Text of the invited lecture delivered by Dr. Enders Robinson at the Doodletrain Luncheon held at the Metropolitan Centre, Calgary on Oct. 31, 2005
Dr. William A. Wulf (2005), the president of the National Academy of Engineering of the United States, writes, “The US research structure evolved after World War II as a self-reinforcing triangle of industry, academia, and government. Today one side of that triangle - industry – is missing, and the remaining structure is much less stable. Some of the most fundamental research in the last century was done in corporate laboratories - Bell Labs, GE Research, IBM Research, and others. Today, only vestiges of these laboratories still exist, and they have a much shorter time horizon and are heavily focused on product development. Some would say that the demise of corporate research is the result of the short time horizon of the stock market and/or the demise of the regulated market in telecommunications. But I think it also represents a failure to consider research as an investment rather than an expense - in effect, saying research per se has no lasting value. As a result, instead of developing public policies to encourage corporate research, we are doing just the opposite.” The National Academy, under the authority of the charter granted to it by the US Congress in 1863, has a mandate that requires it to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters. Yet the president of the National Academy says that Wall Street financiers, who believe that research has no lasting value, exert a decided influence on research.
Dr Wulf continues, “Funding for research in physical sciences and engineering has declined or remained flat for several decades. Federal funding agencies have become increasingly risk averse and have focused increasingly on short term results. The most obvious example is the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which used to be a shining example of investment in long-term visionary research.”
Exploration geophysics is caught up in this maelstrom . However, the danger is even greater. In exploration research, there was never any self-reinforcing triangle. The government has never funded exploration research except for the occasional token, and universities, except for a few, have generally been unreceptive to exploration geophysics. Historically the oil and geophysical industry alone has supported exploration research. This support was done on a large scale within many dedicated company research laboratories. The Shell Research Laboratory and others of fifty years ago prided themselves to be equivalent to the best of research universities, even as the Bell Labs did. Today those oil company laboratories are gone or greatly reduced in scope, and except for some notable exceptions the research that remains today is done by geophysical companies and by consortia at a few selected universities funded by oil companies. This research is mainly focused on short term results. What is worse is that, because of the dearth of research jobs in the oil business and the feast-or-famine, boom-or-bust nature of exploration, exploration geophysics is unfortunately a poor choice for research minded students. Without research and the talent that research attracts, the oil industry will suffer in the difficult times that lie ahead.
Exploration geophysics, as well as the oil industry, are swept up in a torrent of events that is engulfing the world today. Generally speaking, every industry goes though five major phases. The first phase (Act 1), the setting, is dominated by the pioneers who prepare the way for others. The second phase (Act 2), the rising action, is dominated by the inventors who devise new contrivances and ways of doing things. The third phase (Act 3), the climax or the peak, is the turning point. It is dominated by the managers who nurture efficient production and distribution. The fourth phase (Act 4), the falling action, is one of decline; it is dominated by financiers who consolidate, downsize, and merge companies. The final phase (Act 5), the denouement or resolution, is dominated by lawyers and politicians who rationalize the actions and straighten out misunderstandings. We are driving in the sun, working hard and having fun. California, here we come, right back where we started from.
Let us now look at exploration geophysics in particular. In Act 1, the pioneers were the early geologists and geophysicists who showed how the study of sedimentary rock layers would indicate the sources of petroleum. In Act 2, the inventors were the hard working geophysicists who devised better instrumentation and turned to computers to do the digital processing required for the production of beautiful seismic images that unlock the secrets of the underground rock layers. In Act 3, the managers were business men who turned exploration into a fine-tuned and efficient operation by the intelligent use of three and four dimensional seismology. Is exploration geophysics entering Act 4? A national oil company (NOC) is a state-owned integrated oil company that controls all or most of the petroleum industry in that nation to the exclusion of other companies. In Act 4, the financiers are the executives who say that finding oil in the ground is passé; instead oil is bought from a national oil company, or by merging, or by acquiring an oil company on Wall Street, or by purchasing oil from traders on the ABC islands, or elsewhere. The financiers dismiss the research departments and replace experienced geophysicists by lesser paid personnel. They downsize companies that took years to build up. They indulge in mergers and acquisitions which can be described as a type of cannibalism. When an industry collapses, the more powerful companies seize the assets of the weaker companies. Finally comes Act 5. The politicians say that petroleum is the problem and not the answer. They tell us that fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming and all the bad things that it entails. Pogo, the beloved cartoon creation of Walt Kelly said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The explorationists discovered Pandora’s Box, and opened it. If petroleum were never discovered, the world would not be in an energy crisis today.
