Technology-led exploration success

Meg Chesshyre

May 1, 2015

For Shell, exploration isn’t just about the seismic, it’s about joining up the petabytes’ worth of seismic dots between its global team of experts. Meg Chesshyre reports.

Subsurface imaging, but also handling the huge amounts of data now created by seismic surveys and finding ways to share it, have been part of Shell’s exploration program. Photos from Shell.

The importance of technology in overcoming current exploration challenges was underlined by Shell’s global head for exploration, Ceri Powell, at a recent briefing at the company’s learning center at Rijswijk, in Holland.

“I really think it is about more brain cells per barrel,” she says. “Technology is a means to enable geologists and geophysicists to overcome the challenges that we have in the subsurface today.” To this end Shell’s research and development budget has averaged US$1.1 billion/yr over the last five years.

The efforts are bearing fruit. 2014 was an excellent year for Shell exploration-wise for the company, with particular successes have been in Malaysia, the Gulf of Mexico and Gabon (see below for more detail).

“We’ve had 11 major exploration successes, exploration discoveries, complemented by 41 near field discoveries,” Powell says. The 2014 overall success rate was 80%, compared with an industry average of 40%.

Making research accessible

For Bettina Bachmann, vice president, subsurface & wells software, Shell, the importance of making research, technology and IT accessible to the explorer on the ground is key to exploration success. “The researchers make the algorithms and do the research on the pilot. We take these things and productize them.”

The new technology is, however, valuable if it can be used by remote exploration teams, to help them make well proposals, go into bid rounds, etc.

Bettina Bachmann.

She said that as wells became more capital intensive, Shell developed a platform model, accessible across the business, called WellVantage providing a real-time, automated data stream. The business benefits of WellVantage include: monitoring by experts being feasible for most wells, real-time data accessible to experts and around the world, global replication of best practices and faster learning. WellVantage resulted in a reduced number of people at the rig site, shared measuring while drilling/directional drilling resources for multiple rigs, collaboration between geoscientists and well delivery teams for instant decision making, and improved wellbore placement. Automation offered: improved personal process safety, consistency and repeatability of drilling operations, and increased efficiency of drilling operations.

Another challenging area for the industry is the scale of the growth in subsurface seismic data. Bachmann said that Shell was now moving from hundreds of TBytes (1000 GBytes) to more than 10 PBytes (1000 TBytes) per seismic survey. “A PByte of data is like a 250m-high pile of DVDs. A seismic survey that is acquired with five dimensions is now 20 PBytes.

This presents challenges in terms of transport from survey location to processing site. “How you actually bring big data from A to B?” There were also challenges in processing and storage. New satellite developments, new opportunities to develop speed fiber optic communication systems, Cloud developments, and high performance computer capabilities were all being worked on.

Bachmann stressed the importance of E2E (end-to-end delivery) – from development to deployment and support. Three years ago a series of local support and development teams were set up, now numbering 26. These regional teams cover work flow support, deployment projects and data management. The teams can orchestrate the deployment of new software, making sure that the right hardware and operating systems are in place. “That way we have connected end-to-end the developers of the software with the deployers of the software. Once a year we bring them all together.”

Subsurface imaging.

Exploration success

Shell’s methods are bearing fruit, with exploration successes in Malaysia, the Gulf of Mexico and Gabon.

In 2014 in Malaysia, there were nine material discoveries. Two of the largest discoveries, the Rosmari and Marjoram gas discoveries, added 200 MMboe to Shell’s portfolio, and overall Malaysia added 300 MMboe. This included a 100% track record in the near-field exploration with five out of five well successes. A cost cutting innovation in the Malaysian campaign had been the use of a shallow water rig to drill a deviated well into a deeper water prospect, thus halving the cost of the rig hire.

In the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, a big heartland for Shell, there were four oil discoveries last year. These were: the Rydberg oil discovery, the Kaikias oil discovery, Power Nap and Gettysburg. The 100 MMboe Rydberg discovery is in the Norphlet play. Together with the Appomattox and Vicksburg discoveries, this brings the total potential Norphlet discoveries to over 700 MMboe. Kiakas is very close to Shell’s existing Mars infrastructure.

In 2014, Shell discovered Leopard 1, a pre-salt offshore deepwater gas discovery (200m net gas pay) in block BCD10 offshore Gabon. This is a frontier region for Shell and “potentially a very interesting new arena,” Powell says. The intention is to appraise it in 3Q 2015 with the Globetrotter II drillship, once it has completed its current assignment drilling the deepwater Şile-1 wildcat for Shell in partnership with TPAO in the Black Sea.

The 41 near-field discoveries represent an 85% success rate. These provide, “TD to cash as soon as possible,” says Powell, in areas such as Brunei, Egypt, Malaysia and Oman. “In Brunei, we are now hooking-up wells within 30 days of finishing the well.” In Oman, Shell added 150 MMbbl of new oil last year from an 11-well campaign.

New plays

New country entries in 2014/2015 have been Namibia, Myanmar and Algeria. Shell is in the first phases of deepwater exploration offshore Namibia and Myanmar, working through geology and geophysics, and acquiring seismic.

Namibia, on the Atlantic Margin, is a good example of the global connectivity of the subsurface. There is renewed interest in exploration onshore, partly because of technological advances in seismic imaging. Shell has recently entered Algeria with partner Repsol, acquiring a licence in February 2015 in the Atlas Mountains. In Oman, the company is carrying out wide azimuthing surveys onshore. There have also been successes in Albania and Egypt.

Shell is still preparing to drill offshore Alaska, but there are no timings available at this point. It will depend upon the permitting requirements, the legislative requirements and whether Shell is confident at the senior level that it can explore safely and responsibly, the company said.

Powell is aware the hurdles ahead. “I am also very conscious of the fact that in 2015 we enter into another phase of volatility within the oil price,” she says. “It’s part of our job to manage through those cycles of volatility, to make sure we don’t lose capabilities. We don’t lose sight of the long-term.” Deepwater discoveries can take eight, 10, 12 years before they move into production.