Innovative exploration and production
Alex Reid discusses the future for digitalisation within the oil-and-gas industry as we move through the energy transition
The oil-and-gas industry has been at the forefront of technical and digital innovation for decades. The introduction of 3D seismic during the 1960s, for example, was ground-breaking and ensured that those involved in hydrocarbon exploration and production were at the cutting edge of technological advancements. More recently, advances made by sectors such as finance and technology have overshadowed those of the oil-and-gas industry. However, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) is accelerating, leading to more efficient production, increased recovery rates, and improved operational safety.
“It’s still early days for digital transformation in the industry”, suggests Alex Reid, Principal Exploration Geologist at Equinor. “Like all step changes in technology, there is a sudden jump as everyone takes an interest, but then a drop as it takes time for projects to be implemented and there is the realisation of what is required to achieve the desired step change. Saying that, we are seeing new tools, apps, and workflows coming into our daily routines, which are improving efficiency and allowing for new insights.”
While still in its infancy, the oil-and-gas industry has witnessed some great applications of AI so far, including more detailed structural interpretations through the use of machine learning. However, there are further advances to be made, especially in the realm of data preparation.
“There is a huge amount of work being done to prepare databases so that they are suitable for AI and machine learning. The data are out there, the industry has collected vast amounts, but they are not necessarily in easy-to-access, readable formats suitable for new digital processes. Therefore, what we see is a huge effort by governments, academia, and companies to clean, categorise and make available the digital datasets.”
Existing initiatives, such as the Open Surface Data Universe, provide platforms for the energy industry to bring data together into one location. Alex suggests that such developments will “help the industry standardise its data and prepare it for future AI technologies in a similar way to how data on modern consumer habits have transformed our shopping experience.”
Role for the geoscientist
A common misconception is that AI will replace the need for human input. Alex disagrees with this sentiment, emphasising that while “AI can be hugely valuable in helping humans trawl though vast volumes of data and find hidden trends or missed opportunities, ultimately you still require the critical thinking of the operator. The AI is only as good as the training/coding it is built on”.
In that regard, Alex notes that the limited numbers of digitally trained staff working on the subsurface will influence the extent to which AI can positively impact the industry. But will individuals with strong data science capabilities replace the role of more traditional geoscientists or is there potential to train geoscientists to be more data and technology focused in this progressively digital industry?
“Training new geoscientists with modern digital skills is vital. As someone who studied what the internet was aspart of my university training, I think that new graduates should learn aboutmodern digital methods and coding. By being able to screen more data more quickly, it will help them to easily sort through previous work and to find the remaining hydrocarbons that are required for society to progress whilst meeting future climate goals.”
Pioneers in tech?
If the oil-and-gas industry has lost its pioneering role in tech, what does this mean for the industry? Alex explains that while “digital has become mainstream and so the oil-and-gas industry is no longer a forerunner in the digital world in the way it maybe once was, it doesn’t need to be as the demands are different to other industries now.”
AI can still contribute significantly with respect to increased recovery. “With cleaned up databases, and improved tools to analyse these datasets, the identification of exploration and production targets should become easier as we identify areas of missed pay or sweep in field, undrilled structures, or find subtle stratigraphic plays that were overlooked during conventional exploration work previously.”
To measure that success in the coming years, Alex explains that “new exploration discoveries and increased recovery factors from producing assets, along with improved safety statistics, are the best way to see if AI has had a step-change influence on the industry in the same way that 3D seismic had previously.”
Demand versus digital
AI will play an increasingly important role in the oil-and-gas industry going forwards and it will be interesting to observe how future exploration reaps the benefits. However, resource demand will ultimately determine the success of the industry in the coming years. As Alex highlights, “AI can help to increase discoveries and production, but if there is no demand for the product then there is no need for AI in the oil-and-gas industry.”
Given the climate crisis, the oil-and-gas industry has faced considerable backlash, particularly from activists, resulting in exploration being drastically reduced or even stopped in some instances. However, to achieve net zero and meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2050, the demand for hydrocarbons will continue through the energy transition, facilitating the deployment of new, clean energy solutions. So, there is plenty of opportunity for the industry to reap the rewards that are an offer by adopting AI, as well as other technical and digital advancements, over the coming decades.
Alex Reid is a Principal Exploration Geologist at Equinor, UK. Alex is currently working on North Sea infrastructure lead exploration and preparation for the upcoming UK 33rd Licencing Round, and he is a Committee Member of the Energy Group of the Geological Society of London.
Interview by Kyle Watts, ASPIRE Associate (Sales and Commercial) at Baker Hughes, and a member of the Geoscientist Contributors Team
Reid, A. Innovative exploration and production. Geoscientist 32 (3), 40-41, 2022; https://doi.org/10.1144/geosci2022-029