"The best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks" is a mantra often repeated to student geoscientists. Sadly, not everyone has the opportunity to undertake field trips, and are therefore not benefitting from the learning opportunities and skills development gained from conducting measurements and observations in the field environment.
PetroEDGE provides technical training to the oil and gas industry through taught courses, workshops and field trips, but recently there has been a significant decrease in the number of requests for field trips, primarily due to a reduction in training budgets. Since virtual reality (VR) modules focusing on facilities and equipment were already available, it was decided to extend this to VR geological field trips, presented in a style consistent with physical field trips.
The Hilbre Islands off the north-west coast of England were chosen as a pilot location. They are well visited by field groups, and of particular interest to oil and gas geoscientists as they comprise the Lower Triassic Ormskirk Sandstone Formation of the Sherwood Sandstone Group, which is producing oil and gas from fields 25 km away in the East Irish Sea Basin.
The VR field trips are intended to create an immersive and realistic environment designed to encourage exploration. Users are supplied with a virtual field guide, accessible at all times, and have access to various tools to make appropriate measurements. Guidance at the start of the field trip encourages the user to make the same observations they would in the field and to develop their fieldwork skills. Areas of particular interest have 'hotspots' providing more detail when selected, such as core or log images, photomicrographs, depositional models, illustrations of sedimentary structures, or annotation of the outcrop. The range of information that can be displayed in the hotspots is vast, and can include video footage, seismic imagery, animations and 3D models.
There are numerous VR field trips available, with different strengths and disadvantages. Many exploit the freedom, scale and accessibility that drone image capture can provide; this has certainly excited me as, having spent years assuring field trip attendees of the features that can be seen at the top of outcrops, we can finally fly up and see for ourselves.
Our initial photogrammetric models did not provide high enough resolution when converted into VR, primarily because drones are unable to fly too near to outcrops and acquire close-up imagery. Many VR field trips have a resolution equal to 3 cm per pixel or lower, but to illustrate meaningful sedimentological features higher resolution is needed, and our aim was to resolve to coarse-grain size. Many months of experimentation with a combination of different methods of image capture and processing techniques achieved the required results, but also highlighted technical problems that would be encountered at future localities.
For example, the presence of deep shadows confuses the processing software as it relies on an algorithm that identifies similarities in adjacent areas. Occasional shadowed areas can be processed manually, but that process is time consuming and is best avoided whenever possible. Virtual field trips to carbonate outcrops in the Middle East are planned, but filming when the sun is high in bright conditions will produce numerous areas of deep shade contrasting with brightly lit areas, creating extensive processing problems.
On a conventional field trip, it is possible to move behind foliage and boulders to access the outcrop, but these can obstruct drone image capture, so can limit the selection of locations. Also, some of the filming requires access to the outcrops on foot and cannot rely on flying drones into less accessible areas if high-resolution imagery is required.
Lengthy filming and processing of large outcrops can be overcome by using a combination of VR with embedded fly-past and 360- degree videos. As the user is provided with a geographical map, different sections of more extensive outcrops can be imaged and the user is transported to each area when selected on the map.
Integration with Other Training Methods
VR field trips cannot replicate all the skills transfer and learning opportunities provided by physical field trips, but we all need to be pragmatic in a changed financial landscape. Conventional field trips are costly in terms of travel, accommodation, downtime and logistics, so it is better to be able to experience many of the benefits of a field trip, albeit virtually, than to never experience them at all. The skills required to make appropriate observations and conclusions can still be taught, and serve as a reminder that the various data we are using elsewhere relates to real rocks and that interpretations should comply with our understanding of geological processes.
Using VR field trips to illustrate various aspects of training courses can be more incidental, allowing trainees to experience field trips as part of classroom courses or workshops, where travel to each locality is impractical or costly. VR modules can be tailored to include information pertinent to the course, or be integrated with other learning resources. However, it is vital that the VR field trips are valuable in their own right, and not just a new technology to play with. Unnecessary graphics and sound effects have been eliminated to help the user forget they are in VR and focus on the geology.
The information in the hotspots and field guides can easily be tailored to different audiences, including non-geoscientists, engineers, administrative staff and geophysicists. Many of these groups might not normally attend conventional field trips, but do attend classroom courses that can be enriched by examining real rocks.
