Geoscience boot camp” is not for the faint of heart.
Akin to basic training in a marine platoon, geoscience boot camp recruits are run through their daily paces by a group of seasoned instructors and mentors, and are pushed – often under tight deadlines – to make real-life business decisions with sub-optimal technical data.
Graduates emerge from the experience realizing that, in addition to honing their technical skills, teamwork is equally critical to their overall success.
Technically equipped with the “right stuff,” these young graduates – who represent the future of the oil and gas industry – hit the ground running as seasoned prospect generators.
More formally known as the “Geoscience Subsurface Interpretation and Mapping Certification Training Program for Geologists and Geophysicists,” this innovative training concept was developed over three years by Houston-based Subsurface Consultants and Associates (“SCA”), in response to shifting demographics and declining capabilities in training and mentoring within the oil and gas sector.
The inaugural group of seven recruits graduated in late November 2008.
At the end of the 12-week-long session in Houston – the first-of-its-kind to be offered to the oil and gas industry – these young geology and geophysics recruits (new graduates and recent-hires with less than three years of work experience) were ready to enter the work force or return to their current employers.
“Back to the Basics”
AAPG member Dan Tearpock, SCA's chairman and CEO, described the over-arching theme of the geoscience boot camp as “going back to the basics.”
According to Tearpock, SCA's program – his brainchild – evolved out of ongoing discussions the company had with chief geologists, chief geophysicists and exploration managers from the oil and gas industry who indicated a critical need for new graduates and recent-hires to exchange the bells and whistles of computer workstations for colored pencils, rulers and calculators.
This was necessary, they said, to develop basic geological and geophysical interpretation skills that, in their collective industry opinion, the young professionals were generally lacking.
“The only way to learn these skills is to use your brain, and do the work by hand,” Tearpock said. “The students learned to interpret and loop-tie seismic lines, correlate well logs and generate a variety of subsurface maps; everything was done on paper.
“Once young geologists and geophysicists learn to think in geological terms,” he added, “they should be able to excel in the workstation environment, and make those workstations sing ten-fold.”
Tearpock said his generation (an AAPG member since 1979) had the advantage of acquiring fundamental geological interpretation skills before “migrating into the workstation world,” officials said.
“There are few computer generated maps,” he added, “that don’t need some type of hand-edited corrections.”
Teamwork Pays Off
The geoscience boot camp recruits came from diverse backgrounds:
- A geophysicist from Sonangol, Angola’s state oil company.
- Geologists from El Paso Exploration & Production and Devon Energy.
- An AAPG Foundation scholarship recipient.
- An oil and gas investor.
- A geophysicist and a geologist (with an igneous petrography background) from a government agency.
More than half of this intrepid group temporarily relocated to Houston for the camp.
After completing six weeks of comprehensive technical courses, the recruits were divided into work teams and challenged to apply their newly honed skills – the basic principles of oil and gas geology and geophysics, and subsurface mapping techniques – to a real-life oil and gas project.
Their project area was situated in the onshore Texas Gulf Coast, in the Frio Sand trend, and was characterized by classic listric faults and rollover structures, with offsetting analog fields.
During the six-week applied project, recruits developed the area from the lead stage through exploration drilling and full-scale field development – an exercise that could easily take a geoscientist a decade to complete in the industry.
As they advanced through this independent project, the teams evaluated progressively larger and more complex data sets (geological, geophysical and production engineering), and became skilled at interpreting and correlating paper well logs and paper seismic sections, and at hand-contouring data to generate time and depth structure, net sand, net pay, seismic marker and velocity gradient maps.
Because the technical data represented several real oil and gas fields, the teams got to compare and contrast their hand-generated interpretations against the historical dataset – toward the end of the project they compared their 2-D seismic interpretations against a 3-D seismic interpretation of the field that was generated on a geophysical workstation.
Going Through a Phase
At each phase of the hands-on project, the teams presented their technical work, AFEs and business recommendations – based upon discounted cash flow analyses – to their oil company managers (SCA instructors and mentors), requesting additional money for the purchase of seismic data and for the drilling of exploratory and development wells:
- Phase 1: The initial exploration phase – the teams drill a discovery.
- Phase 2:†Assess discovery – refine interpretation.
- Phase 3(a): Design field development plan.
- Phase 3(b): Search for additional prospects in and around discovery.
- Phase 4: Field performance analysis and study (jumping forward five years).
- Phase 5: Project report and present the results.
As a senior geophysical adviser with the international group at Devon Energy, Doug Ware’s job description also includes the formal mentoring of AAPG member John Tackett, a new-hire geologist who attended the inaugural geoscience boot camp.
Ware echoed SCA’s rationale for developing the program:
“Hand contouring forces you to build geological models,” Ware said. “We’re hiring an entire generation that doesn’t know how to generate geological models in their heads.”
With respect to not teaching the basics of geological interpretation to students, graduates or recent-hires – whether at universities or E&P companies – he added: “Yes, we’re doing them a disservice.”
In the international arena, according to Ware, not all projects consist of digital databases, presenting a compelling case for geoscientists to be conversant in the interpretation of data in a paper format.
Despite the fact that Devon has in-house training and mentoring programs, he said, the company nonetheless saw the value of investing in Tackett, and paid the $37,500-tuition to send him to SCA’s camp for 12 weeks.
“The SCA program compressed an oil and gas career into a six-week project,” said Ware, a 30-year industry veteran. “Typically, in an individual’s career, he/she spends time in an exploration, development or production scenario.
“The SCA course had multiple levels of teaching,” he added. “The students had deadlines, they had goals and they learned a few business rules as well.”
El Paso Exploration & Production has an in-house, two-year rotational training program in which new-hires gain broad experience in exploration and development geology, and in production engineering. However, Stephen Gardner, manager of reservoir engineering evaluations at El Paso, sent Aysegul Basar, a junior geologist in his group, to SCA’s boot camp in order to fast-track her training.
