Persisting Norway’s data. Communicating geosciences.

Neil McNaughton is back from Norway’s ECIM data management conference where he had a spot of déjà vu regarding the merits of a ’standard’ data model. His eye was also caught by a brave attempt from the London GeolSoc on how best to communicate awkward geo-facts to a skeptical public.

You have to hand it to the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate. Just when everything is running smoothly, every few years, in the interest of fairness and encouraging cooperation, it re-tenders the management contract for Diskos, the national geoscience data bank. To date, while operations have changed hands, from IBM, through Landmark to Schlumberger, Diskos has stayed with the same technology, PetroBank. This time around, everything changes. The contract has been awarded to a new CGG-backed group using new software. CGG is busy scaling up its Trango seismic data management system to handle the new job (see this month’s lead).

Back in the day, when PetroBank was IBM, Oil IT Journal, actually its predecessor, Petroleum Data Manager, followed such developments assiduously, in particular the ‘standards compliant’ aspect of such tools. In 1997 we wrote about the subtle differences between early versions of the POSC (now Energistics) Epicentre data model, as used by IBM, and the ‘Discovery’ project subset of the same model used in Landmark’s OpenWorks. At least that was what people said at the time.

There was also the imagining that using a ‘standard’ data model would be a sure fire route to interoperability and, nota bene, preserving the data investment in the event of a subsequent change of ownership and or technology. Well here we are with a change of ownership and apparently no easy route to data migration. It seems to be rather a matter of finding the right specialists with knowledge of all the tweaks and triggers that have been built into the database over the years to keep things up and running. What does appear to be working still is the idea that a ‘standard’ data model (this time it is PPDM, Trango seemingly is ‘100% compliant’) will offer all the same perceived benefits as the old ‘POSC compliant’ PetroBank was supposed to. There must be a moral here somewhere. Technology changes, data models die, but a good marketing spiel lives forever!


I was rather taken by a recent blog posting from the GeolSoc’s Nic Bilham discussing how to communicate ‘contested’ geoscience. No, we are not talking creationism here, rather how to persuade local populations and politicians that certain activities like carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) is, or can be, safe. In the eyes of the public it appears that CCS is considered to be just a tad less evil than fracking in its capacity to generate earthquakes and poison local water supplies.

Before looking at Bilham’s arguments, an observation. CCS is not really like the short term pumping activity of a frac job, but it does share a potential for earthquake generation with a disposal well. Fracking and CCS share a common ‘issue.’ So how do we argue, from a geological standpoint, that injecting CO2 or disposing of frac fluid can be safe?

Bilham reported on a London Geological Society conference held earlier this year on public concerns around radioactive waste disposal, shale gas, fracking and CCS. Geologists have a ‘privileged understanding’ of our planet and the processes that have shaped it. They are also comfortable dealing with uncertainty. It can be hard to communicate probabilistic assessments of resources and risk without these being perceived as an expression of ignorance, undermining public confidence in the expert. Worse, this gives ammunition to adversaries to, say, fracking to ‘play fast and loose with the evidence.’ If nothing is certain, evidence is cherry-picked and unsubstantiated claims get traction. Bilham also observes that ‘professional scientists are not above such guerrilla tactics’ in what he describes as the asymmetric warfare of science communication. Simple, but false, ‘certainties’ can have an appeal that more complex and nuanced explanations and assessments lack.

So what to do? Well this is of course where the going gets hard. Speakers at the GeolSoc conference suggested practical ways of improving geoscience communication: images that show clearly what is going on under the ground, finding the right narrative, using social media and making data ‘open and discoverable.’ There is also a problem in how researchers are trained. There is an impression that science is made up of three branches physics, chemistry and biology, that have little to do with each other. It would be better to highlight the overlaps between specialisms, raise awareness of other disciplines and stimulate interdisciplinary thinking. This requires reforming how we teach science in schools to ‘enable the public to be discerning in their approach to scientific claims about politically contested matters.’

All this is very well but it is not going to tip the balance in Europe from skepticism and mistrust to acceptance. Decisions like these need to go beyond geological feasibility and embrace politics and economics. What really drives acceptance, at least for fracking, is the existence of an oil and gas province that has resigned the population to the gains and losses that such activity brings.

If I might add an observation, areas with established petroleum systems appear so far to be the best candidates for successful non conventional production. So how about a different approach. Go into a new area and propose your fracking program. If the public object vehemently then you are probably looking in the wrong place. Anyone for ‘crowdsourcing’ exploration?

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