Special Interview with Yongsheng Ma, President and Chief Geologist, Sinopec: Trailblazers in Geoscience and the Energy Industry Series

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

AAPG has a proud history of trailblazing geologists who have brought scientific inquiry, innovative mindsets, and a desire to work with teams to find new reservoirs and bring needed energy to the people of the world. Welcome to an interview with Dr. Yongsheng Ma, President and Chief Geologist, Sinopec Co., Ltd., who talks to us today about his formative experiences and valuable lessons learned. (Please note that Dr. Ma’s family name is Ma, which usually is placed first in Chinese publications, such as in President Ma Yongsheng.)

Dr. Ma Yongsheng
Dr. Ma Yongsheng

What is your name and your background?

My name is Yongsheng Ma. I am a petroleum geologist and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. I am currently serving as the General Manager of Sinopec Group Co., Ltd., and the President and Chief Geologist of Sinopec Co, Ltd.

I have been involved in Petroleum Geology Research and Exploration for more than 30 years. Some of my main research accomplishments include gaining a new understanding of complex marine oil and gas reservoirs, proposing new theories and methods for successfully guiding deep and ultra-deep marine oil and gas exploration in China. I and my team discovered the Puguang gas field, the first biggest marine carbonate gas field in the Sichuan Basin in 50 years; the Yuanba gas field, the first ultra-deep biological reef gas field; and the Fuling gas field, the first commercial shale gas field developed outside North America. In recognition of these accomplishments, the 2017 International Asteroid Commission named international asteroid #210292 the "Ma Yongsheng Star".

In recognition of Dr. Ma’s accomplishments, the 2017 International Asteroid Commission named international asteroid #210292 the
In recognition of Dr. Ma’s accomplishments, the 2017 International Asteroid Commission named international asteroid #210292 the "Ma Yongsheng Star".

Although I have many titles, I prefer to be called a geologist or explorer. I like to be called Dr. Ma the most.

How did you become interested in geology?

My interest in geology grew through gradual cultivation. During my bachelor’s degree study, I was particularly interested in geological evolution and other courses related to geological evolution. I focused on the study of carbonate sedimentology during my master's and doctoral degrees. Fortunately, I have engaged in this area of study and other work related to oil and gas exploration and production since.

My interest in geology is a gradual process of deepening my understanding throughout college and throughout my work at PetroChina and Sinopec. At that time, my focus was on marine oil and gas theoretical research and exploration practice, particularly in the field of carbonate rocks. I am very grateful to PetroChina and Sinopec for giving me a platform for research and practice, and for giving me the opportunity to conduct valuable scientific research and achieve practical results. I love my profession and field very much.

In order to train more science and technology workers with a passion in this field, I have recruited one or two doctoral students at Peking University and other universities every year in hopes they will follow my footsteps.

Where did you do your initial work in geology? What did you find most interesting about it?

After receiving my Ph.D. in 1990, I was fortunate to work at the then Exploration and Development Research Institute of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). Under the guidance of my predecessors, I focused on combining theory and practice, and carried out scientific research at the Changqing Oilfield. From 1992 to 1995, I spent 3 years working on petroleum exploration in the Tarim Basin in western China. These experiences greatly shaped my subsequent career, allowing me to combine systematic marine geological theory learned in school with practical field experience in exploration and production. At the same time, my ability to discover and solve scientific and technological problems has been improved. Dr. Jia Chengzao, the former chief geologist of CNPC, said on many occasions: "The systematic scientific research of marine carbonate rocks in the Tarim Basin started with Dr. Ma Yongsheng."

Dr. Ma was analyzing outcrop and core of Fuling shales in Sichuan basin. Fuling is the only commercial shale gas discovery outside North America.  Can you spot a rig in the photos above?
Dr. Ma was analyzing outcrop and core of Fuling shales in Sichuan basin. Fuling is the only commercial shale gas discovery outside North America. Can you spot a rig in the photos above?

In 1998, I went to work at Sinopec. I was lucky to have been granted a position as a project manager leading a team specializing in my chosen field of marine carbonate oil and gas research, exploration and production in Southern China. At the time, these fields were regarded as the "barren fields" of the Chinese oil industry. For me, the happiest and most interesting thing is to explore areas where previous generations did not recognize and achieve major oil and gas breakthroughs. For example, my predecessors in the Puguang gas field carried out more than 50 years of research and evaluation in this area across 1,116 square kilometers and drilled over 20 exploration wells without commercial oil and gas discoveries. In order to achieve commercial breakthroughs under such conditions, we had to begin from the fundamentals. Our research began by revising the stratigraphic divisions created by previous researchers. As the stratigraphic pattern changed, the corresponding sequence framework changed, which contradicted some of the conclusions about this area devised by our predecessors. At the same time, it also challenged some other traditional understandings, such as the classical theory that as the burial depth increases, porosity gradually decreases, but our research postulated that if the sediments are deposited in a high energy environment and undergo later physicochemical changes, such as TSR, etc., carbonate formations below a depth of 5,000m in the Puguang area are likely to have undergone high-quality reservoir development and preservation. These new understandings identified a large number of exploration areas that were not favored or even rejected by previous generations, and laid a theoretical foundation for a series of discoveries such as the Puguang gas field and the Yuanba gas field.

