O&G – Exploration and industry 4.0

In an earlier post [LINK] I briefly introduced the four areas of upstream value chain that could benefit from the 4th Industrial Revolution. Here I put forward some potentially controversial points about how this may (or may not) affect Exploration.

First of all my definition: Exploration is concerned with finding and appraising new deposits of Hydrocarbons trapped under the surface of the earth. It’s the identification of these that I am addressing here, not how (or if they can be) exploited.

There have been many advances made in technology in the previous 25 years that have transformed the process of finding deposits. The two most notable have been around the use of remote sensing through Seismic Data, and the accuracy with which deviated wells can be drilled. Seismic acts like an x-ray into the composition of the rocks, while new wells use precision direction control and combine it with analysis of real-time feedback from rock measurements surrounding the drill bit to let operators steer the trajectory in real-time.

Many of the advances that have been harnessed could legitimately be described as pioneering in the technology of sensing, big-data, simulation and automation. These are the key technologies underpinning the 4th industrial revolution. Exploration got there first.

In my work with small companies seeking investment I continue to see a slew of new start-ups with fancy seismic algorithms claiming to be able to spot even more obscure sources of previously unidentified hydrocarbons. Maybe they work. Who cares?

In my view the major gains from the 4th Industrial Revolution have already been captured in exploration. Perhaps we are close to entering an era of more stable oil prices – driven by: elasticity of supply from shale; abundant reserves released from both tight reservoirs and hydrates; and managed demand through smart technology, electric drive-trains, renewable generation and batteries. So the commercial pressure to find obscure resource pools may have gone.

In the North sea there are over 300 pools of hydrocarbons already discovered but not yet developed [LINK]. So the question is: even if the new technologies are successful will they have a significant impact for operators? I suspect the answer is no.

New algorithms and systems may provide marginal gains around the edges of existing fields and provide additional in-fill development opportunities. They may reduce the number of people in G&G dept 10%. Commodification of techniques (as happened for 3D animation) may see the demise of some companies and job-roles. But I don’t think it’s going to provide a revolutionary impact. Of course, I may be wrong.

If I am right, this suggests that there will be two main opportunities for companies providing technology here – either to provide an “add-on” to the main interpretation platforms (Petrel, OpenWorks) and then sell small numbers of seats to operators in special circumstances, or attempt a wholescale assault to replace the platforms already in place. Neither of these are revolutionary for operators and result in minor cost reduction by pitting service company against service company.

I think the 4th industrial revolution is likely to provide only a small impact on the dynamics of this part of the value-chain. There may be a displacement of revenue from one software vendor to another, there may be some marginal in-fill development opportunities that will add more elasticity to oil supply (and help to further stabalise prices) but neither of those are going to be massive nor revolutionary. I think that the 4th Industrial Revolution gains have been captured already – AI, auto-pickers, attribute statistics, simulations, integration, cloud, geolocation, computing power in the hands of individuals – the main technologies are already in place. Gains from here-on-in will be marginal.

There is one thing that may change my view, however. If this happens it will have a profound impact and swing power towards the national resource owners. If these innovations are adopted at the level of the nation state things may change.

National Data Banks were established in the 1990’s (example LINK) to hold archives of seismic and well data and make them publicly available. These may get a boost.  Cloud technology and on-line AI-based mining-algorithms may change the way that license economics work by de-risking exploration and encouraging competition. If this is combined with a stable oil price there is a potential recipe for reduction in the incentives needed for exploration companies. That could change the economics and the structure of the discover, farm-down, refinance, develop and keep carried-interest process that is used today.