'Success and failure in case studies allows one to increase learning confidence'

An interview with Eric von Lunen

Eric von Lunen

Eric von Lunen is an experienced geophysicist who is known for his reservoir characterization expertise for conventional, as well as low porosity/perm unconventional plays. He has worked at Seismograph Service Corp, Schlumberger and UT-BEG and has done extensive consulting and contracting for geophysical application research for major and large petroleum independents such as Exxon-Mobil; Aramco; Hunt Oil; Marathon; and YPF-Maxus amongst others. His focus on value-oriented geophysical method applications has been particularly noteworthy.

Eric was cooperative when approached for an interview and talked in a warm, responsive and encouraging way. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Please tell us about your educational background and your work experience?

I obtained my B.Sc. degree in 1975 from Penn State University in geoscience/geophysics. Later went on to complete a M.Sc. in Geology from the University of Texas system in 1998. I was certified by AAPG Division of Professional Affair in 1999 under professional geophysics certificate #1.

I have championed or recommended advanced geophysical technology in business driven solutions throughout my career. My main area of interest is applications in wide azimuth multi-component 3D seismic, passive seismic (microseismic), borehole seismic (VSP), waveform sonic, and petrophysics integration in reservoir characterization for low porosity/perm and fractured media. Until recently, I was working for Nexen/CNOOC as Sr. geophysical advisor and team lead. I have considerable passion to contribute and I mentor graduate students in studies throughout North America.

I am the current chair of the SEG Oil and Gas Reserves Committee, and its advisor liaison within other professional industry organizations such as SPE, AAPG, etc. I am often a speaker describing geophysical technology in terms of a useful business practice.

How did you decide to pursue a career in geology/geophysics?

In my junior year as a physics major, quantum mechanics and relativity fried my brain. My advisor noted I spent a lot of time in the earth and mineral science building looking at rock samples. So he suggested to me that I should consider combining physics and geology together as a career path.

Apparently, your work has mostly focused on reservoir characterization projects. Tell us about and why this particular focus.

In the last great cyclic depression within the oil industry (circa 1985-1990), several topics that I thought were interesting, repeatedly emerged in discussions between business leaders. The topics centered on these comments:

  • There has been no significant change in exploration success rates for several decades, and the fields being discovered were smaller, 3-5 well fields.
  • The legends that found oil in earlier times were now dead, and we needed to replace the phrase "my experience" with semi-quantitative predictive results (Rose Associates).
  • A new reality was the awareness that recovering petroleum from existing or known discoveries (left behind), was low financial risk to capital invested. Plus, the volumes of previously discovered but inaccessible petroleum reserves in many plays was nearly 60-80% of original petroleum in place predicted. Hence, oil and gas reserves in existing fields were many fold more significant than the replacement volumes being found by exploration. A steady shift from geophysical exploration to exploitation was envisioned.
  • There was an expectation that rig count would collapse, and then gradually rebuild based on horizontal drilling methods and completion.
  • The book “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power ” was in its final editing before being published, and oil was now simply a commodity as the author of the book, Daniel Yergin, claimed.

I was not a player in these strategic and leadership talks, but an eager student that was impressed with their vision and perspective.

Latin America was in a financial crisis, the IMF and World Bank were squeezing every nation for privatization reform before additional capital would be available for petroleum industries and they were not interested in exploration but exploitation and reserve volumes that support large international loans.

My take was: if you cannot be as successful as Petrobras, then the state industry YPFB, YPF or PetroPeru, must be privatized. That is where I got my first real exposure to government, private, and nationalized producers, and service company politics on a grand scale. The scenario is best summed up this way: Brazil was in a major financial crisis with banking institutions demanding improved success in capital usage by nationalized petroleum companies. Petrobras was the championed model in some parts of Latin America as a business success for state industry. In Bolivia, Peru and Argentina, the governments were being informed to privatize or change their business models to follow Petrobras. This privatization trend came to a climax when the economic pressure was placed on Pemex and PDVSA. Most nationalized companies made very large technical improvements to satisfy capex sources, and to have a clear value of leases about to be privatized.

In general, all state petroleum industries were soliciting help from Schlumberger (and its mothership called Surenco). As Schlumberger’s lead geophysicist in Latin America I was involved in many very interesting technology questions. Managers and corporate presidents would show up at my office, actually a cubicle, and ask questions like: "What is seismic resolution?" and "What did so and so mean when he said the prospect target was not a four-way closure?"

