Cobalt International Energy Inc. in Houston has built its Gulf of Mexico operations on geophysical expertise.
Not necessarily its own.
The continued improvement in seismic coming out of the Gulf hasn’t been lost on AAPG member James H. Painter, Cobalt executive vice president and division manager for the Gulf of Mexico.
“I don’t think we could be drilling in the subsalt without that improvement. And the people have gotten incredibly good,” Painter noted.
“The issue for us working the subsalt is pretty much the quality of the seismic,” he said.
So here is what Painter wants from seismic now:
You might have to be a Gulf of Mexico exploration manager to look at today’s processing speeds and say, “Faster!”
Painter has watched offshore geophysics move forward with the introduction of wide-azimuth and multi-azimuth seismic. He foresees new advances in “a combo of acquisition and processing” that will take seismic imaging to new levels.
“What they’re talking about now is either full azimuth or coil, and hundreds of times more data,” he said.
In coil acquisition, marine seismic data is captured by a vessel moving in a series of overlapping, continuously linked circles. Dual coil involves two recording vessels and two separate source vessels sailing in interlinked circles.
Advantages of the technique are very high fold seismic, improved signal-to-noise ratio and better detection and imaging of weak subsalt reflections.
Cobalt International maintains an unusual relationship with Landmark Graphics, creating what it calls “a virtual IT system with state-of-the-art subsurface interpretation and volume visualization capabilities.”
Landmark provides all of the company’s seismic data storage and geophysical software hosting services.
“We did something fairly unique when we started Cobalt,” Painter said. “Our business model from Day One was to outsource everything that wasn’t directly related to exploration and production.”
Geophysicists can access, work with and interpret the company’s seismic data from anywhere and at any point – even communicating by telephone to work in teams.
Painter acknowledged that he has systems in place to protect against data theft or disruption, and added that he loses absolutely no sleep worrying about the safety of the distributed approach.
In the Gulf of Mexico, Cobalt says it has licenses covering about 18.3 million acres (74,000 square kilometers) of processed, 3-D, depth-migrated seismic data, and about 2.8 million acres (11,400 square kilometers) of wide-azimuth, 3-D depth data.
It has performed proprietary reprocessing on about 4.3 million acres (17,600 square kilometers) of the 3-D data and has also licensed about 78,000 line miles of 2-D, pre-stack, depth-migrated seismic in the Gulf.
“The base data set is almost entirely speculative” in the Gulf of Mexico, Painter noted.
“What almost every operator does is to take that base data and then do additional processing,” he said, “and that becomes proprietary.”
The scope, challenge and cost of drilling in the Gulf justify Cobalt’s spending on advanced seismic operations, according to Painter.
“In the old days we were drilling $50 million or $60 million wells. In the current environment, we’re spending north of $150 million,” he said.
At that level of expense, Painter observed, it makes sense to spend “a few more dollars” on enhanced geophysical capabilities.
Partly because speculative seismic in the Gulf of Mexico is so plentiful and readily available, and also because of existing infrastructure, the Gulf has become an exploration magnet for operators and companies from around the world.
Both the “opportunity is there and the data quality is there,” Painter said. “The data is already shot.”
Numerous non-U.S. operators are active in the Gulf of Mexico now, but Painter said the competition has not made a noticeable difference to Cobalt.
“The competition in the Gulf, especially since we’ve had area-wide sales and speculative seismic, has been about the same,” he explained.
A recent study by consulting firm Wood Mackenzie projected that operators will invest over $70 billion in the Gulf of Mexico area by 2030. Interest in the Gulf’s subsalt Miocene and Paleogene plays will draw much of that money, it said.
The report anticipates a strong rebound from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and Macondo oil spill in the Gulf, with production hitting two million barrels of oil equivalent before the year 2020.
Macondo led to a temporary drilling moratorium, a tougher regulatory environment and a migration of some drilling rigs away from the Gulf.
“The GOM is still slower than it was pre-Macondo,” Painter said. “We’re still recovering from the drilling moratorium.”
But Cobalt considers the Gulf a prime play area, mainly because of reliability and predictability. With advance planning, rig availability isn’t a problem, Painter said.
“As we look at it, we can plan our business. It’s very predictable. We know how long the permitting process will take. We know how long the drilling will take,” he said.
“If there’s another challenge,” he added, “it’s seeing if we can keep the talent pool working, and growing the talent.”
In the Gulf of Mexico, Cobalt owns interests in 245 deepwater leases, each 5,760 acres in size. It’s the operator on 75 percent of those leases.
It also operates offshore West Africa, where the company owns a 40 percent interest in three deepwater licenses off Angola – blocks 9, 20 and 21. Cobalt is operator of all three licenses.
Block 9 is about one million acres in size, equivalent to roughly 167 Gulf of Mexico blocks, and blocks 20 and 21 are each about 1.2 million acres in size, each equal to about 200 Gulf blocks.
Cobalt has acquired about 125,000 line miles (200,000 line kilometers) of 2-D seismic data and about 4,170 square miles (10,800 square kilometers) of 3-D seismic in West Africa.
In addition, Cobalt owns a 21.25 percent non-operated interest in the deepwater Diaba block offshore Gabon. Diaba is about 2.2 million acres in size, equivalent to roughly 370 Gulf of Mexico blocks.
In the Gulf “we’re getting many blocks together to drill a well, whereas overseas there are multiple wells on one block,” Painter noted.
When discussing other similarities and differences between operating offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere, Painter said, “it’s mostly similarities. Any practices we do in the Gulf of Mexico we take around the world with us.
“There are some logistical things that might be harder in other places, depending on what country you’re looking at,” he added.
Gulf operators do face periodic shutdowns because of hurricane activity, but that doesn’t bother Painter. To him, hurricanes are old news.
“I’d rather take the hurricanes than the earthquakes in California,” he said. “Having grown up in Louisiana, I think I’ve been through 23 main storms.”