Interview with Gazpromneft science and technology centre deputy general director Andrey Bochkov

In recent years, exploration technologies in Russia and the world have undergone significant changes. This fact is related to both deterioration of the global resource base and fast introduction of IT technologies in all segments of petroleum explorations. In the interview conducted by OGJRussia, Gazpromneft Science and Technology Centre (Gazpromneft Science and Technology Centre) Deputy General Director for Explorations and Resource Base Development Andrey Bochkov told us about how people at Gazprom Neft’s research center see technology development of petroleum explorations, and about major exploration projects. 

—  Andrey, what are the main activities of the Gazpromneft Science and Technology Centre in the explorations area?  

— Among other units, in Gazpromneft Science and Technology Centre we have the Exploration and Resource Base Development Division (ERBD Division). Its task is to provide a full cycle of support for petroleum explorations. We perform the whole range of analytical work required to elaborate resource bases development strategies for all our subsidiaries and the company as a whole; we also carry out screening and basin modeling of the company’s areas of interest. Besides, the ERBD Division oversees field and laboratory work related to seismic surveys, core and fluid analysis, well testing. The work is conducted at all stages: operations planning, selection of survey and test programs, immediate surveying and testing operations, supervision, data interpretation, and economic analysis for investment decision-making. 

We implement these programs together with the Gazprom Neft subsidiaries and corporate center; besides, we have our own internal competence centers specializing in seismic methods as well as basin, sedimentation, geochemical, and geomechanical modeling technologies. Gazpromneft Science and Technology Centre carries out economic and geological evaluations of assets (including potential acquisitions), implements the Technology Development Program in the area of explorations (as of today, there are over 20 exploration-related research projects), provides support for unconventional reserves and offshore projects. As for the cooperation format, Gazpromneft Science and Technology Centre works both as independent contractor and in partnerships with research centers of Russian and foreign companies as well as consortia with government participation. 

Your Center also plays its role in the Gazprom Neft Technology Strategy. What results in the explorations area have you achieved here?

— The explorations is one of the nine priorities of our company’s long-term development program. Our Technology Strategy is based on the idea that all our projects and technologies should be focused on solving specific problems and meeting specific challenges relevant for Gazprom Neft. Thus, the emphasis in the explorations area is put on those aspects where we can get access to new reserves and resources, improve forecasting accuracy and quality of exploration methods, define optimal programs of surveys and tests for additional exploration of our assets.

Today we are implementing about 25 technology projects. This year, the first four of them are ready to be implemented in the company’s production units. Total effect of these projects in the period through 2025 is expected to exceed 2 billion rubles. Based on results of the implemented projects, intellectual property potential has been assessed, and procedures have been started to apply for registration of one copyright product and three patented products. When identifying the final results, emphasis was put on replicability of these technologies at the company’s assets as early as in 2017-2019.

In this case, let us turn to specific solutions and technologies. Please tell us about the regional studies performed by your Center. What are the main challenges of basin modeling?

— Each type of modeling is aimed at solving specific geological tasks followed by certain investment decisions. In particular, to replenish our resource base, here at Gazprom Neft we are working to identify promising areas and projects in Russia and abroad, so the hydrocarbon system modeling technologies (or basin modeling) help us make such identification.

The essence of basin modeling is that we recreate the processes that had flowed millions of years ago, from generation of hydrocarbons to their migration and accumulation in reservoirs. Thus, we get the opportunity to assess and digitize all prospects and risks associated with a particular region. In those eight years when we have been developing the basin modeling technology at Gazpromneft Science and Technology Centre, about 20 projects of various content and complexity have been implemented. Today our Center performs the full cycle of basin modeling studies including a very difficult stage of cross-section paleoreconstruction where we reconstruct tectonic history of the region trying to match ancient tectonic processes with the anomalies observed in seismic, logging and testing data.

For the regional stage of any project, basin modeling in Gazprom Neft is mandatory. The price of a mistake here, when we enter a project and start large-scale survey programs, can be measured in tens and hundreds of billions of rubles, so we need to perform very intense analytical work that needs to be as complete as possible so that we could justify and manage those risks that we face at the stage of geological study of a new region. We have already had some examples where based on results of such basin modeling our company could optimize solutions worth of several billions of rubles.