It was not because I was an expert in the subject, but I was the readily accessible version of Sheriff’s dictionary (and other geological dictionaries) either from memory or at my finger-tips. I could look it up and explain it to manager types and then be part of a simple discussion…

"How is that related to business?"

"How do you predict porosity laterally between wellbores spaced several km apart?"

Within a few weeks, management was calling me the “dictionary or biblio” and I was towed along to these inter-sanctum meetings between service companies and nationalized petroleum companies. The managers who had me in tow said I was there to watch and learn, do not speak up unless a question is directed to you and we acknowledge you can answer. In the coffee breaks and evening dinners is where my tutorial on understanding macroeconomics, decision making, value added, etc. occurred. Once everyone had their evening drink I could ask a question and learn something on macroeconomics and industrial scale of petroleum and energy and its influence on world growth. And of course I heard the other side of the story on many occasions to what was being said in public on some historical event.

Remember, I was not important to these discussions; I was just along for the ride so managers would not stumble on discussion points; and the talks could keep moving toward a bigger picture wrapped around exploitation of reserve potential successfully.

My first real exposure to reservoir characterization involved fracture detection and orientation in the Brazilian field called Candiaes, around 1980. Since then, I have worked on a number of seismic technology-driven fractured reservoirs in various basins throughout North and South America.

Like most geoscientists, I like the hunt for unfound treasure... black gold (and the yellow stuff also). But as our industry has matured over recent decades, most onshore petroleum basins have been tested for a commercial petroleum system. I have been involved with a few rank petroleum searches, mostly in South America and Africa.

What do you have to say about how your career has shaped up?

My career has been nearly 40 years now, and always been interesting and challenging.

At one time my son commented that my career or work is, going to the office each day, seeing a new problem and then figuring out how to solve that problem… a wizard advising the throne.

Yes, there have been frustrating crossroads, but I believe the success outweighs the frustration in most cases. I enjoy the thought process we engage in daily, and have seen it deliver very significant rewards to companies, professional societies, foreign governments and myself as well.

If I were to ask you to list three of your qualities that would reflect Eric’s personality, what would they be?

Without being arrogant, I would say: tenacity, passion and vision are my qualities, but many other colleagues would say: persistence, thoroughness, perfectionism.

Amy Fox and Satinder Chopra
Satinder Chopra (R) and Eric von Lunen (L).

You have published and presented quite a few research papers. Ever thought of writing a book also, now that you have the time to do so? Could you share with us your writing experiences?

My public papers and presentations document peer reviewed concepts, and that is critical to championing emerging technology to other professional disciplines (engineers, geologist, and capex sources). The phrase "case history" can be your best friend in a discussion or end a technical discussion negatively. But rarely is there a case history available exactly on the topic in early emerging technology advances, so you have to piece together a logical discussion from existing publications or first principles of physics.

I have thought about writing a book, but for that task to be effective it usually requires multiple authors. I have recently been helping some geophysical authors on editing content and concepts to yield instructive books. Also, in 2017 I will be creating some lunch and learn seminars, WebEx presentations, and instructive course work, etc. I certainly know this is a big task and hope my many friends will help with useful examples.

Personally, over the years I have found that I can suggest interesting good value topics, but have lacked the discipline to write a detailed article; there are many graduate students who need a mentor and topic in which they can show their abilities and creative solutions.

Looks like you founded your own consulting company, Lunen and Associates in 1997, even before you received your M.Sc. from University of Texas. Would you say you acquired such business sense early on in your career? What kind of help or guidance have you been imparting to different companies?

I actually formed my own consulting company in 1990 after leaving Schlumberger. There were two career goals envisioned at the time, and these involved:

Earning experience and credibility in sub-discipline topics such as acquisition, processing and interpretation. Previous experience in VSP and petrophysics from Schlumberger and SSC seemed to be a narrow professional niche in which everyone thought they were an expert, but unless applications usage changed, the need for such knowledge would be very limited. At the time, I perceived the future of integrated borehole seismic and petrophysics (beyond time depth profiles and correlation) would emerge in reservoir characterization and in support of modeling to understand exploitation of reservoirs. The envisioned questions in my head at that time were:

  • Seismic inversion required an improved wavelet extraction (and there are many wavelet available in seismic, but which one to use and for what purpose). Further, seismic inversion, which at the time was mostly post-stack, would likely improve in quality as the method shifted to pre-stack elastic processes.
  • Low frequency model determination and/or building useful 3-D regional low frequency models to support seismic inversion.
  • Implementation of AVO methods onshore, not so much for the detection of fluid type, but characterizing the lithology and porosity within a reservoir. Plus, usage in fracture reservoir dual porosity media.

