Editor's note: Karen Christensen is chief geoscientist at Venoco
Inc., a California independent noted for getting into the Santa
Barbara Channel when others were getting out. She previously spent
18 years with Conoco, conducting and managing exploratory work in
the Gulf of Mexico, deepwater Nigeria, onshore California, the North
Sea and the Canadian Arctic.
A cross-section of Montery Shale clearly showing the oil-richness
of the rocks.
courtesy of Venoco
Karen Christensen, chief geoscientist at Venoco,
and the geology she studies and explains to the public.
AAPG member, Karen Christensen remembers
well the time the head of a local anti-oil group summed up her feelings
about Venoco: ""For being in the most evil industry the world could
ever imagine," she told her, "you guys are doing the best job you
These experiences come with the territory when you
work in coastal California, site of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
The industry here remains highly restricted, and Christensen attributes
much of this to a "vociferous minority" that doesn't necessarily
represent public opinion. But anti-oil sentiment remains common.
"All of us have been asked at dinner parties what
we do, and people say: 'How can you live with yourself?' So you
always think about how to describe your job, and you expect some
Christensen volunteers in the community, leading
field trips for teachers and students and mentoring others interested
in science careers, among other activities. She enjoys this element
of Venoco's company culture. But even more,
she enjoys the mysteries of the Santa Barbara Channel.
is an extremely prolific basin, where oil migrates through faults,
fractures and excellent reservoirs into a great variety of structural
and stratigraphic traps," she says. "The Monterey Shale is one of
the most interesting reservoirs in the world -- it's both a rich
source rock and an excellent, though complex, fractured reservoir.
The Channel is one of the richest oil provinces in terms of density
of fields, huge proven structures, and huge undrilled structures
containing billions of barrels."
This is also where the technologies for deepwater
exploration and production were first developed.
"Where else", she asks, "can you walk on the beach,
enjoy porpoises swimming past, and pick up your own source and reservoir
rocks in the sand?" Indeed, Christensen's husband, also an AAPG
member, collects, cuts and polishes them, creating beautiful cross-sections
with oil clearly visible.
"The oil oozes out of the cliffs and the mountains,"
she says, referring to the area's seeps. "The same rocks we're producing
from offshore can be seen on the beach three miles away. It is structurally
complex, stratigraphically complex -- it's fun to come up with a
geologic model and then take a walk on the shore and say to yourself:
There's no way I can be right!"
Drilling on untested leases here has long been blocked
by moratoria and lawsuits. But otherwise, she says, "In federal
waters you can generally drill and produce any prospect that you
can reach from existing facilities. I'm having as much fun, and
more field work, exploring the innards and fringes of mature fields
as I did doing rank exploration in the Chukchi Sea in the late '80s."
Christensen knows some dismiss the Channel as a regulatory
dead-end. But she sees it as a harvest area with upside, not yet
sunset. Doing business is often difficult, but not impossible. One
can still explore around the big legacy fields.
"We have a large, untested fault block in our South
Ellwood Field, updip and on the flank, reachable from the existing
Platform Holly. There's also a deeper-pool sandstone reservoir there
with excellent shows, never tested."
Reachable from Venoco's Platform Gail, she says,
is "a beautiful, untested strike/slip pop-up structure, with large
bright spots." These wells are permitted with reserve estimates
in the tens-of-millions of barrels, and easily reachable with existing
Christensen knows this partly because when Venoco
bought its mature offshore fields, she made sure to get all the
regional seismic data as well. Trouble is, there are tens of thousands
of tapes -- and other voluminous Channel data also worth preserving.
So she is informally working with seismologists, professors and
the U.S. Geological Survey to preserve the data for public use in
structural geology, earthquake research and other beneficial activities.
Further, the day may come when the nation needs the
Channel's undeveloped resources.
"You could say that oil is in the bank until the
time when people will allow it to be produced," she said. "Meanwhile,
we're proving that drilling and production can continue."
As for public hostility, Christensen offers a hypothesis
on why this is so frustrating to geoscientists. Most didn't choose
geology for the money, she believes, even though it often leads
to lucrative careers. Geology suits people who naturally enjoy "camping,
hanging out in the outdoors, drinking beer around the fire and figuring
out how the mountains got there."
Many fellow professionals, she believes, "are very
proud of our environmental bent. We recognize the complexity of
all Earth systems -- we're the ones that perhaps best understand
it! We're always dealing with natural systems -- water, carbon,
rock, paleo-climatic systems, which get into public issues like
global warming. We really care about it, so we're personally hurt
by the hostility."
Geoscientists also are more likely to be offended
by irrational expectations of easy solutions to obviously complex
scientific problems. The public and politicians want simple answers
-- take away production, but don't change our lives.
So, if geoscientists don't cause high gasoline prices
and they didn't create the Enron scandal, is it fair to expect them
to step up and fix public perceptions?
"We geologists, we're clean," she jokes. "We feel
people shouldn't blame us. But the fact is, we have to live with
our industry's reputation." Any small or individual effort is better
than doing nothing.
So she's currently designing a museum exhibit on
oil migration and the oil seeps, another step toward demystifying
energy for the public.
"You're just making a subtle impact," says Christensen.
"You don't always have to ask, 'Is this the biggest bang for the
dollar?' Just keep doing those little pieces."