In this computer age it's easy to lose sight of the all-important fact that those gee whiz computer graphics and models that so beautifully depict the subsurface of the earth still have to start with the basics. The geologic data and rocks.
Unfortunately, the scientific community is in danger of losing much of the vital geoscience data that companies have spent literally decades accumulating.
"Oil companies have spent billions of dollars collecting all sorts of data, from cores to well logs to seismic, but today it's an uphill battle convincing management that it's vital to spend a little extra money to preserve all that data," said Larry Knauer, chairman of the Board of Governors of the California Well Sample Repository and a senior geologist with Texaco.
"Too often today scientists are tied to their computers," he said, "but ultimately they have to get back to the real rock."
All that data is expensive to archive, however, and many oil companies are looking at its impact on the bottom line. One study indicated the average cost of archiving core is $1 per box per year. With an estimated six million boxes of cores and cuttings in private companies' repositories, that is a substantial expense.
Too often that means old data is dumped.
Many outside the geologic community question the importance of the data and magnitude of this loss. After all, if a company really needs the data they can go out and drill a hole or shoot another seismic survey. Right?
Many places, especially in the United States, are no longer accessible -- and if old data is destroyed that knowledge is lost forever.
Take, for example, the Los Angeles Basin, among the country's most prolific petroleum basins, where thousands of wells were drilled in the first half of the century.
Today it's virtually off limits to any exploration or development activity.
Operators several years ago tried to get permits to develop a previously discovered oil field and ultimately walked away because it was impossible to get approval.
"That's 30 to 40 million barrels of oil forgotten because urbanization has made this region off limits," said Robert Horton, a geology professor at Cal State Bakersfield and a member of the AAPG Committee for Preservation of Cores and Samples.
"They can't build a new freeway in Los Angeles because no one wants it in their neighborhood," he said. "Imagine trying to drill in the area.
"However, at the same time there is a real need for scientific data from the Los Angeles Basin," Horton continued. "Virtually every new earthquake in the region is on a fault that was previously unknown. Old petroleum industry seismic data are often vital for studies of these new faults."
A growing number of scientists are getting on the data preservation bandwagon. About six years ago the American Geological Institute spearheaded a move, headed by past AAPG president Jim Gibbs, to save petroleum industry data -- and today organizations from universities to the National Research Council are joining the fight.
In addition to the inaccessibility of many areas, there are at least three more reasons why core and other data are important today, according to Scott Montgomery, an independent geologist in Seattle and member of the AAPG Core Preservation Committee:
There have been major changes in the direction of the petroleum industry.
This is the age of field redevelopment and integrated reservoir characterization, he said, and no redevelopment program can be rationally planned or implemented without a basic understanding of the reservoir and existing data is vital to that effort.
There are increasingly rapid advancements in geologic, geophysical and engineering science in this computer age.
"These advances have imposed the need to re-examine and at times re-analyze existing samples in light of new understanding," Montgomery said.
We must "look at the future in light of the past.
"Thanks to steady innovation in completion and EOR technology, field recoveries all over the world are improving," Montgomery said. "These advances will certainly continue, and they will depend on improved reservoir understanding, making existing data irreplaceable."
And preserving this historical data is not just a petroleum industry issue.
Marcus Milling, executive director of the American Geological Institute, said geologic data is a "natural treasure" and an important source of information for private companies, university researchers, and state and federal agencies in addressing a broad range of scientific study. These include:
- Oil and gas development.
- Environmental protection studies.
- Water resources management and evaluation.
- Earthquake and other geologic hazards studies.
- Supporting university-based research.
Problems: Space and Money
The issue of core and data preservation isn't a new problem. As early as 1948 AAPG recognized that much scientific data was being lost and formed the Committee on Preservation of Samples and Core to study the problem.
By the early 1980s the situation had reversed, and a huge, expanding network of public repositories had been established -- but a steady decline in data collection and preservation started in 1985, prompting AAPG to revitalize the old committee 10 years later.
Today the problems are space and money. Many of those public repositories are nearly full and funding is a constant problem, said Edith Allison, program manager with the Department of Energy's Office of Natural Gas and Petroleum Technology, and chairperson of the AAPG Committee for Preservation of Cores and Samples.
At the same time many oil companies are looking for ways to eliminate their burden of archiving old core and data, she added. Consequently, the industry has reached a critical point in finding solutions to preserve this resource for future scientific study.
Some oil companies are cognizant of the importance of this data and have taken steps to insure its preservation.
In 1994, for example, Shell Oil donated its Midland, Texas, core facility to the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology. Shell donated its collection of 2.2 million linear feet of core and cutting from 31 states along with its warehouse and a $1.3 million endowment to fund the repository.
The Bureau recently received 85,000 boxes of Permian Basin core from Altura Energy -- and is expanding its Midland repository to accommodate the donation.
While these types of situations are relatively unique, the scientific community also is trying to find solutions to the problem of data preservation nationwide.
In 1994 the AGI kicked off its efforts to establish a National Geoscience Data Repository System (NGDRS).
"AGI's plan was in response to billions of dollars worth of domestic geoscience data that was and is in jeopardy of being lost or destroyed as a consequence of the ongoing downsizing of the U.S. energy and minerals industry operations," Milling said.
At that time, AGI envisioned a system of regional data repository centers developed in conjunction with existing state geological surveys and private sector organizations. During the project's first phase AGI surveyed the oil industry's interest in contributing data and compiled the National Directory of Geoscience Data Repositories (available in print and on the Internet).
The response from oil companies was overwhelmingly positive -- major and large independent producers alike indicated a willingness to contribute vast amounts of cores, seismic data, well logs, scout tickets and geochemical analyses, etc.
AGI began phase two of NGDRS in 1995 to address the specific organizational and operational requirements. By 1997 a model was developed around several key design principles.
Phase three got under way in 1998, focusing on implementation of NGDRS. By August that year AGI had signed a letter of intent to purchase a hanger-office complex at Denver's old Stapleton Airport. The estimated infrastructure costs of bringing the hanger up to the standards required for a national repository were estimated to be about $5 million.
Unfortunately, at about the same time the petroleum industry began one of its most severe downturns, with oil prices plummeting to record lows. Interest waned and the plan was temporarily scrapped.
Using the Web
Today AGI has put active efforts to find a site for a national repository on hold and is focusing on identifying all the sites that currently provide public data and providing improved access to that data.
AGI has established a Web site, http://www.ngdrs.org/, and developed and installed a geographic browser called GeoTrek that allows users to index a wide range of data preserved all over the country.
GeoTrek has also spawned a new model for public data preservation as well. AGI arranged for Unocal to provide public access to its core collection. Unocal will still archive the data and AGI will include the collection on the Web site with access through GeoTrek.
AGI is currently negotiating the same type of deal with Chevron, and Milling said AGI is hopeful that more oil companies will see the value in making its core collections available to the public.