To manage risks and study the structure of productive formations, conceptual geological modeling is also used. What is being done in this area?

— It is an important and indispensible work that needs to be performed to build an adequate geological model at any stage of a field exploration and development project. For example, when we work at the level of an entire region, this process allows us to asses the region’s petroleum potential, understand its sedimentation mechanisms, determine magnitude, risks and uncertainties of its anticipated resource base and, accordingly, prepare optimum survey programs. At later stages, when the field is in operation and we can rely on available production history information, conceptual geological models will allow us to describe petroleum potential of marginal zones and skipped reservoirs, and pick up some new geological ideas. In our company, we have been using this method on a routine basis. For example, in a number of Gazprom Neft’s brown field assets in Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YaNAO) the application of this method helped us change production profiles and increase hydrocarbons production volumes.

Besides, thanks to the active application of the conceptual geological modeling method together with regional synthesis results and engineering logic, we got the chance to discover a new field in YaNAO, within Zapadno-Chatylkinsky license block (operator Gazpromneft-Noyabrskneftegaz). Three exploratory wells drilled in the area discovered six independent oil pools with total petroleum initially in-place of more than 40 million tons.

Speaking in general about geological and geophysical simulation, what types of modeling are in highest demand today?

— Each type of modeling is an integral part of the overall geological-geophysical model of the reservoir and used for a particular purpose in geology and development. This comprehensive approach and the very selectivity of modeling methods used for decision-making purposes become necessary due to the continued deterioration of reserves quality and growing complexity of their geological structure. The use of all the information available allows us to simulate and analyze different scenarios in the office in order to avoid mistakes in the field. It is important not only to apply the latest technologies but also be competent in setting targets for any type of modeling methods in any specific case and have competences for respective expert examinations. For instance, when we need to reconstruct transient phenomena such as formation of gas cones, destabilization of displacement fronts, and other, we use very detailed small-cell models. Larger scale sectoral geological models are used to reconstruct facies heterogeneity and estimate effective reservoir characteristics; full-scale models are applied for engineering and selection of optimal survey and test programs and preparation of development and production systems.

The growing complexity of reservoir geology leads to sophistication of technologies related to drilling, well design, completion systems, and on reservoir stimulation. Feeding more information to integrated models, we get the opportunity to digitize risks at early stages of field development projects, even before drilling or making decisions on some other aspects of our operations. This is why we have no choice but to build complex detailed models. However, in applying these approaches we can see huge development potential and new growth opportunities; besides it gives us a very fast response at the well and good results.

For example, in Gazprom Neft we have established a geomechanical modeling center unique for Russia. It allows us to tackle complications in the course of drilling, take into account geomechanical effects when engineering development and production systems and hydraulic fracturing designs, cope with difficulties in interpretation of seismic data.

What modeling software do you use at your Center?

— Of course, some of the software products that we use are standard for the petroleum industry. At the same time, we develop our own software products that allow us to apply a comprehensive approach to simulation, analyze the reservoir, speed up the investment decision making process, and improve quality of investment decisions. In particular, we have created the GeoMate platform which is a complex software product where a geologist, working in a single information space, can simultaneously review and analyze core data, logging diagrams, maps, well test results and production history information using handy analytical tools. It gives our experts the opportunity to find new ideas at the intersection of different areas and disciplines. More than 100 employees at our Center are already using it.

This year we have introduced the VEGA product designed to analyze and manage exploration risks that involves probabilistic estimation, assessment of geologic probability of success, and risk analysis when making decisions; we have also developed a software product for spectral decomposition and RGB blending with an interesting approach to generation of digital maps suitable both for statistical analysis and uploading into third-party software.

Another interesting idea which we are working now is being implemented in cooperation with Yandex.Terra. We are creating a platform product to work with seismic data where on the basis of an open sequence of steps used in processing and interpretation of seismic data we give all market participants the opportunity to join us so they could make their contribution in improving the process. By doing this we are planning to combine our own insights with initiatives of third-party companies in a single information field.

