Courage, Calculation Both Needed for Success

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

To be an innovator in the never-ending search for new oil and gas resources, a good geologist needs to escape the stagnating perils of paradigm paralysis by being equal parts Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.

Carlos Dengo
Carlos Dengo

That was the message of Carlos Dengo as he delivered the Michel T. Halbouty Lecture at the Annual Convention and Exhibition in Houston last month.

Dengo is a former executive with Exxon Mobil, current principle of Tierranos Consulting and director of the Berg-Hughes Center for Petroleum and Sedimentary Systems at Texas A&M University. He is also a recipient of AAPG’s Wallace E. Pratt Memorial Award, among other industry awards, and has served as an AAPG International Distinguished Lecturer and on the AAPG Advisory Council.

In his talk on “Transcending Geoscience Paradigms for Exploration Opportunity Growth,” Dengo referenced the leaders of the original Enterprise crew to illustrate the ideal balance between scientific discipline and original thinking.

“Preparing this talk was an opportunity to reflect on what I believe to be my experience in my career, which is the role of human creativity and technology as success factors in our industry,” he told the large crowd in Houston.

“I can think of no better example of our challenges in the industry than recalling the ‘Star Trek’ series … The success of the Starship Enterprise’s mission of boldly going where no one has gone before – as does our industry – depended on the creative, risk-taking Captain Kirk … but he could not have ever been successful had that not been balanced by the sound application of logic, data and information analysis and technology provided by Mr. Spock.

“Both are necessary for success,” Dengo continued.

Long-held paradigms of geology and geophysics are known to change, he said, yet it is easy to become blind to “non-nail problems” when a hammer comes to be relied upon as the only tool.

“Where oil is first found, in the final analysis, is in the minds of men,” Dengo said, quoting AAPG legend Wallace Pratt, and followed up with another oft-cited Prattism: “Mental inflexibility is the greatest hurdle to overcome in finding oil.”

Here Today, Wrong Tomorrow

He highlighted a series of paradigm shifts that have occurred within the industry that seem obvious in hindsight, but were iconoclastic for their time, like the development of a unifying framework to understand the basic correlation offered by the concepts of plate tectonics, and the development of deepwater exploration plays.

“There were very heated debates over whether you could even have reservoir rocks deposited in deep water,” Dengo noted.

He also noted, “the realization that rocks with nanoporosities – once thought to be only source or seals – are actually producing reservoirs.”

Also, of course, there have been game-changing technologies: “Rotary and horizontal extended reach drilling; deepwater drilling that exceeds depths of 10,000 feet, vast improvements in seismic, going from 2-D migrated lines to today with what is probably the Holy Grail of imaging – full wavefield inversion. Improvements in reservoir modeling and simulation, and many others that aren’t listed here,” he elaborated.

“And no talk would be complete without mention of unconventional resources, which on their own offer some unique lessons,” Dengo also said. “There is no better example than that of the unconventional shale gas and oil resources, which is transforming the energy outlooks, not only of North American, but globally – literally as we meet here today.”

“Time will show that what we accept today as the paradigms in our industry will one day be proven wrong,” Dengo added.

That, he said, is why geologists should strive for the aforementioned qualities exemplified by Kirk and Spock.

“But, Kirk and Spock retired, and now we face a wave of retirements in our industry and a great loss of that knowledge and experience,” Dengo concluded. “Independent oil companies and national oil companies will all seek to explore and produce hydrocarbon resources, and each will have a different advantage and/or disadvantage, in terms of their resource access, their technology, data and financial resources.

“But at the center of industry success,” he said, “will be, of course, the human capital and the need to explore new questions through a focus on the fundamentals of our science with data, information, and the ability for the new generations to develop their own experience and knowledge, and hopefully some wisdom.”

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