SEG in the Wider Industry Context

The theme of the now-virtual 2020 SEG conference is “Shifting gears in the digital speedway”. Given our industry has shifted gears several times already in this most tumultuous year in living history, many wonder whether we are now witnessing the final throes of the hydrocarbon business and the beginning of a mass extinction event for millions of geoscience careers. Can we see a safe road ahead?

Digital Speedway or Highway to Hell?

Those still employed by traditional oil companies must be witnessing a remarkable series of transitions going on around them. The digital transformation revolution was already well underway when 2020 started, and much of the ambition could be summarized as ‘Using more (all) data to make better-informed decisions in less time’. Working leaner, and extracting far greater value from all existing company assets and operations.

Exploration for new hydrocarbons was still firmly on the agenda for most oil companies when 2020 began. Then the oil price crash, created by dissenting OPEC members, destroyed the US unconventionals industry overnight, and the coronavirus eroded the global short-term demand for oil almost as fast. Those two key conditions were a catalyst to accelerate some fundamental global shifts also already underway, but not with the high profile they now have: Prioritizing renewables and green energy sources, ending the global dependence upon coal, and challenging gas as the obvious ‘transition’ solution away from hydrocarbons. Irrespective of whether such ambitions are achievable or even legitimate, especially for developing countries, there seems to be a couple of emerging themes that speak loudly for the near-term status of our industry:

  • Oil companies are now scrambling to reposition themselves as ‘energy’ companies, and mass redundancies are sweeping the majority of experienced explorers onto the streets whilst consciously preserving the younger talent under 40. What does the future ‘energy scientist’ look like? No one has been saying much publicly about the skillsets to build a global business out of renewables and clean fuels such as hydrogen, but geosciences probably don’t feature too highly. Instead, engineering, data science, and commerce seem most relevant. Maybe the majority of geoscientists who are still working need to be agile, multi-disciplinary consultants?
  • The drive to extract more proven hydrocarbons from established assets is even stronger, but much of that demand apparently precludes the historical appetite for new discoveries. At the highest level, stand by for serious wheeling and dealing as companies trade themselves out of many countries with higher perceived commercial, political and environmental regulation risk factors, or attempt to pick up assets at basement prices from distressed sellers. In other words, a commercially-driven global derisking of hydrocarbon assets is underway. The relevance of geoscience technology will subsequently be to optimize the recovery of those assets still flagged for production. In reality, I expect the world still needs significant exploration efforts for decades to come, but that’s another discussion.
  • In many regions, the pressure to offset the carbon footprint from the production and burning of fossil fuels (hydrocarbons and coal) with CCS (carbon capture and storage) is increasing; which will create a growing demand for various new multi-disciplinary geoscience skillsets. Similarly, there will expectably be increased demand for seismic reservoir monitoring on key producing assets (more on that below).

What does this mean for SEG 2020?

According to the conference chairs (Olga Nedorub and Bryce Swinford) in their editorial in the August edition of The Leading Edge, the 2020 technical program aims to (1) strengthen the core of their activities, and (2) experiment with new initiatives to beacon the future of our profession. A cursory look at the technical program grid reveals geophysical content consistent with the past several years; and a subjective summary is that the strongest themes continue to be a broad family of ‘Interpretation’ topics, FWI (full-waveform inversion) and high-end seismic imaging, and machine learning and data analytics. Nothing new there, but the SEG committee has also attempted to more consciously invite contributions on multi-disciplinary geophysical integration; external disciplines such as medicine, engineering, and planetary geosciences. Even the latter ambition is nothing new, but it reinforces the industry's desire to integrate and exploit as many data sources as possible when making better decisions tomorrow.

Several special sessions are dedicated to the near surface, geothermal, hydrogeophysics, urban geophysics, and geophysics in developing countries; themes reflective of our need to become more socially relevant, as well as being able to operate more consciously of how our industry affects the environment at all levels.

For those still attached to the technical advancement of traditional geophysics, it is again clear that the post-convention workshops are rapidly overtaking the formal technical program of scheduled papers and posters as being more engaging and relevant. Frankly, most of the technical program content can be gleaned from reading the abstracts. No participation required, and the major technical conferences in recent years have become a nightmare to navigate due to the excessively large number of parallel sessions, the physical distance between the session rooms, and the vast number of competing ‘special events and activities’. One consolation of having to watch only pre-recorded talks is that now I have a month to watch them.

What does the SEG workshop program offer? The strongest themes are related to the maturation of high-end seismic imaging technologies such as FWI and LSM (least-squares migration); including case study application to areas under complex overburden, and pushing the boundaries of what is already achievable. For example, workshop W-9 challenges participants to find ways to provide ultra-low frequency platforms for FWI, workshop W-6 pursues the ambition of using the full seismic wavefield (primaries + multiples) for imaging, and workshop W-23 reviews the status of elastic seismic imaging.

Several workshops (W-1, 4D Under Complex Overburden; W-4, CO2 Geophysical Monitoring; W-5, Fiber Optic sensing; W-8, Geophysics for Oilfield Engineering; W-15, Booking Oil and Gas Reserves Using Geophysical Data; W-17, LSM in Complex Overburden) collectively carry a theme of understanding hydrocarbon production processes, and when combined with several workshops on machine learning pursuits (W-10 ML/AI in Mineral Exploration; W-12, Seismic Attributes in the AI Era; W-13, Latest Geoscience Applications of ML; W-18, ML Blind-Test Challenge; W-20, Next Generation Geoscience Using ML), the overwhelming workshop theme really is about using more data and better technology to understand processes in hydrocarbon recovery and production.

There’s no doubt that our industry is hurtling into several simultaneous changes that feel like the door is rapidly closing for many career stereotypes. Time will tell which is these strategic directions is sustainable, but what is clear is that the SEG event again presents an opportunity to ingest a remarkable variety of contemporary technical insights and new ideas. Maybe it is a blessing that we can only access the technical program and workshops from home; for there is certainly a lot to take in. The (pre-recorded) technical program talks are all available online until at least November 13, so you can watch some talks several times. The workshops are the only real ‘live’ events, so keep Thursday and Friday free in your calendars.