Like the size of fish and the exponential way in which they grow the more fishermen tell the story of the catch, the historical accounts of exploration successes (and failures) can also lend themselves to hyperbole.
In 1979, when MOEPSI, a wholly owned subsidiary of Mobil Oil Corporation, discovered the natural gas field in Alabama’s lower Mobile Bay, it was, according to one of those involved, a combination of luck, sound technical and managerial decisions, and a triumph over legal and environmental hurdles.
“I worked for Mobil for 37 years on five continents,” says AAPG member Weldon Frost, who was exploration manager for the company in New Orleans from 1977-81, “and I observed that Mobil’s big fields were found as a result of serendipity.”
In the case of Mobile Bay, serendipity meant the discovery of gas at almost 21,000 feet.
And serendipity may be why Weldon – along with Scott Hubbard, who is presently with the Mobile Bay Asset Team – will be presenting a paper at this year’s History of Petroleum Geology forum at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in New Orleans.
His paper, one of four in the forum, is “The Somewhat Accidental Discovery of Mobile Bay Gas Field: A Story of Perseverance and Good Fortune.”
“Mobile Bay was thought to be a closure caused by a salt swell, but turned out to be part of a colossal field of whale-back sand dunes,” Weldon said. “It was so deep and so hot that it might not have been drilled a few years later as geochemistry evolved and it could have been considered burned out.
“We thought about that while we were having all the problems of logging and testing.”
No More Monkey
Weldon, now a retired exploration consultant residing in Longboat Key, Fla., said the difficulties with the project happened almost immediately.
“It took nine years to get a permit to drill,” he said, “and that didn’t happen until the completion fluid was blown down to 10,000 feet.”
Additionally, he says, there was “… environmental resistance, lousy seismic, drilling problems, Hurricane Frederic, no particularly encouraging shows, logging problems due to the high temperature and extreme formation damage.”
If that weren’t enough, the field also was located in the center of a recreational and historical area, a Civil War battlefield.
But, like a fisherman who’s been through it before, Weldon shrugs off the rough conditions: “Pretty ho-hum, wouldn’t you say?”
For Weldon, who says his talk will focus on the technical aspects of the discovery, it was a personal experience – even if he can’t remember all the emotions.
“Thirty years later it’s hard to recollect any feelings,” he said, “but if anything, it was probably a relief to get that monkey off our backs and turn it over to the production department. I can’t speak for the other team members. Of course we were, and still are, delighted that it turned out successfully.”
The reason he and Hubbard are telling the story now is because of the contrasts – some great, some not – in how exploration is done.
“Exploration is a form of research,” Weldon said, “and it takes management and leadership to get it moving in the right direction.”
Weldon wants you to know that the ingredients then, as now, are the same: “Never give up. Perseverance. And teamwork will never go out of style.”
But you get the sense Weldon feels it’s not as simple as it once was. Most factors – everything from costs to environmental concerns to local resistance – are tougher and harder to overcome.
“Yes,” he says when asked whether a Mobile Bay would happen today, “such a discovery would still take place. The geochemist would have a good handle on the maturity of the hydrocarbons, the seismic is infinitely better (3-D), the play is well-known, drilling technology, mud and bit design would make it cheaper operating and logging equipment is much better for high temperatures.”
“Rig costs are much higher,” he said, “and environmental oversight is probably stronger.”
To that point, he talks about two men who were instrumental in making Mobile Bay a reality.
The first was Ken Keller, general manager of the operation, based in New Orleans, and AAPG member Tom Joiner of the Alabama Oil and Gas Board, who, Weldon says, “was a rare visionary in government and who was keenly in favor of offshore drilling.”
Together, Weldon said, they managed to satisfy the environmental groups of the day. Those men, and memories of others like them, have Weldon curious about the managers of today and whether they would have the guts to continue to blow down the completion fluid to 10,000 feet until they got a sample of formation fluid.
In the final analysis, he believes they would – but wonders whether serendipity has met its geologic match.
“The environmental lobby has the flexibility to give approval provided things are done to protect the environment,” he said, “not just stand in the way of drilling.
“I just the other day googled the permitting process for drilling on the North Slope of Alaska,” he said, “and there were so many agencies that had to be cleared – both fed and state – that I wondered who in hell would want to go through all that just to drill a well?”