What goals do you pursue when developing your own software?

— There are several aspects here. The first one is to adapt the existing tools to the specifics of the company’s of information flows. Whatever intelligent software is used, it needs to be combined with our internal information system, but it is not always possible. The second aspect is the use of developed software products to promote methodology and technology know-hows that need to be quickly replicated in the company by moving them from experts’ minds into formalized modules and software products, so they can be used by all employees. The third aspect is to form an information workspace to facilitate dialogue between different specialists: petrophysicists, geophysicists, geologists, seismic engineers, reservoir engineers and others.

The fourth aspect is about being able to process and store not only source data but also products of intellectual processing, that is more complex models and solutions. The value of such models or products of cross-functional discussion is extremely high, so it is also important to take care of how they are stored and secured.

How do you assess the prospects of creating a fully Russian-made software for geological and geophysical purposes?

— In my opinion, it is possible. Our cooperation with Russian fundamental universities, engineering centers, small innovative companies testifies to their good competencies and non-trivial look at many issues. These are the competitive advantages of Russian software developers which can be used to create independent software including totally new in terms of platform technologies. In this case the ball is in the court of oil companies that can act as industrial partners, customers and, most important, partners supporting the development and providing quick feedbacks. We have examples of successful software development projects implemented this way. For instance, Gazprom Neft in cooperation with the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) is developing its own IT solutions that will improve engineering approach to analysis and optimization of multi-stage hydraulic fracturing (MHF). This software product is called ROST MHF (ROST in Russian stands for Optimal Fractures System Calculation).

These days there have been numerous and frequent talks about using Big Data as a way to reach a new level of generalization. Is it true for the Gazpromneft Science and Technology Centre too?

— Of course. Geological data are Big Data in their pure form since we combine and fuse massive amounts of information of different scales, conduct studies of different physical nature, choose and use analogies, and so on. To work in this area, Gazprom Neft enters into strategic partnerships with the industry leaders in Russia and abroad: Yandex Data Factory, Innopraktika, IBM. In particular, together with IBM we are working on intelligent decision-making systems for explorations that use automation, high-performance computing technologies and machine learning to find deeper correlations between different data sets and, consequently, ensure more efficient and quick substantiation of geological and economic suggestions.

Working with such data volumes requires supercomputers. What computing facilities does your Center have for this purpose?

— Of course, in our Center we have regular workstations as well as computer clusters that allow us to speed up and optimize calculations. We are also promoting cooperation with the Saint-Petersburg Polytechnic University where they have created a very powerful hybrid cluster, the so-called supercomputer, which is included in the list of Russia’s top computer systems in terms of information processing capability; its total peak performance exceeds 1.2 Petaflops. Computing resources of the Supercomputer Center comprise 25,000 cores. We have already conducted some test runs in our seismic and hydrodynamic projects and are now testing the system in our geomechanical projects. On the one hand, this will allow us to make even faster and more efficient computations; on the other hand we will have the opportunity to prepare a platform for future high-performance computations when we need to apply and adapt new technologies. There is a plan to ensure that the supercomputer can be operated remotely, from computers at our Center.

At your Center you have introduced the radial modeling technology for seismics. What effect does it have on accuracy of field seismic surveys?

— At our Center, the radial modeling technology (and it should be noted that it is only one of the methods) is embedded into the value of information (VoI) methodology. The essence of the VoI methodology is that by conducting digital experiments we can select optimal reservoir surveying and testing programs from the potential economic effect standpoint. In particular, when we plan our seismic surveys it is important to consider and digitize the optimal seismic array to obtain the maximum information at minimal costs.

By applying the radial modeling method at early exploration stages we use a priori geological model; in fact, we perform a field experiment on a computer workstation. Based on analysis and interpretation of the useful signal and how successfully the geological task set for seismic engineers is solved, we get the opportunity to update the model in view of specific geological conditions to obtain the most efficient result at optimal cost. At present, this technology is used at a number of seismic exploration projects in Gazprom Neft subsidiaries operating in Yamal, Khanty-Mansi, Orenburg, and Tomsk regions, and even on the shelf.

