More than a blueprint

"This company used to function just fine without any modeling."

My brother, an architect, paraphrased his supervisor this way one day; perhaps you have heard something similar. "But the construction industry is shifting," he noted. "Now, my boss needs to see things in 3D in order to understand. Which is why we have so many last minute changes in our projects. 'I had no idea that ceiling was so low, that high, that color, had so many lights,' and so on."

The geological modeling process is often an investment with the same goal. I am convinced that many are seduced by the appeal of an elegantly crafted digital design, the wow factor of 3D visualization. Seeing is believing, but in the case of the subsurface, seeing can be misleading.

Not your child's sandbox! Photo: R Weller.

Not your child's sandbox! Photo: R Weller.

Building a geological model is fundamentally different than building a blueprint, or at least it should be. First of all, a geomodel will never be as accurate as a blueprint, even after the last well has been drilled. The geomodel is more akin to the apparatus of an experiment; literally the sandbox and the sand. The real lure of a geomodel is to explore and evaluate uncertainty. I am ambivalent about compelling visualizations that drop out of geomodels, they partially stand in the way of this high potential. Perhaps they are too convincing.

I reckon most managers, drillers, completions folks, and many geoscientists are really only interested in a better blueprint. If that is the case, they are essentially behaving only as designers. That mindset drives a conflict any time the geomodel fails to predict future observations. A blueprint does not have space for uncertainty, it's not defined that way. A model, however, should have uncertainty and simplifying assumptions built right in.

Why are the narrow geological assumptions of the designer so widely accepted and in particular, so enthusiastically embraced by the industry? The neglect of science keeping up with technology is one factor. Our preference for simple and quickly understood explanations is another. Geology, in its wondrous complexity, does not conform to such easy reductions.

Despite popular belief, this is not a blueprint.We gravitate towards a single solution precisely because we are scared of the unknown. Treating uncertainty is more difficult that omitting it, and a range of solutions is somehow less marketable than precision (accuracy and precision are not the same thing). It is easier because if you have a blueprint, rigid, with tight constraints, you have relieved yourself from asking what if?

  • What if the fault throw was 20 m instead of 10 m?
  • What if the reservoir was oil instead of water?
  • What if the pore pressure increases downdip?

The geomodelling process should be undertaken for the promise of invoking questions. Subsurface geoscience is riddled with inherent uncertainties, uncertainties that we aren't even aware of. Maybe our software should have a steel-blue background turned on as default, instead of the traditional black, white, or gray. It might be a subconscious reminder that unless you are capturing uncertainty and iterating, you are only designing a blueprint.

If you have been involved with building a geologic model, was it a one-time rigid design, or an experimental sandbox of iteration?

The photograph of the extensional sandbox experiment is used with permission from Roger Weller of Cochise College. Image of geocellular model from the MATLAB Reservoir Simulation Toolbox (MRST) from SINTEF applied mathematics, which has been recently released under the terms of the GNU General public license! The blueprint is © nadla and licensed from iStock. None of these images are subject to Agile's license terms.