The field trip leader can be in the classroom with attendees, or can join them remotely, guiding the trainees in the same way as on a physical field trip. However, the VR field trips are designed as stand-alone modules that can also be accessed by an individual without any need for a leader or instructor. Undertaking a particular module can be used as a refresher for staff, to acquaint themselves with a new environment of deposition, or as part of their personal development programme. VR field trips may also be used to equip students with field skills or to familiarise them with the locations prior to a real field trip. This serves to build their confidence and maximise their time in the field. They can be reviewed many times and help to refresh understanding, or provide easy comparison between different localities.
There is also interest from various organisations anxious to preserve educational outcrops that are threatened by weathering, quarrying or development. Putting these outcrops into VR ensures access for future students and field trippers, and provides consistency for any teaching modules that utilise these localities.
When planning a physical field trip, it can be difficult to include access to a number of good outcrops that tell a coherent story, while restricting the amount of travelling between localities. With VR field trips, a wide range of geographical locations can be combined to provide a comprehensive understanding, or for comparison of different localities.
The cost of creating VR field trips is mitigated by the unlimited number of users able to access each trip, the absence of travel and logistical costs, and the variety of roles the VR field trips can fulfil.
It must be stressed that VR field trips are not intended to replace physical field trips, but do provide additional features, such as aerial and panoramic views, and the ability to overlay data, interpretation and models onto the outcrop. They also provide inclusive access to less mobile users, or those unable to travel. Inclusivity also extends to non-geoscientists, junior staff and others who may not normally get an opportunity to visit the field. Remote localities, outcrops with restricted accessibility or ones that present particular health and safety risks can still be experienced, providing the filming team can overcome these issues safely.
However, virtual reality field trips should not just be considered a cost-effective, risk-free alternative to real field work. They offer unique opportunities to incorporate activities and features unavailable in the field, and deliver a more integrated and flexible learning resource.
Carol Hopkins is the Geosciences Technical Director for PetroEdge (Oil & Gas Training Provider). Carol's article was first published in GEO ExPro Magazine, the upstream oil and gas industry’s favourite magazine, and a PetroEdge (Oil & Gas Training Provider) industry partner. Visit GEO ExPro at https://www.geoexpro.com.
Something interesting to share?
Join NrgEdge and create your own NrgBuzz today
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 13 May 2019 – Brent: US$70/b; WTI: US$61/b
Headlines of the week
Midstream & Downstream
The world’s largest oil & gas companies have generally reported a mixed set of results in Q1 2019. Industry turmoil over new US sanctions on Venezuela, production woes in Canada and the ebb-and-flow between OPEC+’s supply deal and rising American production have created a shaky environment at the start of the year, with more ongoing as the oil world grapples with the removal of waivers on Iranian crude and Iran’s retaliation.
The results were particularly disappointing for ExxonMobil and Chevron, the two US supermajors. Both firms cited weak downstream performance as a drag on their financial performance, with ExxonMobil posting its first loss in its refining business since 2009. Chevron, too, reported a 65% drop in the refining and chemicals profit. Weak refining margins, particularly on gasoline, were blamed for the underperformance, exacerbating a set of weaker upstream numbers impaired by lower crude pricing even though production climbed. ExxonMobil was hit particularly hard, as its net profit fell below Chevron’s for the first time in nine years. Both supermajors did highlight growing output in the American Permian Basin as a future highlight, with ExxonMobil saying it was on track to produce 1 million barrels per day in the Permian by 2024. The Permian is also the focus of Chevron, which agreed to a US$33 billion takeover of Anadarko Petroleum (and its Permian Basin assets), only for the deal to be derailed by a rival bid from Occidental Petroleum with the backing of billionaire investor guru Warren Buffet. Chevron has now decided to opt out of the deal – a development that would put paid to Chevron’s ambitions to match or exceed ExxonMobil in shale.