Most people would describe the energy crisis as follows. Fossil fuels (i.e., coal and petroleum, which includes both crude oil and natural gas) are used to produce the great bulk of the world’s energy. The world will greatly increase its population and its use per capita of energy in the years ahead. The combustion of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that produces global warming. As a result the development of carbonless forms of energy is required. Renewable resources such as hydro, solar, biomass, and wind are more amenable to fixed uses such as heating and lighting. Transportation, on the other hand, requires a fuel that can be carried on the moving vehicle. Unfortunately Thomas Edison failed in his quest for a storage battery that could adequately power electric vehicles. As a result hydrogen, not stored electricity, has become the carbonless fuel of choice for transportation. Nuclear can produce electricity, which in turn can produce hydrogen. Because of the tremendous amount of hydrogen that would be needed for transportation, the nuclear option would require an unacceptable proliferation of nuclear power plants. Coal is a massive energy resource that has the potential for producing cost-competitive hydrogen. However, coal processing generates large amounts of carbon dioxide. In order to reduce these emissions, massive amounts of carbon dioxide would have to be captured and safely and reliably sequestered for hundreds of years. The commercialization of a large-scale, coal-based hydrogen production option (and also for natural-gas-based options) requires much research and development. Dirty old coal, here we come, right back where we started from.
The politicians are saying that hydrogen will be the fuel for transportation. Hydrogen is the lightest and the most abundant chemical element in the universe. However, it is found only in trace quantities in the observable portion of our atmosphere, only about 0.00005 percent by volume of dry air. Two hydrogen atoms combine with one oxygen atom to form a molecule of water. Hydrogen serves as the fuel for most fuel cells. Let us review the steps taken to power a motor vehicle. A source fuel is required, for example wind power, which makes electricity. The electricity is then converted to hydrogen, which is then stored on the vehicle. A fuel cell on the vehicle then converts the energy back to electricity which drives the electric engine. In other words, the energy goes from wind energy to electric energy to hydrogen, and then back to electric energy which is then used. One must be cautious of the explosive nature of hydrogen. On May 6, 1937 my mother, brother, sister and I were in Quincy, Massachusetts. We looked up into the sky and watched the German airship Hindenburg float across the blue. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Not many families could afford radios then, so news was usually delayed. I remember well that my mother had a telephone call from her sister Madeline that very evening. Madeline said that she had heard that the Hindenburg had exploded. My mother responded: No, I saw the Hindenburg a few hours ago and it is fine. Today the politicians are repeating my mother’s statement verbatim. The Hindenburg is fine; hydrogen is safe. Pretty airship, here we come, right back where we started from.
There are major obstacles that prevent the use of hydrogen as a fuel. There must be dramatic progress in the development of fuel cells, storage devices, and distribution systems. Widespread success is not certain. Fuel cell lifetimes are much too short and fuel cell costs are orders of magnitude too high. An on-board vehicular hydrogen storage system that has an energy density approaching that of gasoline systems has not been developed. Thus, the resulting range of vehicles with existing hydrogen storage systems is much too short. Another major problem is the high cost of distributing hydrogen to dispersed locations. The transition to a hydrogen economy is difficult at best, maybe impossible. It requires many technological innovations related to the development of small-scale production units. Problems concerning security, environmental impact, and safety of hydrogen pipelines and dispensing systems are close to insurmountable. Hydrogen is made from renewable energy through the intermediate step of making electricity, a premium energy source. As a result the costs of hydrogen production from renewable energy sources are out of whack and miraculous breakthroughs are required in order for the hydrogen to be competitive. All of these hurdles must be overcome before there can be widespread use.
invested.” According to the Wall Street Journal (October 5, 2005, page D5), “Hydrogen is normally seen as an alternative energy source for use in cars powered by fuel cells. But fuel cell technology is also extremely expensive. That is why Mazda is developing engines that burn hydrogen much like gasoline.” However, the second law of thermodynamics indicates that a hydrogen economy would be a net energy sink. A high form of energy, electricity, is required to produce hydrogen by electrolysis. In fact, it takes an excessive amount of input energy to overcome the strong bond of hydrogen and oxygen in water. The burning of hydrogen represents a low form of energy. More energy is used to produce, store and transport hydrogen than can ever be gotten back when used as a fuel to burn. Moreover, because hydrogen is the lightest of elements, it takes a lot of effort to keep hydrogen from escaping from a container. A complex set of seals, gaskets and valves is needed, and still liquid hydrogen tanks for vehicles boil off about three or four percent of the stored hydrogen a day. Ethanol is another alternative fuel that is an energy sink. In fact, the so called alternatives to oil are, by and large, derivatives of oil. Massive amounts of oil and other scarce resources are required to locate and mine the raw materials (steel, silver, platinum, copper, and uranium) necessary to build, maintain, and dispose of fuel cells, solar panels, windmills, and nuclear power plants. Without an abundant and reliable supply of petroleum there is no way to scale these alternatives to the degree necessary to replace petroleum as fuel. For the foreseeable future the world will remain dependent for its energy supplies on fossil fuels (unless there is a massive proliferation of nuclear plants, which is unacceptable).
