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New Wine in Old Bottles
Seismic studies form the backbone of any exploration activity. It provides the image for the potential hydrocarbon resources. Dr Rabi Bastia, President, Oilmax Energy, talks to Mittravinda Ranjan & Supriya Oundhakar about the importance of seismic surveys, shale gas and CBM developments in India and more. While talking about ‘Basins Below Basins’ concept, he explains that Wilcox basin in the USA is a good example that has exploration history of over a century, where the seismic studies have unveiled some interesting stratigraphy, which indicated the presence of hydrocarbon reserves at deeper levels. Excerpts:

May we have your comments on accelerating exploration activities in the Indian frontier basins?
Seismic studies are the foremost step for carrying out any exploration activity that enables the geoscientists to understand the stratigraphy to assess the available potential. To me, most of our frontier basins are not covered with adequate seismic surveys. And with the frontier basins – I do not mean the sedimentary basins in Cambay, Assam and Mumbai, where we are already active – but the basins such as Central Indian basins, Himalayan foothills, Gangetic plains and offshore basins, where the offshore can be connected to the coast with deep-waters up to 3 kms, and even basins below basins. The potential needs to be explored in the earnest way and intensity using high-end seismic technologies and geological techniques.

Tell us more about the 'Basins Below Basins' and the possible areas that could hold hydrocarbon potential.
Metaphorically speaking, basin below basin is like 'New Wine in Old Bottle' which means that there could be a very fair possibility of finding hydrocarbon resources below the existing fields.

Wilcox basin in the USA is a good example that has the exploration history of over a century, where the seismic studies have unveiled some very interesting stratigraphy, which indicated the presence of hydrocarbon reserves at deeper levels. As they went deeper, they realised the accumulations were to the order of billions of barrels – much larger than they had imagined and that is after 100 years of exploration, which have become targets for today.

In India, we started with on land basins, and then moved to offshore deep water, but perhaps this could probably be only the first tier and if explored further, may be we could also come across some interesting geologies that could be holding sufficient resources to suffice for years to come. Having said this, I do not mean that all the basins would fall under this category but certain basins could possibly reveal some interesting stratigraphy and hold huge hydrocarbon potential.

In your view what would be the right approach towards discovering 'new wine in old bottles'?
Traditionally, we searched conventional oil in conventional reservoirs. But there are three more quadrants that need to be considered, which include searching for conventional resources in unconventional reservoirs and shale gas would be a good example, unconventional resources in conventional reservoirs such as oil sands etc. and unconventional reserves in unconventional reservoirs such as oil shale and CBM.

There is a compelling need to change our approach of searching oil & gas resources towards tracing oil & gas accumulations and going further to map the deeper rock formations for estimating the potential in the same old basins, would require advanced techniques. Integration of seismic technologies along with geophysical techniques for better data acquisition, imaging, interpretation and visualisation can enable the geoscientists to look at the same old basins with new eyesight for mapping the potential resources.

How much have we progressed on the shale gas front in India and can we emulate the shale gas success story in USA in India?
Not much. Developing the unconventional resources like shale gas would require a very prudent and pragmatic approach. The normal perception that prevails is that mapping for conventional and unconventional is the same, but it is not true. The unconventional resources need completely different treatment from the conventional ones. The unconventional reservoirs need to be understood to a greater extent that involves different imaging techniques and seismic technologies for better data acquisition, mapping and interpretation by the geologists.

Though there has been much talk about the unconventional energy in the country, it is now required for us to think on the lines of making commercial project out of shale gas in India. If USA has produced about 6 per cent of its total production from this resource alone, we need to find out the basins which can give that kind of output. India would require a very prudent and pragmatic approach and a logical actionable plan, coupled with congenial policies to attract investments to develop the shale gas assets.

In your view, what would be the right approach towards developing the unconventional resources?
The normal perception is that the mapping for conventional and unconventional reservoirs is the same but that is not the case. These require better imaging from seismic surveys to understand the reservoir characteristics, which is the foremost step. This must be followed by proper sampling and analysis to assess the gas content and gas generation potential. The sample collection cannot be done in an open chamber but done in a confined way so that nothing escapes at the time of collection and when it is taken to the laboratory to ascertain the gas content.

What should be done to materialise the shale gas plans in Indian context?
Though, there is a lot of talk currently going on, at this point of time India needs an actionable plan to emulate the success story of the USA or China. As of now there are many estimates about the potential shale gas resources in India, but we need to have the right basic input data based on seismic studies carried out to map the unconventional assets and actual pilot studies to prove the potential of shale gas in the country. At this point of time, India needs an actionable plan based on true inputs to monetise the shale gas assets.

Second on the priority list is sourcing of environment friendly fracking techniques. So far, hydro fracturing has been a prominent shale gas production technique, which is both tedious and unfriendly to environment. The technology has evolved and there are some hydro fracturing equivalents that the industry is experimenting with which could result in better yields from sub surface which should be captured for better productivity and lesser damage to the environment.

India holds fourth largest coal reserves globally and has a good scope for deriving energy, but till date only 10 per cent of resources have been developed. May we have your views?
Coal has tremendous potential and can be treated as complete energy package whether it is CBM or coal gasification, or taking nitrogen and other gases and re-injecting them into the surface to get enhanced energy levels. As compared to other coal provinces in the world, Indian coal has higher ash content, which definitely doesn’t mean lack of potential in Indian coal. Here also the drilling and production techniques are critical and require better understanding of geological and geophysical characteristics.

What about the enhancing oil recoveries in the existing fields and developing the satellite fields which can significantly contribute to the energy supplies in the country?
Application of EOR & IOR has made some contribution towards enhancing hydrocarbon production from the existing hydrocarbon fields not only in India but globally as well. Many operators now try incorporating these plans at the initial development stage. Though some of the new fields can be considered for integrating EOR plans during the planning stage of developing a field. In India, I feel EOR and IOR have 2-5 per cent of scope as far as Greenfield projects are concerned; and some of the new fields could be considered for integrating EOR during the field development plan but not all.

I agree with you that satellite fields and the marginal fields are the frontier area for the E&P companies which they need to look into in India. These require proper infrastructure support and new technologies to enable the operators to produce in profitable manner. The marginal fields have smaller reserves and due to higher production costs developing the fields in India is not economically viable currently. However, the countries like Malaysia and Nigeria have very successfully developed the marginal fields, which is something India could learn from.

Satellite fields can be more economically produced if there development is integrated with facilities of nearby bigger existing fields.

Can India emulate doubling the gas productivity and development of hydrocarbon assets at fast pace like what China has done?
E&P companies alone cannot develop the assets to meet the goal of reaching self- sufficiency. It has to be concerted effort of regulatory authorities, policy makers, E&P companies and the associated services providers.

At this point of time, India needs congenial policy framework that would enable the investors to operate in a profitable manner. Irrespective of the licensing model that we follow in the country for allocation of fields, there is a need to improve the overall governance which should focus on creating congenial environment for the existing investors to operate in profitable manner, retain them and attract new investors.

What do you feel about the oil & gas market opening up in Africa – often referred to as the 'Dark Continent'?
We have witnessed the revolution in Africa’s oil & gas sector that spread from Angola to Mozambique to Nigeria and Tanzania, where most of the large E&P companies are operating now. The governments are encouraging infrastructure development also in these areas. If other countries progress much faster than India and create wealth through development in oil & gas assets, India is likely to lose its competitive edge.