In general, what significance is attached at your Center to the field survey technologies?

— In this regard, I would like to note the importance of specialized technology forums and conferences. In the explorations area we already conducted ten such events with the participation of all interested players of the petroleum industry. During such meetings, dialogues are held between representatives of the company’s subsidiaries who talk about their challenges and other market participants who have ideas to meet these challenges.

Speaking about the field seismic explorations, one of examples of such cooperation is the “green seismics” projects implemented at the company’s assets. For the first time Gazprom Neft tried this equipment three years ago at foreign assets (Iraqi Kurdish) and then started using it at oil fields operated by Gazpromneft-Noyabrskneftegaz, Gazpromneft-Khantos, Gazpromneft-Vostok and Slavneft-Megionneftegaz. The performed studies have shown that quality of geologic information gathered with the use of the new technology is not inferior to results of the traditional methods, while the upsides of this technology include reduced deforestation, fewer personnel and smaller scope of work. The technology is universal and can be applied in regions with abundant forest and farm lands, in areas with mountain terrain or infrastructure facilities where wireless sensors are much easier to use than traditional ones. Thanks to modern equipment and advanced organizational measures, the “green seismics” method can significantly reduce environmental impact and occupational injuries. The expected economic effect of the new seismic exploration method is estimated at RUB 250 million per year.

Please, tell us more about those forums you mentioned earlier.

— As a rule, subjects of these forums are very different: from solving specific geological problems to discussing technology challenges. For example, we held a forum to discuss approaches to development of the Achimov reservoirs. Many companies have different experiences and expertise on the issue, and all these experiences and expertise would be very good to assemble and formalize.

Invitations to these forums are sent out to Russian oil companies, research centers, universities, various innovative companies. As a rule, there are very broad, open discussions involving hundreds of experts. Here are just some of the topics: non-seismic prediction technologies, microseismic technologies, software development approaches, and many others. Such a wide range of subjects allows bringing together specialists in different disciplines to improve overall work quality and search for new ideas.

Let us discuss another topic which Gazprom Neft pays very close attention to. This topic is the development of tight oil reserves. What classification of such reserves do you use?

— Well, we should admit that oil companies use numerous different classifications of tight oil reserves. Depending on its asset portfolio, each company selects technologies which it needs to focus on to start ecumenical development and production of such reserves. It is very natural to put it this way if we remember the general definition of tight oil reserves: these are reserves that cannot be produced economically with the existing technologies and under the current tax regime.

Anyhow, we need to know what we are dealing with, that is why correct identification of such reserves, their digitization, localization and focused selection of development and production technologies make it possible to find the right key to the door. In the most general sense, we classify tight oil reserves into conventional (low-permeability reservoirs, under-gas-cap oil reservoirs and others) and unconventional (Bazhenov Formation, Domanik Formation and others). For each type of such reserves we select respective technologies. For example, low-permeability reservoirs that were uneconomical five years ago today are being developed with the use of new technologies which have already given access to about 50 million tonnes of tight oil reserves.

What work is being done to develop technologies for the Bazhenov Formation?

In Gazprom Neft we have set up a systemic program for unconventional resources development projects which include, in particular, the Bazhen Formation. These days, scientific studies of the Bazhenov Formation are being actively advanced by various alliances and consortia, and Gazprom Neft is a member of the largest of them. This spring, the Bazhenov Formation has obtained the status of the national project. The goal of this cooperation is to ensure economical production of these reserves of strategic significance.

Today the work on the Bazhenov Formation at our Center is being done in three areas. The first area is the regional scale, when we assess petroleum potential of the Bazhenov rocks within the company’s license blocks and nearby territories. The second area is to study detailed geologic structure of the reservoir. The third area is to select respective drilling, hydrofrac, and reservoir stimulation technologies in order to create artificial reservoir intervals in the Bazhenov rocks and form conditions necessary for the inflow of hydrocarbons. To deal with the Bazhenov Formation, we have already created sedimentation models and detailed geological models. The purpose of these models is that on the one hand they let us set up the respective survey and testing program for the Bazhenov Formation and select reservoir stimulation methods, and on the other hand they serve as a tool to assess the effect.