“Instead of going through the two-year rotation, she did it in three months,” Gardner said.
El Paso’s goal is to attract and retain the best and brightest geoscientists, he said, and investment in their training is a key component to this strategy.
“You’ve got to experience doing basic hand-calculations because, in the reserves group, the data bases are becoming large and people are making assumptions,” he said. “We need critical documentation in our SEC reserves portfolio, not just pushing a button on a computer.”
Weekend Work, “Bonus” Trips
During the first six weeks of geoscience boot camp, the recruits attended a comprehensive series of classroom courses designed to provide them with the fundamentals of oil and gas exploration, development and production:
- Structural Styles in Petroleum Exploration and Development.
- Open Hole Log Analysis/Petrophysics.
- Seismic Survey Design, Acquisition and Processing.
- Principles of 3-D Seismic Interpretation, AVO and Attribute Analysis.
- Applied Subsurface Geological Mapping.
- Basic Reservoir Engineering for Non-Engineers.
- Fundamentals of Sequence/Seismic Stratigraphy.
Because SCA offered these seven courses to the broader oil and gas industry, the boot camp recruits had the opportunity to meet a wide cross-section of people during this formal lecture series.
Due to the compressed timelines of SCA’s program – and the incredible amounts of material required to transform raw recruits into seasoned prospect generators – instruction sometimes spilled into the weekends: Camp recruits received some “bonus” courses, including traveling to the hill country of Texas to observe, at the outcrop scale, listric growth faults of the Balcones Fault System and sequence stratigraphy of the Austin Chalk.
At the microscopic scale, they studied rocks in a cuttings and core description course.
“Band of Brothers”
Equipped with a newly minted master’s in geology from Oklahoma State University, John Takett had spent just eight weeks in Devon’s international exploration group before enrolling in SCA’s program.
“I felt like I was back in the university,” Takett said. “The project put me into a real world interface, where you’ve got data problems, deadlines and distractions.”
According to Tackett, the seismic data had multiples – and, in some cases, the wells didn’t tie the seismic, necessitating the construction of velocity gradient maps and the incorporation of seismic strike lines into the interpretation.
Tackett was fortunate on two fronts: first, he had just graduated from a university, located in an oil-producing state, that had taught some of the materials and principles presented during SCA’s boot camp; second, during the first eight weeks of Tackett’s employment at Devon, Ware had given him an interpretation project to complete the old-fashioned way, by hand.
For the other geoscientists with diverse backgrounds, however, the technical materials and concepts presented by SCA were both new and challenging.
During the SCA program, both geologists and geophysicists – each with a couple of years of industry experience under their belts – learned that well data generally trumps seismic data in reliability. And, for the first time in their careers, the two geophysicists learned how to correlate wells to seismic lines.
“The camaraderie between the seven of us has been great,” Tackett said of the teamwork and bonds that developed among the students. “We had some laughs and some heated discussions.”
During the six-week, hands-on project, geologist Gary Chapman was a member of SCA’s oil company “management team.”
Chapman, an AAPG member, also was one of several mentors to the student group – on a daily basis, he watched the teams compete against each other, and was heartened to observe these young geoscientists grow individually.
“They’ve been through mind-numbing, hard work,” he said. “We threw a lot of stuff at these people over six weeks. It wouldn’t have been a breeze for an experienced geologist – these were real fields with real complexities.
“These guys were like a band of brothers,” he added. “Everyone took a lot of pride in their own individual results, and lifelong friendships were created.”
Cooperation and Fun
At age 56 years of age, John Neese doesn’t fit the demographic profile for recruits for SCA’s boot camp; nor does he fit the requisite academic profile, given that he had no previous geoscience educational background.
Neese, however, is no academic slouch – he holds degrees in electrical oceanographic engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in business from the Harvard Business School.
“I’m an amateur amongst pros,” he said of the unique niche he occupied during the SCA program.
According to Neese, once the other students stopped calling him, “sir,” and, “weird Uncle John,” he became a peer – just one of the students – despite his baby boomer status and diverse background.
“I accomplished my goals,” Neese said, which were to develop the requisite skills to critically analyze investments in oil and gas deals.
“It’s been fascinating and challenging to learn the different material and technical language, all at once,” he added. “And, it’s been fun to be around all of the “young” people.”
According to Neese, the “young” people helped him quite a bit. “There was a lot of cross-team cooperation and mentoring.”
Neese was part of the two-man team called the “NeoGeos.” His team member, AAPG member Joe Dumesnil, has a master’s in mineral economics from the Colorado School of Mines and, most recently, a master’s in petroleum economics and management from the IFP School in Paris, France.
“I felt the SCA program was going to be a great compliment to my graduate degree from France,” he said. “I had a tool box – my aptitude – but no real oil and gas prospecting tools in it yet. I saw a chance in this program to grab some of those tools. I’m ready to launch my oil and gas career.”
The students weren’t the only individuals who learned something during the inaugural geoscience boot camp – SCA’s team of instructors and mentors have incorporated the students’ feedback, tweaking and improving the program.
In 2009, SCA plans to offer the program twice, commencing March 9 and August 24, and hopes to attract 16 students for each session, enabling the establishment of eight, two-person teams for the applied project portion of the program:
“To date, the biggest negative response about the program,” Tearpock observered, “has been the oil companies’ responses: '“Can I afford to give someone up for three months?”'
However, for oil companies without in-house formal training and mentoring programs – and even for larger E&P companies who have in-house capabilities – this question can be easily turned around:
Can the companies afford not to send their new-hires or junior geoscientists on a course that could kick-start their careers, transforming them into productive prospect generators in just 12 weeks?