A recent report by The Wall Street Journal identified a new generation of supercomputers as the fuel behind Big Oil’s “digital arms race to find oil and trim costs.” Indeed, make a quick visit to the websites of most of the Supermajors – that’s BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Total and Eni in oil speak – and you’ll meet geologists engaged in a high-stakes, multi-billion-dollar race to find new oil reservoirs in risky and difficult-to-reach areas, such as under a massive mountain of salt on the ocean floor.
These geological teams gather data to send to supercomputers on dry land for seismic imaging, the analysis of sonar data, or echoes captured from thousands of locations on the ocean floor. Supercomputers, software and scientists then transform this data into four dimensional models, 3D pictures of the sites overlaid with the element of time, which can reveal changes with clues to where new reservoirs may be hiding. The models help geologists determine where to drill new wells.
Such computer-modeled results kept exploration teams and management of Italy’s Eni awake for 10 days straight during the 2015 discovery of the largest gas reservoir in the Mediterranean, an event the firm has documented in a video. This year Eni announced the installation of its newest supercomputer, now estimated to be one of the top 10 most powerful computers on earth. This 18.6-petaflop silicon beast (1 petaflop = a quadrillion floating point operations per second) resides in its own custom-designed, solar-powered green building in a quiet village in Northern Italy. Until Eni’s upgrade this year, France’s Total held the record for fastest supercomputer in the oil and gas industry with its much-lauded Pangea machine, installed in 2016 in southwestern France.
And yet with all this investment in computing muscle, neither Eni nor Total invests enough in R&D to pass our threshold for knowledge intensity, the test of whether a company is included in the Knowledge Leaders Index of the world’s most innovative companies. But another Supermajor does pass, Chevron.
Like Eni and Total, Chevron has been engaged in seismic imaging for at least a decade and in fact just announced a new deepwater discovery in the Gulf of Mexico in January. But something else is happening behind the scenes at Chevron that gives its intangible-adjusted financial statements the telltale footprint of a Knowledge Leader. So what sets Chevron apart? The Permian Basin, that huge shale patch in western Texas and a corner of southeastern New Mexico.