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Watch out for Paul Bunyan

‘Take a look at this prospect.’ These few words carry great weight, initiating a process that can eventually cost a company millions.

As geologists, we are required to be optimistic or we would never develop anything. On the other hand, we need to be critical, hunting down and interpreting every last piece of data to construct a realistic geological model. I don’t think I used to be conscious of this, but I’ve realized that I begin analyzing prospects by assuming there are major flaws in any previous assessments. Then whether or not I come to the original author’s conclusion, I try to let my assessment sit and stew for a day or two before sending it up the chain.

As a manager, I would ask that you do the same. I have seen geologists, new and experienced, fall into the trap of believing other people’s BS. This habit carries the greatest danger in marginal prospects because excellent and terrible prospects should be more obvious. We will use our geological model and a quantification of its uncertainties to rank the new prospect relative to ones we already have or others that are available. Our recommendations will be used to decide which leases to acquire and where to spend our exploration and drilling budgets. Team members must ask challenging questions and think of alternative models that also fit the data. We should also try to tease out the technical flaws, in a friendly way, whether they under- or over-estimate. Maybe there are zones behind casing that could be perforated; maybe there has been enough exploration to justify walking away; maybe new technology could improve performance.

Another dangerous temptation lurks in old prospects, places various companies have explored over time, with or without drilling. The data are sparse or scattered, the geophysics might be old, but there are rumours, perhaps even a mythology, of missed greatness. This is the one that got away, and we have an opportunity to reel it in. The reports are positive and with limited available data we may be swayed to give it a higher ranking or to believe the rumours. I have started referring to these as Paul Bunyan stories. Paul Bunyan is a folklore character, a giant lumberjack, whose exploits were exaggerated from stories of real pioneers. In exploration prospect terms, a Paul Bunyan is a place someone did some initial work and maybe drilled a well. The stories got distorted over time, via some real-world telephone game, and inflated hints of resource to gushers that collapsed. When you look hard at these tall tales, there are indications of resource, but the data are incomplete, maybe because exploration happened a long time ago or for some other reason. An optimistic geologist working for the selling company has written a glowing description. They do not appear to have any more data.

There is always more data out there. Find it, talk to the original geologists if possible. Find out what they were thinking. Data hunting is not glamorous, but finding missed information is crucial and is a great feeling. But most importantly, it can save thousands on new data and possibly millions on wells. Creating a critical interpretation of the available data, and ignoring the Paul Bunyan stories, is invaluable — and it is what we are paid to do.

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