by Peter Hennings

On behalf of the Structural Geology and Tectonics Division I thank GSA for the opportunity to contribute to the Speaking of Geoscience blog commemorating GSA’s 125th year. This contribution is a discussion of what constitutes the modern dimensions of Petroleum Structural Geology, the skills and experience that are desired in its practitioners, and recommendations for how the links between academia and industry can be made more productive. My principal ambition in writing this blog is to recognize that, while the Structural Geology and Tectonics Division is GSA’s largest division, there is an even larger group of structural geology professionals in the petroleum industry, many of whom have limited association with GSA.  The lines of communication between this group and GSA need strengthening.

One hundred and twenty five years ago the petroleum industry in North America was an awakening giant. Oil was flowing from surface anticlines in the foothills of the western Appalachians and the well control incident at the crest of a salt dome at what would become Spindletop Field in southeastern Texas was still 13 years away1.  After decades of declining production in North America, 2012 saw the largest production increase ever2 and, as a surprise to most watchers, the prospect of an energy independent and energy secure future for North America is predicted within most of our lifetimes3. While the traditional applications of qualitative and descriptive structural geology remain central to the story of industry development the quantitative and predictive aspects are growing in importance as the industry more routinely ventures into physically and environmentally challenging realms.

Petroleum Structure and Geomechanics (PSG) is one of the most important discipline areas in the petroleum industry. It is the science and application of analyzing deformation and stress within the petroleum realm by integrating outcrop, geophysical, remote sensing, petrophysical, core, laboratory rock strength, and fluid flow data. It spans spatial scales from tectonic reconstructions to SEM-imaged rock-fabrics. The outcome of this pursuit leads to a more complete understanding of the creation of petroleum habitats, formation and evolution of petroleum systems, formation and architecture of structural traps, and the internal architecture and stress state of reservoirs and their overburden.

While the need for customary applications of structural geology in the petroleum industry has not waned, in the last few years the importance of reservoir geomechanics has increased many-fold. Topics in this area include predicting the pore pressure environment; characterizing and modeling the coupled nature of deformation and fluid flow in stress-sensitive, faulted, fractured and compliant reservoirs; predicting and managing production-related deformation in reservoirs and their overburden to ensure operational integrity; deriving detailed models of subsurface stress and rock strength for horizontal drilling and stimulation of low permeability reservoirs; analyzing laboratory rock mechanics data and many other topics.

It is quite impossible for single individuals to be an expert in all of the topics stated above but a broad yet quantitative technical background is important for success as a PSG practitioner. It is important for PSG types to have as much experience as possible in these topics:

  • structural analysis in the brittle realm
  • global tectonics and continental margin geodynamics
  • seismic interpretation
  • outcrop characterization and mapping
  • development of 3D digital models
  • physical rock mechanics and reservoir geomechanics
  • hydrology and fluid flow in porous media
  • crustal heat flow
  • remote sensing
  • potential field interpretation
  • seismology
  • pore pressure

If at all possible, it is also valuable to have awareness of the topics of borehole petrophysics and reservoir engineering. Students are advised to not bypass any of the base sciences and obtain a firm background in chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics, and computational analysis.

With a view to strengthening the relationship between industry and academia, here are some suggestions for geoscience faculty: encourage your students to seek industry internships and careers, ask former students if you can visit them in industry for a week, invite company visits to your department, form and participate in an industry advisory board in your department and utilize alumni, seek an industry visit during a sabbatical, take short courses that industry people attend or teach, encourage industry-applied research in your department and among your peers, attend AAPG/SEG/SPE meetings and serve on their committees, promote professional student chapter associations and distinguished lecture programs in geoscience and related disciplines.

Industry professionals are encouraged to attend GSA meetings, visit academic departments and offer seminars and short courses, strive to make subsurface datasets available for research and teaching purposes, make time available for journal editorial service, and offer to serve on graduate student committees.

The Speaking of Geoscience blog offers a convenient forum to expand on this topic with additional discussion. I am interested in hearing what others think about the modern dimensions of Petroleum Structural Geology and how the links between industry and academia can be strengthened.


1. History of the petroleum industry in the United States

2. U.S. Oil-Production Rise Is Fastest Ever

3. Spreading an Energy Revolution

Peter Hennings is Manager of Structure and Geomechanics at ConocoPhillips, consulting professor of Geophysics at Stanford, adjunct professor of Geology at the University of Wyoming and is a GSA Honorary Fellow.