Pillars of Industry

A Changing Role for the Petrophysicist?

Patrick Corbett, Heriot-Watt U.

If the pillars of industry such as wisdom, truth, commitment, and character could talk to the generation of young professionals about to inherit the oil and gas industry, the world’s energy future would definitely be a bright one. The oil and gas industry contains some of the brightest, most innovative, and most dedicated people who practice in any profession, but the time is coming when they will have to open the door for the next generation. The great crew change is coming, and the benefit from the exchange of knowledge and advice between the two generations is invaluable.

The Pillars of Industry section of The Way Ahead will focus on individuals who have established or distinguished themselves as pillars in the oil and gas industry. They will present their field of experience from a mentorship perspective. The authors will introduce their career and field of expertise, with emphasis on career advice for success in the industry. They will advise on how they would begin, develop, and plan a career if given the opportunity to go back and start over again. Finally, they will predict what the future holds for the professionals who are or who will be involved in the showcased technology.

This section of the magazine will be aimed at educating and offering advice to the broad young professionals’ audience, irrespective of background, previous knowledge, and experience. We understand that there is an extremely diverse professional audience in our industry, and an attempt will be made to try to include as much of the oil and gas industry as possible. The lessons learned will transcend technologies and careers and will hold application for many scenarios. Each article will have something for every reader. I am excited at the potential of this section and what it can offer my fellow young professionals in the oil and gas industry.—Tim L. Morrison


I joined the petroleum industry in 1978, at the start of a boom in hiring that led to a peak in staff numbers in 1987. Staff numbers have now dropped back to about 75% of 1987 levels. In the last 10 years, the peak age of staff has shifted from 39 to 49 years. The peak staff age correlates to the boom in hiring that took place in the early 1980s. Essentially, I came into the industry at the early part of that boom and represent that peak. What insight can I give to the classes of students joining, or young engineers working in, the industry in 2005, when everything is so different?

The U.K. started importing oil again in July of last year. This may be a temporary production dip, but it could presage the start of a decline that is expected to be quite sharp. However, there are still new discoveries being made in that region, and it is projected by some that the decline in oil reserves will stimulate an increase in exploration activity, thereby extending the resource base. The encouraging response to recent U.K. licensing rounds suggests that activity is increasing in line with that sort of prediction. The potential for increased recovery in the existing fields is significant as long as the infrastructure remains in place. These are the underlying drivers to North Sea activity. The industry’s pulse is one of dips and peaks, and I suspect it will stay like that for the next 20 years.

What skills set should the young engineer pick up? If the future looks uncertain, then make sure there is some flexibility. People talk about a demographic bubble as the peak plays out through retirement, so that employees who are currently under the age of 35 will, in 10 years, find themselves in an industry in which they will represent knowledge and experience and be very valuable. They will be  experienced at the peak of their careers and very much in demand. Where will I be in 10 years? Most probably sitting it out on the fringes, having made way for new blood! Some say that the demographics problem is a “western industry” problem and that in the main oil-producing areas, local staff will be plentiful.

Energy appears to be re-emerging as a major public concern. Years of sustained low oil prices have given way to more realistic pricing levels, and society has begun worrying about long-term energy supplies. Petroleum companies will be staffed by people who are much more aware of what the true cost of energy is. Either increased global warming will result in more-extreme climate events or we will have learned how to manage CO2 emissions (or both). In many projections, a fossil fuel future, with carbon capture and storage, seems to present the most stable solution over the next 20 years while we nurture the transition to a hydrogen economy. I trust there will be stability enough in world energy supplies to allow one to carry on a career in such a technologically advanced industry.

Future Scenarios

One scenario for the future might be a high-tech petroleum-producing operation in which engineers update their skills regularly on simulators in virtual 3D space. Robotic-controlled drilling and production operations will allow remote real-time management and optimization of the resource stock. Fields will be instrumented for pressure, gravity, and resistivity, providing calibration data for the real-time, history-consistent, reservoir-simulation models. Seismic techniques, data transmission, and processing of super-large, time-lapse data sets will create the proactive tool for reservoir management, imaging pressure compartments, and tracking water and/or gas fronts. Recovery factors will be driven upward, and the technical team in the companies will be driven by stakeholders to squeeze out every last drop.

Now, you might ask, what role does the reservoir engineer have if the data are so rich and the detail of the subsurface is so clear that drill bits can be targeted precisely to wherever the remaining oil is left and the residual pools can be swept up? Is there even a role for traditional petrophysicists (who take measurements on rock samples and interpret borehole logs)? Clearly, with increased imaging of the subsurface, the industry’s ambitions for improved recovery factors will increase. With more conditioning data, models will become more realistic and we will become increasingly confident to identify smaller targets. Cheaper well technologies would help greatly. Smart fluids may reduce the residual saturations even more in controlled sweeps provided by a clear image of the reservoir units. Smart completions can respond to changes in fluid interfaces to maximize sweep between wells.

