Saudi Aramco to Use New Technology to 'Massively Increase' Exploration

The world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Aramco, plans to "massively increase" oil exploration and more than quadruple investment in such activities over the next five years, the chief geophysicist of Saudi Arabia's massive state oil company said yesterday.

Speaking in Washington at an energy technology conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Muhammad M. Al-Saggaf said the company will maintain its level of commitment to gas exploration, "even increasing a little over the next five years." But the main focus will be on scouring the globe for the earth's locked up "black gold."

"We are now focusing on oil, and we are going to massively increase our level of activities in oil exploration," Al-Saggaf said. "In fact we are going to more than quadruple the level of investment in oil exploration during the next five years."

Al-Saggaf was joined by top experts at Chevron and Exxon Mobil Corp., who touted the latest technological advancements as the key to extracting more of the world's petroleum at a time when consumers and politicians alike are re-evaluating the nation's dependence on fossil fuels. Amid rampant public outcry over pain at the pump, panel experts predicted a bright future for hydrocarbons and discussed at length the role upstream technology will play in the future of energy exploration and production.

Stephen Cassiani, president of Exxon Mobil's Upstream Research Co., focused on the advances the oil company made in technology that translates seismic data into three-dimensional images, helping companies look for oil and gas deposits. Advanced seismic imaging technology will be a major component to successful exploration in years to come, Cassiani said.

"The challenges we are going to face will require the next generation of imaging technology with significant advances in several areas," Cassiani said. "We will need tools and procedures to acquire seismic data with substantially higher resolution in all three dimensions."

Future imaging technology will use advanced processing techniques that will capture multiple types of data, predicted Cassiani. "In many cases we only record and use wave pressure data," he said. "The next generation of seismic processers will use all returning energy to develop more accurate images."

Cassiani said that significant advances will occur in drilling technology, allowing companies to access more hard-to-reach places in harsher environments. "As the industry continues to push drilling to new frontiers, I expect to see steadily increasing capabilities to drill deeper, longer and reach more complex wells," he said, "and to reach higher temperature reservoirs than are accessible today."

Al-Saggaf touted several company in-house developed software innovations that he said will ensure better production from current and future fields.

One such method is fractal deconvolution, which is new algorithm that allows Saudi Aramco to improve resolution and focus of the seismic data pictures. With fractal deconvolution, "we can map subsurface structures, identify them, and therefore improve our accuracy and enhance our success rate in looking for oil and gas," Al-Saggaf said. While conventional imaging methods do not provide quality images of subsurface channels and reserves, Al-Saggaf said that the company's DETECT software allows it to see channels with better clarity and ease. Moreover, the technology provides color-coded maps of reservoirs showing the thickest and thinnest parts so that the company can drill with better accuracy.

"Once you have identified the main channels with DETECT, you can target the sweet spots of the reservoir," Al-Saggaf said. "And the thicker the channel, the bigger the pay."

While most of Saudi oil production centers in the east, where the supergiant Ghawar oilfield is located, Al-Saggaf said that Saudi Aramco is "aggressively pursuing" oil and gas exploration in four other parts of the country, including the Red Sea, northwest, Rub' Al-Khali (Empty Quarter) and North Riyadh. Chevron Energy Technology Company representative Kevin Kimber, who deals with heavy oil production, focused his remarks on steamflooding technology. Because heavy oil is viscous and molasses-like, steam is needed to heat the oil and make it thinner and easier to flow through the wells. "We can increase our reserves by a factor of two to 10 times compared to conventional techniques, Kimber said.

However, steamflooding requires more wells, increasing the level of drilling by four to five times, Kimber said. This enhanced oil recovery technique is also more expensive, requiring doubled capital investment, a "dramatic" increase in the number of rigs as well as the people needed to maintain steamflooding operations.

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