Natural gas and condensates are, of course, forms of petroleum. So are the Canadian oil sands. However, oil derived from these oil sands is financially and energetically intensive to extract. Conventional oil enjoys an EROEI of about 30 to 1. The oil sands EROEI is about 1.5 to 1. In other words, it costs about twenty times as much to produce the same amount of oil from oil sands as from conventional reservoirs. The problems for oil shale are even worse than for oil sands. From the large scale use of oil shale, the environmental damage to the land and water may be insurmountable in the long run. Coal will still be around when all the economic oil is used up. And finally there is wood and hay. My father was born in Missouri in 1872. Although the first oil well had been drilled in Pennsylvania about ten years earlier, my father only knew about renewable fuels: wood for the fire and hay for the horses. Robinson farm, here we come, right back where we started from.
When I studied economics under Professor Paul Samuelson at MIT, more that half a century ago, I learned about the law of diminishing returns. The law says that an increase of input to a either a fixed or exhaustible resource will cause the output to increase for a time, but after a point the extra output will become less and less. The outlook for future petroleum reserves has always been disheartening. But the more important point is that the law of diminishing returns does not just apply to oil. More generally, we may think of the earth as the fixed resource and people as the variable resource. As we apply more and more people to harvesting the goods of the earth, the output at first increases, but in time the extra output becomes less and less. In fact, it may turn out that oil may not be the most basic need; instead it may be arable land and water.
Shakespeare’s King Lear says to his two eldest daughters, “O, reason not the need.” In other words, Lear says: Don’t try to apply rational calculations to need. Not only is the world’s population going up exponentially, but so is each person’s need for energy. O, reason not the need. My old professor of geology at MIT, Robert R. Shrock, knew a lot, apparently a lot more than anyone today. He knew paleontology inside and out, and he said many species have experienced exponential growth for a certain time span, but every one has either crashed or plateaued out.
In 1953 the outlook for oil exploration was bleak, as usual. Of course, everyone trained in geology knows that oil will eventually be exhausted. The question is when. John R. Killough (1953) wrote, “Exploration has attained extremely high levels of importance in the mining field, especially for petroleum, where current rates of oil and gas production have soared to all time maximums. Expenditures for exploration, wildcat drilling, geological and geophysical work over the 11 year period from 1937 through 1947 increased by more than four times. Nevertheless, only a near-constant value for the ratio of annual production vs. proved reserves was maintained during this period.”
In 1953 a good part of the earth’s sedimentary basins, including essentially all water-covered regions, were classified as norecord (NR) areas. The reason was that the raw exploration seismograms from these areas yielded no visible reflections and so could not be interpreted. Yet the decades of the 1940s and 1950s were replete with inventions, not the least of which was the modern high-speed electronic stored-program digital computer. Almost every major oil company except Shell joined the MIT Geophysical Analysis Group in 1953 to use the digital computer to process the NR seismograms. The task of the computer was to remove interference such as ghosts, reverberations and other multiple reflections so as to yield the underlying primary reflections. In any case, the Shell Development Company in 1953, perhaps out of curiosity, invited me to their Bel Air Laboratories in Houston. Their geophysicists were the best. Shell had everything: money, equipment, resources, and people. On my side I had nothing but enthusiasm in the belief that oil could be found in NR areas though the use of digital processing.
At the end of my visit I was shown into the office of M. King Hubbert, the Chief Consultant (General Geology) of the Shell Development Company. There we two were alone. Immediately he started throwing statistics at me: decline rates, expenditure rates, success rates, and wanted me to answer the question of when the peak oil production would be reached. I was not used to verbal mathematics. I needed written equations and graphs, but no paper or blackboard was available. (Sven Treitel told me that at one time, the chief patent attorney at Amoco thought that everything had to be committed to paper for patent purposes, so all the blackboards were removed from the Amoco Research Center. Luckily Sven was able to talk him out of that brilliant idea.)
