Terri-Jane Yuzda

What the Rocks Reveal

World's Largest Centralized Collection of Cores and Cuttings Keeps on Growing


Alberta’s Core Research Centre contains 92 years of samples – an invaluable resource as geoscientists use the centre’s open access to uncover small, subtle plays in a mature basin.

A Home for Cores and Cuttings
An impressive collection of cores and cuttings occupy the Core Research Centre. But an upswing in oilsands activity means space is short.

Freelance Writer

Much of the physical history of Alberta’s oil and gas industry is stacked in neat rows in a sprawling building in northwest Calgary. Alberta Energy and Utilities Board’s Core Research Centre houses millions of cores and cuttings from 92 years of petroleum drilling.

It’s the world’s largest single collection of geological samples, representing the most complete drilling history of any geological basin. “This is very important information, because once you drill a well and take the samples and cores out, you can’t take anything out of that hole again,” says Guenter Wellmann, the centre’s director.

Looking at the Rocks
Yet this is no dry history, gathering dust on forgotten shelves. More than 100 industry people a day visit the EUB’s centre to closely examine these petroleum-stained rocks, hoping they’ll reveal vital clues in the ongoing search for oil and gas.

“It’s the completeness of the data set that really makes this place unique,” says frequent visitor Stanley Williams, P.Geol., a senior geologist with ExxonMobil Canada Ltd. “You can’t get a complete picture of the geology by just looking at logs and other information. At some point, you have to look at the rocks.

“Spending a few hours here can sometimes change your interpretation completely, which is time well spent, considering a dry hole can cost half a million dollars or more.”

Visitors have access to the centre’s nearly 14 million vials of cuttings (small rock chips) and more than one million boxes of solid cores, both taken from various depths when wells are drilled. The cores are stored in boxes (average weight is about 35 lb.) and stacked in 8.5-metre-high rows that extend for one and a half city blocks.

Customized hydraulic forklifts – electronically steered by a wire guidance system mbedded in the concrete floor – retrieve and deliver the cores to height-adjustable examination and microscope tables for viewing. The cuttings, stored in small glass or plastic vials, are examined in semi-private cubicles.

“It’s a very well used facility,” says consultant Doug Hayden, an almost daily visitor for the past 18 years. “It’s only 15 minutes from downtown Calgary, so it’s very easy to come up here before a land sale.”

"Spending a few hours here can sometimes change
your interpretation completely, which is time well spent,
considering a dry hole can cost half a million dollars or more."

Stanley Williams, P.Geol.

From Barns and Sheds
Perhaps surprisingly, the centre’s origins can be traced to the federal government. Before 1930, provincial resources were controlled by Ottawa, which required petroleum companies to submit daily drilling reports and drill cuttings and to retain cores for inspection.

But with no standards for maintaining cores, they were often stored in barns, sheds and lean-tos.

In 1960 industry associations asked the provincial government if the Energy Resources Conservation Board (the ERCB, which became the EUB) could assume responsibility for storing Alberta’s drilling samples and reports. That led to the ERCB opening, in 1962, the 3,500-square-metre Core Research Centre in Calgary’s University Research Park.

After three minor extensions, two decades later, the centre was expanded to 18,000 square metres to accommodate the growing collection – as well as the any industry researchers enjoying the access.

A Public Access System
From the beginning, the intention has been to develop a broad geological base of information, shared among all companies. Today, companies that submit samples and reports have exclusive access for one year to data that has been assigned confidential status. Then the data become available to anyone.

This system of sharing contrasts sharply with most U.S. jurisdictions, where storage is haphazard and information jealously guarded. “Down there, you have to beg, borrow and steal information. You’ll find cores thrown behind barns and in boxes that are rotting and even have snakes in them,” says Mr. Williams. “Public access to this information in Alberta has made for much more efficient exploration.”

Not surprisingly, geologists and delegations from many petroleum-producing countries have come to study the collection and the Alberta storage model. Indeed, some companies have shipped in cores and cuttings from outside Alberta, so they can use the centre’s excellent examination facilities. The centre is also frequently used for seminars and by graduate geology students from across Canada.

Space Runs Short
The unrivalled success of the Core Research Centre, however, is also proving to be its greatest challenge. The centre is running out of storage space.

The boom in oilsands development has coincided with an upswing in conventional oil and gas drilling – a record 18,000 wells expected this year in Alberta. While the number of cores is going down relative to cuttings (because there is more production than exploratory drilling), there is an increasing number of deep foothills gas wells, some of which can produce up to 900 drilling samples.

“Under present levels of industry activity, we have about five to seven years of space left,” says Mr. Wellmann. “We will need another facility then, or else there will have to be a change in criteria for collecting and storing this material.”

One possible regulatory change would be to require the collection of fewer cores from oilsands wells, which are closely spaced, or assign lifecycles to specific cores.

Samples Backlogged
In the meantime, the exploration surge is also straining the centre’s resources and staff of 30. The centre has a backlog of 500,000 drill cuttings samples waiting to be cleaned, vialed and labeled. As well, some 250,000 drilling, or “tour,” reports must some day be converted from written to digital form.

At the same time, the facility’s users are being asked to shoulder more of the financial burden. Fees are being raised in stages so that in four years the provincial government’s contribution to running the centre (currently 25 per cent) will disappear.

Still, frequent users realize the centre will provide good value for many years to come. “This is a mature basin, with more subtle plays and smaller pools. You’re often looking for needles in haystacks,” says Mr. Hayden.

“To find them, more detailed information is required, which includes carefully looking at the rocks.”

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