One of the largest research consortia established in our country to study the Bazhenov Formation consists of the leading Russian universities (Moscow State University, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Gubkin State University of Oil and Gas) and the Skolkovo Technical Centre, with Gazprom Neft playing the role of production partner. Such cooperation implies that the scientific work is performed with the use of information provided by our company, and the experts from our Center supervise research projects and ensure acceptance of their results. In the course of research, the world’s best shale formations study practices have been tested and assessed. Results of this work are impressive: more than 330 m of the Bazhenov rocks core samples from nine promising areas in the West Siberia were studied, more than 20 thousand of measurements and experiments were performed, nine intellectual property products were registered.

Can you compare the Bazhenov Formation with the American shale formations in terms of reservoir, petrophysical and other properties?

— We monitor all the current trends, publications and achievements in developing shale formations in the North and South America and draw respective conclusions. Unfortunately, the method of analogies does not apply here; we see fundamental differences in the thickness, lithological composition, reservoir properties and strength properties of the rocks, as well as in reservoir structure and characteristics. To make our task even more difficult, it is enough to say that even within the same field we can observe severe variability of the Bazhenov Formation properties.

The Bazhenov Formation is one of the first challenges of this magnitude that forced the entire oil industry to think about conceptual restructuring of the technology development model. Earlier, this model was based on monitoring of the best technologies available on the market and application of these technologies to specific tasks in the company’s portfolio. Now, instead of buying something which is already there we should come up with a request to create technologies that do not exist yet.

Was there any project implemented at your Center that really surprised you?

— I am very impressed by studying and implementing experiences and technology used in other disciplines, not related to oil and gas. For example, data processing in medicine and aviation industry solves inverse problems that are very similar to our industry: on the basis of indirect indicators it is necessary to recover information and, most important, make decisions on further action. This is a very interesting experience and approach which is now being implemented at our Center in several projects. Technologies from allied industries are being adapted to make decisions for our industry.

The technology of pattern recognition based on seismic attributes is similar to the problem solved in medicine when analyzing MRI images. I have already cited the example of technologies that came from medicine: it is the frequency blending technology used in seismic exploration, and the selection of geological objects on the basis of spectral analysis. Improving efficiency in this area even by 5% could save tens of billions of rubles on those potentially dry wells which otherwise would not have been drilled, so the money would not have been spent.

You mentioned using attributes when working with seismic data. How much is the attribute analysis needed today to obtain adequate results?

— Attribute analysis is a seismic tool that consists in mathematical processing of the seismic signal, which may help identify hidden patterns and highlight features not visible to the eye of an expert. This area also has its own development trends: from working with the seismic signal amplitudes seismic engineers move on to techniques for signal spectrum processing, pattern recognition, machine learning applications. Ultimately, this allows highlighting and emphasizing geological features that could be missed in case of the standard approach.

Let us now talk about global things. What, in your opinion, is the global exploration industry going to?

— There are several trends in the global exploration industry. One of them is the reduction in time for the entire exploration cycle: from selection of technologies that maximize the reservoir potential or remove uncertainties as much as possible, to choosing the spud-in point. This requires not only conscious planning and management of R&D projects but also restructuring of organizational processes.

The second is the digitalization in geology and exploration areas. The very discipline of geologic explorations contains huge amounts of information. Integration and alignment of all methods in this environment is very important. We should look for new forms of ties and ideas at the intersection of disciplines. At present, the quantity of data coming in is constantly growing but the time available to get the maximum of useful information from these data is becoming shorter. So the obvious trend is the development and introduction of predictive systems, intelligent “advisers” in processing and interpretation of exploration data.

Another trend is the platform nature of the interaction between market participants, when the crowdsourcing format is employed by service companies, scientific organizations, industrial partners. Once an idea is generated, any start-up, university, small innovative company have the opportunity to offer new approaches and fresh thinking to improve existing solutions and make data processing faster, more efficient, and higher quality to ensure optimum decision making.

The interview with Andrey Bochkov can also be read on the journal website

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