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The Dark Art's great payoff

The jigsaw puzzle is a very seductive proxy for any kind of mystery, mainly because you just have to determine which piece fits where and eventually the whole picture will gloriously emerge.

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The trouble is, some vindictive person (probably that theoretical physicist I mention in The Dark Art of regional geology) has grabbed a handful of pieces from the middle and thrown them out of the window. They’re going to take a long time to find! We still want to complete the picture — but how?

The highly focused scientists I call Detail People would say, ‘Obviously, we need more data.’ True, but right now we don’t have that luxury. Fortunately, regional geologists are quite comfortable, because that hole is where they spend most of their time. To them, there’s already an abundance of information. The hills and fields around the outside tell you it’s a pastoral scene. It’s reasonable to suggest more hills or a lake in the middle. A tractor or grazing cow is quite plausible. On the other hand, a battleship is vanishingly unlikely.

That’s the regional geologist’s job — to propose credible models using scattered and uneven data, and to extrapolate, often over long distances. You can confirm or modify this working model as you get more data. Of course, you might have been spectacularly wrong, too. In which case, open that window again and throw your hypothesis out. There’s no room for pride in regional geology. Good regional geologists crave confirmation of their ideas, but they love arguing even more. The last thing they want is for their ideas to be slavishly applied without challenge.

Why is all this useful? The answer is that great new ideas often arise by combining the knowledge of the Detail People, who don’t have the time or inclination to think about how their areas relate, into what regional geologists do. Good regional geologists beg, borrow, and steal. They promiscuously absorb other people’s ideas and weld this second-hand information into a new whole. In the petroleum industry, that new whole can sometimes lead to big discoveries.

Major oil companies have vast databases, consistent methodologies for calculating risk and resources, and an ability to rank every basin on the globe. And yet they are not usually the first entrant into a new play. That’s because, despite what pundits tell you, you can’t systematize your way to frontier success. In fact, most of the major breakthroughs over the last decade, both conventional and unconventional, were made by independent oil companies without the benefit of big databases and systematics. Sure the big boys came in later, wallets bulging, to mop up the spoils, but for all their advantages they weren’t the mould-breakers.

I have asked a number of experienced industry analysts why this is the case. Were the successful independents just the lottery winners? For every success, were there another 20 who went bust? Well, maybe. But it also turns out that a common factor between many of the successful independents was their hiring policy — the deliberate targeting of geologists with proven track records and big regional ideas. They couldn’t afford to amass a global investment portfolio and play the odds, so instead they opted to dabble in the Dark Art. They brought in a few highly qualified obsessives, and gave them the resources to play their ideas out. Invariably, those ideas came down to making connections: extrapolating between basins, or boldly extending a geological idea into a new domain.

All of which might explain why I ended a recent talk to a group of regional geologists with the slogan ‘the next big oil play is already in our heads.’ I meant that the individuals in the room had bodies of knowledge which, when combined and nurtured, might result in a flash of insight and a new exploration direction. For me, seeing a new idea materialize in that way is one of our Dark Art’s great payoffs.

Use names to manage data

The unified AVO equation

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