When this reporter first started covering the oil and gas industry in 1995, the concept of asset teams was just emerging. The managers driving that change may, in part, have been graduates of the Reservoir Characterization Project (RCP) at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM).

The project was formed in 1984 by Tom Davis, a professor in the geophysics department. In the 10 years prior to the formation of RCP, Davis was a faculty member working on mapping faults and fracture zones in the Denver Basin.

“Bob Weimer put me onto this as a potential problem,” Davis said. “I think part of his insight was based on the evolution of fractured reservoirs in Colorado. 

“It was an opportunity, and I said, ‘Count me in.’ I figured I’d sign on for a year, and 40 years later I’m still here.”

But not for long. Davis is retiring from his teaching and RCP at the end of the 2016 spring semester. He recounted to E&P some of the fascinating changes he’s observed during his tenure.

The context
Davis said the context of developing the research program was a focus on fractured reservoirs and the use of seismic technologies to find them. One of the early areas of his studies was the Wattenberg Field in the Denver-Julesburg Basin, and that field, which sits atop the Niobrara and Codell shales, is one of the current RCP phases.

“It’s coming full circle,” he said. “Instead of using 2-D seismic like we did in years gone by, we’re now using 3-D and 4-D and multicomponent seismic. And we’re tying it in with other disciplines. That’s been the whole crux of my career in a nutshell. That’s one of the advantages of an institution like Mines—we can develop a focus and carry it forward with our students.”

RCP is a research program for graduate and doctoral students that challenges those students with real-world problems brought forth by industry sponsors. Current projects include the Wattenberg Field, Vaca Muerta Shale, Kuwait deep gas project, Montney Shale and Denbury project.

During his tenure at CSM and RCP, Davis has certainly seen changes in technology. One technology that is seeing only mild uptake is multicomponent seismic. “I would like to say that the multicomponent technology we’ve been working on and developing over the course of 30-some years is going to be the technology of the future,” Davis said.

“I still think it is. People keep asking, ‘When is it going to happen?’ I think the framework is that as we go forward, we’re going to find out that these reservoirs are even more complex than we think. And if we’re going to increase the recovery from these reservoirs, it’s going to be important to use the best technologies that we can apply,” he continued.

He added that RCP has used multicomponent seismic on all of its projects, from the Silo Field in the mid-1980s up to its current use in Wattenberg today. “It enables us to see those fractures and fault zones, which then enables us to develop reservoir models.”  

Processing these data was a hurdle in earlier days, but Davis said that the main hurdle now is integrating the data and tying them to the engineering model as well as the geological model.

“This helps with the orientation of wells, the length of wells, the completion of wells, the recompletion in terms of refracturing the wells and maybe even EOR through injection of CO2,” he said. “I think the future, whether it’s in Wattenberg or the Bakken or the Permian or someplace else in the world, will be in this area of reservoir modeling and the enhancement of recovery in these reservoirs.

“Right now with an average recovery of 5% to 6% [in the shale plays] there’s a huge resource that’s here in our backyard. It’s important for us, especially at CSM, to have the foresight to say we can do better and to align ourselves with the industry to make that wish come true,” he emphasized.

Another change he’s seen is a shift from trying to get better images from seismic data to quantification of the reservoir parameters. Here again multicomponent seismic can help. “Even as early as the early 1980s companies like Arco and Amoco were working on multicomponent,” he said. “We stumbled onto it at Silo Field as well. By the middle of the 1980s, the industry had gone into a downturn, and the first thing that was cut was research. We benefitted from that because companies shifted their focus to working alongside academia. They could see the potential to do real-world experiments. That was the evolution of RCP in 1985.” 

Davis blames the current downturn, in part, on the industry’s ability to evolve technology to solve its problems. “The oil industry is a slow adopter of technology, but once we get good at what we’re doing, sometimes we’re too good,” he said. “We go through these cycles, and they’re driven by technology to a large degree.”

Business changes
Prior to going to CSM for first his doctoral degree and then his teaching position, Davis worked at Amoco for more than three years and had an internship at Chevron. “Back then we were still looking for structures [and] bumps to drill,” he said. “The view of integration was not really embraced.

“That changed, and I’d like to say that we were part of that change because when I started developing integrated exploration development courses in 1980, we were probably one of the first if not the first to do that with the idea that students could have an integrated experience. I think those early courses served the foundation of where some of our students went, taking this idea of integration with them. It transformed the industry in the late 1980s and into the 1990s into asset teams, and that structure is still playing out today.”

He also sees more collaboration between companies, as evidenced by the number of industry conferences and other events. “In the framework of unconventionals, we have to get together and talk, and we have to try to find technologies that work across the disciplines,” he said. “We’re having to do that in a difficult economic environment where companies have the aspiration of holding on to their best people and assets. But it will change.”

All about the students
Having taught at the college level for more than 40 years, Davis has seen his share of students come and go at CSM. How have they changed during that time?

“They’re more adaptable,” he said. “I think they’re more astute about the real world. They’re more aware of their surroundings and the environment. I think it’s up to us to develop educational systems that these folks can embrace.

“How do you tune them in and not have them tune out? One of the things I’ve found is that if you give them a real-world problem to work on, they’ll work on it, and they’ll work together. The learning experience is next to none.”

The RCP class of 2015 poses outside the Green Center at CSM. (Source: Colorado School of Mines)