Also, at the time I was interested in investing and earning working interest in producing wells in the Permian Basin. If you look at Midland Texas, you see a long history of independent producers (emerging from 1950’s) all claiming to use the latest technology. That personal goal and technical application implementation led me rapidly into the realm of petroleum investment decisions, discussions with investors, banks, and reserve analysis. Gradually I built a reputation of being on the cutting edge of technical applications, but I also built a credible understanding of the global investment (or business) decision framework.

You have worked on a broad range of geophysical applications that include GLI inversion, time-depth-velocity conversion for complex sub-thrust areas, neural network applications, seismic data acquisition techniques, rock physics and microseismic applications to shale plays. Could you tell us in a general sense, about the different problems you have tackled in each of these areas?

  • GLI and elastic inversion I mentioned above, particularly the improvement of rock lithology porosity, and subtle characterization which integrates petrophysics.
  • Exposure to sub-thrust plays came about in two arenas. First in West Texas and Oklahoma along the Central Basin Platform and Anadarko thrust belt plays. Second arena, and my favorite, was the thrust belt along the Andes Mountain in Bolivia, Columbia, and Venezuela.
  • Neural networks were an extension of my interest in quantitative petrophysical characterization as a link between seismic response and producing reservoir characteristics, particularly in carbonates media. Pattern recognition when applied properly allows one to make consistent, confident, repeatable interpretations from the seismic data. That work again was mostly in the Permian Basin, south Texas, but also a number of major carbonate reservoirs of the middle east. Some of this pattern recognition work also enabled me to recognize fracture zone characteristics consistently and describe the zone in the shape of a subtle geo-body within the seismic image.
  • Seismic data acquisition and processing has fascinated me by its ability to influence quantitative results derived from interpretation, and to influence synthetic modeling and attributes commonly used by interpreters. We all say the design of 3D seismic surveys is critical but how often do we actually “go beyond” that phrase into evaluations which predict imaging response in reservoir characterization and resolution sensitivity?
  • My first exposure to microseismic technology was nearly 35 years ago when I was a graduate student in rock mechanics. At the time many authors could explain microseismic effects eloquently, but observations were based on analogue data recording. I argued and believed there was tremendous upside in using seismic and ultrasonic lab measurements in understanding rock properties and stress, but without digital processing algorithms the challenge would be slow to emerge into valuable business framework (particularly in the petroleum industry). Hence, many years later in the early 2000s the technology emerged again with digital processing algorithms. Microseismic is not only about positioning of event locations, but for understanding the physical rock properties and stress associated with the source mechanism as well. More recently now that the source mechanism is understood better, the next question to answer would be what changes in completion practices could be suggested.

Are there other areas of geophysics that fascinate you in particular?

Yes, there are. Mining geophysics applications, particularly applications of gravity and magnetics to mineral searches, and seismic methods to assess stress and fractured rock masses are a few other areas of my interest.

Accounting for anisotropy in shale plays is important for coming up with accurate results. In your expert opinion, how much of this is being done in our industry, and what more needs to be done to make it happen in short order?

There is considerable technical work to be done on anisotropic media seismic and its calibration with petrophysical framework. Within reservoir characterization, there will be two topics of intense development in the next few years. Both topics are tied to implementation of anisotropic media, seismic wavelet extraction from anisotropic media and attenuation.

In today’s reservoir characterization and modeling there are two types of anisotropic media commonly discussed: VTI and HTI (of course there is the combined form TTI), which are tied closely to the laminated rock media description in litho-stratigraphy and fractured media representation.

Although we claim considerable expertise on VTI processing in 3D seismic, our accuracy does not achieve the thresholds to help interpret realistic vertical and horizontal flow models which are the critical input elements not routinely available today. Critical data input into reservoir models used by engineers include porosity and natural fracture networks. 3D seismic VTI processing is almost always improved significantly with inclusion of borehole seismic (VSP) and elastic sonic waveform data. Yet there are still arguments about the intrinsic value of borehole seismic data sets.

The influence and claims of HTI processing to describe fractured rock masses or faulted trap boundary closure are still emerging. We need more examples quantified in fracture zone characterization in terms of fracture intensity, connectedness, and lateral variations within the seismic volume or cube. The learnings derived from our work in recent years suggest that we are still quite primitive in processing and interpretation of HTI media.

