Confession of Prospecting Geologist
My education background is in physics. Perhaps I would’ve become a good physicist if the fate had not willed me to come to the Siberian Research Institute of Geology, Geophysics and Mineral Resources (Novosibirsk) in 1958, two years after I had graduated from Tomsk University.
Why did I get there? The problem rather belongs to politics and is, unfortunately, familiar to the former Soviet people…
Aleksey E. KONTOROVICH, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Doctor in Geology and Mineralogy, Chairman of the RAS Scientific Council for Geology and Petroleum Exploration, Director of Institute of Petroleum Geology of the SB RAS (Novosibirsk); Committee Member of the YUKOS Petroleum company.
Given orders, medals, honorary titles, and other awards from the USSR and the Russian Federation. Awarded the State Prize in 1994, the Prize of the RF Government in 2002, the Kosygin Prize in 2003, and the Gubkin Prize of the USSR AS in 1974. Author and co-author of over 500 books and papers, author of four inventions and three patented works.
Known as expert in petroleum geology, organic geochemistry, and mathematical geology. Co-author of the theory of oil and gas generation together with scientists A. A. Trofimuk, V. S. Surkov, and others; worked out the theoretical and practical grounds for prediction and discovery of oil in Precambrian reservoirs of East Siberia. Has contributed essentially to the exploration of the large petroleum provinces of West Siberia, Lena-Tunguska, and Khatanga-Vilyui. Co-author of development programs for the petroleum provinces of West and East Siberia and Yakutia.
Through the recent years has been working on recommendations for economic and socioeconomic development strategies of the energy systems of Russia, Siberia, and Siberian provinces.
Founded the Institute of Petroleum Geology in 1997 as part of the Trofimuk United Institute of Geology, Geophysics and Mineralogy of SB RAS which is recognized in Russia and worldwide.
Being the head of the Department of Mineral Resources at Novosibirsk State University, Professor Kontorovich devotes much of his activities to the training of future scientists for geology. Was the scientific advisor of over seventy candidates and over twenty doctors of science.
So, it was the latest 1950s when I concerned myself with the geology of West Siberia and problems of oil geochemistry and origin of hydrocarbons. My sphere naturally grew ever broader because geology, and petroleum geology in particular, is a very ample and versatile field of activity that combines pure science and practical issues.A.E. Kontorovich was born in Khar’kov (the Ukraine), spent his school years in Prokop’evsk (Kemerovo region), graduated from Tomsk University. Has lived and worked in Novosibirsk since 1958.
The USSR Ministry of Geology was the only branch ministry supposed by its name to deal with science. The research process in geology grades very smoothly into production-related problems. Of course, world-renowned theoretical scientists have always existed among Russian geologists, say, Nikolay B. Vassoyevich, one of my teachers. However, the mineral wealth of Siberia called for scientists who would never take the two sides of geology apart. Me, although very much concerned about theoretical research, I devote two thirds of my working time to the strongly demanded applied issues, as other people at our institute do.
The brief list of my scientific “affections” starts with oil and gas generation and the evolution of its mechanisms. The latter problem appears never touched upon before, though some dispersed ideas can be found in writings of Vernadsky, Gubkin, and Vassoyevich.
The theory rests upon organic geochemistry, my major interest. Geologists have two alternative views of the origin of hydrocarbons. Some argue that oil originated deep in the subsurface in an abiotic way from carbon, hydrogen, and other elements, by synthesis of inorganic compounds. The others attribute the oil source to organic matter, or specifically, to its lipid components, the so-called lipid complexes crucial for each living cell and living organism. This is the idea I keep to in my studies.
All the living on the Earth is made by the same law: the biochemistry of the most primitive creature is basically the same as in Homo sapiens. Therefore, 1.4 Byr and 50 Myr old oils show no basic difference. However, the living world evolved and the composition of oil derived from it evolved correspondingly. Life originated 3.5 Byr ago. It was a primitive marine life, no land plants existed yet. The expansion of biota onto the land brought about numerous new niches which began to “generate” life and then oil…
Fossils are indicative of the age of sediments, and chemical fragments of molecules provide clues to the “biography” of oil. They’re like fingerprints — scientists even call them chemical fingerprints. People change with age, and a person, whether he or she is a child, an adult, or an aged person, looks different remaining the same. As for oil, I can say from its composition how long it has lived and what it has lived through, whether its life was “hard” or “easy”, whether it derives from higher land plants or from plankton or bacteria, and whether it formed in hot or cold conditions… Note that quite many geological terms come from sciences that study fossil and living organisms. The fossil hydrocarbons we deal with are called biomarkers or chemofossils.
