PGS Technical Marketing Vice President Andrew Long has experienced the highs and lows that life can offer during his quest with geophysics and has emerged as one of the most influential minds in the seismic industry.
Andrew commenced his journey in geophysics after realising that he would not be suited to a career in medicine. He had worked very hard to become the best student at his high school with the goal of becoming a doctor. After being accepted into a university medical course, Andrew began to reconsider whether he could manage six years at university and the excessive hours that most doctors are required to work.
He said his misgivings about medicine were ironic as he had spent about 10 years at university and had worked a significant amount of overtime in his career as a geophysicist. Once he declined the offer to study for a medical degree, the only obvious alternative for Andrew was science. So he began the first year of his science degree with a medical scholarship and, for the first time, had no specific idea about the direction of his career.
The issue quickly began to make more sense to Andrew when he saw his friends, who were completing geology degrees, participating in field trips. He enjoyed camping and hiking and, as a result, decided that geology offered one of the easiest career alternatives.
Andrew had to study first and second year geology and third year geophysics simultaneously to complete a geophysics degree at Melbourne University. He then moved to Perth in 1986 on advice from John Denham of BHP. Unfortunately, as he was completing his first degree at the end of 1986, the oil industry crashed, leaving most graduates without a job.
Andrew, along with quite a few of his fellow classmates, continued studying for a masters degree but about half-way through the first year he was involved in a serious accident while carrying out seismic testing in Moora. The freak accident occurred during one of the first 3D surveys to be conducted in Australia.
Curtin University would take some of its Master’s students out to Moora every winter. Andrew said that on this particular day the group was firing shots, which were buried underground: the group would move back from the firing range once the charge was set and stand still so that their movements didn’t interfere with the seismic readings.
It was while the final shot was being fired before the midday-break that the accident occurred: The shot fired in the normal manner but, as Andrew moved in to remove copper wires from the ground, the shot vented a second time and struck Andrew in the chest, forcing his chest back and projecting him about 3 m into the air. His neck was dislocated during the blast and, as he attempted to get up after the explosion, Andrew discovered he couldn’t move his feet.
After waiting on the field for two hours, he was driven by ambulance back to Perth. The Mines Department returned to the site of the accident about a week after the incident and, Andrew said, they found unusually large amounts of heavy plasticine clay in the area. He said the same double-shot occurred the week following the accident but fortunately no-one was hurt.
For the first two months in hospital, he was in traction so that the bones in his body could ‘knit’ together. The next phase of rehabilitation involved daily physiotherapy and strength training. One of the positive outcomes of the accident was that he met his future wife in the hospital where he was recuperating.
It wasn’t until 1988 that Andrew was ready to return to the career he had begun, even though many doubters said he would be permanently incapacitated for the rest of his life.
“I thought the best thing I could do to rehabilitate my mind and body would be to get a job and a new life”, Andrew said.
But while he was more than qualified to do the job, he discovered that many employers could not see past his disability and said they didn’t believe he could physically complete the required work. Despite the setbacks, Andrew was eventually offered a seismic processing job with Horizon Seismic Australia.
Resigning from the position in 1992 and vowing to never work for a service company again, he ventured once more into academia studying for a PhD on the geophysics and structural geology of the Perth Basin, at the University of Western Australia. He also planned to win a scholarship to help defray study costs by publishing a paper on a satellite gravity research and development project that he completed while working part-time with World Geoscience.
The paper, which was presented in 1994, was acknowledged by ASEG as being the best presented. A professor from Stanford, who was taking a sabbatical at the time, was also impressed by the paper and told Andrew that he should consider visiting Stanford later that year for the benefits that could be gained from higher level academic exposure.
Andrew was invited to visit Stanford University in 1994 and, once he had completed his PhD in 1996, was offered a post-doctorate position in a project which was a collaborative effort between the Stanford Exploration Project (SEP), which is an industry consortium that researches seismic processing, and the Stanford Crustal Geophysics Research Group.
“The little things that can appear to have no benefit at the time can produce the best outcomes”, he says, referring to what was, at the time, a low-key effort to write a small ASEG paper.
“When I visited Stanford in 1994, I saw immediately what a great university was all about. Basically, if you weren’t performing at the highest level then you were out…it’s like a mini United Nations with experts from lots of different countries… but there’s no room for prima donnas because there’s too much work to do.
“As a personal learning experience, it was unbelievable. You completely reassess your ideas about the definition of quality and success… I’m not a graduate of Stanford, I was there by hard work and good fortune, but it still really affects everything I do.”
Norwegian based international service company, PGS, first met Andrew at a the SEP annual sponsors meeting and then, two months later, asked Andrew if he knew anyone who could manage its Asia-Pacific research and development group. Andrew didn’t know a lot about the company but was interested in meeting to discuss the position. It was at this point that he and his wife needed to decide whether they wanted an international life of academia or to work in Australia. PGS sent Andrew the terms and conditions of employment, which he signed in 1997.
In the eight years that Andrew has been working for PGS, he has seen some significant changes in technology. Although 3D seismic had been in the market since 1990, it only became a large-scale commercial product in the mid 1990s.
Initial changes to technology also involved towing increasing numbers of streamers from one up to as many as 16, with most large vessels now regularly towing approximately eight streamers.
“Once people got used to the cost of 3D there was continuous improvement, where now we are looking at high density acquisition on a large scale. We are also overlapping the shooting lines, particularly for 4D (time-lapse) surveys.
“People are now recognising that the geophysical benefits outweigh the extra costs.”
The ‘high density’ terminology originated in the land market. Land acquisition historically used large separations between the receiver cables, as the cables were heavy and difficult to mobilise. It’s now cheaper to manufacture light-weight cables with closer receivers, so more cables can be laid out at closer spacing, in a cost-effective manner.