Electromagnetic radiation at various frequencies may be used to further stimulate the mobilization of hydrocarbons. With less uncertainty as to where the injected fluids go, more expensive cocktails can be used to recover even more of the precious liquid. Carbon dioxide could be just one of the components used to swell and move the oil. The working environment could be much more flexible—with more working from either the home or the beach! These visionary ideas were discussed in a recent SPE Applied Technology Workshop (ATW) held in Oman, reflecting a future industry that many would like to see evolve: an industry that takes advantage of developments in communications and information technology to the benefit of the individual, society, and the industry. One word of solid engineering advice among all the “petro-dreamery” from the Oman ATW: Design new production wells with surveillance in mind, and make sure you cement the wells in order to last. This enables the flexibility demanded by future reservoir-management strategies.

Subsurface energy companies will have a portfolio of assets to manage in the future. Coalbed methane, in-situ gasification, CO2 storage, and geothermal energy will all benefit from many of the same technical advances. Operations of these diverse geo-energy supplies could be colocated in favorable parts of the world. Staff will likely have the flexibility to switch from one primary geo-energy source to the next. Training and education materials will be so easily available through universities and industry societies that professionals will find it easy to switch careers, perhaps moving in and out of the industry, but certainly staying on top of new developments in their own areas. Technical societies with their specialist communities will all meet together in the common marketplace—the joint SPE Europec and EAGE annual meeting in Madrid in 2005 (and other similar parallel meetings) represents a significant shift in the way societies cooperate. The breakdown of societal compartmentalization will completely resolve the industry’s communication problem and greatly improve the dissemination of knowledge.

The Pace of Change

Now the reader will be thinking all the above is a bit fanciful. Has the author lost the plot? Our industry does not move forward very quickly, and we will likely never realize the above visions, or even come close in 20 years, and petrophysicists and others will be working the way they always have. People with vision get swamped by the here and now and are drowned by their workload. The money to invest in new technology has dried up since the dawn of the new  3D-seismic age, when the last paradigm shift occurred in the way we work. The economic reality of the present time will never see a return to the “golden” 1980s, when someone wanting to run a new log or try out a new survey in your well was welcomed and if some new insight was gained along the way then this was seen as a bonus. The industry, when I joined, fostered an environment in which almost anything was given a trial. I was even fortunate to be part of the team that drilled the first horizontal wells in the North Sea, when there was little hard evidence that they would be either drillable or economically beneficial. In the research community in which I work now, we miss the technology champions within the companies who nurtured new ideas until they were mature enough to be turned into useable and beneficial technology.

The evolving role of a petrophysicist over the last 20 years is an interesting one to consider. When I was active in wellsite log analysis, 20 years ago, the role of the log analyst was to calculate net pay, average porosity, and water saturation. One did not want to get these wrong, and you felt that everyone was 100% focused on this information during the periods of active exploration. Terms such as upscaling, effective permeability, and kv/kh ratio were pretty much unused by petrophysicists. Net to gross was clearly a 1D measurement heterogeneity and a property that was often too difficult to map. One did not get too much demand from the geophysicists for the latest Vp and Vs logs in the 1980s. Now, everything has changed.

The London Petrophysical Soc. recently conducted a session on uncertainties, and only two of 12 speakers mentioned logs, which shows a broadening of the profession’s interests. At the same meeting, a paper was presented on the importance of understanding the basics of porosity measurement in the laboratory. Understanding the basics is still so important.

The role of logs—but, more important, the fundamental basis for reservoir property modeling—is being diminished by the role of outcrop analogs and seismic amplitudes. Petrophysicists try to maintain the importance of ground-truthing the reservoir models with real measurements, as the Soc. of Core Analysts emphasizes in specialist meetings (where incredible commitment is shown to pre- serving the scarce and often undervalued skills by a few hard-core practitioners). Core analysts are beginning to think in terms of representivity, stationarity, correlation lengths, and realizations—issues that the reservoir modelers require to be addressed, even at the lab scale. Where are the future core analysts going to come from? Underinvestment in core analysis over the last decade and the closure of so many specialist labs will catch up with the industry. Who will want to invest career time in such a specialty? I hope some young professionals reading this article will pick up the challenge.

In the 1980s, the final logging suite included the full range of resistivity and porosity tools (sonic, lithodensity, and neutron). Today there are more tools available in array sonics, directional densities, and array resistivities that help, particularly in highly deviated wells. Formation evaluation while drilling is widespread in high-tech environments where wells are expensive. In traditional onshore areas, the logging suites are still minimal. Imaging tools are used routinely in thin-bedded (less than 0.5 m) intervals (often deepwater turbidite environments) where they greatly help the identification of pay. Image logs were originally sold as the replacement of cores. The latter, no doubt very difficult to justify to management, are still required for ground-truthing of log data, detailed geological studies, and a range of special core-analysis measurements. Downhole-pressure measurements and sampling tools have become more sophisticated, identifying fluid types in the subsurface and allowing for vertical interference tests. The latter are particularly helpful in those reservoirs in which measurement of vertical permeability at small scales (but larger than the scale of a plug) is required. The petrophysicist has to move toward interpretation of dynamic (pressure) data in order to provide these critical flow measurements. This blurs the boundary between petrophysicists and reservoir engineers.