I often say to my students: “Imagine, some aliens would appear in the surroundings of the Earth and wish to understand what life is. Can they do it by just observing the Earth from space without looking into the living cell and living organism with its functions? – Definitely, not!” Similarly, one will never find out the origin of oil without getting an insight into the structure and formation of its molecules. This is the reason why I prefer to study the geochemistry of oil in sedimentary source rocks rather than oil in terms of refining.
The theory of petroleum prediction and exploration in Siberia makes another major group of issues I’ve long worked on. Note that hydrocarbons in West and East Siberia show a great age contrast. Oil in West Siberia is relatively young (70-80 Myr old) and that in East Siberia, between the Yenisei and the Lena, is as old as 1.4 Byr, i. e., we discovered the Earth’s oldest oil there. Thus age is an essential factor in the theory and methods of prediction and exploration.
The third field of my interests I approached in the mid-1960s lies in mathematical geology. Specifically, mathematical methods applied to geological problems and machine-aided simulation of geological processes. It was, possibly, my original interest in physics that drew me there. Much of success in petroleum prediction has been due to mathematical modeling and simulation we have largely practised, I mean my students and colleagues and myself.
This kind of modeling was useful in the former conditions of the Soviet planned economy as well as in today’s market-oriented economy. To be able to predict, one has to have a clear idea of how the process develops. Say, we wish to get 2 BBOE* oil in West Siberia… Then we have to know what efforts are required, what scope of prospecting to project, where and how to set up geophysical and drilling works, how much it would cost, and how big the risks are. All these things are predictable by modeling if one is familiar with the prospecting process and armed with a good theory.
Geological studies are unthinkable without regional geology which deals with specific geological units. We, Siberian geologists, are lucky to have two exceptional petroleum provinces of West and East Siberia. So, regional geology is another key point of my work.
I told in the beginning that the oil generation theory was inseparable from seeking the way to an oil trap. The two smoothly grade one into the other. Since the beginning of my carrier in geology, I have been interested in the prospecting process as it is and have worked with people of prospecting from the early 1960s. Many experts in this field are my close mates in work and everyday life. The way of Siberian geologists to bring together science and practice comes from the best petroleum people such as Andrey Trofimuk, Fabian Gurari, or Nikolay Rostovtsev. Life without going on field trips, examining core samples or making out field data would be of no interest for me. Many of my students used to work for petroleum companies, and we have always solved practical problems together. I think, any scientific theory should have a practical lining. Science should come out of the experiment and go back to the experiment through the stage of analysis.
These are three extensive — and often independent — fields I have worked: various theoretical problems of petroleum geology, the theoretical background of petroleum prediction and exploration, and practical issues of prospecting geology.
What we have in East Siberia
In the late 1970s — early 1980s, the USSR Ministry of Geology charged some scientists with exploration of the country’s largest oil and gas plays. So, Grigory Gabril’yants, who is of my age and a good friend of mine, was responsible for the giant Astrakhan’ field. Aleksey Zolotov, another friend, who began his carrier of a prospecting geologist in the Irkutsk region, was charged with a very large field in Kazakhstan (Karachaganak), a pearl of petroleum production. Ivan Nesterov, now a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy, was appointed to explore a few plays in West Siberia. As for me, I was as usual “exiled” and went to the Upper Chona and Dulisma fields in the Irkutsk region and to the Soba field in Evenkia (East Siberia) as a responsible executor and to the Middle Botuobia and Chayanda fields as a partaker. Moreover, I was at the origin of designing and setting up the works at the great Yurubchen-Tokhomo field; nobody but Lev Kuznetsov and myself named it after two rivers in Evenkia.
These plays are now ready for development and are expected to make for the upsurge of Russian economy. It’s great I’ve lived to see it. In spite of the hard times Russian geology is going through, the fields of Talakan in Yakutia, Upper Chona in the Irkutsk region, and Yurubchen-Tokhomo in Evenkia are obviously going to be taken up in 2008–2010 or a bit later. The opening of works at the Kovykta gas and condensate field is preliminarily scheduled for 2008.
The development will take at least 25–30 years. Many plays in the Volga-Ural province were discovered in the late 1940s — early 1950s with the partake of Andrey Trofimuk and have been developed till now, i. e., for about half a century… An oil field is like a living organism with its green and mature years. At the beginning the production is usually low; then, there follows a 8-10 years long period of stable highest yield (3–5 % of the total reserve annually) if the business is run properly, and then the production goes down…
Prospecting, exploration, and development of petroleum plays should make a continuous process. My colleagues and me, we are currently working on the strategy for petroleum production in East Siberia, namely, outlining recommendations for the government. There appears a possibility to develop oil and gas plays to trade at the Asia-Pacific market. People from our Institute have been recruited to working groups created by the Ministry of Industry and Energy for the expertise of the development projects designed by Gazprom for gas resources and by Transneft’ for oil.
