July 17, 2020

Creativity, teamwork earn UCalgary grad students impressive finish in international competition

Geoscience student team wins Stoneley Medal in Imperial Barrel Award program
UCalgary's IBA team 2020
UCalgary's Stoneley Medal winning team in the 2020 Imperial Barrel Award competition

A team of University of Calgary students did not let travel restrictions get in the way of showing up strong at an international competition last month.

After many months of hard work, facing endless critique and questions from engaged faculty and students, infinite hours of practising, navigating COVID-19 obstacles, the team of graduate students from the Department of Geoscience won the Stoneley Medal for third place in the international Imperial Barrel Award (IBA) competition, hosted by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

  • Photo above: The UCalgary IBA 2020 team after winning the Rocky Mountain/Canada section in early March. From left: Lukas Sadownyk, Emily Ellefson, Samantha Mackie, Daniela von Bassenheim, Ninoska Amundaray, Per Pedersen. Photo courtesy Sam Mackie

In UCalgary’s best showing at the competition in over a decade, the team, who delivered their presentation to a panel of judges and industry over Zoom, was also the highest-placing North American school in the global finals. The team had clinched wins at the Canada Region and the Rocky Mountain Section in March.

Creativity prioritized in oil and gas exploration competition

The IBA program is an annual prospect/exploration evaluation competition between university student teams. There are often more than 1,000 graduate students from universities around the globe participating in the competition each year.

In the competition, teams of students use real data to evaluate the petroleum potential of a sedimentary basin, and test their creative geological interpretations. This is all done within strict time limits, with the results presented to — and judged by — an independent panel of petroleum industry experts.

UCalgary’s team consisted of graduate students Sam Mackie, Lukas Sadownyk, Emily Ellefson, Ninoska Amundaray and Daniela von Bassenheim, along with academic adviser Dr. Per Pedersen, PhD, and industry advisers Julian Green from Equinor and Keegan Raines from Imperial Oil.

Pedersen says the competition is an opportunity for students to develop skills critical to a successful career in the energy industry or academia. “The problems that the students are given to solve are quite a bit like what an oil company would do in primary exploration. The competition is basically presenting to your own management since the judges are typically industry VPs and senior leaders who do this kind of work every day.”

To start the competition, the teams are sent a dataset of seismic and well data that could be from any region of the world.

“It’s a very real-world scenario,” says Pedersen. “It’s essentially set up as a company owning an asset, and have drilled a couple of wells but the output is not encouraging enough for the company to go ahead with continued drilling. This happens all the time in the real world.

"The competition involves sending along the data and gives the participants a timeline to see if they can find oil and gas in that land. To find oil and gas, you need to understand aspects like how the rocks were deposited, where the oil and gas came from, and how it got trapped. The students use creativity to evaluate how to look at the area differently.”

Competition provides opportunity to solve real problems, develop skills

While all the teams are given the same dataset at the regional level of the competition, the datasets are different as the team progresses to the international level.

The UCalgary team was given a study area in onshore northern Spain. They were tasked to investigate whether the area had potential for hydrocarbon development, and if so, where prospective wells could be located. To add to the challenge, their dataset mostly comprised data from the 1960s and 1980s.

“As an integrated team, we evaluated the study area and developed play concepts,” says team member Sam Mackie. “A play concept is a type of scenario where hydrocarbons could be trapped in the subsurface. Once we evaluated the play concepts, we ranked them according which ones we thought were had the least amount of risk and how much oil and gas was potentially recoverable in the area. We came up with a prospect — specific areas to drill wells and hope to see results.

"Overall, we came up with 10 concepts, narrowed them down to three based on the reward and risk, including one that was more on the creative side.”

The process took around eight weeks from start to finish. Mackie says that due to the age of the raw data, the team spent at least two weeks on quality control, ensuring it was accurate and reliable.

“Older data prevents the focus of the competition from being mostly about technical skills, so it levels the playing field between schools that might not have the latest software but have the creativity,” Pedersen explains.

“That really built up our critical thinking skills,” says Mackie. “We couldn’t do anything data science heavy — no machine learning or anything — so instead we had to get quite creative. It was actually good practice for a career moving forward, as a lot of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin data is older as well.

"The ways we grew as young geoscientists through the IBA are immeasurable. Using critical thinking, we had the opportunity to technically evaluate real data and make recommendations. Working as an integrated team, we learned to defend our interpretations and present our models to a wide audience.

"The technical and soft skills we developed will continue to be useful both in academia and in industry. We are incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in IBA 2020.”