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A tale of two meetings

The noes have it - voting at a PGC-7 debate.Sarah Day fought through the banner-waving hordes on the outside to attend the 7th Petroleum Geology Conference on the inside.

Geoscientist 19.7 July 2009

The last six months have been a reality check. On April Fools’ day, slap bang in the middle of the 7th Petroleum Geology Conference (31 March – 2 April), thousands marched through London demanding to know why realities had not been faced sooner, and what will be done about it all. So was it the best of timings, or the worst of timings for PGC VII?

Some would say it was actually perfect. The oil industry remains central to many of the issues on the protestors’ lips – the environment, future energy supplies, the economy. Petroleum Geologists, as well as politicians, have had to face up to reality.

Over 700 attended the Conference in Westminster, where as well as the usual poster programme and talks, a series of debates tackled some of the most topical issues facing the industry. Throughout, I caught a sense that a period of uncertainty and change had begun – Richard Hardman, arguing that North Sea exploration is finished, and warning that explorers are like artists, who risk allowing their natural optimism to blind them to reality. Marlan Downey, meanwhile, suggested that his argument for the future of national oil companies felt like a eulogy.

For many, the change is natural, as the oil business adapts itself to the future. One of the most tangible signs was the inclusion for the first time of virtual field trips. Using only a projector screen, speakers spirited attendees as far away as France, Portugal, Egypt and Utah. The field trips used LiDAR – Light Detection and Ranging – to obtain highly accurate data on ground elevation. (A laser is used to measure the distance between an aircraft and the ground, often with a digital photograph added, for greater realism.)

Speakers were keen to address the main issue that these field trips brought up – were they designed to replace real trips? The message from all was that they were a useful tool but that “getting your hands on the rocks” remained as important as ever. Virtual field trips were a great way to access places that would otherwise be difficult, and for remotely sensing data; but ultimately the models they generate could only be tested by drilling. And as one speaker demonstrated, the inclusion of a “virtual beer” at the end of a virtual trip could never quite match the real thing.

Through technologies such as this the oil industry is moving rapidly towards the future. It remains divided, however, as to what that future might be - as the “geocontroversies” debates showed. Sessions devoted to carbon capture and storage (CCS), and its potential for helping meet emissions reduction targets which the UK has committed itself to, also brought up the question. CCS, as keynote speaker Raymond Levey (University of Utah) pointed out, may well become the biggest industry in the world one day, and is inextricably linked to the oil business itself. What other industry, he asked, has the opportunity to make such an important difference to the world? What other industry has found itself in a position where, simply by applying its own principles in reverse, it can play a vital role in developing a sustainable future?

So yes, the timing of the event might after all have been just right. While outside the protestors were calling on governments to address the problem of climate change, reduce emissions, face reality, inside those with the knowledge and expertise to make it happen were discussing practicalities. Yet despite this, the CCS sessions were not well attended. One speaker pointed out wryly that, in a few years’ time, when it has all become unavoidable, his audience might be rather larger.

Petroleum geology has already embraced the virtual realities of the future. Now is a good time to embrace the true realities.

The debates

Tuesday: This house believes Peak Oil is no longer a concern

The inevitable “Peak Oil” debate was fronted by John Underhill of the University of Edinburgh, who spoke for the motion, and sun-king Jerry Leggett, who in the past has campaigned for Greenpeace as well as working in the oil industry. Leggett’s main criticism of the proposal was that, while the concept of ‘peak oil’ may have changed since it was first introduced, to claim that it is no longer a concern is a step too far towards complacency. Despite Underhill’s attempts to relieve anxiety by pointing out how quickly we have been able to cope with energy shortages in the past, the majority of the audience agreed that the issue remains a concern, and voted against the motion.

Wednesday: Are National Oil Companies (NOC) the future of the petroleum industry?

Marlan Downey, after 50 years’ experience in multinational oil companies, opened the debate by stating that his speech felt like giving the eulogy. He mourned the passing of a century of international oil companies, likening this to “the wisdom of recognising life as it is, not as we once had it”. Peter Gaffney argued that the real power lies not with the oil companies, national or multinational, but with geologists. The sourcing and extraction of oil will always be an international geological project, he suggested. The audience disagreed, and voted for the motion.

Thursday: Is exploration in the North Sea finished?

In perhaps the biggest reality check of the lot, Richard Hardman argued that the possibilities for new companies to explore the North Sea are over, and that the oil industry must face up to the fact that it can no longer hope to profit from North Sea exploration. Jim Hannon opposed the argument, suggesting that while politics and investment may be problems in the short term, the reserves that remain are timeless, and should not be walked abandoned. Despite Hardman’s likening of those who opposed the motion to “turkeys voting for Christmas to be postponed”, the audience did not agree, and voted against.