A theoretician in geology is like Lenin on the eve of October 1917
Today’s young never read Lenin, but some people of middle age may remember the preface to his article “State and revolution”. Lenin wrote it in Razliv on Lake Ladoga where he was hiding from the police of the Provisional Government after the political crisis of July 1917. He decided the Bolsheviks were going to seize power and, therefore, he had to put to rights his ideas of state power in terms of Marxism. The article starts with smooth theoretical considerations which suddenly break by a phrase reading something like “it’s high time to stop theorizing and proceed to the practice of revolution.” — Or, shortly speaking, “I stop writing and I take action.”
Today’s geologists, if they are national-scale thinkers, likewise often leave theory for practice and develop economic strategies to be recommended to governmental institutions of the national, regional, and local levels or to companies.
I personally deal with problems of petroleum production, theory and practice of subsoil use, planning for geological prospecting and oil and gas yields; many applied problems are to be grounded in terms of basic science.
This is my line and my anguish. When I speak about the “homeland in danger,” people believe I exaggerate as they see Russia among world leading petroleum producers… Unfortunately, I have good reasons for saying so.
I insist that Russia can keep annual production of continental oil at about 2.8 BBOE at least as long as 2030–2032 only provided that the prospecting will be maintained at the level of the Soviet times. We repeated it again and again to the president and to the government. Yu. Trutnev, today’s minister of natural resources, echoes this idea in his speeches. I heard Putin once said, “We’re living on the Soviet supplies.” Indeed, for 15 years oil production in Russia has been pretended to progress while the scale of prospecting has been far insufficient.
One would find today’s market situation of high oil price favorable for greater investment into prospecting and research, but our “wise” money people in the government invented the so-called stability reserve. Look where it drives. The production tax is tolerable at an oil price under 26 dollars a barrel but after that 95 % of gain goes to the fisc (according to the law). It means “Go ahead, boys, push up production but give your money to the common purse…” That’s what the stability reserve is. It is obvious, however, that a part of the gain should be re-invested into prospecting, into the development of the production branch and its infrastructure, or left to companies under the condition they put the money into prospecting and discover new plays. Nothing of the kind occurs, which is a serious strategic error.
Many times I did state publicly that Russia’s petroleum production has development problems not because the reserves are getting exhausted. Of course, they are not as rich as before when the exploration of the northern Tyumen’ province just started. Hardly will other land giants like the Urengoi or Samotlor plays be ever found, but high production can be maintained with small fields as well. For example, the total of under 6 MBOE fields developed for the recent fifty years in the United States yields no less oil than the giants in Russia. Russia likewise can do with small fields, given the prospecting progresses.
Oil production is sure to go down after 2010 –2013 if no new plays are discovered and developed. We proved this and made a report to the government in 1999, but nobody has stirred a finger in six years. Yet, Russia is wealthy in petroleum reserves as well as in geologists, and in ideas. Now it sounds like things are getting up. Recent government decrees promise that those atop are turning to realistic thinking. Though it often comes out that good decrees appear (many have appeared in the recent years) but nothing happens afterwards… Say, we have developed the “Energy strategy of Russia” in the late 1990s (first version), but the government forgot about it and nothing was done to put it into practice. The second version has followed recently and, again, it works very badly. The guidelines concerning petroleum are being fulfilled for oil production only but test and exploration drilling and many other issues remain neglected. Thus, the reserves are available, but nobody knows whether the development follows.
Homeland in danger
Why is Russia having problems with prospecting geology? It’s a wrong idea to blame private companies which would’ve taken hold of oil production and would only wish to take the pickings… There’re many private companies doing a good deal of prospecting. Surgutneftegaz is especially active. They have brilliant managers, such as V. L. Bogdanov, doctor of technology, the company’s president, or N. Ya. Medvedev, doctor of geology and mineralogy, the principal geologist. Their prospecting efforts are well directed, skillful, and large-covering. Moreover, they are bringing up young specialists and do research in their own institute in Tyumen, with a branch in Surgut.