Hubbert had position, experience, knowledge, authority; I had nothing but a blind faith in the use of computers in oil exploration. It was like a courtroom. Hubble sat in the judge’s chair, an imposing greater-than-life figure behind his large desk. Alone I sat on the cold witness chair. Hubbert’s reasoning was based on a “ceteris paribus” (all else remaining the same) assumption. But all else was not the same. I believed that digital computers would change the scope of exploration. However, nearly everyone in authority in universities and in industry said that computers would never work. I argued that a Gaussian curve is symmetric with a central peak. But the oil recovery curve most likely is skewed. The leading edge (with apologies now to THE LEADING EDGE) of the curve is in the past, so it can not be changed. But the peak and the tailing edge are in the future and they can be changed. If geophysics accepts the cries of the pessimist, then the peak will come soon and the tailing edge of oil production will fall off sharply. The resulting production curve will have a negative skew. On the other hand, if geophysics goes digital, the peak will be driven forward and the tailing edge will fall off slowly. The resulting production curve will have a positive skew. Total oil production will be much greater. If only I had a blackboard I could have drawn the two curves. The interview quickly turned to other things and soon was over. When I walked out of Hubbert’s office, I had that oppressive feeling that everything I said fell on deaf ears. I was used to that. Few people took computers seriously. Fortunately the great Shell geophysicist Aaron Seriff was there to console me and he made me feel better. (Eleven years later, Shell Development Company came to me in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and gave Geoscience Inc., the company in which I was vice president, a large contract to accelerate their entry into the digital world.)
Hubbert’s predictions, revised so that the peak is sometime between 2005 and 2008, have come true, at least that is the consensus of opinion. However, the forty years of rising oil production from 1965 to 2005 would not have come true if there had not been digital. The reason is that digital seismic processing made possible the exploration of norecord (NR) areas, all of which in 1953 were off limits to exploration. For example, oil production from the NR area known has the Gulf of Mexico is a major contribution to America’s output. The oil production of Britain and Norway, and the natural gas production of the Netherlands, come from the NR area known as the North Sea. In fact most of the oil discovered in the past forty years comes from NR areas, all made possible by digital.
Many people think that we have now arrived at the Hubbert peak, or are very close to it. After we reach the peak, oil production will inexorably decline. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that the use of petroleum is rising exponentially because more and more nations want to join America as a profligate consumer of oil. As geophysicists we know that we can find more oil, much more than the financiers believe can be found. I believe that we can extend the Hubbert peak to years well beyond the year 2008, if exploration geophysics is given the chance. For example, the North Sea has already outlived the original predictions of its decline by more than a decade and will continue to provide valuable volumes of both oil and gas for many years to come. At the same time, we must practise conservation. We must husband oil and all of the earth’s precious resources. We must continue with the development of alternatives.
We must take the advice of Dr. William A. Wulf, namely, instead of developing public policies to discourage corporate research, we must do just the opposite. Government should ease the way for the oil and geophysics industry to play a leading role in the solution of energy problems. Geophysics will continue to explore for the sources of the metals and minerals needed for alternative energy. Geophysics stared the big bad wolf (the Hubbert peak) in the face in 1953, and then began to use computers on a large scale and found great new reserves of petroleum. Geophysics started out as the largest user of computers, and held this distinction for decades until finally government exceeded geophysics in usage.
The digital images of our planet, inside and out, come from the digital processing methods originated in geophysics. These same methods are now being used by nearly all other scientific and engineering disciplines. They are especially used in medicine to produce the digital images of the interior of the human body which are revolutionizing health care. Geophysics has provided digital methods for the non destructive testing required to insure that airplanes and machines are safe to operate. Geophysics is needed to clean up the environment and to properly dispose of nuclear wastes. Geophysics is needed to assure clean water supplies and to make the desert bloom. And geophysics will again stare the big bad wolf in the face and find new supplies of oil, and also find ways to make oil left in the ground economically recoverable. Geophysics is the science best qualified to find methods to ameliorate global warming.
Dr. Sven Treitel says, “The remaining oil and gas in the ground will be much harder to find and produce in comparison to what has already been found and produced. Yet the oil industry has chosen precisely this point in time to gut its R&D capabilities in deference to the Wall Street analysts, who are clueless when it comes to technical issues. Oil company R&D basically came to a grinding halt during the early nineties. Because the lead-times for the implementation of radically new methods are of the order of at least a decade, much technology that could have been developed in time to cope with the increasingly formidable technical challenges will never see the light of day.” It is time to give exploration geophysicists the resources and the authority necessary to proceed on its appointed tasks. Exploration geophysics performs the vital work that no one else can do, and the dedicated people who make up exploration are the most valuable asset of all, bar none. And so we face the future on this note: Geophysics here we come, right back where we started from.
About the Author(s)
John R. Killough (1953), Petroleum exploration on our public lands, Geophysics, v. 18, 201-211.
William A. Wulf (2005), A disturbing mosaic, The Bridge, The National Academy of Engineering, v. 35, No. 3, 28-32.