Failures, declining professionalism, ethics etc.

Oil IT Journal’s editor, back from the Dallas AAPG, reports from an interesting session on ‘failures’ and hears the AAPG president debate ‘declining professionalism’ in our industry. He reflects on calls for more ethics in our profession to wonder if we are really addressing the big issue.

As a foretaste of next month’s report on the 2004 conference of American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), I bring you the headlines from the plenary session and reflect on some geological and existential issues raised. But first a confession, a pet dislike and embarrassment if you like, concerning the nature of geological discourse. This comes from the observation that geologists’ talks too often follow a set piece along the lines of ‘before I came along, nobody understood a thing about this prospect—then I introduced the notion of [insert Pet Theory X here], we drilled the well and produced a zillion barrels of oil’.


But not only were folks dumber in the past—listening to some speakers, you’d think that they are dumber today too. That industry has lost something (here reference is frequently made to those darn computers, ‘Nintendo geology’ etc.). That we need to return to a heyday of geological enlightenment, to get back to the rocks, re-discover Pet Theory X or whatever.


Now these observations cause me concern for three reasons. First there is the sheer improbability of the repeated ‘dumb, enlightened, dumb’ cycle. Second, I think we have a slight bias in our observation, you don’t hear many talks on ‘how we tested my great theory and it proved wrong’. And third, such geological ‘tilting at the windmill’ makes me worry about some of my own editorials. Intimations of old fart-dom inevitably arise.

‘Dry hole’ Downey

It was therefore with some interest that I attended the AAPG Forum on ‘Lessons Learned from Failures’. An introduction from Bob Downey (‘Dry Hole’ Downey to his friends!) promised something different but in fact, Bob Sneider told of, not failures, but two massive successes. The first, a billion barrel West African condensate discovery was found after Downey and his colleagues reevaluated an exploration well deemed as having made a non commercial gas discovery. Re-evaluating the logs, tweaking the Archie M&N values and looking carefully at shows in the mud pits led to a second well that tested at 12,000 bbl per day.

Elmworth field

You would have thought that a 5,000 square kilometer field with 60 wells drilled through the reservoir would be hard to miss, but that is exactly what happened in Sneider’s case history. The Elmworth field in Western Canada, discovered in 1974 is 10TCF gas field with an unusual, hydrodynamic updip trapping mechanism. Sneider’s company, along with Canadian Hunter made the find in a ‘systematic search for bypassed pay’.


Sneider bemoaned the fact that some of his younger colleagues refuse to look at older data. This complaint found an echo in AAPG president Steve Sonneberg’s plenary address on the decline of professionalism in our industry. This is due to a move to a ‘short term, get rich quick attitude’. Some companies ‘have relegated geosciences to second or third class status’. Sonneberg wonders if recent reserve write downs are ‘perhaps related to ethical problems’. Sonneberg advocates the adherence to codes of conduct and mentoring of younger colleagues. Or as Crosby Stills Nash and Young put it (sometime before the Elmworth discovery!), ‘Teach, your children well!’


While individuals should try to keep up with the latest developments in technology, companies should support training initiatives. Today there is a lack of recognition of educational achievement and a lack of mentoring—and the industry is getting worse. There is a ‘gradual erosion of professionalism in our world today’. On the topic of ethics, Sonneberg cited a French proverb—that ‘there is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience’. He showed a graphic that put ethics as the central building block of the professional pyramid.

Déjà vu?

Ethics is a popular topic for AAPG presidents. Exactly two years ago, AAPG Robbie Gries made a heartfelt plea for greater enforcement of the AAPG’s Code of Ethics (see Oil ITJ Vol. 7 N°4). In fact Gries suggested that the AAPG should either enforce its code, or abandon it completely. At the 2003 AAPG, I asked Gries whether her suggestion had been acted on. She intimated that the subject was still a matter of debate. It was therefore something of a surprise to hear Sonneberg on essentially the same subject, with no reference to Gries’ previous entreaty.

Motherhood, apple pie

The bottom line here is that ‘ethics’ is a motherhood and apple pie of an issue. It is easier to entreat about than to act. Not that I am actually advocating action—not in the rather narrow context of ‘professional conduct’. This is an essentially pocket-book oriented debate where the object of the exercise is to stop one geologist cheating another out of his or her royalty check. I would be in favor of a broader look at industry ethics—at the way certain exploration permits are obtained from dodgy third world governments.

Global Witness

If you are seriously interested in ‘ethics’ then I would recommend reading a recent report from the ginger group Global Witness. The report, ‘A Time for Transparency—coming clean on oil, mining and gas revenues’ does a good job of showing for instance how up to 25% of some countries’ oil revenue goes AWOL, ending up in Swiss bank accounts. But what distinguishes the Global Witness report is that it advocates, not nebulous ‘ethics’, but practical ‘disclosure’. If I said, ‘transparency is the new ethics’ would someone put me up for Private Eye?

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