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Know what you don’t know – the value of specialists

In upstream oil and gas, perhaps more than in any other industry it’s vital to know what you don’t know. This might be a case of quantifying the uncertainty of the crude oil market, or recognising that you should interrogate your assumptions about a reservoir. And it’s also a matter of knowing when your own expertise has reached its limit.

Usually it’s the subsurface manager that needs to make the call – “We need a specialist.” Chances are, they’ll need to do this at least once per project, since every field will have at least one complex aspect, and it’ll need an uncommon kind of expertise to make sense of it.


Why you need a specialist

It’s far from rare for specialists to get left out of the picture. Perhaps a development geologist has convinced themselves they have the skills to handle complex structural geology or geomechanics, or perhaps a reservoir engineer wants to try their hand at building a geocellular model.

Sometimes they can get away with it – the field might have a simple structure, or be mechanically simple, and the reservoir might be easy enough to model. The issue is, oil and gas fields are highly variable, and if you can’t recognise when a project crosses the line into complexity, it’s all too easy for generalists to oversimplify the subsurface description  – perhaps leading to poor well design, poor profiles, and overlooked opportunities.


What exactly is a specialist?

In order to gain technical mastery of a complex task, people need to complete that task over and over – but this simply isn’t possible when the task is rarely required. Most generalists will only participate in a specialist area a handful of times over their entire career – far too infrequently to know where the pitfalls lie.

Some of these specialisms fall within the common geology, geophysics and reservoir engineering disciplines – our own Alan Atkinson for instance, would describe himself as a geophysicist, but he’s most known for his specialist knowledge and mastery of depth conversion. Most geoscientists might only perform 20 depth conversions in as many years. By contrast, Alan has run hundreds of depth conversions during his career, including 80 on a single field in an intensive month-long study.

Other specialisms, like petrophysics, have their own discipline, but not one that you can easily study or enter into by other means. Petrophysicists were once more common, but they’ve become rarer over time – they’ve become a specialist through their rarity.


A closer look at geomodelling

To delve into an example of a specialism, we spoke to our expert geomodeller Ingrid Demaerschalk, who has extensive experience building reservoir models for a range of depositional environments.

As she puts it, modelling is all about integrating the work of different disciplines – geostatistics, grid design, depth conversion, structural geology, sedimentology, reservoir engineering and so on – and understanding them enough to bring their work together to create a dynamic model.

It’s never a linear process. You can’t define the workflow exactly before you begin. Instead you need to act a little like Sherlock Holmes, observing the information piece by piece before you can know what premise you need to investigate next. You iterate, integrate, interpret – and repeat – and eventually the model lines up.

It’s fantastically easy to build a poor model and not realise the mistakes that have gone into it. If a generalist attempts modelling, they might not be making any major mistakes, but they won’t be following best practice for every step. When every step isn’t optimised, it accumulates to a sizeable impact on what you think you know about a reservoir.


How to draw upon specialists in your organisation

Different companies will have to take different approaches depending on their size and resources. The supermajors, for instance, would build most of their models using a geomodeller from a central team of specialists. It doesn’t matter that these specialists will rarely be needed. The supermajors have enough projects, and enough resources, and they know the value these specialists bring.

Naturally, smaller companies don’t have this luxury. Employing a team of specialists to keep in reserve for rare occasions isn’t feasible. For this reason, it’s easier for them to get stuck in the habit of relying on the development geologist.

There is a better way, and that’s to bring external specialists in when you need them – and sometimes before you’re certain you need them. Not only will they be able to produce reliable work much faster than a generalist attempting the same task, it’ll be a form of indirect coaching for your team. The more your team works with geomodellers, sedimentologists, and so on, the more they’ll understand and appreciate those disciplines, broadening their own capabilities.


It’s better to bring in specialists too early than too late

If in doubt, you can always hire a specialist for a few hours to tell you if they’re needed – and while this might sound extravagant at face value, it’s actually very savvy.

Specialists will be able to quickly identify if the direction you’re taking is correct. For instance, a geomodeller can and will tell you if you’re asking for a model that you don’t really need, possibly saving you from wasting months to build one in-house.

That’s a far better scenario to be in than the other way around  –  where you build a model in-house and then give it to a specialist to review mere weeks before the final investment decision. If they turn around and say there’s issues and they can’t really approve the model, you might be loath to put the brakes on your project – letting the train leave the station without knowing the state of the tracks ahead.

At Rockflow, we have a team of specialists who have achieved technical mastery in their respective fields. Combining their uncommon knowledge with an integrated understanding of all disciplines, they’ll know how to offer the right specialist support for the challenges you’re facing.

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