Fanfare for new technology

Andrew McBarnet
Sunday, July 1, 2012

Andrew McBarnet offers this kaleidoscope of impressions from a major gathering of the geoscience community.

At the end of any big industry event like last month's annual conference and exhibition of the European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers (EAGE) in Copenhagen, it takes a while to sort out the important stuff from the overload of information, which is made up of the real and relevant, rumour mongering and all those subtle references to the competition in predictably less than flattering terms. Safe to say, everyone is out to make an impression.

There was never any doubt that Schlumberger's WesternGeco would emerge as the clear headliner of the show by delivering on its promise to unveil more details about its new seismic acquisition system IsoMetrix. The name itself, with no Q attached, is indicative of the revolutionary step which the company believes it is taking with this latest technology, said to be the result of ten years development and one of the largest Schlumberger research investment projects ever undertaken. The launch presentation on the floor of the exhibition was suitably prefaced by an electronic Purcell-like fanfare impressive enough to evoke Her Majesty The Queen's Diamond Jubilee (celebrated on Petroleum Geo-Services booth by a session of strawberries and clotted cream). In fact WesternGeco's welcome music was composed by Luigi Piggici, an Italian multi-media composer, and sounded very like his Turtles V Cheesecake! Who will win?“ aficionados can check this out on YouTube. The company identified the piece more prosaically as Playing to win. Whichever the case, WesternGeco clearly had winning attention in mind and win it did.

WesternGeco president Carel Hooykaas probably indulged in a touch of hyperbole in presenting IsoMetrix as a step change in imaging as profound as was the move from X-rays to full 3D scans in the world of medicine. However, subsequently, none of the competitors demurred in agreeing that in theory at least WesternGeco has something significant to boast about. How much of a competitive advantage will the company be able to derive from its invention is hard to fathom at this stage. It is unlikely to be a game-changer, in the sense of a sudden switch to a completely different way of doing things. There are too many factors in play for that to ever happen.

The breakthrough claimed for the technology is that it outputs isometrically sampled point-receiver data in both crossline and inline directions capturing the returning wavefield in three dimensions and providing what are said to be the most accurate images of the subsurface ever recorded. The system uses calibrated, multi-sensor MEMS technology that forms part of the new WesternGeco Nessie-6 point-receiver seismic streamer. The sensors measure acoustic pressure as well as vertical and crossline acceleration throughout the frequency range.

Explaining the significance of IsoMetrix, WesternGeco says conventional marine seismic sampling techniques are best described as 21/2D rather than 3D because the parallel lines of marine seismic shooting are coarsely spaced in the crossline direction.

EAGE meeting: scenes from the exhibition.

Accurate reconstruction

Isometric sampling, the company's term for what it is calling a new category of seismic imaging, can overcome these issues by enabling the accurate reconstruction of the crossline seismic wavefield at spatial sample intervals, previously only possible in the inline direction. This is said to result in a reliable, continuous measure of the full upgoing and downgoing notchless seismic wavefield sampled at a 6.25m x 6.25m point-receiver surface grid. The point-receiver full bandwidth data is designed to enable imaging of deep targets while preserving high-resolution shallow data, meantime the advances in spatial resolution should deliver improved imaging of complex and/or dense overburdens.

With this innovation in image quality and 4D repeatability WesternGeco visualises a step change in differentiation from its competitors and thus a powerful pitch to oil companies ever seeking fresh ways to mitigate exploration and production risk and reduce overall finding and development costs. But experience with the introduction of new technology in the marine seismic world suggests that for all its bells and whistles IsoMetrix will not be putting the competition out of business any time soon. There were conspirators on the exhibition floor who suggested that PGS might be the most vulnerable. Assuming IsoMetrix lives up to its hype in terms of dense, high resolution coverage, then the need for the huge multi-streamer spread strategy adopted by PGS would in theory become overkill, some gleefully noting that the company has just ordered one (with an option for another) new giant Titan class Ramform design vessel which will have a 70m back deck and be capable of towing well over 20 streamers.

The more sanguine view is that there will always be horses for courses when it comes to tendering for marine seismic survey work, and WesternGeco tacitly acknowledged this in the low key confirmation a couple of weeks after the EAGE event that it was building the world's first ever vessels built specifically for seismic from the keel up. In other words, even the hull of the new Amazon class is not based on a fishing, supply, or defence vessel design as has been the custom for seismic newbuilds up to now.

