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Exploring deeper with less risk: 3 lessons for mineral explorers from the oil patch

by Kylie Williams on April 23, 2015 expertise

Duncan MacGregor, of MacGeology, is using screening techniques to explore for carbonatites and petroleum in Malawi.

Vibroseis trucks at work during one of Teck’s seismic surveys in 

When mineral exploration companies tighten their belts during a downturn, the first victim is often the research and development division. However the questions they answer - how to do business better, smarter and cheaper - remains and is especially pertinent during tough times. The clever companies are looking to other industries to learn from their successes and mistakes, namely oil and gas.

“One of the key benefits of using oil industry technology is the ability to reduce geological uncertainty and develop a better understanding of subsurface risk,” explains James Etienne, Managing Director with UK-based consultancy, Neftex, and one of the co-chairs of the ‘Adopting tools and techniques from the oil patch’ technical session at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada annual conference this year.

With most targets close to the surface already discovered, and industry dollars spread thin, mineral explorers can no longer rely solely on the proven old methods to find new, deeply buried deposits. The expert panel at PDAC agree that adapting the multi-faceted, broad-scale exploration approach used by the oil and gas industry in recent decades to conquer this challenge of ‘blind’ exploration is the way to go.

We’ve distilled three lessons from the oil patch to inspire mineral explorers to dig deeper with confidence.

1. Seismic is not just for oil and gas

“In mature jurisdictions, our traditional methods of defining targets are becoming less effective.   Our industry is going to have to become more selective with targeting in these scenarios,” says Chad Hewson, Manager, Exploration - Ireland and Principal Geophysicist of Teck Resources Limited.

Seismic reflection surveys are usually associated with oil exploration to identify the layers in sedimentary basins likely to trap oil resources, but their use in mineral exploration has increased in the last 10-20 years, and not just for near-mine exploration, but greenfield jurisdictions to.

“In certain geologic environments, adding seismic reflection to the process at an early stage allows the geoscientist to define key targeting criteria such as depth or structural setting accurately prior to drilling to ensure drill meters are testing the highest priority prospects,” says Hewson. 
Hewson has added seismic reflection surveys to his exploration toolbox in early-stage lead and zinc exploration projects in the Irish Midlands. The data has provided accurate structural and stratigraphic information for smarter, more focused drilling of deep targets.

2. Integrate data for maximum value

Data overload has become a common complaint for explorers in recent years. Another valuable lesson mineral explorers can learn from the oil patch is how to integrate multi-disciplinary data and extract better results.

“We are overloaded with data and some of the most recent discoveries of oil come from reworking of old data, so the same should be true of the mineral industry,” says Duncan MacGregor, Consultant Geologist and Principal of MacGeology.

MacGregor is modifying the tried and true oil patch method of constructing chance-of-occurrence maps in the search for carbonatite and rare earth element in East Africa.

His work has shown that it is possible to identify these mineral deposits by associating known occurrences with specific regional geological criteria and genetic models in the same way as applied in petroleum generation.

“Using screening techniques similar to those used in oil and gas exploration is helping to focus more serious and expensive work in the regions most likely to succeed,” says MacGregor.

3. Look at the big picture

All explorers want to reduce uncertainty and minimize risk when exploring the subsurface. This becomes harder as explorers drive deeper to find ore bodies

“Over the past few decades the oil and gas business has faced this challenge of ‘blind’ exploration head-on, investing hundreds of billions of dollars in data acquisition, tools and techniques to try and characterize and better predict geological risk and uncertainty in subsurface exploration,” says Etienne.

Etienne and his colleagues at Neftex have mirrored the successful integrated approach used by the oil and gas industry by combining multi-disciplinary data with an appreciation of regional geological trends and an understanding of tectonostratigraphy.

“Oil industry exploration concepts effectively channel the process across a range of scales – from global new ventures exploration, to regional understanding, basin scale analysis for making licensing decisions, all the way down to prospect evaluation.  This play-based exploration approach can be applied to genetic models for mineral deposits,” says Etienne.

New horizons and deeper depths

The oil patch session at this year’s PDAC reminded mineral explorers to look beyond individual projects and claims. By modifying the technologies and strategies used in oil and gas to suit mineral exploration situations, and recognizing the value of regional geological understanding, it is possible to extract more value from the data, and make smarter exploration decisions. 


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