Fresh-faced from university I joined one of the UK’s biggest biostratigraphic consultancies as a foraminiferologist in the early 1980s. The North Sea industry had long outgrown short trousers but was still relatively youthful, new plays such as the Eocene were yet to be discovered and drilling west of Shetland seemed wildly optimistic. Biostratigraphy was largely an exploration tool, and the analysis of individual wells, their aggregation into sub-regional studies, and sporadic wellsite work were the stock-in-trade for a thriving organization. The company was geared up to produce a standard product with little room for manoeuvre, an effective way to channel the labours of a lively, young population into a consistent and repeatable format.
At the time, few of the mid-sized or smaller client oil companies employed in-house biostratigraphers. It sometimes seemed that our potentially critical input was viewed with a scepticism that could border on the unhealthy. Our entirely valid use of Latin names hardly rendering our contribution more intelligible. Biostratigraphy could quite readily be bulldozed out of the way by the client oil company if it failed to support their subsurface model. While seismic data could be re-processed at a cost of millions of dollars, biostratigraphy — less expensive by at least two orders of magnitude — was a one-shot wonder. It was often undertaken with little background data, sometimes even without wireline logs. Biostratigraphy seemed to sit at arm’s length from the main event.
It wasn’t just about money. Seismic processing might take a matter of months to complete but our Achilles heel was the time taken to produce a full biostratigraphic report for a well. At the other end of the spectrum, so-called hot shot samples could be dropped on us from the North Sea by helicopter with little or no notice and a head-spinning turnaround time to be met. Visits to oil company offices met with a varied, occasionally bemused, reception. A query as to how we could credit a microfossil with the specific name of trivialis did little to engender a feeling that we were batting for the same team. Or indeed that we were on the same planet.
I recall a field trip to the Scottish highlands in my early days where we introduced ourselves around the table on the first evening. On informing everyone that I was a micropalaeontologist I was roundly informed by a voluble geophysicist with a well-drained glass, ‘A micropalaeontologist? You deserve all the shit you get!’ This took me back a couple of years to when I held a summer job, tasked with trying to impose biostratigraphic data, hitherto unsullied by use, onto the well stock of a major North Sea operator. One day I was told of an impending visit by the in-house biostratigraphers, a group ordinarily safely corralled overseas, and was asked to hold the fort. An impressive array of bigwigs turned up to shrug and harrumph in splendid isolation, most of the geoscientists having tactically taken the day off. I perceived uncomfortably that biostratigraphy was all well and good when it agreed with seismic and geological models, but could be discarded when it suggested something different, an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle left under the sofa without demur.
Thinking back to university days and my indulgence in matters soft rock and palaeontological, the number of students in palaeontology classes beyond first year had seemed quite low. Perhaps having to draw bivalves on a Friday afternoon left a taint that followed people into industry. Could this Victorian microfossil circus have an impact on a multimillion-dollar well? The unwritten rule seemed to be that the older and harder the rocks, the more kudos was attached. However, while Early Palaeozoic Dalradian amphibolites might tell a remarkable story — whisper it — forams and calcareous nannofossils are remarkably effective in understanding the petroleum geology of the Neogene in so many global basins.
In those days it felt to me as though biostratigraphy and petroleum geology were a bit disconnected — part of the same family but distant cousins — and both were diminished as a result.