The oil and gas industry entered the high-tech era long ago. The deterioration in the quality of resources and the increased share of challenging oil require new approaches not only in production, but also in exploration. However, the sector of high-tech exploration services, particularly, in seismic exploration, is just in the making in Russia. Denis Cherednichenko and Rustam Rakhamtulin, Vice Presidents of Geotech Holding, talked with Ekaterina Maikova about the trends in the development of Russian surface seismic exploration.
How good or bad is the current situation in the Russian surface seismic exploration market from the technological and technical points of view?
Denis Cherdynenko (D.C.): Due to the vastness of its territories the Russian surface seismic exploration market is the largest in the world. But after the collapse of the USSR, domestic exploration technologies began falling behind relative to their foreign equivalents. Exploration activities dropped following the dip in financing for the entire industry. Russia did not only stopped to develop its own technologies it also did not adopt foreign ones.
Rustam Rakhmatulin (R.R.): Yes, after 1991 the Russian seismic market was isolated and was cut off from global developments and that resulted in a loss of many years. In the 2000s, oil companies started actively investing in exploration, and the industry woke up. Consolidation started in seismic exploration in 2005, and the industry saw really big money. For example, Geotech invested around 7 bln RUB just in technical upgrading during the three years leading up to its merger with Integra.
But high-tech seismic exploration requires significantly more money?
D.C.: Evidently. But the drilling of one E&A well costs around $US15 mln. Generally, 5-6 wells are drilled to map one deposit. Seismic acquisition costs account for around 5% of total exploration expenses. Even if due to higher costs this share increases to 7%, total exploration costs will still be lower, because fewer dry wells will have to be drilled.
R.R.: There is demand for high-tech services, but in Russia there is a belief that there are no domestic, technologically advanced companies that can provide high-level services. It is very difficult to change this stereotype. In fact, such seismic exploration requires high technical expertise from the company and a highly skilled labor force. Presently, many poorly equipped companies operate in Russia. But there are three, rather technologically advanced companies such as Geotech Holding and another two companies behind Geotech in terms of scale and capabilities. Currently, high-tech seismic services account for around 25-30% of the market, but in the next five years this share will increase to 50%.
What methods does high-tech seismic exploration include?
D.C.: First of all it is HD seismic acquisition and high-density seismic surveys. In Russia usually 4,000-7,000 channels are used in conventional 3D seismic surveys. HD-seismic acquisition employs 40,000-50,000 channels for the same area, which increases the number of physical observations tenfold. This technology is also applicable in shale oil and gas exploration. Its applicability in Russian geological, climate, and infrastructure conditions is also very wide. A unique design that takes into account all the factors is prepared for each specific project.
R.R.: High-density seismic acquisition implies infilling of both source and receiver lines, which provides a data matrix with a higher capacity. The higher the density of sensors, the better the output signal and the less the energy required to generate an efficient signal.
But this increases the scope of field seismic surveys!
R.R.: Yes, that is true. It is also difficult to use simultaneously several groups on one project, because signals will overlap when recording generating interference. But this problem can be resolved: certain work management procedures and certain requirements for a station are needed. The station at the level of the hardware filters the signal from other sources with preset parameters. This is the high-tech nature of the method. Speaking of receiver line infilling, it is absolutely clear that if we have 30,000 sensors instead of 3,000 that tightens the requirements on the equipment. Our colleagues from Sсhlumberger currently have a project in Kuwait where a signal is recorded every 10 seconds!
What do you think about the outlooks for multi-wave seismic exploration and 4D surveys?
R.R.: Multiwave seismic is also the future, but it is a vague future. The main problem of multiwave-seismic exploration is that nobody knows how to process signals from the x-, y-, and у‑components. Very few projects have been carried out in the world using this technology. That is why it is rather difficult to judge the efficiency of the method. 4D seismic exploration is essentially not real high-tech. This is actually a time-lapsed 3D technology. The key factors in this case are the parameters of the survey. They should fully match the parameters of the previous survey, which requires a certain level of organization from the contractor.
Which oil companies are already using such high-tech seismic services?
D.C.: TNK-BP is a pioneer in seismic surveys at brownfields. The company orders seismic services at its brownfields almost in all regions. I would like to note that TNK-BP is the most efficient company in exploration. It is also possible to note GazpromNeft, which conducts pilot projects using new technologies.
Could you tell us about Russian seismic exploration technologies? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
R.R.: Field seismic exploration technologies can be divided into wave sources and wave recorders (receivers), So Russian receivers significantly lag behind their foreign equivalents. There is one company in Saratov that produces equipment for recording seismic signals. But unfortunately their best products match only seven-eight-year-old French or American equivalents. The situation with sources has two sides to it. There are three types of sources: drilling and blasting, vibroseismic (vibrator), and electromagnetic pulse sources.
R.R.: A drilling rig is used as a source in the first type. This rig can be of any type and it is difficult to achieve a technological breakthrough. We use Russian-made rigs. Western vibrators surpass their Russian equivalents in terms of signal intensity, generation parameters, fuel consumption, and environmental safety, though they cost the same. A third source is being developed in Russia. It has significant advantages in certain conditions; for example, in environmentally sensitive areas and on frozen rivers and lakes. It is cost-efficient and its fuel consumption is five times lower than the fuel consumption of a vibrator. Its cost is also low. But its main disadvantage is that it generates signals of a smaller power. For this reason when comparing a single seismic record received from such a source and one from a vibrator, a customer will surely select a vibrator. It is possible to eliminate this disadvantage of an electromagnetic pulse source: modern processing technologies have been improved so much that it is possible to filter out the desired signal with just knowledge of the noise parameters and achieve a very good output result. However, we are in a situation when, on the one hand, Russia has developed an economically and technologically efficient approach to the generation of seismic waves, and, on the other hand, the customers have very little trust in it.
You mentioned data processing. Traditionally, it has been the main weakness of Russian seismic exploration. Are there any changes in this situation?
R.R.: Existing software packages developed in Russia occupy a niche in the market, but they fall short of their foreign equivalents. In particular, they fall short of global processing capabilities. Some Russian software products designed for one specific task are as good as their western equivalents and are actively being used. Almost all large processing centers run on foreign software developed by Sсhlumberger, CGGVeritas, or Halliburton. As for data processing and interpretation, Russia has a lot of good professionals who use these tools, set proper tasks, and resolve them: here we are as strong as our foreign colleagues.
D.C.: I would like to add that the role of data processing is rapidly increasing and the amount of information to process continuous to grow. Interpretation is a special sphere where a geophysicist's experience and knowledge of local geology are the defining factors. This is why it is very important to have representative offices in all oil and gas areas of the country.
What are your thoughts about the role the state should play in the development of Russian seismic exploration?
R.R.: We believe that the role of the state is to create a good image of the industry, to promote the perception that seismic exploration is similar to diagnostics in healthcare. Early and efficient diagnostics is a factor that determines affordable and high quality treatment. Government can also introduce some tax incentives for companies that conduct efficient exploration. It can more clearly set the requirements for seismic exploration to discourage surveys which are performed just as a formality employing outdated methods. It is possible to tighten requirements for the quality of the reserves which are put on balance sheets. As for investments in seismic exploration, we believe that such investments are not needed. Companies are ready to develop independently. Government-owned seismic exploration companies have failed to evolve into large and efficient market players, possibly, due to the complexity inherent to the entire process within a government-owned company.