Geologists are challenging old assumptions to make new oil and gas discoveries.
At age three, Cole Heap loved dinosaurs and playing in the dirt.
In school, he was drawn to physics, chemistry and math. By his mid-20s, he had earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in geology from California State University-Fresno.
Today, Heap is a geologist with Aera. He’s tasked with “characterizing” the heavy oil reserves in the South Belridge Field, about 35 miles northwest of Bakersfield. Near his desk at Aera’s Bakersfield headquarters is a sign that reads, “Geologists rock!”
Heap and Aera’s 18 other geologists are earth-loving scientists responsible for identifying where oil and gas are located. They describe, map, quantify and interpret the ground beneath Aera’s five California fields, including oil, gas and water resources. They play a major role in influencing drilling activity, well production and completion, and well abandonment strategies.
Each of these professionals holds at least a bachelor’s degree, and most hold a master’s, in geology. Three Aera geologists — Plamen Ganev, Greg Gordon and Lisa Alpert — even have doctorate degrees. They all understand structural geology, rocks and soil, plate tectonics and the San Andreas fault.
Rock hammers usually sit idle since most geologists spend most of their time in the office. Nowadays, these “rockhounds” rely on high-tech, computer-based tools such as geologic and 2D maps, cross-sections, 3D views and standard and industry software.
“We’re interpreting what went on 23 million or 13 million years ago to help determine where we might find oil,” says Heap, with Aera since 2012. “Geologists do the detective work — what, when, how and why — of the past, present and future of an area like the San Joaquin Basin.”
Senior geologist Bill Hluza, part of Belridge’s heavy oil operations near Lost Hills, tells why it matters. “We come up with the well location, plan it, guide the drilling and completion, and then remain with it for the life of the well,” he says. “We put the oil in the tank.”
And that means more oil for California, less dependence on foreign imports and more energy resources for Californians’ daily lives.
Geologists’ input is critical to oil and gas production, agrees Aera geologist Cynthia Huggins. Before she joined Aera in 2007, Huggins spent nearly 30 years working as a geologist for other oil companies in Central California’s Kern River Field and Elk Hills and even in Siberia.
Huggins points out that Aera’s geologists ascertain reservoir pressures and temperatures to ensure wells are drilled safely. They also define the aquifers of brackish, non-potable water often found near oil reserves.
“This information, along with the maps and cross-sections we make, is required for obtaining the permits needed to proceed with development,” Huggins says.
Aera’s geologist team also has environmental and regulatory responsibilities. “We are absolutely sensitive to the environment,” says Heap. “We will not drill if an area holds wildlife and habitat, so we conduct surface surveys. We’re very conscious of what we’re doing.”
What may be most exciting for today’s geologists are the new technologies and insights they’re using to challenge old assumptions about the earth.
“Theories change,” Heap says. “While we know quite a bit about the earth’s geologic characteristics on a large scale, that doesn’t mean we know everything. As with all branches of science, the way we study geology is changing. New discoveries are constantly being made.”
For example, one oilfield in western Kern County had been written off as having no future potential. In 2008, Aera reservoir engineer Osama Karaman and now-retired geologist Dawne Pennell discovered subsurface rock formations that appeared to hold oil. Eight years later, using the new data and reinterpreting old information, Aera geologist Heather Stang evaluated the potential oil reserves that had previously been overlooked. Turns out, the trio’s work unlocked 6 million barrels of oil — a boost to California’s oil supply and the state’s ability to provide energy.
In Aera’s Ventura field, geologists are analyzing existing wells for additional production. “In the past, oil opportunities were bypassed or not completed,” says Aera geologist Simmie Chehal. “Now, with technological advances and data reinterpretation, we can go after oil that was left behind.”
Beyond oil, gas and water, geology’s potential in the energy field is expanding.
“The elements needed for the energy that powers our lives have to be found and mined,” says Chehal, who holds one bachelor’s degree in geology, another in environmental resource management and a master’s in geology. “It takes geologists to make the energy future a reality.”