In their quest to find hydrocarbons, explorers pulled out all the stops in 2011.

With oil prices in a comfortable region for most of the year, 2011 was a good time to be in the exploration business. Oil companies took advantage of mild overcapacity in the marine seismic market to embark on new exploration quests, and geophysical contractors applied new technology to deliver high-tech multiclient surveys. Below is a summation of some of the year’s highlights.

Discoveries

Discoveries in 2011 were not limited to step-outs and infill drilling. Companies announced large finds and even new fields. ONGC, for instance, announced a significant gas discovery in the northeastern Indian state of Tripura. The success of the well has opened up the intervening low areas between the Agartala and Kona-ban structures and gives impetus to more exploration on structural flanks in the area.

Petrom reported success with its 4539 Totea well in southwestern Romania, which targeted a high-pressure accumulation. Wireline logging has indicated the presence of multiple hydrocarbon-bearing zones.

In August, Statoil and partners confirmed communication between the Aldous and Avaldsnes discoveries on the Norwegian Continental Shelf (NCS). The combined discovery could make the list of top 10 NCS discoveries.

Also in August, Faroe Petroleum found a 14-m (45-ft) net oil column in the 206/75a-3 well in its Fulla prospect West of Shetlands. The company reported that reservoir quality is better than expected, with average porosity of 23%. Faroe CEO Graham Stewart noted that these conditions lead him to believe that the field could be commercial and would be developed with Faroe’s Freya discovery.

A Shell-Tullow joint venture reported a discovery in September offshore French Guinea, the first deepwater well in these waters. Total and Northpet also are participants in the project.

Total also participated in a major gas discovery in the Caspian Sea. The Absheron X-2 well offshore Azerbaijan encountered more than 150 m (500 ft) of net gas pay within high-quality sands on the northern flank of a major structure. Reservoirs are expected to extend over the entire northern part of the structure, according to the company.

Anadarko’s success offshore Mozambique continued in 2011, and the company announced in September that the cumulative results of exploration and appraisal success have increased the resource potential of the field to 10 Tcf. These estimates are expected to increase as the company continues its exploration and appraisal work in the area.

In October, a new gas field was discovered offshore Sakhalin within the Mynginskaya structure in the Kirin-sky prospect in Sakhalin III, according to Gazprom. Gas and condensate were encountered in the well during drilling. This is the second discovery in the prospect.

Repsol made discoveries in both Argentina and Brazil in November. Its shale oil and gas discovery in Argentina was the company’s largest discovery ever, and it could grow since the company so far has explored only 428 sq km (165 sq miles) of its 12,000-sq-km (8,880-sq-mile) operating area. In partnership with Petrobras, Repsol Sinopec Brazil made several post-salt discoveries in the Esp?rito Santo basin offshore Brazil.

The Polarcus Nadia is acquiring Polarcus’ first multiclient 3-D survey on the UK Continental Shelf. (Image courtesy of Polarcus)

Survey news

Geophysical contractors were busy this year providing both proprietary and multiclient surveys for the industry. Many of these were industry firsts.

Polarcus, for example, launched its first multiclient project in March in Quad 28 of the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS). The survey has the potential to cover up to 2,000 sq km (770 sq miles) and is supported through industry prefunding.

With acceptance of controlled-source electromagnetics growing, EMGS chartered the vessel Atlantic Guardian in April to start up its third crew. The company cited “recent technology innovations” for this bold move.

Upstart Dolphin Geophysical also had a first, announcing its first 3-D seismic contract in April. The company signed a letter of intent with TGS-NOPEC for the charter of the high-capacity 3-D seismic vessel Polar Duke.

Even well-established companies had firsts, including CGGVeritas beginning acquisition on its first BroadSeis multiclient program. Again focusing on the UKCS, the company is applying its broadband seismic solution to the area with prefunding from several major oil companies. CGGVeritas also announced the first BroadSeis award in the Americas with Bahamas Petroleum Co. Plc.

WesternGeco, meanwhile, began its second dual coil shooting survey, Revolution II, in the Green Canyon area of the Gulf of Mexico. The survey will provide full-azimuth coverage over 8,290 sq km (3,200 sq miles).

A different type of multilclient survey was announced when ARKeX and Global Geophysical teamed to promote ShaleQube, a combination of gravity gradiometry technology and 3-D seismic, to better image the Marcellus shale. The hope was to gather an understanding of the shale’s complexity at a regional scale.

Another shale exploration survey involves the Utica shale in northeastern Ohio, where TGS-NOPEC has awarded a seismic contract for a multiclient 3-D survey called Firestone 3D. Tidelands Geophysical Services will acquire the 795-sq-km (307-sq-mile) survey.

One of the larger airborne gravity gradiometry surveys was performed by ARKeX for Tullow Oil Plc over Lake Turkana in Kenya. The Turkana Rift shares many geological attributes with the Lake Albert Rift in Uganda, where Tullow has had a number of major discoveries. Data will be used to identify basement structures and delineate fault trends and volcanoes.

With much of the focus in Brazil on the huge deepwater presalt finds, Spectrum ASA decided to stick closer to the beach, planning a 2-D multiclient seismic survey covering areas in the northern equatorial margin offshore Brazil. The survey will cover areas with very limited exploration activity. Dolphin Geophysical’s Polar Explorer will carry out the survey.

