Today’s technology-driven geoscience milieu is a world removed from the paper-driven environment that once characterized the geologist’s office. In those not-all-that-long-ago days, the E&P toolkit consisted of colored pencils, tracing paper and paper logs in large part, and maps and cross-sections were hand-drawn.
The evolution from low- to high-tech was gradual, beginning with the rise in popularity and increasing abundance of 3-D seismic data during the early to mid-1990s and the accompanying proliferation of workstations to manipulate and interpret these data.
At one time during the changeover, there was a brief but happy marriage of the old and the new.
“In the early to mid ‘90s, a lot of high quality 3-D volumes were in the workstations,” said past AAPG Distinguished Lecturer Cindy Yeilding, technology unit leader for BP in Houston. “But people still tended to do a lot of work on paper -- printing out logs, drawing cross-sections -- because all were coming out of the age of drawing.
“They had all the data and could squash, flatten, color, manipulate and re-display but still draw on it with their hands,” Yeilding noted. “People still worked in big workrooms with big tables and walls and rolls of Mylar and colored pencils, and prospect presentations were a group effort.
“There was a lot of geology going into the interpretations,” Yeilding said, “and a lot of multiple models hanging on the walls for challenges and debate. There’s a general consensus among many that this was the golden era of geoscience, when interpretation was at its peak.”
But the workstation soon took on a life of its own, rapidly gaining momentum as the be-all, end-all in the geoscience world. Ultimately, many industry watchers -- as well as many geoscientists themselves -- started to believe that computers find oil and gas.
Nintendo Geology had arrived.
But you can rev up the machine and shortcut the geology for only so long before it becomes a bit of a stretch to accept the end results that are generated.
Not surprisingly, a backlash of sorts appears to be under way.
When it comes to using technology, Yeilding is something more than an office-bound academician.
In addition to being an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer, Yeilding has been honored as one of the profession’s top explorationists. She was the leader of the BP team responsible for the 1999 discovery of Thunder Horse, one of the most significant discoveries ever in the deep water Gulf of Mexico.
In other words, she knows a thing or two about both technology and geology -- which gives weight to her scheduled talk at April’s AAPG Annual Convention in Houston: “Is the Work Station Killing Geology?”
The need to answer the question became increasingly apparent as Yeilding and her BP co-authors Lonnie Blake and Peter Carragher queried numerous colleagues in the industry about the topic -- and realized right away they had hit a nerve.
“We’re in a better position to do our work than we were 20 years ago,” Yeilding noted. “We have access to digital data, visualization, interpretation software, and we can re-display, scroll through multiple data sets and share interpretations.
“I don’t think the workstation per se is killing geology, but there are challenges we’re facing.
“For instance, can we actually create a sensible geological workflow using today’s digital toolkit?” Yeilding queried. “My answer is ‘no’; some things are missing.
“And does the toolkit that exists in the digital environment recreate probably the best practice we know of geoscience based on first principles?” she asked. “No.”
Among other questions Yeilding pondered:
- Is the workstation the best working environment for collaboration and integration?
- Do geoscientists always query each other as robustly as needed, or simply let the computer do the thinking for them?
- Have work spaces -- isolated cubicles, lack of walls and downsizing of collaborative work spaces -- stifled our ability to collaborate, challenge and integrate?
“The workstation is enabling us to do a lot of things,” Yeilding said. “But we need to challenge the workflow created by the current readily accessible software and our way of working.”
Garbage In ...
Fields are becoming harder to find and to develop, so it’s more important than ever before to maximize the geoscience interpretation effort. Obstacles today come in the form of the toolkit itself as well as behavioral and environmental issues, which can be controlled once identified.
In the case of the toolkit, there are gaps in geologic interpretation using the workstation.
For instance, Yeilding noted it’s difficult to construct a good representative, or geologic-looking, cross section. This could be improved upon by hand input yet it’s rarely done, owing in part to the ever present need to do more, faster.
There’s also a tendency to overlook the need to rigorously load information about data quality and problems with data into the workstation environment. Information about seismic acquisition parameters, feathering, etc., is not available, so the inclination is to just believe what’s there on the screen.
“We used to use dashed lines and post values on maps, so if someone questioned the interpretation they could re-contour right in front of you,” Yeilding said. “Now people let the computer do the contouring, and it’s not always geologically valid.
“Every line is given equal weight, but some lines might represent a very robust interpretation and others be really interpretive,” she noted. “It’s hard to discriminate when you just print the map out.”
In fact, these maps sometimes don’t structurally restore, i.e., the fault patterns and contours don’t represent something that adheres to the first principles of structural geology. The result: erroneous maps.
A ‘Full-Body Contact Sport’
Among the behavioral issues of concern, there’s a trend today to believe seismic is geology. It’s important to remember seismic is an interpretation, Yeilding noted, and though it reflects some aspects of the geology, it rarely shows the full picture.
A continuing struggle is the ability to create and explain multiple models because there’s a tendency to get hung into one, especially when using the computer as the primary tool.
“We don’t always test our interpretations against the first principles of geology,” Yeilding said. “You must ask if it’s a geologically accurate interpretation.”
There are ways to get into a better groove.
For starters, it’s important to encourage less experienced geoscientists to feel comfortable in asking others for their ideas and to test their own ideas against colleagues.
Universities can strengthen programs to focus more on the rocks in outcrop, i.e., real data, in place of emphasizing workstation skills. Companies want students who understand the geology; the workstation skills can be acquired at the company.
“Another point on behavior is some people say geology is a collaborative science,” Yeilding said. “I say it’s a full-body contact sport.
“We need big collaborative spaces, big walls and not be afraid of paper,” she said. “A basic challenge in terms of environment is to create a business case for the appropriate collaborative workspace.
“You don’t want interpreters working in little cubicles and not talking to each other.”
Regarding the toolkit, Yeilding noted it’s important to keep supporting software development and to support the people doing this. But she exhorts to not ignore tools and applications just because they can’t be done on a workstation -- and she’s optimistic about where this is all headed.
“I can envision a future where we can create, iterate, collaborate, challenge and capture our projects in a completely digital framework,” Yeilding noted. “My caution is that for many geoscience problems, we’re not quite there yet.”