Interview with Leonardo Muniz Pichel, Ph.D.

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Understanding the role and influence of salt in the subsurface has been the key to many hydrocarbon discoveries and appraisals and more recently carbon & hydrogen capture and storage, and geothermal interests. Now, AAPG has a new Technical Interest Group, co-founded and co-chaired by Clara Abu (Ph.D Candidate Imperial College), Rachelle Kernen Ph.D., Leonardo Muniz Pichel Ph.D., Clara Rodriguez Ph.D., and Tim Shin MSc. Welcome to an interview with Dr. Leonardo Muniz Pichel, one of the co-founders.

What is your background?

I am a Brazilian-Spanish structural geologist with a BSc in Geology by the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN-Brazil) and a PhD in Earth Sciences by the University of Manchester. My PhD focused on basin analysis and salt tectonics along salt basins offshore NW Africa (Morocco) and Brazil (Santos Basin) and combined 2D-3D seismic interpretation, numerical modelling and structural restorations. I am currently a researcher at the Imperial College of London working with a diverse range of salt-related topics and basins, including the Precaspian (Kazakhstan), the North Sea and the Santos-Campos Basins in Brazil. My main research interests are on regional salt tectonics, the interplay between pre-salt rift architecture and salt flow, salt-magma interactions, diapirism and minibasin kinematics.

How did you become interested in geology?

What drove me to study geology was my love for nature and the outdoors. I am an enthusiast of hiking and climbing and that led me to become curious about the physical processes governing the Earth and the formation of landscapes. The second reason was that when I started my BSc degree the geologist career was very promising in Brazil.

Where have you done field work? Which place was most interesting to you?

Most of my PhD and current work are computer-based, working with seismic interpretation and structural modelling but, gladly, I had the opportunity to do some interesting fieldwork in different areas of Brazil, which included very complex structural provinces like the Borborema Province and the Rio do Peixe and Parnaiba Basins. I have been also on a number of fieldtrips in the High Atlas in Morocco, SE France, Spanish Pyrenees, NE and SW coast of England and the Dead Sea in Israel. It’s hard to pick one. I loved the Pyrenees and Morocco trips, but my favourite was the Dead Sea in Israel where we looked at superb salt tectonics and diapir outcrops at a unique transform plate boundary. Now, the most interesting place I have worked and still do, the one with the most incredible 3D seismic data and structural geology is undoubtedly the Santos Basin, offshore Brazil. The basin has remarkably variable and complex salt tectonics and rift architecture, and holds still a tremendous hydrocarbon potential.

How did you become interested in salt basins?

I’ve always been fascinated by complex structural geology due to my experience working with hardcore Precambrian terrains and rift basins onshore Brazil. When I first had the opportunity to work with seismic data and see the complex patterns and shapes of salt structures on seismic, it was love at first sight. I immediately knew that was what I wanted to research and specialize on.

Please describe a new technology or technique that is making a difference in salt basin exploration and development.

There are several things like the improvements on seismic acquisition and processing (e.g. broadband seismic and migration algorithms), but I believe that, in terms of understanding the evolution of salt structures through time and space, the most important advances are the new modelling techniques.

Physical modelling is still a very powerful tool that keeps evolving and being extremely valuable to illustrate the geometric variability and kinematics of salt structures.

Numerical models have been evolving even faster, being able to simulate more complex geological scenarios and to test and include various parameters not possible on physical models. They also allow understanding not only of the kinematics and geometry of salt basins but also of their dynamics and have more numerical control and reproducibility.

What are some of the major challenges with salt basins?

I think the two main challenges are the difficulties related to near-, intra- and sub-salt seismic imaging, especially around complex diapiric structures; and the lack of good outcrop analogues, in special of regional gravity-driven tectonics.

Where do you think there will be breakthroughs - in new basins, improved levels of recoverable reserves, improved modeling and characterization, or other area? Why?

I think one of, if not the hotspot for both salt tectonics and exploration is now the Southern Gulf of Mexico with numerous salt-related plays, recent discoveries, new seismic data and a lot of undrilled, untouched potential. Other two very promising salt basins for both exploration and research are the Campos Basin, Brazil and the Red Sea, both of which hold significant pre- and post-salt potential. The Red Sea is relatively underexplored and is probably the best “modern” analogue for the more mature salt giants like the ones in the South Atlantic ad circum-Gulf of Mexico.

Please recommend a book or two that you think the readers might enjoy.

I believe that anyone working with salt basins and tectonics needs to read the book: “Salt Tectonics and Principles” by M. Jackson and M. Hudec. It is an incredibly well-written and illustrated book that describes virtually all aspects of salt tectonics. For those more interested in salt deposition, geochemistry and stratigraphy I recommend the book “Evaporites- A Geological Compendium” from John Warren. I also recommend an article that I find very relevant for geoscientists, especially during these uncertain times, “Who Needs Geoscientists?” at GEOexPro, which shows the vital role of geoscientists in achieving a prosperous and sustainable future for our planet.

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