Or, take the LUKOIL company. I got to know them when they were successfully running exploration in the Russian Caspian Sea. The Caspian Sea was believed to have low prospects but the LUKOIL geologists and geophysicists undertook a thorough prospecting study following the approaches developed in the Soviet Union, outlined promising plays, and soon discovered six large oil and gas fields. These discoveries do make a good beginning to mitigate the production rates decline in European Russia.
More works are run, for example, by Gazprom in the Obskaya Guba gulf (though the scope appears rather small). YUKOS had been very efficient in the Tomsk and Evenkia regions prior to the known event which prevented them from going on.
At this point I cannot help having a say. The company’s owners and managers should be punished if they were guilty or if they evaded taxes. I mean IF… It is up to the impartial justice to prove the facts; there’s much controversy about the YUKOS case. But look! When the company’s accounts were arrested last year, the prospecting was interrupted, and thousands of contracted people became prevented from work. It was a wrongdoing to stop everything at once. The working process should have continued by all means. It’s all the fault of the officials.
I can mention more companies which cope well with the prospecting part of their duties. For example, RUSIAPetroleum has discovered the giant gas play of Kovykta and some others. Thus, it’s quite common for companies to maintain efficient prospecting, but their total coverage is too small for the country’s national economy. I’m sure all subsoil users have to do prospecting. They were granted rich plays; so, let them invest their gain to ensure prospecting and let the state govern the process.
The new version of the subsoil law specifies mechanisms to control these obligations of producers but it’s hard to make them work. Yet, there has been some progress lately in the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Federal Agency for Subsoil Use. Of course, Russia was taking up the new system of subsoil use in the 1990s when people had no proper experience. There’s no point to borrow all the American, European, or African experience. The country has been developing its own approaches, which have more or less cleared up eventually. These will work, however, only provided that all subsoil users obey the new law and the responsible governmental institutions take to an efficient policy.
Here’s an example. No roads have ever been laid to the explored places in West Siberia, which is actually an enormous swamp, though exploration and production has been run for decades. Figure out how one should work in these conditions. Having decided where to do drilling or seismic profiling, one should lay a road in winter, when the swamp is frozen up, to deliver all stuff like machinery, fuel, etc. But what actually happens? Targets for the year get approved five or six months after the year begins. In the Soviet Union, every competent engineer knew that winter delivery ensured by 90 % that the plan would be fulfilled. Or, another example. While the officials are lazily beginning, since mid-January, to check whether the last-year contracts were signed properly, the field workers stay unpaid and hungry till May, June or July when the funding opens up. This is a disgrace!
So, I still claim homeland is in danger, almost the same as two or three years ago. Although good decisions do come out, they are rather casual and, moreover, things are going very slowly, with a long delay. Yet, time is a critical factor. To win one has to be in the right place at the right time. We loose much because we loose time. Production rates from the operated fields are falling. We have to discover new plays but we do not. Shortly speaking, what we need is a strong political will and strict obedience to the financial law.
Who is going to look for oil tomorrow?
Personnel is another serious problem of today’s geology in Russia. One would think skilled petroleum people are available and the new are being trained. However, a great part of graduates have lately turned to banking or other business and never deal with petroleum geology.
On the other hand, ever fewer people are being demanded. For example, there was a large state-owned petroleum company in Tyumen, Glavtyumen’geologiya. It no longer exists, as well as other similar companies in the regions of Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Yakutia. They collapsed in the 1990s and were winded up, gone private, shareheld, or plundered…
Therefore, the wheels of prospecting geology, which used to run perfectly as these of a good clock, are getting ever poorer in people. A geologist who was forty five and in the prime of life in the early 1990s is approaching his sixty, and has been off from work for fifteen years. He’s no longer a skilled worker. New geologists are currently being trained to take over… But what they’re taught is mostly the theory. Students in the Soviet Union spent much of their class time on practical training with prospecting and production enterprises, so that graduates grew quite skilled. A geologist cannot become a true specialist without working in the field, but none of today’s companies wants undergraduates for training, and neither universities nor research institutions can afford the costly field trips.