This translated to an order-of-magnitude increase in the number of traces per square kilometre. The benefits for data quality were profound, and this also affected the offshore streamer market where the greater towing capabilities of modern seismic vessels allowed more streamers to be towed close together.
He said seismic could be applied to all environments with differing success. “PGS is one of the few companies which has developed substantial seafloor technology. We were the only company for years that could work in water depths of more than 300 m, and we acquired more than 20 surveys in water depths up to 2 km. We were adding extra dimensions of information that no other product could provide, but it still didn’t achieve enough commercial success to support it.” The PGS seafloor crew recently converted to streamer operations.
“We are still developing seafloor acquisition technology and can reintroduce it later but I don’t see that happening within the next two years.”
He said many people were making autonomous nodes capable of being coarsely distributed over the seafloor. They are deployed using an ROV, sparsely distributed hundreds of metres apart on the seafloor, and can independently record data, thus providing a coarsely sampled, multi-component, seafloor survey.
At the moment, this appears to be the only 3D implementation of seafloor seismic that the industry will accept. According to Andrew, when seafloor seismic was first being used, a vertical component geophone and a hydrophone were utilised. When the two were added together, they automatically removed most of the multiples in the water column, which was a natural benefit.
All modern systems now also include two additional horizontally aligned geophones. In principle, the four instruments can allow the reconstruction of complementary compression and converted-wave images of the subsurface.
The technology provides clearer imaging through gas clouds, but there is still a significant amount of scepticism as to whether it will work in areas of poor reflectivity or complex structural areas. As a tool to quantitatively establish fluid properties, Andrew said the technology will require a significant amount of work before it reaches maturity and acceptance.
He said most people in the industry lacked the experience to use the data to its full potential, but the trend would change if the market improved.
“At one level you’ve got four times as much data, but then you need unique algorithms for every step in the processing flow. Everyone claims to have a niche or superior product, or a better way of doing something, but with seafloor technology, we are still learning.”
He believes that many people in the industry are beginning to seriously consider the cost of permanently placing seafloor instruments above a number of producing oil fields - for example, the pioneering Valhall field in the North Sea. However, the cost was approximately AUS$27 million and the same amount was required to install the hardware.
He said the costs would significantly decrease throughout the next few years, while the geophysical benefits would include a step-increase in the ability to detect small changes in reservoir state during production.
Further challenges are also evident when investing in new technologies. “The expectation of any service company is that they continue to invest in new technology. It is increasingly difficult to establish technology differentiators for any period of time. And some oil companies demand that the service providers also share the proprietary details of new technology.
“If you develop a niche product, then sometimes you are expected to ‘open the books’ and explain exactly what you are doing. The purported rationale is that the oil company needs to understand exactly what they are being sold.”
But this expectation is sometimes not attractive to service companies. He said the expense involved in sending a new piece of acquisition hardware for field testing could easily cost millions of dollars, particularly if there is a storm or if something breaks. The company would then have to repeat the testing process at additional cost.
“There is obviously little incentive to give away such investments.”
A new investment challenge is now coming from the growth of so-called quantitative interpretation (QI) as a standard part of the exploration and appraisal process. QI provides physical information about the reservoir properties.
The development of seismic data tools has an increasingly higher profile than acquisition and processing, and reflects a perception that acquisition and processing technologies are equal, and the expectation that more benefit is derived from how the data is used rather than how it was first produced.
The growth in QI technology also demonstrates some challenges to service companies, as different global regions have different attitudes and needs. As an example, in the Asia-Pacific, PGS’s biggest clients are national or pseudo-national oil companies (NOCs). As a result, PGS (Asia-Pacific) stipulates its need to develop differing technologies, services, and products to its corporate division, but Europe will often request a different approach as their clients are typically major oil companies.”
“NOCs have historically been more inclined to outsource QI services, whereas major oil companies often prefer to do it themselves. Should we invest heavily in QI technology, or should we focus on the things we already do well and are trying to do better?”
With technology consistently at the forefront of his mind, Andrew also said many companies increasingly rated issues like the environment and safety higher than seismic technology. As oil companies attempted to move into third-world or developing countries, they were competing with other companies for exploration rights.
If a company could not demonstrate a transparent commitment to look after the country-of-interest to a point where the standard of living and education would be better once the company left, then they would generally be unsuccessful.
“It looks a bit insincere at times when you see companies sponsoring dental companies and land management programs but you’ve got to embrace that idea if the service and oil companies want access to the oil resources of a country for decades…its only right that, in return, the host country is better off.”
Andrew would eventually like to have more of a hands-on involvement in activities beyond the delivery of the raw seismic product and “close the loop to the reservoir”.
“It’s now like building a yacht and putting it into the ocean and watching it disappear into the horizon never to be seen again. You have a product, you give it to the oil company and, although you hear little bits and pieces about how the data was used, you miss out on the joy of interpreting new prospects, and everything that leads up to the ultimate discovery and production.
“My hope is that PGS will grow its scope of work so that I can participate in more reservoir-based exploits, and use a few hibernating skills.”
A move into global technical marketing for PGS 12 months ago has enabled Andrew to see what other people in the industry are achieving. Still challenged by the seismic industry, Andrew said he will be reading publications and text books for many years.
“I used to have wall-to-wall journals in my office here but I took them all home because I was tired of looking at them. I now have three walls of one room at home lined with geophysics books…you are just expected to do that much reading to keep up with new technology if you want to stay on top…there is no escape.”
Outside of work, Andrew enjoys focusing on travel throughout the world, reading textbooks and spending time with his family, which includes a six year old daughter.