From a semantic flop to the Bakken’s flares—via Augustus Melmotte

The failure of the W3C’s semantic oil and gas group to gain traction highlights the schizophrenia of ‘open’ data and ‘confidential’ as in business group. Moving quickly on, editor Neil McNaughton looks back through his 2012 scrapbook on shale gas, fracking and flaring in the Bakken.

I have to say that the demise of the W3C’s ‘semantic’ oil, gas and chemicals business group came as little surprise to me. What was a surprise was the role that Oil IT Journal played in its demise. A year or so ago, when the group initially formed, we signed up, causing something of a kerfuffle among the group’s members who objected to the presence of ‘the media’. Following a call from a senior W3C person who asked us nicely to leave, we did.

This was no big deal. We already had over a hundred articles on the semantic web in and out of oil and gas online and we were quite happy to wait on the group to present the results of its deliberations in public.

Also, the W3C bash was not the first time that the oil and gas industry has attempted to get semantic. We previously reported on Chevron’s now defunct ‘Oilfield ontology repository’ (June 2007) that set out to ‘collect public oil and gas ontologies and make them freely available to the industry at large.’ And we provided comprehensive coverage of the earlier encounter between the W3C and the oil industry in our 2008 report in the Journal and in our Technology Watch report from the event which I have just migrated into the public domain. So you can now download The Data Room’s Technology Watch report from the 2008 World Wide Web Consortium’s Workshop on the Semantic Web in Oil and Gas.

Of course, because we try to think about and analyze what we report, our articles are not the usual sales-pitch-cum-guff that came from the semantic community in the early days. ‘Seamless, machine to machine interaction’ and ‘understanding,’ format-free data exchange and interoperability. I confess to having been guilty of great gullibility in my own early writing on this topic.

The real irony of the W3C group’s reticence to going public is that while the ‘semantic web’ per se has failed to gain traction, its close cousin, the ‘open data’ movement is, at least in some quarters. So how are we going to square ‘confidentiality’ and ‘open?’ That’s an interesting question that spins-off many issues for standards bodies regarding intellectual property rights over the standard itself and over the data used to develop and demonstrate the same. And of course over who pays for all of the above. That’s enough on standards for now. Tomorrow I’m attending the inaugural EAME meeting of the Standards leadership council so more next month I’m afraid.


We haven’t published an ‘Industry at large’ section since March 2011. I’m not sure how popular such general background information is to our readership. Many complain of having too much to read already—which cuts both ways in that if we do ‘industry at large’ it might cut down on your reading. Anyhow I though that a look back through some of the material I have accumulated in my scrapbook might be more interesting than rants on standards.

Last night there was not much on the telly so we watched a DVD of the BBC’s dramatization of Anthony Trollope’s The way we live now. This relates the bodice ripping, deceit and scheming that accompanied the late nineteen century boom in railroad construction. The situation struck me as similar to today’s non conventional exploration. No, I’m not suggesting that Aubrey McClendon is Augustus Melmotte or that Chesapeake is the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway Board. In fact what is most interesting about the railway mania is not that is was a con, as Trollope would have, but that it was unsustainable speculative bubble—more on railway mania from Wikipedia.

Unsustainable or not the EU wants a bit of the action and is agonizing over earlier knee-jerk reactions that saw the banning of hydraulic fracking in France and elsewhere. Brussels and EU governments are starting to back pedal on this with various entreaties to ‘respond’ to the shale gas ‘Eldorado.’ But because fracking is ‘bad,’ the debate has shifted to investigation of ‘other’ techniques. These include the use of propane and helium as frac ‘fluids.’ No doubt when the EU has approved these, folks will then discover that that these techniques are a) not very effective and b) do nothing to address the real issues of non conventional development—resource use, traffic intensity and the disposal of frac effluent. Fracking with laughing gas, very appropriate.

On the environmental front, I am sure you noticed the interesting development in that natural gas is displacing some coal used in US power generation. Meanwhile, some EU countries go ‘green’ by eliminating nuclear power. This means that the relatively cheap coal is ending up being burned in the EU’s power stations. It’s a crazy world all right!

Finally, hidden in the good news from the non conventional front is some very bad news indeed. I refer to the extraordinary satellite image that appeared on the front page of the Financial Times of shale gas being flared in North Dakota. This image made me recall Robert Skinner’s (former director, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies) address at the 2006 San Antonio SPE ATCE.

At the time it had been suggested that the booming conventional natural gas supply in Canada could be used to produce oil from the Athabasca tar sands. Skinner described this waste of a valuable resource as ‘unconscionable.’ Here we are now with plethoric natural gas just over the border in the US that is actually being flared off! You can view this as being either off the scale in ‘unconscionable’ or as a potential business opportunity. How about an XL-II pipeline taking natural gas from the Bakken to Alberta and fuel the Cold Lake shale oil retorts. To this casual observer that sounds like a better idea than just lighting up the night sky.


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