During all the time of drilling the discovery well of Puguang Gas Field—Puguang 1 well, many colleagues did not have confidence in our theory and deployment, and we were also very nervous about it. After all, such a prediction and deployment scheme was considered revolutionary until this well finally generated commercial gas yields. At the moment of high industrial gas flow, everyone wept with joy at the scene. This is not only a breakthrough in oil and gas exploration, but also a breakthrough in our understanding of the unknown world. The process is full of hardships and challenges. Some of the articles I published during the period also caused a lot of discussion, but this exchange also benefited me a lot and I became more confident and fulfilled with my work.

What were some of the early insights or lessons learned that you experienced when you were a young geologist?

As an experienced exploration geologist, one must have gone through detours, encountered setbacks and confusion, I was no exception. I have compiled all the dry wells I explored during my time in the field, and summarized the reasons for the failure with analysis from multiple perspectives including the collection, processing, analysis and interpretation of geophysical information, mud and drill bits during the drilling process. These failures can be attributed to insufficient knowledge of the area or methods, inadequate understanding of basic theories, and technical and construction problems. I think that such a summary is more important for objectively understanding and becoming more mature than focusing solely on successful experiences, and it is also important for other teams to carry out similar work.

I think oil and gas exploration is a process of continuously surpassing and innovating. In this process, basic research work is the most important, and I keep emphasizing this point with my colleagues and students. In order to make new breakthroughs, we must start with the foundation with solid fundamental skills.

What are some of the things that make it challenging to explore for oil and gas in China?
Whether on land or offshore, China's petroleum geological condition is very complicated. The pre-Mesozoic sediments are dominated by marine strata, the age is old (mainly Paleozoic and Middle-Late Proterozoic), burial depth deep (the main burial depth reaches 3,500 – 9,000 meters or deeper), and thermal evolution high (Ro is generally higher than 1.2). China’s Yangtze, Northern China, Tarim and other basins are much smaller in scale and have poor structural stability when compared with equivalent large craton basins in Siberia, North America and Arabia. The many stages of structural transformation and destruction create a challenging environment for the effective preservation of oil and gas. At the same time, due to the complex phase transition process of source rock-oil-gas, the spatial distribution of oil and gas reservoirs also changes continuously. It is difficult to grasp the laws of conventional oil or unconventional oil and gas exploration, which makes exploration difficult and increases the cost of exploration. After the Mesozoic, the continental sediment facies are even smaller, the exploration targets more hidden, and the geological conditions more complicated.

How to accurately identify and predict such complex exploration and development objects requires not only correct exploration concepts and solid basic work, but also more advanced and applicable exploration and development technologies, as well as persistent perseverance and the courage to explore.

What is your philosophy of teamwork? What kinds of teams do you think are most effective in exploring for and developing oil and gas reserves? How have your experiences demonstrated this?

I have worked in different teams, and have also been the head of different teams, including those in the Tarim Comprehensive Research Office of CNPC and Sinopec's Southern Marine Management Department. It also included a joint team of three Chinese oil companies (PetroChina, Sinopec and CNOOC) and Peking University, etc. At present, I am also the chief geologist of Sinopec, responsible for the work of this large team. Regardless of the size and nature, each team must have a common goal and philosophy, so that the team can be effective and achieve the predetermined goals.

Taking the Sinopec Southern Marine Oil and Gas Project Manager Department (now Sinopec Exploration Company) I led as an example, in the face of extremely complex ground and underground geological conditions, and several generations of exploration without major discoveries, the team and I established the following concepts at the beginning: to learn from our predecessors and the team of brothers with a sincere attitude, to perform solid foundation work with excellence, to have an open mind to carry out extensive cooperation with relevant team. On this basis, an innovative understanding and technical line are formed. In the process of program demonstration and implementation, we must dare to challenge our predecessors and "authorities". We must also actively take different opinions while adhering to our own views, so as to continuously improve them.

For more than 20 years, my team and I have always adhered to these concepts. We have succeeded in exploring areas that for more than 50 years have been asserted by others that these areas cannot have large-scale oil and gas enrichment areas, and achieved several key milestones in Chinese oil and gas exploration history: The Puguang Gas Field (2003), the Yuanba Gas Field (2007) and Fuling Yan Gas Field (2012); we have also developed a series of theories and technology for oil and gas exploration in complex marine facies. I think it is even more important that we trained a high-quality oil and gas exploration team. This team was commented by Mr. Qiu Zhongjian as a team that is constantly creating miracles. I have learned another lesson in practice, to be persistent in the adversity of exploration. Most people know this, but one needs to calm down in the good times. Don't be overwhelmed by the triumph of the object. This can often be ignored. The predecessors also learned a lot in this regard. With little bit of success, the accuracy of recognition and the adaptability of technology must be further verified in practice, so as to steadily advance work and reduce errors. The 29 high-yield wells deployed and implemented by our team in the Puguang Gas Field were steadily advanced under the guidance of this concept. The four rounds of deployment have achieved 412.2 billion cubic meters of proven natural gas reserves, with an exploration success rate of 95%.

