James Stafford: What's the next Bakken?
Chris Faulkner: That's a tough one. In a sense, we've already seen it with the Three Forks reappraisal. But it would be exceedingly difficult to replicate the Bakken, with its vast areal extent and thick pays. Progress is being made with a modest level of drilling in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale of southern Louisiana and Smackover Brown Dense Shale in southern Arkansas/northern Louisiana, but results have been somewhat spotty to date. Perhaps the best prospective candidate is the Cline Shale in the Texas Permian Basin. This shale covers a vast area, has very thick pay zones, and there is established infrastructure. Some estimates have put its technically recoverable resources at 30 billion barrels of oil. But it's very early days in that play. Devon Energy is moving aggressively there, and we should get some hints of its true potential before too long.
James Stafford: How excited should investors be about the Monterrey Shale?
Chris Faulkner: Some restraint is in order. While preliminary estimates put potential Monterey Shale technically recoverable resources at more than 15 billion barrels, it's hardly a slam dunk. There has been a flurry of leasing and some drilling to date, but as of yet no operator has “cracked the code” for the Monterey. Even apart from the substantial technical challenges and complicated geology and petrophysics, a bigger hurdle would be the widespread and entrenched anti-oil development attitudes industry faces in California, which already has the most stringent regulatory regime in the nation. Furthermore, that anti-oil stance will just gain momentum with the anti-frac campaign that the environmental pressure groups are pushing now.
James Stafford: The US government's next auction of Gulf of Mexico acreage is expecting a bigger turnout than previous auctions. How is the bidding environment shaping up ahead of this sale?
Chris Faulkner: Excellent. Even with the near tripling of minimum bid requirements in deepwater areas, I expect brisk bidding. Operators are fine-tuning their exploration strategies in the deepwater areas, and some recent significant discoveries, such as ConocoPhillips's huge Shenandoah find, will only stoke that enthusiasm. I think we're also seeing the beginnings of a revival in shallow Gulf waters, judging from the high number of bids there in the last sale. Expectations of a gas price rebound were underpinned by the latest approval of another LNG export terminal—both positive for shallow-water drilling.
James Stafford: How important are Brazil's pre-salt finds to a revival in the US Gulf of Mexico?
Chris Faulkner: The Gulf revival is proceeding quite nicely as it is with the string of big discoveries in the Inbound Lower Tertiary. However, the knowledge and best practices being accumulated in the pre-salt play off Brazil probably benefits the pre-salt plays emerging off West Africa more so than in the US Gulf, where success has been concentrated more in the subsalt. In fact, the advances gained in probing the Gulf subsalt—particular in seismic technology—laid much of the groundwork for decoding Brazil's pre-salt. I think you'll see the Gulf operators focus more on the Lower Tertiary as the flavor of the day.
James Stafford: How are drilling advancements contributing to a re-evaluation of old data and the collection of new data?
Chris Faulkner: There's no doubt that MWD and LWD [Measurements-while-Drilling/Logging-while-Drilling] have helped operators gain a better perspective on old well logs. As accumulation of drilling data in real time makes even more technical advances, progress will continue. This may be the biggest contributing factor for the dramatic reductions in spud-to-release times that we've seen in the major unconventional plays.
James Stafford: What are the most recent major advancements in seismic imaging and data processing that are changing the way companies decide where to explore and where to drill next?
Chris Faulkner: 3D seismic is firmly established as a valuable exploration tool, especially for delineating reservoirs that have already been identified, and there are intriguing new possibilities for 4D seismic (essentially 3D seismic phases over time), especially for enhanced oil recovery and carbon sequestration applications. But in terms of pure exploration, the linchpin technology has been reverse time migration, which really got the ball rolling for subsalt and pre-salt plays in the Gulf and off Brazil and West Africa. Then explorers started using pre-stack depth migration to ultimately arrive at a fully defined 3D salt geometry, which has fueled much of the success in the Gulf.