“The Tower,” as it is known at the University of Texas at Austin, isn’t bathed in orange very often.
In fact, only during graduation exercises, national championships and any win over Texas A&M does the school aim large flood lights at the famous (and at times infamous) building to announce how exponentially proud it is of itself.
They are the champions: The University of Texas IBA team members Michael Fairbanks, Erin Miller, Justin Fitch, Ashley Bens and Ben Siks, in front of the iconic “Tower."
On Friday, April 29, though, it was shining throughout Austin, and it had nothing to do with football, commencement or any humiliation the Longhorns exacted on the Aggies.
It was all about geology, for UT’s geology students had won the prestigious AAPG Imperial Barrel Award, beating out 12 teams from around the world.
The international competition, involving the world’s leading universities in petroleum geosciences, is hosted annually by AAPG and designed to give students an opportunity to use real technology on datasets, receive feedback from an industry panel, have the opportunity to impress potential employers in the audience and win cash awards for their schools.
As all participants know, it isn’t always easy getting there.
AAPG member Christopher K. Zahm, a research associate at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the university and the faculty adviser for the UT team, said before he could take a team to the competition he had to find one qualified to go.
“The UT AAPG Student Chapter,” he said,“hosts a dinner at the beginning of the fall semester where we invite students to enroll in the spring class.”
This class, Petroleum Basin Evaluation, is not a required course for graduation, which is the first obstacle he faces in fielding a team.
The second? The competition is tough and time-consuming.
“Students are warned of the commitment,” he said.“Few have been involved in something that takes this much focus and energy.”
Once the class is established, Zahm – like any baseball coach – starts looking to set his lineup.
“We have in-class presentations and I try to have active exchange during lectures to help identify top students,” he said.
“Personalities are an important factor because the students have to work together for several weeks under high stress.”
Getting Down to Business
Five students eventually were chosen, and once the topic arrived from AAPG (involving exploration of Alaska’s North Aleutian), the team did, in fact, work for several hours per day, three weeks before the competition – and gave up their spring break to prepare for the finals.
The exploration target that the team studied and prepared for dealt with an area three miles offshore that originally were slated for exploration to Shell in the 1980s. The tracts were among those placed in moratorium after the Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound.
The UT IBA team was asked, essentially, what would it do if the tracts were open?
The students were given publicly available seismic data, donated by the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas, on limited onshore and offshore wells and asked to develop an exploration strategy for the basin if the moratorium were lifted.
“We spent the first week loading data into the necessary software to visualize seismic data and well logs,” Zahm said.
Next came interpreting the data with the intent of mapping out the area’s structural and stratigraphic architecture; identifying the petroleum system elements with the basin (e.g., quantity and quality of source rock, migration pathways, trapping mechanisms, seal capacity and reservoir quality); and tying the well logs and seismic data together.
“Basically,” Zahm said,“we do the same thing any petroleum exploration company would do in the same situation.”
In its IBA victory in Houston, the UT team was cited for its technical quality, clarity and originality of presentation. And while the school received $20,000, Zahm said the money was only secondary.
“These students went from being competitive in the job market to being the top students in the Jackson School,” he said.“They have proven that they can work in an industry environment. They know how to translate the science of geology into a exploration prospect that has commerciality.
“They have a tremendous head start.”
An important contribution for the victory, Zahm says, was the AAPG mentors that worked with the students: Dave Nollsch, with Apache Corporation; Lisa“Rusty” Goetz, with Marathon; and John O’Leary, with BP.
“These three made several visits (here) to meet with the students,” Zahm said.“They also made extremely helpful suggestions regarding the structure of our presentation. The students developed a healthy respect for positive criticism and the team shares that success with the mentors.”
“This pushed all of us to a new level, where we were forced to learn new methodology, and pull together new concepts and ideas into a cohesive story, all the while, functioning as a team,” said team member Ashley Bens.
The students weren’t the only ones who benefitted.
“I find the teaching experience to be very gratifying,” Zahm said,“because I get to see the students go through an important phase change in their learning-evolving from a student of geology to one that comprehends the impact of their study to the world economic stage.”
As a side note, in its regional competition to reach the finals in Houston, UT bested IBA teams from the universities of Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Louisiana at Lafayette, Rice, Stephen F. Austin, Houston, New Orleans and, how sweet this must have been, Texas A&M.
The tower no doubt had an extra glow this year.