WesternGeco has gone to the German company Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft (FSG), a newcomer to seismic vessel construction best known for its Ro-Ro ferries, for the building of the first two Amazon class vessels with an option for more. Delivery of the 127m long vessels planned for 2014 is regarded by WesternGeco as prudent fleet upgrading, probably encouraged by the steady and possibly improving market for marine seismic surveys worldwide forecast for the next year or two.

Significantly there has been no decision yet on whether the vessels will be equipped with IsoMetrix which tells a story in itself. You would think the odds would be on the adoption of the new technology, yet the company has just introduced its ObliQ to meet the current market for broadband solutions and is having success with its Coil Shooting method particularly in the context of wide-azimuth surveys. Both these technologies can be supported by many vessels in the current WesternGeco fleet without IsoMetrix (although it is compatible). Indeed IsoMetrix-equipped vessels may not need to be as big as these newbuild orders, a mid-size vessel should be enough. Arguably the company may see the new 18-streamer vessel design as offering a sufficiently competitive advantage with a conventional, less experimental and hence less risky acquisition set up. The new vessels are intended to provide new standards in increased efficiency, comfort, reliability, endurance and safety plus the capability to operate in Arctic conditions. An important feature is the built-in redundancy which allows for major maintenance programmes to be carried out at sea, instead of downtime in port, which could make for big operational cost savings.

Cautious roll-out

It is wholly understandable that WesternGeco would be cautious about the roll-out of innovative technology given its experience introducing Q-Marine nearly a decade ago. Then, the initial fanfare promising seismic acquisition as never before was followed by a long hiatus around two years before the company could provide convincing evidence of the validity, let alone value, of its novel approach, including the point receiver element now embedded in IsoMetrix. The only mention of actual operations this time around consists of the field trials last year that, according to the company, proved the technology's high accuracy, achieving a 12:1 crossline reconstruction ratio and producing a 6.25m data grid from streamers 75m apart.

Even on the most favourable scenario WesternGeco must be looking at a number or years before a significant portion of its current fleet could offer IsoMetrix. The company has emphasised that this is much more than just a new streamer, so heavy investment is required and some of the potential applications have not been fully developed. This has a couple of important implications. For starters the company needs to be sure that there is industry demand for the technology, which will only emerge with full commercialisation. It will also need to establish, as with Q-Marine, whether it can charge a premium for use of such a revolutionary acquisition system; this is probably essential if the costs of development are to be recouped over a sustainable period.

WesternGeco VP marine Pennelope Ratcliffe explaining IsoMetrix at EAGE launch.

It is tempting to propose, therefore, that IsoMetrix will in many respects follow the career pattern of Q-Marine. This means that the system will win over a proportion of mainly high rollers in the E&P, ie those larger companies able to afford the cost of these surveys but also having the technical and staff resources to understand what they are dealing with, especially when it comes to reservoir characterisation and 4D seismic work. One-geoscientist exploration companies are unlikely to be queuing up for IsoMetrix when they want some 3D marine seismic shot.

Competition continues

The other consideration is that WesternGeco's competitors are not going to be standing idly by. In the marine seismic business no contractor ever seems able to maintain an unassailable technology lead over its rivals for very long. The cable steering feature of Q-Marine was very quickly copied. Now the holy grail of broadband seismic to achieve improved imaging may be a case in point. When PGS came out with its dual sensor Geostreamer acquisition system in 2007 and followed this last year by the full ghost-free GeoStreamer GS solution including new source technology, it appeared to have stolen a march on the field.

Yet you would never have guessed this from the competition's offerings on view at the EAGE event in Copenhagen. Without getting into the algorithms, it emerges that a broadband effect can be achieved in the processing rather than in the acquisition as demonstrated by PGS. So, for example, Polarcus which with its eighth vessel now launched can be regarded as a significant player, has ION subsidiary GXT producing broadband results from its data in the lab, so to speak. CGGVeritas BroadSeis is mainly a processing technique, and so on. In effect, as an increasing number of tenders specify broadband, everyone can talk the lingo and for many clients that may be enough.

Calypso: latest ocean bottom cable system from ION.

By the time IsoMetrix truly arrives, assuming it does, companies such as PGS and CGGVeritas will likely be telling clients that they can produce comparable results at less cost, just as they did with Q-Marine. That's why in Copenhagen a subject of much more animated discussion, fuelled by gossip and speculation, was the fate of Fugro's marine fleet. Prior to the event the company announced a review of all options for its marine streamer seismic data acquisition business and associated activities. The review was said to have been initiated on the basis of Fugro's position in the market. It simply referred to the company having no current plans to increase the size of its seismic fleet and to market developments with respect to global fleet expansion.

