Industry insights

Reservoir Philosopheering: The Right and Wrong of Reservoir Modelling

Alan Mourgues
February 1, 2024

What the hell does reservoir modelling have to do with questions of right and wrong, you might wonder?

A lot, actually!

I am a petroleum reservoir engineer in the Oil and Gas industry, where reservoir modelling is a core skill of mine. I also have a keen interest in philosophy, particularly in moral philosophy. I am fascinated by the prospect of connecting the dots between these two domains, and indeed, I have found there are many areas where the two overlap.

How so?

You see, the process of subsurface reservoir modelling involves a series of tasks that are highly specialized. 

Often, the specialist is the only one who fully understands the intricacies of their work, and no amount of peer review is sufficient to thoroughly quality control their work in detail, despite all measures companies put in place. 

This introduces a significant ethical factor into the outcome of a project, leaving companies in a fairly precarious position, at the mercy of the individual’s self-regulated ethical standards.

The situation raises profound philosophical questions: 

Is the practitioner doing their best?

Are they being forthright and completely honest? 

Are they concealing critical information, knowing it can't be scrutinized? 

Are there possible penalties for misconduct, and are they substantial enough to deter wrongdoing?

Are practitioners even aware of the implications of their work for the business and all stakeholders?

How much does their personal relationship with their boss or colleagues affect their conduct? 

How are the emotions arising from these relationships influencing their performance? 

This is a rich topic for philosophical discussion, and I am sure there are many more questions of this sort that can be raised.

Furthermore, oil and gas development projects are typically long-term, spanning several decades, and practitioners often become deeply invested in their work, with their professional worth or meaning strongly attached to the continuation of these projects over time.

This situation is filled with cognitive biases that might lead them to deny hard data and evidence challenging the viability of their projects.

Another interesting philosophical angle involves the numerous assumptions that must be made; often, these assumptions are treated as dogma, rather than being flexible enough to revise when new data emerges. 

It's usually too labor-intensive to rebuild models from an updated assumption, making it easier to ignore these inconsistencies and sweep them under the rug. Who will notice, anyway?

On top of it all, we have the never-ending discussion around energy transition, which involves many societal factors: politics, sociology, labor laws, environmental considerations, financial incentives, lobby groups, corruption, etc. 

This topic is vast, and understanding all the civilization-wide implications of this multifaceted problem could take a lifetime. However, the following points highlight some direct moral and philosophical conundrums.

What are the ethical considerations of working in an industry so negatively perceived? 

Are academia, media, and political groups communicating fairly to the public? 

Is the industry itself being transparent and responsible? 

How do all individual stakeholders—executives, investors, politicians, etc.—adjust their internal ethical compass to align their incentives with ethical conduct?

What are the ramifications of transitioning to a greener economy for poor and developing countries that depend on cheap energy for growth? 

How do you, on a personal level, grapple with this industry 'baggage'?

Whether you feel a sense of pride or carry a weight of guilt, how do you navigate conversations about your role when talking to friends and strangers?

In these pivotal times, against a backdrop of uncertainty in the future of the energy sector, how do you reconcile your individual beliefs with the broader narrative, making choices that align with both your professional integrity and philosophical stance?

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Alan is a Consulting Petroleum Reservoir Engineer with 20+ years of international industry experience. Alan is the founder of CrowdField, a marketplace that connects Oil & Gas and Energy businesses with a global network of niche talent for task-based freelance solutions. His mission is to help skilled individuals monetize their knowledge as the Energy transition unfolds, by bringing their expertise to the open market and creating digital products to sell in CrowdField's Digital Store.


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