Of course, we realize that the orthorhombic media representation is preferred, but the stepping stones to that phase are in proper implementation of VTI and HTI data processing and interpretation.

Both of these anisotropic media need to be described with respect to a calibrating reference based on petrophysical data and contrasted with difference or deviation from Isotropic rock media model. Anisotropic media interpretation is very dependent on understanding waveform propagation through reservoir media. Yet we still lack implementation of full waveform modeling and inversion concepts into our workflows.

And there is another very large hole in acquisition practices; our acquisition techniques are not presently allowing us to investigate anisotropic media resolution and sensitivity in a manner useful for quantitative interpretation. Today, if you read an article on acquisition design and operations planning, it rarely considers a design useful for measuring anisotropic media in a quantitative sense.

As you have championed the benefits of integrated shale resource characterization, I would like to ask you about how much value do you think multicomponent seismic data can bring to such an exercise?

There are two world arenas that consider multi-component reflection seismic data (MCRS) somewhat routinely: onshore China and Canada. MCRS has been a topic of research interest in many very qualified university consortia, but has had two stumbling blocks, namely acquisition and processing. In recent years, Arcis, CGG and other companies have developed consistent acquisition QC and analysis standards. The MCRS of horizontally layered media does not cause data processing firms to throw up their hands in painful anguish anymore as well.

Anisotropic media analysis (shale reservoir characterization) provides a useful area where the technology can deliver valuable results not achieved by traditional wide azimuth 3D methods. There are two critical pieces of information necessary for the exploitation of low porosity perm reservoirs (or “shale”): detailed mapping on seismic scale of rock properties in terms of mechanical parameters such as Young’s modulus, Poisson's Ratio, etc.; and the subsurface geostress model. Trying to extract useful data from 3D acoustic data requires the interpreter to make large-scale assumptions in effective homogeneity and isotropic media. But these assumptions can be dropped or loosened if we use MCRS and AVA techniques of mode converted waveforms analysis. I would say we are 80% of the way through this technology evolution, but there are still some problems to be addressed in amplitude restoration and wavelet dependency of simultaneous PS propagation. The work we did in the last 7 years clearly indicates we are capable of analyzing fractured reservoir media in a lateral varying stress environment.

What are the directions in which some of the R and D worldwide is focused in our industry? What is your impression about (a) the important developments that people can expect in geophysics in the near future (b) anything path breaking that we can expect that would revolutionize things, after the 3D seismic adoption in the 1980s and becoming a routine in early 1990s?

I find the usefulness of full-waveform elastic media models to be very encouraging and likely to rapidly influence our interpretation concepts and workflows. Hopefully these concepts can be combined with pattern recognition techniques to support quantitative reservoir characterization.

It is sometimes said that ‘incremental advances can lead to revolutionary ideas or applications’. Would you agree? Do you think such a quote would be appropriate for geophysics?

Yes, our profession entails incremental advances in technical application with applied math and physics. We derive a large number of valuable technical analogue advances when we examine electrical and mechanical engineering disciplines, or advances in acoustic and optical physics. Geophysics as most of us "live it" is high-end or hybrid applications of physics and engineering applied to geological observations.

What would be your message for young geophysicists entering our profession?

Today geophysics is much more than simply interpretation, as many believe. To be successful you must understand and have credible experience in seismic acquisition, seismic processing, and quantitative interpretation with geology background skills. Most major business technical failures now occur in the handoff between acquisition, processing, and interpretation.

Today has more intensive demands on understanding and comprehension of physics first principals and the math used to quantify the results

Give up on the belief that you are smarter than the next geophysicist; most ideas spring up simultaneously in several companies at once, so the real issue is doing the work right with careful attention to QC and analysis.

If you have a passion for applied physics and geology and are willing to accept the cyclic nature of petroleum industry up and downs… hang on… it will take time but you will get started. Just be able to show you will not be idle in intermittent down cycles.

Let me share a secret I learned early from my mentors. We all like to talk about our successful applications of geophysics technology, but often there is just as much to learn from a failure or “ambiguous or muddled interpretation”. Failure or ambiguity often had its roots in poor acquisition and processing workflows without rigorous QC&A when first principles of physics of waveform propagation were not implemented correctly. Hence, describing both success and failure in case studies allows one to increase learning confidence much more rapidly than if an interpreter only examined successful examples.


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