High Adventures in Geological Prospecting

University of Alabama geologist Delores Robinson casts a wide net in her detection of oil and gas deposits – all the way to the peaks of the Himalayas.

As resources are hunted deeper in the Earth, oil and gas exploration companies look to geologists like Delores Robinson to assemble a network of clues to new discoveries. Photos by Joe de Sciose

Call it CSI Mesozoic.

Delores Robinson and other geological researchers at the University of Alabama are delving deep beneath the surface of the Earth in search of potential oil and gas deposits. Their approach is similar to that taken by crime scene investigators, who use forensics to piece together small bits of evidence to gain a larger understanding of what took place before they arrived.

“It’s the same techniques that detectives use,” says Robinson, who has been a professor at Alabama since 2003. “Sometimes you have just a few hints or clues, and you have to come up with a story from that. It’s a hypothesis, your best guess. But if you can convince other people that it’s a good guess, they’ll pay to drill a well. None of the pieces by itself is a smoking gun. But if you put it all together, you can build a compelling case.”

This is valuable work for oil and gas companies, who are always searching for fresh sources of hydrocarbons. The problem is, most of the easily accessible deposits have already been discovered. So companies rely on geologists such as Robinson to unearth potential new supplies.

Robinson has literally searched low and high for these deposits. She spent several years conducting research in the Gulf of Mexico, examining the sediments found well beneath the surface of the water. Currently she is near the completion of a three-year project — funded with the help of a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development — seeking potential hydrocarbon deposits within the mountains of the Himalayas in northeast Pakistan.

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“I have a Ph.D. student who has been working on the project with me,” Robinson says. “We go to Pakistan and walk around these areas, take samples of the rocks at the surface, then bring them back to the lab and do the analysis on them. We combine what we see at the surface with what we see at depth, and come out with some reasonable idea about what we think happened.”

UA Professor Delores Robinson and grad student William Schiffer in their UA lab, where they analyze seismic data that “allows us to see down into the Earth and tells us what the rocks are doing,” says Robinson.

The goal is to find enough clues about what is going on in the area to determine if and where oil and gas deposits might be lurking. This is where the CSI-type of probing comes into play, as researchers carefully examine evidence of what has taken place for eons several miles beneath the surface, piecing together the hints in order to create a picture of what might be down there.

“We acquire seismic data from geophysical surveys that allows us to see down into the Earth and tells us what the rocks are doing,” Robinson explains. “Then we take apart the geologic history to say what happened first, second, third. From that and the characteristics of the rocks themselves, we can tell where oil and gas might be.”

For example, if the rocks are flat, then Robinson says some sort of erosion took place, which could have been caused by the movement of hydrocarbons. In addition, if the rocks have enough pores and are permeable, then that is an indicator it could be a good reservoir for oil and gas.

“A lot of things that go into finding oil and gas are things we teach anyway as geologists, in terms of understanding what the geology looked like in the past,” says UA assistant professor Marcello Minzoni, who worked for nearly 10 years as a research geologist for Shell Oil Co. before joining the Alabama faculty in 2016. “We know when it was favorable for the deposition of certain rocks that can generate hydrocarbons. So we look at those rocks, compare it to modern environments, and see if we can find the right clues.

“You go from the large scale to the detailed scale so you can look for those clues in the seismic. So you say, ‘Is this a good place? Do we have all the elements? Do we have a source rock? Do we have a way for the hydrocarbons to migrate laterally or vertically? Do we have a reservoir rock that can store those hydrocarbons?’ It all goes back to basic geology on understanding the environment of depositions, and what the earth looked like in the past.”

Minzoni says this research is aided by advanced computer technologies that create a more accurate picture of these concealed rocks and potential reservoirs, while helping researchers analyze the data more quickly.

“We’ve become a lot better at getting images of the subsurface that are much clearer, and then to have software that can work out that image to something we can analyze in 3-D,” Minzoni says. “So we’re able now to turn a lot of data into something that can be quickly analyzed by geologists and look for those clues that otherwise would be really hidden.

“We’re so advanced on collecting data fast that now we need to advance on being able to digest that data. The computer can do it quicker and identify where the potentials are for hydrocarbons. Where do all the elements come together? This new technology helps expedite the work of the geologist.”

Graduate student William Schiffer caught this picture of himself and Delores Robinson with a group of Pakistani students, on a recent field trip to the northeast region of Pakistan, on the slopes of the Himalayas.

In fact, the technology has become so precise that Robinson says it is now possible to create a computer model that analyzes each grain of sediment. This enables researchers to determine how the grains were distributed, helping them hone in on areas that coincide with the geological time frame most likely associated with the formation of hydrocarbon deposits.

All this work is valuable to oil and gas companies, as well as to nations such as Pakistan that can turn energy exploration into economic development opportunities. This has led to the recent development of an Energy Consortium at the University of Alabama, in which several companies come together to fund these types of projects.

“We’re expanding our energy program and getting onto the radar of industry,” says Minzoni, who serves as the principal investigator for the Energy Consortium. “These companies are always looking for experts. So if we build that expertise in our students, it’s beneficial for the companies, beneficial for our students, and beneficial for us through industry money and grants, which is vital for us to do this research.”

Cary Estes and Joe DeSciose are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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