Finally, EMGS has plans to perform a multiclient 3-D magnetotelluric (MT) survey covering about 3,000 sq km (1,160 sq miles) in the Norwegian Sea. EMGS has been pioneering the use of MT in basalt mapping and basin-scale geology. The key objective is to determine the thickness of basalt layers and whether or not there are sediments below.

CGGVeritas plans to have 1,000 Trilobit deepwater marine nodes by early 2012. (Image courtesy of CGGVeritas)

Leasing

After the 2010 Macondo incident, offshore leasing in the US ground to a halt. In 2011 there were minor signs of recovery.

In August the then Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement gave Shell a conditional nod for a revised exploration plan in the Beaufort Sea. Shell acquired the leases in two earlier lease sales, but the agency insisted on a site-specific environmental assessment prior to the conditional approval. Shell is still required to obtain all necessary permits from other agencies, including the EPA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

BP got its first approval in October, 18 months after Macondo. The Bureau of Ocean Management approved that company’s supplemental exploration plan for deepwater oil and gas activities. Days later the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved a drilling permit originally submitted by BP in January.

Company news

There was lots of activity this year as companies acquired, merged, or even emerged. In April TGS-NOPEC bought Stingray Geophysical Ltd., positioning itself to be a player in the permanent reservoir monitoring market. Stingray, founded in 2008, uses patented fiber-optic sensing technology for seismic reservoir monitoring and other oil and gas applications.

Shell and HP have jointly developed inertial sensing technology to shoot and record seismic data at much higher sensitivity and ultra-low frequencies. (Image courtesy of Shell)

CGGVeritas, meanwhile, made a couple of purchases, acquiring Petrodata Consulting LLC in April and taking a 25% ownership in Spectrum after that company completed a US $40 million purchase of CGGVeritas’ 2-D marine multiclient library. The Petrodata acquisition was a move to further strengthen the company’s reservoir services.

Fugro signed a letter of intent in May to acquire Kelman Technologies’ seismic processing business. The press release states that Kelman’s expertise in land data processing complements Fugro’s existing seismic data processing capability.

IHS made a major announcement in July when it signaled its intent to purchase Seismic MicroTechnology, a well-known player in the geoscience software market. The $500 million cash transaction is the largest in IHS history. Jerre Stead, IHS chairman and CEO, said the acquisition will increase his company’s ability to offer “mission-critical” geoscience software and data products to its customers.

At least two new companies found their way into the marketplace this year. Reservoir Group acquired GeoSearch Logging Inc. and formed a new company, Empirica, to focus on surface logging and provide a number of specialist services, mudlogging, and surface measurements. With the addition of GeoSearch, Empirica will have more than 150 units and 450 employees operating globally from its base in Houston.

A merger and acquisition agreement between CGL Compana Geofisica Lationoamerica SAS, GeoStrata Resources Inc., and UGA Seismic has formed PanAmerican Geophysical. The newly formed group has its corporate headquarters in Jersey in the Channel Islands and is planning a new regional headquarters in Brazil. The company specializes in land and well seismic services, with focused operations in key markets in North and South America.

Technology firsts

Many new technologies were rolled out this year, and many more were used in new applications.

CGGVeritas marked its entrance into the deepwater node market with its Trilobit system. The company announced plans in August to manufacture an additional 800 four-component nodes, giving it a total of 1,000 by early 2012.

Fairfield’s nodal systems found new uses as well. Its ZLand system was selected by Linc Energy for use in underground coal gasification, the first time any nodal system has been used for this purpose. It also sold $30 million worth of equipment to NES LLC on behalf of Apache Corp. The sale represents several industry firsts, including the first use of Z700 marine nodes in the US and the first major use of Z700 and ZLand nodes together in a complementary operation.

Another promising technology that is making strides is Saudi Aramco’s Resbot project. The idea is to use nanosized particles as an aid in reservoir characterization and production. Already the bots have proven their use in determining reservoir connectivity, mapping a waterflood front, and delivering surfactant in EOR operations.

Schlumberger introduced its Signature quartz gauges for well testing operations. The new gauges operate in rugged downhole environments to obtain high-quality pressure measurements throughout a test, even in HP/HT conditions.

In March, Shell and HP announced a breakthrough in the capability of their jointly developed inertial sensing technology to shoot and record seismic data at much higher sensitivity and at ultra-low frequencies. The new onshore wireless acquisition system is designed to provide a clearer understanding of the subsurface.

A month later Fugro Robertson unveiled RoqSCAN, a portable rock properties analyzer that examines rock cuttings at high resolution and generates fully intuitive, high-quality mineralogical and textural datasets within one hour of cuttings delivery. For each sample, data provided include bulk mineralogy, lithology, mineral types and ratios, and grain size, all measured against depth. The data can be used to support the location of fracing stations during hydraulic fracturing.

INOVA Geophysical Equipment Ltd. and BGP completed a high-productivity Vibroseis 3-D survey test for Petroleum Development Oman to validate the capabilities of INOVA’s recording technology in recording slip-sweep, distance-separated simultaneous sweep (DS3), distance-separated simultaneous slip-sweep (DS4) and independent simultaneous sweep. During the test, the system was able to successfully record both DS3 and DS4 data with dynamic fleeting. This was important in the rugged terrain in which the test was completed since vibrator move-up times varied from vehicle to vehicle.

This small sampling of exploration milestones provides a peek into the exploration segment’s dogged determination to continually push the boundaries of technological innovation when it comes to finding oil and gas.