What is the relationship between research and successful oil and gas exploration and production?

Every large-scale development of the world petroleum industry is accomplished along with theoretical innovation and technological progress, and each breakthrough in exploration is the result of one or a series of innovative practices. Innovation is inseparable from solid theoretical research. Without correct understanding, there is no successful practice. From recognition to practice to recognition and practice again is such an iterative process. There is an inevitable link between solid research and success. Without solid fundamental research, the success of a momentary event is accidental. During the Puguang gas field exploration, we set up a "ternary control reservoir" model based on fundamental research. We recognize the contribution of early sedimentation and diagenesis to reservoir space, but more importantly, the later fractures. As a bridge, the fault provides a channel for the fluid containing sulfate ions, which accelerates burial dissolution. It is found that as the depth of the target layer increases, the porosity does not decrease but increases. Based on this understanding, we believe that the deep layer has exactly the same characteristics. The development and preservation of high-quality reservoirs has opened up another world. From the perspective of accumulation, we found that due to the early tectonic evolution, not only were many oil reservoirs converted into gas reservoirs, but also the spatial position of gas reservoirs significantly adjusted. The lower parts of the structure not favored by our predecessors were precisely the sweet spot of oil and gas accumulation in its geologic history, and this opened another new world. The more than 20 exploration wells drilled by our predecessors in the Puguang area were all deployed in accordance with the traditional exploration thinking of "structural height", and we understood why no oil and gas discovery was made.

We carry out a large number of fundamental data measurement and analysis based on the idea of dynamic evolution. In this process, we boldly explored some burial depths that were contrary to the previous conclusions, and even the target areas where the previous people thought that there could be no oil and gas. These revolutionary ideas were not accepted from the beginning, then gained the trust of a small number of experts, to more than half approval, and finally to the support of the decision-making level. It took more than a year to demonstrate and drill, and finally achieve the breakthrough.

This fully shows that if we start from the foundation, research plays a vital role in oil and gas exploration.

What "breakthrough" technologies do you think might be in the future? What key knowledge does a geologist need?

I personally believe that geologists in the future, like scientists in other fields, must pay close attention to the latest trends and developments in modern science and technology. They must broaden their horizons and think more quickly. On the one hand, geologists around the world, especially exploration geologists facing exploration targets that are becoming more and more complex, and there are very few so-called "virgin land" for exploration. In order to make breakthroughs and discoveries, we must have cognitive abilities and technologies that surpass those of our predecessors. On the other hand, the rapid development of modern technology has created new opportunities for us, so we need to master some "breakthrough" technologies. Numerous "breakthrough" technologies need to be organically integrated with traditional geological theories and technologies in order to function. In addition to traditional geological theoretical and technological breakthroughs (this is still the most important), new technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence and nano machines. The continuous breakthroughs in oil and gas reservoir identification and distribution prediction have great application prospects, and breakthroughs in new materials and semiconductor technologies will also become a weapon for detecting ultra-deep (high temperature and high pressure) oil and gas.

What are your current interests? What are your plans for the future?

In addition to research and exploration work in the professional field, I appreciate music and moderate physical exercise. I hope that more energy will be concentrated in the professional field and new breakthroughs will be made in the future. I am also willing to train more young scientists who love this field.

Can you recommend 2-3 books that you find useful or interesting for AAPG members?

Presently, I am leading the preparation of a book on marine oil and gas exploration results - "China Marine Oil and Gas Exploration". This book comprehensively summarizes new achievements and new developments made during decades of oil and gas exploration by Chinese explorers in the marine carbonate field, including knowledge gained in carbonate reservoir sedimentology, oil and gas preservation, reservoir modeling, and progress in marine deep-ultra-deep high-quality reserve prediction technologies, etc. The book also introduces the exploration history and technology on dozens of major marine oil and gas fields. The book will be published by the German Elseiver Press in early 2020. It is hoped that this book will provide a reference for geologists around the world to better understand China's marine oil and gas exploration results.

Another book is Vaclav Smil's “Energy Myths and Realities”, published in 2010. It covers all topics of energy, namely oil, natural gas, and nuclear energy, etc. From the perspective of the entire industry value chain and life cycle, this book offers the author's views on various energy sources in a rational and objective way. In the context of the ubiquitous topic of energy transformation today, geologists around the world, especially oil and gas explorers, must have the determination and adhere to their original intentions and missions. Energy transformation is an extremely long-term process, looking for more oil and gas have a huge market and long-term demand. Don't shake our confidence by a moment of noise.

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