In 1988, John Bookout (former president and CEO of Shell Oil Company) observed that there are two types of geologists in the oil business:
- One is the researcher who focuses on specific aspects of geology. Researcher geologists contribute knowledge to the decision process. Today, owing to closure of industry research labs, these geologists are not as common in the petroleum industry – at least with respect to job title – as they once were.
- The other type is a generalist. These geologists are facilitators and integrators. They know a little bit about many different aspects of the petroleum business and usually are not specialists in any particular aspect of geology. They integrate information from numerous sub-disciplines of geology into a play or prospect concept to convince someone to drill a test well.
They are the petroleum geologists and they comprise the majority of AAPG members.
Of course there always have been geologists who do both – members who make a living as exploration or development geologists and yet who also make important scientific contributions. A glance at the authors of recent AAPG BULLETIN papers reveals that this all-purpose hybrid is alive and well. With less explicit investment in company research labs, these geologists are possibly an increasingly important AAPG community.
In any case, we all are trained in and use sophisticated science and technology, and many working petroleum geologists now have specialist knowledge that more than 20 years ago surely would have made them specialists to Bookout.
Yet the somewhat arbitrary distinction can be useful for thinking about challenges facing the Association.
Petroleum geologists need the products of the researchers. Dedicated researchers have the opportunity to focus on enduring problems and to discover new aspects of geology that petroleum geologists use to create the concepts that lead to oil and gas discoveries.
Until sometime in the middle 1980s, major oil companies conducted geological research. In the United States, at least a dozen major petroleum companies had research labs and many national oil companies had research labs.
So where does AAPG get its science?
Researchers still exist within oil companies, both large and small. But these scientists rarely have the opportunity to focus solely on scientific issues. And there is far less incentive for them to communicate the results of the research that they do conduct.
Currently, geologists in universities, federal and state agencies, and some companies are the primary providers of scientific research to AAPG members through AAPG publications and conferences.
This trend is evident in the affiliations for authors publishing AAPG papers and books. For the last several decades fewer industry-authored papers have been submitted to the BULLETIN or for special publications.
What can or should AAPG do to foster more geologic research?
One role the Association can play is to foster communities of scientific and technical interest that spontaneously arise in response to technical challenges facing working petroleum geologists:
How can we accurately predict reservoir quality or pore pressure ahead of the bit subsalt?
How can we understand what happens during a hydraulic fracture treatment in a naturally fractured rock?
On their own, without prodding, at least a couple of specialized communities of shared scientific interest have sprung up in AAPG. Some of these communities have informal sessions at the annual meeting.
One of these communities, for example, focuses on geomechanics and petroleum structural geology; another group focuses on developments in geochemistry and basin modeling. These communities are partly drawn together by technical challenges and partly by shared interest in a specialized, scientific discipline.
In other words, these are communities with a shared interest in research. But by no means are all the participants “researchers” to the exclusion of “generalists.”
AAPG is a community of shared interests: petroleum geoscience.
Just like the two more specialized interest groups mentioned above, AAPG originated when a group of geologists who shared a common interest organized a meeting. They got together at someone’s house in 1916 in Norman, Okla., and they called themselves the Southwestern Association of Petroleum Geologists, a name that reflected their parochial geographic interests.
This new group, however, attracted interest from geologists across the United States. With the convention in Tulsa in 1917 and an appreciation that the community needed to serve broader interests, the name was modified to be more inclusive: the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
But just as AAPG continues to serve geologists who have interests focused on specific parts of the Earth through our affiliated societies, Sections and Regions, communities exist within AAPG that share common scientific and technical interests – and the Association can serve these members and, in turn, benefit from the process.
The loss of industry research labs removed some of the community support that researchers need. The Association can step in and provide some of this community support by helping to establish and nurture formal groups of shared technical interest. AAPG’s highly successful Energy Minerals Division is one such group; the informal communities mentioned above are others.
The Association needs to think about how best to serve the needs of these communities. By sponsoring such groups the Association may benefit from concerted efforts to provide cutting edge papers and sessions at conventions, and a loyal source of content for the BULLETIN and special pubs in a competitive publishing market.
Specialist communities could also attract new AAPG members. AAPG Elected Editor Steve Laubach noted that when geology students graduate, especially those with advanced degrees, they usually have studied a particular sub-discipline of geology, like geomechanics, and have completed a work of specialist scholarship (a master’s thesis for example). Some young professionals therefore may naturally gravitate to communities that share this technical background.
Maybe if AAPG had formal technical groups available to attract and serve those new graduates, we could potentially pick up young new members.
And perhaps the sharp distinction that Bookout made so many years ago needs to be reconsidered somewhat; petroleum geologists have long been scientists and the challenges of exploration and development in the coming decades will only demand more technical expertise that the Association needs to foster as a member benefit.
How do we fit communities having shared research and technical interests into AAPG’s current structure?
We could start new divisions – but maybe there is a better way.
This year’s Leadership Days conference, set this month in Tulsa, will address the topic among several others.
One thing is obvious: AAPG’s leadership needs to find new sources of scientific information to disseminate to its members.
Help us do that by sharing your ideas about how the Association can support the research enterprise and our own research geologist communities.
Editor's Note: My co-author this month is AAPG Elected Editor Steve Laubach, who not only provided valuable information and insight, but a lot of verbiage as well.