Russian Seismic Exploration: Technologies of the Future

Despite the difficult conditions that characterize exploration, Russia has specialized companies that managed to survive the downturn and constitute the core of the industry. These companies are strong and reliable. They are able to meet the demands of all the subsoil users that are interested in high-quality Russian exploration: a miser pays twice. The technologies described in this article represent only a small portion of the advanced solutions developed in seismic exploration and in continuous improvement both in the West and in Russia. The only question is whether there will be sufficient demand for innovational technologies. Will they develop in Russia to enable exploration services companies to make significant investments in R&D given the current prices established in the result of competition with contractors who refuse to take responsibility for the quality of the provided services?

Starting in the 1990s, oil companies had to fight for the consolidation of assets, accumulation of reserves, upgrading of old assets, improvement of production and profits at enterprises that experienced a slump after the collapse of all horizontal links. In such an environment, exploration was last on the list in the battle for survival: the significant drop in exploration costs in the first half of the 1990s and around the Millenium speaks for itself (see Exploration Financing). Subsequently, the situation began to improve but the exploration expenditures of oil companies continued to be determined based old principles. Today, the leaders on the market are a number of exploration companies that survived the transitional period and managed to retain the experience accumulated over decades. By combining this experience with modern western technologies, these companies made themselves able to provide high-quality professional services to oil and gas production companies. But it is very difficult to conduct R&D in an unstable work environment. Today, we can say that Russian manufacturers have completely lost the battle for telemetry equipment: we use imported seismic equipment. Surely, there are good equivalents of foreign telemetric systems, but unfortunately Russia has fallen behind in this sector. There are several exceptions: for example, in the sector of electromagnetic sources, where the Russian solution  has no competition abroad. However, such examples are few, hough they are quite important. Nevertheless, we have not lost the technological battle.


The Limits of Technology

Global geophysical science and practical application have made no significant progress over the past 20 years. The seismic exploration technologies used today stopped developing due to the capabilities of the methods and the limited capabilities of the technical means used for their implementation. Field geophysics now develops either by following the path of optimization of a technology that allows to achieve higher productivity or through an increase in the number of recorders, providing more information about subsoil resources. Russian companies, at least the largest ones (because new methods require significant financial investments), have access to almost all modern products in this sector and apply them in their operations. Evidently, the capabilities of application of modern seismic exploration methods are limited by the demand for such high-tech services. Nevertheless, there is demand and we believe that this demand will grow. This growth will be driven by strategically focused companies that plan their business decades ahead. Russian resources are seriously underexplored. There are many blank spots which can be transformed into economic reserves. The most committed subsoil users using modern survey methods and equipment with better resolution already have an opportunity to collect much more information about subsoil resources than was possible several years ago.  

