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Specialists are special

I started my career at a large consulting company (see Signed up for the dur­ation). After the alarums and excursions of the mid-1980s oil-price crash I found myself on the other side of the fence in a large oil company as part of an extensive biostratigraphic group. Ways of conducting business had been gradually changing, with less analytical microscope work retained in-house and more shared among selected consultants. This was a sign of greater trust between client oil companies and consulting firms (whence a growing number of us had sprung), a greatly increased workload, and the realization that exclu­sivity was seldom justifiable on technical or financial grounds.

Biostratigraphers were housed alongside the preparation laboratories and our sedimentological kinfolk. ‘The zoo’, as it was termed, sat semi-detached from the business world upstairs and teemed with scientific kit and a cast of interesting characters. A visit to the laboratories was a treat for geologists and geophysicists wanting to understand more about this specialized underworld. They might even meet the injured guillemot, smuggled in for (an ultimately successful!) recuperation.

Any walls that might have existed between the individual biostratigraphic sub-disciplines were being torn down, despite the occasional retrograde com­ment. Isolated pockets still persisted in the view that, ‘We are the cavalry, the geologists are the foot-soldiers’, which seemed to me both disingenuous and misguided. However, this was a confident group — science was king and we felt bullish about our role in the geo-firmament.

Changes were afoot that further boosted the profile of biostratigraphy, pulling it closer to the mainstream. Sequence stratigraphy bounded onto the scene with the force of the space-hopper craze of my childhood — soon every explora­tion geologist worth his salt was scrawling LST, TST, and HST onto wireline logs, while geophysicists mapped offlaps, onlaps, and downlaps. The gurus were ushered in to preach to the eager congregation, ripe for conversion. Because sequence stratigraphy is all about chronological correlation, biostratigraphy became everyone’s friend, and now we sat alongside geologists and geophysicists in integrated teams. Momentum gathered to such an extent that ‘specialists are special’ became the mantra, with biostratigraphy amply recognized for its contribution in well correlation, palaeonvironmental determination, and seis­mic calibration. Discipline networks arose to ensure greater sharing of methods and practices.

But nothing could shelter us from the real world of languishing oil prices that persisted through the 1990s and biostratigraphers suffered a series of mass extinctions along with our mainstream colleagues. For those who remained, work practices changed disconcertingly, as our microscopes were wheeled away. As environmental stress shapes adaption and evolution, we started to change in response. We morphed, with varying degrees of discomfort, into ‘biostrati­graphic coordinators’ and ‘informed buyers’, although being a micropalaeontol­ogist without a microscope felt at first like being a cavalryman without a horse.

As the North Sea and West of Shetlands matured, a tranche of Palaeocene reservoirs became ripe for development from the mid-1990s onwards and we received every encouragement from management, geoscientists, and engineers to join the collective effort. The cry from field-development geologists that ‘the biostratigraphy has all been done’ was swept away as broad exploration-scale biozonations were superseded by finer-scale bioevents that could help to char­acterize reservoir time-slices and sub-environments more effectively.

The consultancies were an essential element in this new world. Some older, perhaps more conservative, empires were fragmenting and vigorous new ones were springing up like mammals in the Palaeogene, seeking to occupy new niches through innovation. Field-specific biozonations were being developed and their efficacy tested to help monitor and control the drilling of develop­ment wells on the rig. The willingness of consultants to carry embryonic ideas to wellsite gave them an increasingly influential voice in operational decisions.

Gone was the straitjacket of validation against a regional or global biozonation; our focus had changed to a brutal geo-pragmatism. ‘Anything goes’ was writ large as abundance trends, assemblages, absences, reworking — indeed any scraps of biostratigraphic data — were tested for their potential as a field-scale bioevent. Experimentation in the quest for geological application was the order of the day. This further emboldened biostratigraphers in the exploration and appraisal realm, as confidence in refining stratigraphic resolution was passed back along the food chain. ‘More bang for your bug’ was with us; biostratigraphy itself was merrily evolving.

Over the past decade and a half, these substantial tweaks to the sphere of bios­tratigraphy have become firmly embedded and the discipline has moved along once again. One day — when the pace of things slows just a little — I will write the next instalment of this story.

Seek out the biostrat

Pemberton’s laws of stratigraphy, part 2