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.
BY BILL CORBETT
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
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
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
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
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.
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)
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.”