Performance was better across the pond. Much better, in fact, for Royal Dutch Shell, which provided a positive end to a variable earnings season. Net profit for the Anglo-Dutch firm may have been down 2% y-o-y to US$5.3 billion, but that was still well ahead of even the highest analyst estimates of US$4.52 billion. Weaker refining margins and lower crude prices were cited as a slight drag on performance, but Shell’s acquisition of BG Group is paying dividends as strong natural gas performance contributed to the strong profits. Unlike ExxonMobil and Chevron, Shell has only dipped its toes in the Permian, preferring to maintain a strong global portfolio mixed between oil, gas and shale assets.
For the other European supermajors, BP and Total largely matched earning estimates. BP’s net profits of US$2.36 billion hit the target of analyst estimates. The addition of BHP Group’s US shale oil assets contributed to increased performance, while BP’s downstream performance was surprisingly resilient as its in-house supply and trading arm showed a strong performance – a business division that ExxonMobil lacks. France’s Total also hit the mark of expectations, with US$2.8 billion in net profit as lower crude prices offset the group’s record oil and gas output. Total’s upstream performance has been particularly notable – with start-ups in Angola, Brazil, the UK and Norway – with growth expected at 9% for the year.
All in all, the volatile environment over the first quarter of 2019 has seen some shift among the supermajors. Shell has eclipsed ExxonMobil once again – in both revenue and earnings – while Chevron’s failed bid for Anadarko won’t vault it up the rankings. Almost ten years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP is now reclaiming its place after being overtaken by Total over the past few years. With Q219 looking to be quite volatile as well, brace yourselves for an interesting earnings season.
Supermajor Financials: Q1 2019
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, January, April, and May 2019 editions
In its May 2019 edition of the Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA revised its price forecast for Brent crude oil upward, reflecting price increases in recent months, more recent data, and changing expectations of global oil markets. Several supply constraints have caused oil markets to be generally tighter and oil prices to be higher so far in 2019 than previous STEOs expected.
Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had agreed at a December 2018 meeting to cut crude oil production in the first six months of 2019; compliance with these cuts has been more effective than EIA initially expected. In the January STEO, OPEC’s crude oil and petroleum liquids production was expected to decline by 1.0 million b/d in 2019 compared with the 2018 level, but EIA now forecasts OPEC production to decline by 1.9 million b/d in the May STEO.
Within OPEC, EIA expects Iran’s liquid fuels production and exports to also decline. On April 22, 2019, the United States issued a statement indicating that it would not reissue waivers, which previously allowed eight countries to continue importing crude oil and condensate from Iran after their waivers expired on May 2. Although EIA’s previous forecasts had assumed that the United States would not reissue waivers, the increased certainty regarding waiver policy and enforcement led to lower forecasts of Iran’s crude oil production.
Venezuela—another OPEC member—has experienced declines in production and exports as a result of recurring power outages, political instability, and U.S. sanctions. In addition to supply constraints that have already materialized in 2019, political instability in Libya may further affect global supply. Any further escalation in conflict may damage crude oil infrastructure or result in a security environment where oil fields are shut in. Either situation could reduce global supply by more than EIA currently forecasts.
In the May STEO, total OPEC crude oil and other liquids supply was estimated at 37.3 million b/d in 2018, and EIA forecasts that it will average 35.4 million b/d in 2019. EIA assumes that the December 2018 agreement among OPEC members to limit production will expire following the June 2019 OPEC meeting.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, January, April, and May 2019 editions
U.S. crude oil and other liquids production is sensitive to changes in crude oil prices, taking into account a lag of several months for drilling operations to adjust. As crude oil prices have increased in recent months, so too have EIA’s domestic liquid fuels production forecasts for the remaining months of 2019.
U.S. crude oil and other liquids production, which grew by 2.2 million b/d in 2018, is forecast in EIA’s May STEO to grow by 2.0 million b/d in 2019, an increase of 310,000 b/d more than anticipated in the January STEO. In 2019, EIA expects overall U.S. crude oil and liquids production to average 19.9 million b/d, with crude oil production alone forecast to average 12.4 million b/d.
Relative to these changes in forecasted supply, EIA’s changes in forecasted demand were relatively minor. EIA expects that global oil markets will be tightest in the second and third quarters of 2019, resulting in draws in global inventories. By the fourth quarter of 2019, EIA expects that inventories will build again, and Brent crude oil prices will fall slightly.
More information about changes in STEO expectations for crude oil prices, supply, demand, and inventories is available in This Week in Petroleum.