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North Sea Core: An Undervalued Asset

How unwanted core is finding a second life and renewed purpose within the Geoscience Community through the North Sea Core Initiative.
This article appeared in Vol. 18, No. 5 - 2021

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North Sea Core: An Undervalued Asset

As oil and gas fields across the UK Continental Shelf are increasingly being abandoned, the geological samples obtained to help understand the subsurface are no longer required and are often of little economic value for operators. This has led to an increase in the disposal of core material and was the catalyst behind the creation of North Sea Core. At the time of this article’s publication, we will have been operating for four years, having gradually evolved from a purely voluntary and unofficial initiative to becoming a Community Interest Company (CIC) in 2020. To date, we have received donations of core from 12 different operators and have rescued over 20,898 ft (6,370 m) from 104 wells. 

  • Kirstie Wright and Henk Kombrink in the North Sea Core CIC core store. Credit: K.A. Wright and H. Kombrink.

Our CIC is founded on the idea that core provides such an important resource for understanding the subsurface, and geology in general, that it is too valuable a material to be disposed of once it has served its purpose within the oil and gas sphere. Therefore, our aim is to collect and distribute core to the wider geological community, making it accessible to everyone from amateurs to academics, and those in between. This is achieved through supply of a range of raw and upcycled material for educating the next generation of geoscientists, supporting existing to emerging energy research and facilitating science communication with non-scientists.

Collaboration is the Key

We are acutely aware that core is a finite resource. Where possible, we work in conjunction with the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) and the various oil and gas companies to encourage donation rather than disposal. All the core we receive has been cleared for donation under the Petroleum Operations Notice (PON) 9 guidance set out by the OGA.

We also collaborate with the British Geological Survey (BGS) to facilitate identifi cation of key sections for the BGS Core Store and National Archive, with this taking priority over the selection of material for redistribution through North Sea Core. 

Encouragement for the work we at North Sea Core undertake has also been strong from the wider geoscience community, ranging from significant social media engagement to support from businesses within the energy sector. This includes DownUnder Geoscience (DUG), who helped facilitate access to their DUG Insight software and Aeon Geoscience, who included us in their Public Data Repository. We have also had several of our upcycled core products financially supported by geological organisations such as the OGA, the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain (PESGB) and the Energy Group of the Geological Society.

Academic Outreach

Our ability to act as both store and supplier places us in a unique position. It has proved of particular interest to universities, for whom we create a wide and varied range of teaching sets, making the most of our access to material from almost every key geological period and a wide range of North Sea depositional environments. Our teaching sets have so far been shipped to universities and research centres across the UK, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea and South Australia, as well as many others. To accompany the physical material, we collate a range of data including published literature, high resolution core scans from the BGS and subsurface digital data from the OGA National Data Repository (NDR). This allows us to be a conduit to provide knowledge of, and access to, a variety of open access data that many people – especially abroad – are not necessarily aware of. 

  • Map of global distribution of core material by North Sea Core CIC. Credit: K.A. Wright and H. Kombrink.

For those engaged in research, both academic and commercial, access to samples previously unavailable due to either confidentiality or field activity, means potential new breakthroughs. This is important as the same geology, subsurface skills and hydrocarbon fields can be of use in the journey to Net Zero. As an example, we provided core to the German Research Institute GEOMAR for CO2 injection tests and sent a selection of core to the Carbon Capture and Storage Association for use as a demonstration set. Similarly, companies operating in the geothermal sector have contacted us to acquire core to demonstrate how geothermal energy is being derived from the same reservoirs as those used for hydrocarbon extraction.

Open Access

We continue to make our own data open access and available to download from our website, with the aim of supporting the geoscience community to further support research and education. This includes data created internally, such as presentations, core photos and drone footage, and produced externally through several active collaborations with small, independent companies, who specialise in core scanning, geochemical analysis, detailed photography and computerised tomography (CT) scans. In exchange for the provision of material, we gain access to the results and are in the process of assembling datasets that are representative of the North Sea geology using the latest technology and greatest breadth of core material. In addition to supplying material to an ever-growing network of people and projects, we are also working to put the core into a wider geological context and to help preserve the offshore geoheritage of the North Sea and surrounding continental shelf. We offer core viewings, workshops and webinars based on our expertise and access to materials, including our own curated teaching set containing key reservoir sections and evidence of geological events within the North Sea Basins. The availability of physical samples combined with a storytelling approach to present the geological and depositional history of the wider North Sea area has proven a powerful tool in showcasing the vast amount of research undertaken over the decades and has helped introduce new people to the area. 

  • A North Sea Core teaching set in action at the Université Grenoble Alpes. Credit: K.A. Wright and H. Kombrink.

Core material has also proven popular with the very industry it is sourced from. This has ranged from the creation of office displays documenting the geological history of the North Sea to providing mementos of an individual’s time working on a single field or well. Our core has been presented as prizes and speaker gifts at several conferences, including the PESGB evening lecture series, PETEX and DEVEX and others.

In summary, the variety and scale of the requests we receive indicates a need and appetite for accessible, well-documented geological samples across all geoscience disciplines. At its inception, it was difficult to envisage the scale of demand and if there would be a future for North Sea Core. In reality, we have experienced a steady influx of requests, with over 600 unique enquiries to date. At the time of writing, core for personal use and collections (46%) dominates, but material for education and research (27% and 7% respectively) has been steadily increasing, occupying most of our time and representing the largest physical volume of core we curate and send. We still see a healthy interest from commercial and professional organisations, with a growing number of requests from those involved in outreach, such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Ambassadors and science communicators.

How Can our Industry Help?

We believe that North Sea Core CIC has proven the importance of collecting, transforming and redistributing core material. We also hope that by ‘exporting’ the geology of the North Sea to universities and research institutes across the UK and globally, we demonstrate that there is still incredible value in the basin and the scientific knowledge acquired around it. We are extremely grateful to those who have supported us so far in achieving our goals, especially as North Sea Core CIC is not a large organisation. It is run 50/50 by two directors who provide their time outside of their full-time employment, with a team of volunteers and a Geological Assistant on a zero-hours contract.

  • North Sea Core requests by category. Credit:K.A. Wright and H. Kombrink.

All core handling, logistics, communications, and marketing are undertaken by our tiny team, mostly in our spare time. Our effort to save and make use of core material that would otherwise be destined for disposal in landfill is time consuming, hard work and so far, has been without stable funding. To help facilitate our work, in 2020 we were fortunate to welcome the privately owned Dutch exploration and production company ONE-Dyas as the first operator to sponsor us for the duration of two years. This provided us with much-needed security, but we have now grown to the point where to be able to continue to undertake outreach and provide core material to schools and universities across the world, we are seeking further financial support.

To safeguard all funding we receive now and, in the future, as part of being a Community Interest Company, we have in place a legal provision called an ‘asset lock’. This is designed to ensure that all profits generated through our activities are reinvested and used for the benefit of the geoscience community, rather than used as dividend payments. This provision also means that in the event of North Sea Core CIC ceasing to operate, any outstanding balance will be transferred to an equivalent organisation or charity.

We would like to see North Sea Core continue to provide educational material for the next generation of geoscientists and make subsurface material accessible for research into the energy transition. However, we cannot do it without greater financial support from the industry, as demand for our services, and opportunities to be involved in outreach continue to grow. If you are interested in sponsoring the work we do, please get in touch via our website or via social media.

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