 Yes, it will be more expensive. By comparing the additional exploration costs that can be estimated at millions of dollars and the additional profit they can generate through savings in drilling and increased capitalization after the booking of additional reserves, oil companies can see that such profits could amount to tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. Subsoil users that can count money will understand soon enough that a miser pays twice. The most prospective seismic exploration technologies allowing to significantly increase the return on investments in exploration are multi-wave seismic exploration and the application of cable-less systems and pulse sources. Multi-wave seismic exploration allows to obtain additional information about the subsoil structure using conventional excitation methods and additional recording sensors. The cost of the method increases only relative to the cost of telemetry equipment and servicing personnel, because all other cost elements remain unchanged in general. We have already said that in the Russian seismic exploration market, every extra ruble in costs reduces interest in services. That is why multi-wave seismic exploration is applied very seldom, though the method is quite efficient in the follow-up exploration of deposits which can be bypassed during the primary survey. This is especially relevant in areas with steep formation, faults, folding, etc., which is typical, for example, of Eastern Siberia, where as some experts believe three-component 3D/3C seismic exploration is a good fit. The other challenge in the large-scale application of multi-wave seismic exploration is related to data processing and interpretation: currently, there are no examples of successful application of three-component signal processing and interpretation. The main reason is the low demand for such a method due to its cost and consequently low demand for data processing and interpretation. Both problems are attributable only to economic factors. Therefore, when traditional seismic exploration methods approach their technological limit and as active fields deplete, demand for new seismic exploration methods will inevitably increase. Subsoil users that try to avoid this line-up will be the winners. Currently, advanced developers of software for processing and interpretation focus on this task. It is only a matter of time: in two-three years, we should expect profound changes in the situation. GEOTECH Holding is the largest seismic exploration company in Russia and it is ripe for leadership in this market. If oil companies need such services in the future, we are ready to prepare a plan for such a project and conduct a demonstration of the method.  Cable-less systems allow to record the seismic signal in hard-to-access areas saving data in the internal non-volatile memory and exchanging data depending on the charge of their battery. The vast territory and harsh operating conditions seismic crews face in Russia obviously enhance interest in the application of such autonomous recording systems, as they are the most advanced foreign technology today. Cable-less systems can be used in the most hard-to-access areas, where conventional cable technologies are not applicable. The other advantage is the significant reduction in the time needed for field operations thanks to the application of cable-less sensors. This technology is widely applied in the West, because it reduces survey time and enhances labor productivity. It is important for Russia, because the exploration season is limited, while with the use of the cable-less system it is possible to complete five-six months of work in just four months. Online evaluation of each individual seismic record is not possible using the cable-less system, and this raises concerns on the part of Russian subsoil users. This characteristic has deeper economic roots than may seem at first glance. For now, the Russian seismic exploration market is mainly based on formal demand: it is much easier to make seismic survey cheaper than better. A number of companies use it since they are ready to save on everything, even compromising the interests of their customers. But a high-quality seismic signal is the ultimate result of seismic exploration. Absent such a signal, a subsoil user is just wasting his money. This is why the mindset of the people who make decisions on exploration activities needs to change in Russia for the implementation of such cable-less systems:   high-quality services should cost more, and the results of such surveys should have not a formal but direct impact in the further development of hydrocarbon projects. Based on this, contractors will automatically split into reliable and not so reliable ones. Reliable contractors will have an incentive to retain their good reputation and to stay at the top of the league. Therefore, none amongst them will risk delivering poor quality material, and customers’ concerns about losing control over the signal recording process will disappear. The Pulse Sources Electromagnetic sources Enisey represent a unique technology where an electromagnetic drive pulse is converted into a directional seismic wave. The technology was developed as an alternative to explosive and vibration seismic technologies (a comparison of results is provided on Figs.1 and 2) and has received global recognition. Its developers took into account the flaws of other systems, while the main advantage is the ability to generate a signal in conditions when other sources are not applicable because of technological, physical, geological or environmental limitations. A family of such sources has been developed and is now actively being used – they are mounted on chassis and sledges and there is a water source for transit zone, river, or lake water areas, and there is a small-size source for engineering surveys. The sources Enisey-VEM designed for shallow water application show a particularly promising potential. They have no competition when explosive seismic methods are restricted and conventional pneumatic guns require bigger depths. Pulse sources have a significant advantage over vibrators and in the challenging conditions of some East-Siberian sections, our designers  are addressing two innovational tasks that will allow a full application of pulse sources as a new-generation technology. Firstly, a so-called smart source is developed to control the signal-noise ratio automatically and is activated as many times as needed to obtain a high quality signal. The source always provides the same pulse intensity, but, presently, to suppress all noise to collect a high-quality signal multiple processing of each physical observation point is necessary. The essence of the innovation consists in the fact that the source “knowing” target parameters of subsequent data processing and interpretation can define automatically how many concentrations are needed in the specific point to achieve the required S/N ratio so that the data can be used for subsequent processing. Secondly, a source for the generation of the S-wave has been developed. It will allow for multi-wave seismic exploration with huge economic benefits in comparison with other wave-generation methods. We believe that this technology is highly promising, and we are ready to offer subsoil users an improved electromagnetic pulse methodology in the next two years. Another important aspect in the development of field geophysics is data processing and interpretation. Thanks to modern software systems, it is now possible to use data that was previously considered low informative. In addition, it is now possible to collect much more information than was the case earlier due to extension exploration of the subsoil. Such an extensive approach is another example of innovational development: the higher the technological complexity of a project, the more equipment and specialists participate, and the higher the complexity associated with project management, the more attention is paid to details. This is also an important direction of technological development – planning and management of projects with ever increasing technological complexity. There are methods that allow to obtain more geological information through increasing the scope of the work, the tightening of quality, density, observation resolution requirements. Some 1,500-2,500 active telemetric channels are used during 3D seismic, but there are projects that require 7,000-10,000 channels. And this is only Russian practice. Outside of Russia, there are examples of use of 50,000-70,000 channels in a single project. Processing and interpretation of geophysical data is the simplest vector of further technological development that can be utilized by field operators even now. Infilling of the survey grid and a higher number of active channels automatically improve output in the form of a final result. All the above-mentioned technologies represent only a small portion of the advanced seismic R&D products now available. There are solutions to transit zone surveys, combinations of different groups of vibrators for improvement of their total performance, etc. The technological expertise of Russian companies is as good as that of their western peers. Russia has companies, including GEOTECH Holding, that possess cutting-edge equipment and can guarantee high-quality data processing results to customers. Our experience enables us to address the most difficult tasks even with all the infrastructure challenges in Russia. Currently, we estimate the technological structure of the Russian seismic exploration market at 10:90 – 10% of projects where quality is critical and even forces contractors to upgrade their technological level and 90% of projects where only price matters. We prefer to be optimists and hope that in the next 10 years this ratio will look more like 30:70. Then, our industry will have excellent chances of development. Oil and gas companies have a unique opportunity to survey areas that were neglected earlier and collect better data than 5-10 years ago. Demand is a key issue: if there is demand for high-quality data and new technology they will develop in Russia. If not, then exploration companies will be unable to afford any significant investment in R&D.   

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