is a world leader in the Gulf of Mexico’s deepwater exploration and production.

Say What?

In preparation for his address, Ryan polled exploration colleagues in Chevron, asking them to list sweeping changes that they had witnessed during the past 30 to 40 years – illustrating how many “truths” have been turned upside down by unconventional thinking and technological advances.

To name just a few:

  • Big gas, discovered a long distance from market, has no value.
  • There are no reservoirs in deep water.
  • There are no thrust faults in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Color has no place in seismic displays.
  • High angle wells (i.e., greater than 45 degrees) need special corporate permission.
  • Shales are seals and sources, but not reservoirs.
  • When you hit Zone Six, there is no sand, so shut the well down.

“There was a time deepwater exploration was called unconventional – drilling below salt was also called unconventional,” Ryan said. “Now it’s the ‘thinking’ that’s being called unconventional.”

Moving Beyond Zone Six

Acknowledging the obstacles to moving beyond Zone Six thinking, Ryan said, “How do you open the door to allow your teams to be creative and not stifled? It takes listening.”

Companies, he explained, must find the unique balance between business drivers, the bottom line and the risks often associated with thinking unconventionally.

“When we come up with a new concept or idea, we need to try it,” he said, and in citing the successful adoption of bright spot theory or measurement-while-drilling technology, he added, “Be bold, and give it a shot.”

What quality does Ryan ascribe to successful outside-of-the-box thinkers?

“The one word that comes to mind,” he said, “is persistence.

“Successful individuals continue to push their ideas, about why they’re the right things to do. It can be a long process,” he cautioned, “but when you’re confronted by the perception that something is impossible, don’t quit.”

According to Ryan, Chevron encourages its young geologists to “speak up, to give us your opinions and ideas.

“After all, we (geologists) are paid for our professional opinions, and unless we speak up these opinions go nowhere,” he said. “If we’re setting up some type of barrier to creativity, tell us.

” Creative thinking comes from assembling diverse teams in the workplace – and diversity at Chevron, he said, is measured many ways, the common metrics being gender, ethnicity, cultural background and demographics.

Ryan suggests, however, that “diversity of thought” is as an equally important metric. “The most powerful teams,” he said, “have a balance of individuals leading to diversity of thought, ranging from the wild-eyed person to the team member with a conservative approach.”

Energy Conservation’s Role

Ryan also delivered a message of energy conservation to AAPG’s members: “The easiest barrel we can find is the one we can save.”

In 1990, Ryan was appointed to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Renewable Energy in Washington, D.C. Participating in the President’s Commission on Executive Exchange Program in the White House, Ryan focused on utility policy issues related to renewable energy and energy efficiency, providing him with unique insights into the nation’s energy portfolio.

Oil and gas, he explained to AAPG’s members, will continue to play a significant role of the United State’s energy portfolio – but we need a full spectrum of energy sources if we are going to meet demand.

Ryan challenged the audience to use out-of-the-box thinking to make new discoveries in old basins in the United States, and he used the Gulf of Mexico as an example of such an exploration renaissance.

Extrapolating this theme globally, he asked: “Is the same story being told in other basins around the world?” Ryan urged geologists to transport their creativity to other basins around the world, to look at them differently. And, he encouraged AAPG’s members to forge creative partnerships with national oil companies and other key industry stakeholders.

During his address, Ryan introduced the term “molecular management.” The industry, he said, is taking low grade crudes and bitumen, and turning them into clean, quality products.

“Getting more out of what we’ve already discovered is also an important energy source,” said Ryan, who used the example of Chevron’s pilot project – steam flooding carbonate reservoirs – in the Partitioned Zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Pointing to the projected global trends of oil and gas discoveries which are declining in both size and frequency, Ryan said, “We’re here to change that trend: unconventional thinking drives the world’s energy supply, and it’s our job to find more resources and move them to reserves.

“Where’s the oil and gas coming from?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s coming from the folks in this room. New plays are credited to the new ways that people think.”

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