That Fugro might be contemplating the sell-off of its marine seismic fleet is not that great a surprise. The company has never had any differentiating technology. It has been a follower not a leader, and apart from its four recently built C-Class high-end 3D vessels, its fleet is not much to write home about; indeed Polarcus has definitely overtaken it in the world rankings. The company did buy the assets and technology of SeaBird Exploration's node-based ocean bottom survey business, including the custom-built Hugin Explorer, but has been singularly quiet about work for this operation. In summary, this portfolio does not comply with the characteristic Fugro model of building a dominant position in technologically specific markets. For example, the company some years ago acquired many of the key companies to establish a major position in the airborne survey market for the oil and gas and mining industry.

sea floor with a 25-year lifespan. By the time IsoMetrix truly arrives, assuming it does, companies such as PGS and CGGVeritas will likely be telling clients that they can produce comparable results at less cost, just as they did with Q-Marine. That's why in Copenhagen a subject of much more animated discussion, fuelled by gossip and speculation, was the fate of Fugro's marine fleet. Prior to the event the company announced a review of all options for its marine streamer seismic data acquisition business and associated activities. The review was said to have been initiated on the basis of Fugro's position in the market. It simply referred to the company having no current plans to increase the size of its seismic fleet and to market developments with respect to global fleet expansion. That Fugro might be contemplating the sell-off of its marine seismic fleet is not that great a surprise. The company has never had any differentiating technology. It has been a follower not a leader, and apart from its four recently built C-Class high-end 3D vessels, its fleet is not much to write home about; indeed Polarcus has definitely overtaken it in the world rankings. The company did buy the assets and technology of SeaBird Exploration's node-based ocean bottom survey business, including the custom-built Hugin Explorer, but has been singularly quiet about work for this operation. In summary, this portfolio does not comply with the characteristic Fugro model of building a dominant position in technologically specific markets. For example, the company some years ago acquired many of the key companies to establish a major position in the airborne survey market for the oil and gas and mining industry.

The timing of Fugro's statement was probably made under the pressure of being a major public company and the need for transparency. It seems that the company may have been exploring the divestment for some time with no willing takers. The unsupported speculation was that the company was probably asking too much for the vessels and its data library (which can all too easily be over-valued). However, it's hard to find a rationale for any of the big players to invest in the Fugro fleet: they are now in continuous upgrade mode not major expansion. In addition CGGVeritas for one has learnt that buying a melange of vessels and then integrating them into the fleet for maximum efficiencies can be a very costly and disruptive exercise.

Octio permanent reservoir monitoring vision.

Consensus in Copenhagen was that if Fugro can unload its fleet, it will be to some kind of Norwegian-financed group of which we have seen so many in the past. In this context there would of course be an outside chance that Dolphin Geophysical might seek support for a bid in an effort to accelerate its growth. However, savvy Norwegian investors may well conclude that Dolphin still has to prove itself before any more money is available.

Fugro, it seems, may be engaged in an isometric exercise, one of which is pushing against a wall. Hopefully this will not be the case for ION Geophysical and Octio Geophysical. ION launched Calypso, its new redeployable ocean bottom cable (OBC) system. The company acknowledged that despite its increasing popularity, seabed seismic still represents a relatively small percentage of total marine seismic projects, largely due to historically high costs and long cycle times relative to towed streamer acquisition. It hopes Calypso has the potential to mitigate these barriers to wider adoption by doubling cable lengths and productivity while significantly expanding operating depths.

Still on the seabed, Octio, an innovator in permanent oilfield monitoring technology, announced a partnership with Siemens to offer complete permanent reservoir monitoring (PRM) solutions. Siemens has taken an increasing interest in subsea projects exemplified by recent acquisitions of subsea specialists Poseidon, Bennex, Tronic and Matre. The combination may be able to add substance to Octio's ideal of a PRM system based on a digital network including high vector fidelity seismic MEMS sensors with interface to EM sensors, chemical sensors, biological sensors, oceanographic sensors and any other future sensor design. Such a system is built for permanent deployment on the sea floor with a 25-year lifespan. OE

Categories: Software Technology Hardware Geophysics Geology

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