Admittedly, the Siberian Branch of the Academy and its Presidium are currently doing a lot to help the situation, and field works continue. Prospecting teams of UIGGM (United Institute of Geology, Geophysics and Mineralogy) are working throughout Siberia from north to south (Yamal peninsula, Arctic shelf, Lena and Ob catchments). It costs a good deal of money but we do it. For example, a group from our institute (including undergraduates) spent two months in the Altai region last winter. There was a problem because I had to push the work forward without being funded by the Altai administration. That hard work of two months in the cold and snow was to be paid properly. I promised but failed to get money from the Altai officials. So I had to use our own cushion…
Applied and principal
Now I wish to tell you about the “most applied” line of my activity. I mean my directorship at the Institute of Petroleum. The director’s job at an academic institute today differs greatly from that in the Soviet times. I’ll explain why. The duties used to be relatively simple: to outline yearly targets, submit the final report, and get money for the following year to fulfill certain objectives. Moreover, one was always sure that the salary money (500 rbl per month for a doctor of science and 105 rbl for a junior researcher) was available exactly when needed. A director who retarded the payment was to give explanations to the local party committee and to trade unions… The responsibility of a director, together with the academic council, was to properly set scientific goals and to promote the creative process. Today a director of the same institute spends two thirds of his time on raising money. Once money is found, he bends every effort to get the funding in time. And so on. Vanity of vanities…
Another thing. The Academy and the academic science is facing a new reform, which takes away any hope for stability and steady work. The academic system has been under reforms since 1991, changes following one another every year. There’s no time left for work: hardly have people adapted to the new conditions the rules of play change again. Research in our institute was supported from several sources in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We relied on the federal budget (the least stable source) as well as on contracts from federal ministries and regional administrations, and from companies… However, these sources have been waning since Mr. Kudrin became the finance minister. We used to contract a lot with the Ministry of Energy until it was denuded of money; then regional institutions became denuded of money as well: everything goes to Moscow like into a fathomless pit… We lost contracts with the Yamal, Khanty-Mansi, Tomsk, Tyumen, and Krasnoyarsk administrations because they cannot pay our developments. Thus a director has to keep adapting to the ever changing conditions, being aware that he stands for the many people of the institute. This is the most troubling thing.
I’m trying to take it easy. I’m not the first geologist bending under the burden of economic problems. I mean under the urge to bear on the national policy or at least on the public opinion concerning today’s existence and avenues of prospecting geology, as well as to adapt the research activities to the actualities. Andrey Trofimuk, for instance, has always dealt with the economic issues of geology on the national scale. He really was a public figure. I know many more people of this kind among us, geologists.
Another example is at hand: Nikolay Dobretsov, a keen scientist, actually has sacrificed himself to the Siberian Branch of the Academy and gives up all his time to executive duties instead of doing science.
Of course, these duties have always been necessary. Andrey Trofimuk was likewise very active and wanted by many people. Being in his full seventy, he never hesitated to travel anywhere every week to meet either exploration people or somebody in Moscow or in Siberia, until an infarct prevented him from his activities. Or, Valentin Koptyug who had as many duties and responsibilities as to lay down his life for people.
…I’m perfectly aware that I would probably live in peace hadn’t I got into various applied issues of geology I like so much. Having turned to practice and efficient work, one is sure to feel troubled.
Indeed, I’m wanted today. I find it wrong and boring for a scientist not to be wanted. However, I’m living a very hard life. It’s hard to schedule my research, my executive duties, and life as it is. Once I came across a good joke in the known book Physicists joking: “How to become a true scientist?” — “Learn to say no”. I follow this rule in the only case when I’m asked to sign co-authorship in a paper I never wrote. I say then: “No, boys! I’ll readily help you with editing but take off my name from the list of authors…”. Of course, being busy so much one should learn to put many things aside. But I never come to. I guess Dobretsov has the same problem and cannot let himself free from any of his duties. Thus there’s nothing to do but schedule my time rigorously: each year, each month, each week, and each day. (Though it does not always work: my plans are often upset by unexpected sessions, meetings, visits, etc.)
At the same time, whatever all other duties, a scientist has to keep up his principal skill of doing science anyway; otherwise, it dies away once he leaves his laboratory or his desk.
I already mentioned my teacher Nikolay Vassoyevich, one of the most prominent scientists in the petroleum geology of the second half of the 20th century. He lived quite a different life. Unlike myself, he was a pure theoretician and a very good teacher, head of chair at Moscow University. He had a wonderful schedule which I then could not appreciate: He got up at 4 a.m. and worked till 8 a.m., and after that took up his lectures, administrative business and paperwork, and so on. I found it strange but now I understand it was a great solution. Now I get up at four or four thirty and work till seven to come to the institute at eight. I keep to this daily routine anywhere I go, as I carry my laptop around with me.
There are so many things to do. I wish I looked more over the teaching process at Novosibirsk University, wrote a number of textbooks, enjoyed my lectureship. The best thing is to work with the young, in which I’m somehow a champion. Over seventy my students defended their candidate theses. I would never stop looking after these boys and girls who are willing to make their presence felt in science. If only I had time…
* BBOE – Billion Barrels Oil Equivalent, MBOE – Million Barrels Oil Equivalent.