Today’s Energy Update
(Because Energy Fuels Our Lives)
In the world of oil and natural gas, engineers, geologists, and drilling and production departments tend to get the lion’s share of the credit when good things happen, and most of the blame when they don’t. That’s fair, given the crucial roles these groups of employees play within the thousands of companies that make up the U.S. oil and gas industry.
But in recent years, as overall domestic production has risen at a pace no one could have foreseen even five years ago, the credit has begun to shift. These human resources remain indispensable to the success of any company, but the deployment of a raft of advancing technologies has played an ever-advancing role over time in enabling companies to maximize recoveries and profits.
Advanced-intelligence (AI), machine-learning applications constitute one area of technology that is obtaining widespread use throughout the industry. Unplanned equipment outages and the resulting loss of production cost companies billions of dollars every year. Any technology that can help avoid such outages can have a major, positive impact on a company’s bottom line.
Last December, I wrote about one machine-learning tool – PRT, a recent acquisition of DrillingInfo – that enables companies to significantly reduce their electricity costs by accurately predicting weather and wind patterns up to two weeks in advance. Given that electricity is the single largest element of lease operating expenses industry-wide, that’s a big deal.
“My story starts in 1956 when I was one year old, and M. King Hubbard made a prediction about ‘peak oil.’ He said somewhere around 1970 U.S. production would peak at about 10 million barrels per day and then it would fall off over the next 25-30 years to about 4 million bpd, and the U.S. would be completely dependent on foreign oil.”
Steve Keenan is, to put it mildly, a high-energy individual. Apache Corporation’s Senior Vice President for Worldwide Exploration, he is a 40-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, a geoscientist who has seen it all and done most of it. As we start our interview last November, he is seated at his desk at the company’s offices on the western edge of San Antonio, trying to describe to this writer the series of events that led to the discovery of the massive Alpine High resource in the Delaware Basin of far West Texas. As we will soon see, it was a discovery that required a “cradle to grave” kind of approach, and true to form, Keenan was starting his explanation at the cradle.
“That’s important because people really believed what Hubbard was saying,” he continues. “And the amazing thing to me is that he was practically correct — oil did peak at 10 million bpd around 1970, and it did fall and we were disproportionally dependent on imports for a long time. But it didn’t fall in the logistic distribution curve that he predicted.” To emphasize this point, Keenan pulls up a line graph of the last 45 years of U.S. oil production onto his computer display. “If you’ll notice, there are changes in the slope of the curve, and it is those changes in slope that are the story of my career.
“Up until about 2005 the industry was involved in what we used to just call ‘exploration’ but which we now refer to as ‘conventional exploration,’ since we now have exploration in ‘unconventional’ or ‘resource’ plays,” he says, describing the different terms used to differentiate the sand and limestone formations from which almost all oil and gas was extracted during the industry’s first 150 years and the tight sands, coal and shale formations that have produced most of it in the U.S. during the course of the 21st century.
“All these changes in slope are important because what they represent are the introduction of new ideas, really creative and adaptive thinking, so that we could slow or arrest that decline. Or some kind of new engineering capability or new technology that didn’t exist previously. But mainly it was creative thinking.”
He points to a specific spot on the graph. “This is where I come in. I actually first got hired in 1978, after the Arab oil embargo and the discovery at Prudhoe Bay. Like a lot of people my age with my credentials (he has an MS degree, undergrad in geology with a master’s thesis topic pertaining to spectral analysis of seismic signals – most of his contemporary MS colleagues studying Geophysics were writing about the evaluation of gravity or magnetic data) I began my career working in frontier areas where all the big hopes were. The main suspects at that time were in Alaska and California.”
Indeed, the progression of Keenan’s career, which, before coming to Apache Corp. in June 2014 included stops at Cities Service Oil Company, SOHIO Petroleum, BP, Marathon and EOG Resources, reads basically as compendium of some of the largest major oil discoveries of the last 40 years.
As Keenan notes, the early years of his career, spent at Cities Service, were spent exploring for oil on the North Slope of Alaska and in California, where he worked on the huge Milne Point field 35 miles west of Prudhoe Bay, and also on the Point Arguello field in the Pacific Ocean waters offshore California, just north of Santa Barbara.
While working as Regional Project Manager and as Chief Geophysicist at a domestic independent oil company from 1985 through 1997, Keenan gained a wealth of international experience, exploring for oil faraway places like Norway, Oman, Spain, Argentina and Egypt. Keenan moved over to Marathon Oil in 1997, and spent the next five years working on assets in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Angola.
Keenan next moved to become Division Exploration Manager of the South Texas operations for EOG Resources. There, he led the company’s highly-successful development of the Middle Wilcox tight sands assets in South Texas. Then, in 2008, his team made a major new discovery when it drilled, hydraulically fractured and completed the first successful horizontal well in the giant Eagle Ford Shale formation.
Wait, you’re thinking, didn’t Petrohawk drill that first successful Eagle Ford well? That is the common story, and, to be fair, Petrohawk was the first company to publicly announce a successful Eagle Ford completion, in October of 2008.
In 2008, EOG made a strategic decision to add more liquids to its portfolio of assets as the natural gas market in the U.S. began to become over-supplied. Keenan and his team were directed by then-EOG CEO Mark Papa at that time to go find more oil, even though it had been highly successful in drilling for the natural gas in the Wilcox formation for many years by then.
In the summer of that year, Keenan’s team which included current Apache employees Chester Pieprzica, Roberto Alaniz and Navneet Behl, drilled the Tully C. Gardner #94H, a 4,200’ lateral well in Webb County, Texas, which is in the wet gas window of the Eagle Ford Shale, and brought it online in August. So, why does the Petrohawk well continue to get the credit? Because EOG made the strategic decision to not make an announcement of its new discovery.
“At EOG, we decided that there was no value to us in telling people that,” Keenan says with a chuckle. “We convinced our management to move over to Karnes County (to the east) [to start up an expanded leasing program]. We then moved our rig over into Karnes County and drilled what was the first crude oil well in the Eagle Ford Shale.
“If you think about it, what business advantage would we [EOG] have to tell anybody about that first well?” Keenan says, noting that doing so would only serve to bring new competitors into the play area. “When we drilled that first well, we had about 15,000 acres under lease in the Eagle Ford,” he notes. In the coming months, EOG’s acreage position ultimately grew to more than 575,000 acres, and the company became one of the handful of biggest players in the Eagle Ford drilling boom that lasted through 2014, and is now seeing something of a revival today.