Geosciences students win second place in international oil prospect competition

by Liam Jackson
June 25, 2015

A team of five Penn State students won second place and $10,000 in the highly competitive, international Imperial Barrel Award (IBA) program, hosted by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) and the AAPG Foundation. More than 1,000 students from 132 teams, representing 36 countries, competed. The five Penn State students, all pursuing master’s degrees in geosciences, were the first team from their regional section (Eastern) to place in the top three overall since the IBA competition started in 2007.

The students — Gabriella Arroyo, Tramond Baisden, Jake Hagedorn, Scott Karduck and Nate Stevens — each spent 60-80 hours weekly for eight weeks straight on a realistic geosciences application: oil exploration.

The challenge: visualizing the unknown to predict the location of oil

It’s a problem faced by every oil and gas company: when you can’t see underground to confirm the location of oil, how do you know where to drill? Drilling can cost anywhere from hundreds of thousands of dollars (on shore) to hundreds of million dollars (off shore), so it’s crucial that companies identify the best location. Oil and gas companies typically employ geoscientists to predict where the largest oil reservoirs are located—and this was the task assigned to the IBA competitors.

Each team was given a data set that included seismic information and locations of existing wells of an assigned geographic basin area. They then had to create maps of their geographic basin, conduct cost-benefit and risk analyses of drilling operations and make strategic business recommendations about where to drill. To do this, they applied their knowledge of how rocks change over time, sea level rise and climate history over millions of years in a specific region. The competition culminated in a 25-minute presentation to a panel of high-level executives representing many oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell, Schlumberger, Chevron, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy, Saudi Aramco and Anadarko.

Penn State students presenting

The Penn State students present to a panel of high-level executives representing many oil companies. The students spent 60-80 hours weekly for 8 weeks straight analyzing the geological history of an assigned geographic region as part of the international Imperial Barrel Award program.

IMAGE: American Association of Petroleum Geologists

“This is a real-world, hands-on opportunity for students to practice what they’re going to be doing in their jobs. This program gives students the confidence to know that they can complete industry-specific projects and communicate in a way that’s effective in a business and industry setting,” says Liz Hajek, assistant professor of geosciences, who served as faculty mentor to the team.

Hajek participated in the IBA competition as a student at the University of Wyoming in 2007, the first year it was held. She says it was one of the best learning experiences she had as a graduate student.

“In academia, when we come across uncertainty, we may conduct more tests or take a different approach to reduce the uncertainty, but in business, you have to make a decision, no matter what. There’s no right or wrong answer, either. The judges are looking for students to present a convincing argument,” she says.

The competition served as a comprehensive learning experience, says Stevens.

“My teammates and I each developed years’ worth of experience in a few months by virtue of working through the entire process of developing new petroleum prospects, starting at raw data and working through all the steps and finally pitching new prospects to a panel of industry experts in a high-stakes professional setting,” he says.

The eight-week experience forced students to draw on all their geoscientific knowledge gained in classes -- from stratigraphy to petroleum geosystems.

“Taking everything I learned from a variety of classes and pulling it into one project where I have to pool from each of those classes has been an awesome experience,” said Karduck.

Finding the “critical moment” in Earth’s past

The way oil forms is a very delicate process. Four key components have to be in place simultaneously to create a working oil system: a container for the oil (known as a “trap”); a seal so that oil won’t escape its container; a porous reservoir, such as sandstone, in which oil can be stored; and an organic-carbon-rich source rock.

“When you have all four of those conditions in place, and the ideal temperature is reached at the source rock, oil resources can be generated: this is the ‘critical moment.’ This means you need to understand the timing of every geologic event,” said Karduck.

The students spent most of their time applying their knowledge to find out if that “critical moment” occurred in their region throughout Earth’s history, and predicted whether enough oil had formed for drilling to be profitable. They mapped 33,000 square miles, sometimes to a depth of 15,000 feet below the ocean floor.

“We analyzed the Taranaki basin, which is located off the west coast of New Zealand's North Island. This basin was created when Pangea broke up and New Zealand and Australia took shape. The rocks that we were interested in date back as far as the Cretaceous period, so we had to interpret the entire evolution of the basin for the last 100 million in order to predict whether oil would be located in the region,” sids Karduck.

Industry mentorship from alumni

Each team is allowed to work with two industry mentors, who can provide tips and advice throughout the competition. This year, two geosciences alumni served as mentors to the Penn State team: Rick Abegg, who graduated with a bachelor of scinece in earth science in 1983 from Penn State and now works at Chevron as a program characterization and definition team lead, and Tony Riccardi, who graduated with a doctorate in geosciences from Penn State in 2007 and now works as a geologist for British Petroleum.

Abegg has mentored all three Penn State teams who have participated in the competition to date (2012, 2014 and 2015) and says he first became involved as a result of volunteering on the Graduates of Earth and Mineral Sciences (GEMS) alumni board.

“I can remember being a student, and I think having an alum help students through process makes the experience more valuable to them. In my coaching, I tried to focus on teaching oil exploration methods I had learned on the job, so the students had more tools in their toolbox. That way, they spend less of their time trying to figure out how to do this work, and more time actually doing the science that feeds into their work,” he said.

The mentors also focused on how to communicate ideas to high-level executives, which is a necessary skill in oil and gas exploration.

“It’s important in industry that you can communicate in a few minutes how much work you’ve put into a research project, and make it very clear what your recommendations are,” says Riccardi.

Hajek says that this exposure to the industry’s decision-focused communication style is vital in helping students prepare for their careers.

“You can hear about the differences between communication styles in academia versus industry, but you won’t really understand it until you see how someone with a lot of industry experience is reacting. We have some of the most talented students in the world, and I just want to make sure they hit the ground running when they start their careers,” she said.

Penn State students posing for a photo

The Penn State geosciences team won second place and $10,000 in the international Imperial Barrel Award program. The competition involved 132 teams from 36 countries and involved more than 1,000 students. From left to right: Nate Stevens, Tramond Baisden, Gabriella Arroyo, Scott Karduck and Jake Hagedorn.

IMAGE: American Association of Petroleum Geologists

The Imperial Barrel Award is hosted annually by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) and the AAPG Foundation, which aim to foster scientific research, to advance the science of geology, to promote technology, to inspire high professional conduct, to increase public awareness of geology and to enhance professional development within the field. 

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Last Updated July 10, 2015