The application of detailed and expert analysis of plant and animal microfossils — spores, pollen, dinoflagellates, foraminifera, and other groups — is an essential element of describing the subsurface for the upstream oil and gas industry. In areas of complex geology with challenging drilling conditions, both in the overburden and at the surface, the value of real-time (wellsite) biostratigraphic analysis is often an essential prerequisite for safe and successful drilling operations. On many occasions in my career, I would not have felt safe to embark upon drilling activities without my trusty biostratigrapher watching every inch of key sections of the well.
The value of the biostratigrapher is also unquestioned in the creation of a regional- to reservoir-scale framework to assess a petroleum system or reservoir. They provide essential data for everything from regional exploration to prospect evaluation in the exploration stages of the business. In reservoir appraisal, development, and production the impact of having a reliable high-resolution correlation framework for managing reservoir sweep, well placement, and recovery efficiency can be profound and often not intuitive.
I worry deeply about the gradual and ongoing demise of this critical area of applied petroleum geoscience. Many of the historically successful master's programs and research groups are closing or are already consigned to the past (Bailey & Jones 2012). There is a real shortfall in this core skill and an equally worrying senior-skewed demographic profile to the existing population of experts. In an era of computer-based, button-pushing geoscience it is all too easy to overlook such niche areas of expertise; we must value, sustain, and nurture these specialist disciplines not only to educate the non-specialist geoscientists but also to create the future micropalaeontologists and palynologists. Only specialists will support the business with new knowledge and understanding from original research.
In the UK, the recent creation of a NERC- and industry-sponsored Centre for Doctoral Training in oil and gas recognizes the need for greater investment in subsurface skills and capability for the North Sea and wider. Hopefully as the Centre develops and evolves, we will see applied microbiostratigraphy becoming a core part of the resulting research — albeit a highly specialised part. If you thumb through the proceedings of the Petroleum Geology of Northwest Europe conferences during the 1980s and 90s, or many of the petroleum geoscience-related special publications of the Geological Society of London, one cannot fail to recognize the fundamental influence that applied biostratigraphic palynology and micropalaeontology has had upon realizing value from the North Sea asset base. If we are to be successful in creating future value from those remaining pools, yet-to-find barrels, new plays, and stranded resources, applied biostratigraphy will once again be needed to help us correlate our wells, understand connectivity, and sweep and steer future drilling safely and successfully.
I would like to see much more training in these areas, and also in how the skills and knowledge are applied to exploring for oil and gas, and in successfully developing our resources. It should be a fundamental part of all master’s programs. There should also be increased focus and investment in biostratigraphic research programs. How do we deliver a viable, healthy, and sustainable future? I would argue that we need more bespoke programs — these may be dedicated entirely to biostratigraphy (as offered by the University of Birmingham, UK) or be themes as part of existing master’s courses. We must also proactively seek out research programs and begin to recreate the domain expertise in universities as well as in industry. By addressing these areas we might be able to keep this area of applied geoscience alive and take it off its current ‘life support’ status. The challenge is ours — this skill area is core, and in many cases critical, to safe operations and sound business decision-making.
Bailey, H and R Jones (2012). Threat of extinction. Geoscientist 22 (4), 6.