Exxon Production Research Company

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S EG is honoring Exxon Production Research Company with its Distinguished Achievement Award for inventing and developing 3-D seismic exploration, the most important geophysical innovation of the past 30 years. During 1963 and 1964, the technology progressed from an idea to a field-tested, 3-D acquisition, playback, and presentation system. By 1966, seven surveys had been acquired in the United States and Canada. The concepts were introduced to the entire geophysical community at the 1970 SEG Annual Meeting and were subsequently published in GEOPHYSICS in 1972.

Citation for the SEG Distinguished Achievement Award

Contributed by Dan Mendell

3-D seismic technology has revolutionized the search for oil and gas by providing detailed subsurface images that increase drilling success from wildcats in frontier basins to infill locations in producing fields. Exxon Production Research Company, 1999 recipient of SEG’s Distinguished Achievement Award, invented 3-D seismic exploration, applied it on a proprietary basis, and demonstrated its utility to the geophysical profession through presentations and publications.

Modern 3-D seismic exploration can be traced to February 1963, when Whit Mounce of Humble’s Geophysics Research Department proposed a 3-D seismic system. By May 1964, Jack Ball’s Long Range Seismic team had developed a field technique, built recordingcompleted an initial test of the concept. During the five-year period ending in 1969, Exxon Production Research Company refined the technique, developed interpretation procedures, and conducted more than 20 surveys. “Three-dimensional seismic method,” presented by George Walton at the 1970 SEG Annual Meeting and published in GEOPHYSICS in June 1972, provided the technology to the oil and gas industry.

Analog recording and 48-channel recorders severely limited the approach of these pioneers. A typical field layout consisted of a two-mile line of 48 shot points crossing a two-mile line of 48 receivers to provide one square mile of subsurface coverage. Perhaps the most important innovation was an areal view of the subsurface, using time slices of the seismic wavefield. Since, at least initially, data were recorded in analog form and trace-sequential format, time slices necessitated the invention of a fiber-optic transducer. Expanding wavefields, viewed as both still images and as movies, provided unique descriptions of the subsurface.

Subsequently, computer-generated time slices of NMO-corrected data were used for interpretation. Walton’s GEOPHYSICS abstract reports, “Because of the dense coverage, the method is best suited for problems requiring great detail. ... The method has proved especially useful for the recognition of faults and determination of fault directions.” His observations are remarkably prescient, considering the embryonic state of 3-D seismic technology in 1972.

During the next two and a half decades, many researchers refined and enhanced the 3-D seismic concepts introduced by Exxon. Digital recording, a 100-fold increase in the number of channels, processing and imaging advances, powerful digital computers, and interactive interpretation workstations transformed Exxon’s original 3-D system into one much more powerful than could have been imagined by the pioneers.

Exxon continues to develop technology that improves the quality and efficiency of 3-D data. In the early 1990s, the company patented a proprietary controlled-phase source array that provides an optimal pulse shape. This source, and proprietary processing, allows Exxon to predict fluids more accurately by correcting for nongeologic changes in the seismic wavelet. Exxon’s current processing research involves high-end seismic algorithms, an area in which it pioneered the use of massively parallel computers for processing 3-D seismic data. Exxon routinely images beneath salt formations and in areas with complex structures by using its proprietary 3-D prestack depth migration algorithms.

3-D seismic technology may be an important Exxon contribution to the search for oil and gas, but it is only one of many. SEG has recognized several Exxon geophysical contributions with Fessenden and Kauffman Gold Medal awards: W. D. Mounce (1972), P. P. Vail (1976), N. H. Ricker (1977), H. C. Hibbard (1981), R. N. Jolly and F. K. Levin (1984), and J. E. Rickenbacker (1999).

Exxon’s geophysical research began in 1924 and its commitment to research continues today, when it is one of the few oil companies to conduct major research activities. and playback equipment, and