Calgary’s Sky Hunter Exploration takes flight

A novel exploration tool aims to improve the odds of tapping productive wells

September 01, 2011

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Russ Duncan (left) and Ken Bradley of Sky Hunter Exploration Ltd.
Photograph by Ewan Nicholson

The odds of striking oil or gas are terribly low. Despite a plethora of techniques that have been developed to aid geologists in their hunt for hydrocarbons, experienced hands in the oil patch know that when an exploration well is drilled, there is a 90 per cent chance the hole will come up dry.

Improving that woeful percentage is always on the minds of the people whose business is discovering oil and gas. That’s particularly true as the well profile in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) shifts towards drilling more horizontal wells that require hydraulic fracturing. The new generation of wells require more staff to drill than the vertical holes the industry has traditionally poked in the ground.

These horizontal wells also take longer to complete. The Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors expects the 13,128 wells drilled in Western Canada in 2011 to take an average of 11.8 days each to complete – up from 10.8 days in 2010.The need for more rig hands to drill wells and the additional time required to complete them means the cost of drilling programs in Western Canada is going up. And when a well comes up dry, these multimillion-dollar mistakes can make a mess of a balance sheet.

Russ Duncan and Ken Bradley are aiming to improve the industry’s exploration odds through technology they have developed that can measure the presence of invisible hydrocarbon molecules in the atmosphere known as microseeps. “It’s not a magical layer that solves everyone’s problems, but it’s a good solution to integrate with other geological tests,” Duncan says. “Most other technologies measure rock properties. We’re looking for oil and gas.”

Duncan and Bradley – two men with over 60 years’ experience working in the WCSB for a variety of companies such as Paramount Resources Ltd. and Prism Petroleum – are showcasing the microseep detection technology through their Calgary-based company Sky Hunter Exploration Ltd. Microseeps occur when very small and buoyant molecules of light hydrocarbons escape from oil and gas reservoirs and penetrate their reservoir seals. These gases travel vertically through the cap rock and then migrate into the atmosphere. Microseeps can be potent indicators of hidden traps containing hydrocarbons.

The ability to detect microseeps is invaluable for oil and gas companies as it provides them with more data to work with as they define drilling targets. Duncan and Bradley are commercially launching the technology this fall, but getting to this point has been an arduous journey. The microseep detecting technology the company is now using was born Down Under.

An Australian mining engineer created a device to measure for charged particles in the air of a hospital emergency room. After successfully developing the technology, the engineer wanted to adapt the software from medicine to the oil and gas industry. It was a sector outside of the engineer’s comfort zone, so Bradley and Duncan stepped in and purchased the rights to the technology.

The two entrepreneurs – who have known each other since the 1970s when they met in Calgary while looking for work in the oil and gas industry – launched Sky Hunter in 2000. What followed is a decade-long pursuit to improve the computer and sensors of the microseep-detecting software and modernize the hardware. Duncan and Bradley even purchased a Navajo passenger airplane in Australia to test their gadgetry.

How Sky Hunter’s system works is a small aircraft – in this case a Navajo passenger plane – flies in a grid pattern over a selected area and collects air samples. The plane flies at a height of 100 meters above the highest point of a designated area and makes passes that are about 152 meters apart. Air samples are funnelled inside the cabin through a cone attached to the plane’s nose.

The data is then downloaded and plotted onto three different maps. The sensors in the machine, which resemble two microwave ovens stacked on top of each other, detect dry gas, such as methane; “oil 1,” such as propane and heavier condensate gas or light oil; and “oil 2,” which is heavy oil. These samples are analyzed to measure for the charged particles associated with hydrocarbon microseeps, and the results are plotted on a map to show where there’s potential for productive exploration. “Companies can then concentrate on areas where there’s real potential and they’re not shooting seismic where they don’t need to and knocking down trees,” Duncan says.

As with anything new, the biggest challenge for Duncan and Bradley – beyond fine-tuning their technology – has been gaining industry acceptance that microseeps can be a reliable indication of where oil and gas can be found. But Sky Hunter’s partners think that acceptance is coming slowly as companies realize it can be combined with seismic data to give them a clearer picture of where oil and gas might be hiding.

Duncan and Bradley’s gamble on microseep detection may very well pay off. A June oil and gas land sale that netted the Alberta government a record $842 million shows that the sector is in growth mode again. But it’s also a competitive business. Companies big and small are always keen on keeping costs down and finding any edge possible to increase their chances of success in the field.

Duncan and Bradley are convinced their technology can give clients that edge. “We don’t know how deep they are, but we know there’s a hydrocarbon trapped down below,” Duncan says, referring to what microseeps can tell explorers. “It’s difficult working in exploration with confidentiality and hurdles. But when you find new oil and gas pools through this, it’s very exciting.”

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