The interpretation of seismic and other geophysical data (electromagnetism, resistivity, gravity) will require models populated by petrophysical data. We tend to call the acoustic and moduli measurements on rock “rock physics.” In some companies, rock physicists are quite different from traditional petrophysicists, and the discipline-blurring is here with geophysicists. As the numerical subsurface models become used for both reservoir flow prediction and petro-acoustic predictions, it makes sense to have a shared sampling program for all the petrophysical data.

The generation joining the industry now will have to persuade us oldies to change from our established practice. One would have thought that those of us from the industry’s “punk age” would welcome the energy and influence of the current “rap age.” My generation should fight hard to let the current young promoters of technology have their chance to change the industry. The industry could usefully speed up the adoption of new technology. New logging devices (such as nuclear magnetic resonance) have shown great potential for the direct measurement of permeability in the subsurface, but people still rely on good old porosity/permeability transforms. What is in the research labs today might not see widespread industry adoption for another 10 years.

The Way Forward

For 20 or more years, we have been singing the praises of integration between our disciplines. Let’s just knock down the remaining physical and perceived walls and merge geophysics, geology, petrophysics, and engineering into one seamless profession. Let this be a profession that values and nurtures specialists and excellence within its midst, but pursues a single-minded increase in hydrocarbon-recovery factors to new levels. World oil-recovery factors are variously reported to be 27 to 35%; U.K. North Sea recoveries average 46%. Various parts of the world show a creep upward in recovery factors through time—certainly due to technology to some degree—but probably also reflect a certain conservatism in initial estimates. Each percentage point increase in world recovery factors will ensure that world demand is supplied for several additional years. This is one aspect our stretched industry targets could focus on.

Reservoir geoscientist, petrophysicist, or reservoir engineer? Does it matter what your business card (or future ring tone?) claims or what your core discipline is/was? I don’t really believe it does, as long as you have an in-depth knowledge of reservoir architecture, reservoir properties, property modeling, reservoir simulation, and reservoir management and a vocabulary to communicate effectively across the disciplines. With these skills, you will be valuable to the future industry. Some careers of colleagues and industry acquaintances have gone sideways, and some possibly backward for a short period, but those committed to the industry usually resurface in a new guise, strengthened by the experience. Time spent getting an appropriate specialty and broad training or the converse—broad experience with specialist training—will repay investment in the long run. Just avoid a diet of specialist and associated specialist training, or no specialty and no training; otherwise, the industry might leave you behind.

We are told that 30% of the world’s oil production will come from the Middle East in 2020. I have always valued the international aspects of the petroleum industry—there is no other like it for developing international relations—and sincerely trust that opportunities to work in each other’s countries, as a welcomed visitor, will remain a feature of the international oil patch for many years to come. For those of you reading this who choose, or have chosen, to join our industry, I wish you well in your careers.


Patrick Corbett graduated in 1977 with a BS degree in geology (Exeter U.) followed by an MS degree in micropalaeontology in 1978 (U. College London), a postgraduate diploma in geological statistics in 1982 (Kingston U.), and a PhD degree in petroleum engineering (geopseudoupscaling) in 1993 (Heriot-Watt U.). From 1978, Corbett worked for 11 years in various positions in international exploration and development geoscience for Unocal in the U.K., The Netherlands, and Indonesia.

Since coming to Heriot-Watt U. as a professor in 1989, Corbett’s research focus has been on the integration of geoscience and engineering through geological analysis, petrophysical measurement, and flow modeling. Current research areas include permeability-anisotropy modeling, well-test interpretation, dynamic upscaling, and genetic petrophysics. He has been closely involved in the master’s course in reservoir evaluation and management since its inception, a course designed to teach the integrated nature of reservoir description and mod- eling to geologists, petrophysicists, geophysicists, computer scientists, and petroleum engineers. Recently, he has become involved in research initiatives in the broader energy field and sustainability, particularly with respect to the petroleum industry.

Corbett was Student Affairs Committee Chairman of EAGE from 1995 to 2001 and continues to support the EAGE as a member of the Continuing Professional Development Committee and the Executive Council. He is a Chartered Geologist and coauthor of the books Statistics for Petroleum Engineers and Geoscientists and Cores From the Northwest European Hydrocarbon Province. He was an EAGE Distinguished Lecturer (Petroleum Geoengineering) for 1998 and an SPE Distinguished Lecturer (Integration of Geology and Well Testing) for 1998–99. He is an Associate Editor of First Break. His chair in Petroleum Geoengineering is the first such position at Heriot-Watt U. in support of the petroleum industry and is financially supported by Total. In September 2003, he was appointed head of the Inst. of Petroleum Engineering and Sub-Dean of Heriot-Watt U.

Outside of professional interests, he is actively involved in path projects in the local community and promoting access to the countryside.