How much has the search for oil advanced our understanding of geology?

I can’t thing of any other business that has spent as much on geological exploration and advancing of the science behind that exploration as the oil industry when it come to understanding geology. Where would we be in terms of geological science without the oil industry pushing things along?

Do you expect a quantified answer?

Yes, in binary please.

Yes, by 11010011.110101

The oil industry has been a driving force behind some very specific aspects of some sub-fields of geology, and they pour gobs of money into geology programs at some universities (and give young geologists jobs), but I’d be hard pressed to say that any particular idea that is now essential to our understanding of the earth came about as a direct result of the oil industry.

The thing is that although petroleum geology entails a lot of different aspects of geology, it is very much an applied science and focuses fairly narrowly on finding oil, although sometimes work they do has implications with the greater field. For example, sequence stratigraphy is one of the best lines of evidence about how climate change has worked in the past and, ironically, was almost entirely developed by petroleum geologists and oil companies. (Even worse, during their climate-change denying days some oil companies hired hack scientists to refute climate change evidence, despite also employing some of the foremost experts on prehistoric climate change in their exploration departments.)

But overall, it’s far more common that geology done for purely scientific interest ends up benefiting the oil industry than the reverse. Part of what led to the massive increase in oil discoveries in the 70’s and 80’s was that the “plate tectonics revolution” had finally trickled down to the petroleum field, which made predictions of what was going on in the subsurface a lot more accurate (although in turn, well logs and seismic data from petroleum exploration had also shown that tectonics-based cross-sections were more accurate than geosyncline-based ones). This is part of why today oil companies underwrite geology departments and individual geologists even if the work they’re doing isn’t directly petroleum work.

So overall, I would say without the oil industry we’d know significantly less about sedimentology, stratigraphy and maybe about certain aspects of paleontology and structural geology, but I don’t think our fundamental understanding of most earth processes would be all that different.

Thanks for the great answer.

This was amusing.

Just one example, but the Chicxulub crater was identified largely due to geological data from oil exploration.

We’d do OK - exploration for other minerals actually does quite a bit more at advancing the science, as well as the contribution of pure scientific studies, of course. Gold exploration just in the Witwatersrand basin involves much more varied geology and more complex analysis, IMO.
Petroleum geology has done quite a bit to advance the field in certain areas, like the stratigraphy of sedimentary basins and the like. But that’s literally just scratching the surface when it comes to geology. Most of the fun stuff is in volcanic areas, greenstone belts, fold orogenies, that sort of thing.

Petroleum geology doesn’t really have a broad enough scope to be meaningful. Most of it is really nothing new in terms of the science and fairly specialized. They’re not interested in igneous or metamorphic rocks - past the 200° diagenic limit they’re not really of worth to them except as stratigraphic markers (and even then, they’re not usually going to be a good sign - intrusives and true metamorphism tend to cook off the hydrocarbons)

But in general, I’d say even something else as specific as diamond exploration has done more, overall, what with diamond xenoliths and general kimberlite petrography contributing to our understanding of deep mantle processes and offshore diamond exploration covering the sedimentary side (using some of the same seismic techniques oil exploration does!).

Where petroleum exploration has done quite a bit to advance science is in palaeontology - but again, mostly of specialized scope, like marine micropalaeontology .

Yeah, about that…
[

](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicxulub_crater#Discovery)Do tell me how much oil companies are advancing Science…

The policy isn’t all that surprising. It isn’t the data that they worry about, it is the fact that they found it worth paying to have it obtained that exploration companies worry about. Leases on exploration areas are fought for with other companies, and companies watch one another to see what areas they are interested in. The mere fact that Pemex (or any other company) paid to have a gravity survey done in an area is of value to its competitors.

I don’t honestly know how much we have learned beyond the simple divining rod. I have some property in Oklahoma where Chesapeake Operating has used some exquisite 3D imaging to predict recoverable resources. It was good enough to sell the courts on increased density well allocations. However, it has proved that mother nature still has the final word on what is there and what is recoverable. Some of the best successes are where wells were drilled on a hunch.

It’s been a long time since my geology classes, but I seem to remember that core samples from the oil industry in the US are sometimes judged for the likelihood of an oil strike by the presence of some microfossil, and that the samples in return were used for paleonology education.
Can’t remember what the hell the fossil was, though. Maybe some foraminifera?

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the oil companies have contributed significantly to the study of geology. It is unquestionable that, to pick just one example, AT&T (primarily through it’s Bell Laboratories division) contributed enormously to scientific understanding of physics, mathematics, information theory, and quite a few other fields, just due to trying to make their products work better and cheaper. We could probably find many other examples.

The information was eventually made public.

Thanks for the cite showing that he was 100% correct in his statement.

Eventually - decades later. When the actual science had moved on. Not as useful as public, instantly-checkable information, obviously.

I never said he wasn’t - all he said was that it was identified largely due to oil exploration (which I’d dispute, I’d say the tektite studies were as important). But how that relates to the larger point raised by the OP, whether that advances the science, I’d argue that retarding the delivery of information to the open sphere is not advancing anything in comparison.

Another thing is that there is a fair amount of data that the oil companies are usually required to hand over to the state geologic surveys (or I’d imagine whatever the local equivalent is abroad), such as the well logs that record what formations are drilled through at what depths. I doubt if any earth-shattering revelations (yuk yuk) have been gleaned from these, but they give the surveys a great picture of what the subsurface geology is like and that data does show up on publicly available maps and reports and such.

In actual producing fields, oil companies are also usually pretty open about sharing data with government, academia, and even each other. Generally the advantage gained by building a big picture of what’s going on in the subsurface outweighs the advantage of hiding information from other companies working in the area, especially since at that point the chips have for the most part already fallen in terms of getting leases, etc.

With frontier exploration, where they’re actually looking for new fields, there’s obviously a lot more incentive to keep things secret. That’s what was going on with the Chicxulub crater, and allowing their scientists to present the findings so soon was actually fairly generous, even without the data. But, again, it’s not as if data gleaned from frontier exploration just vanishes-- it all gets out eventually, either once the oil company had decided there’s nothing of interest there or when the field starts producing. In many localities, they’re also required to hand over exploration data as well, although they’re allowed to keep it secret for up to a few years.

I guess I don’t really know how disseminating proprietary scientific research works in other industries, but the rate at which geologic data from oil companies becomes public always struck me as fairly quick if anything.

In (South African) gold exploration, generally, back when I was a student with a bursary from a mining company, if I drilled some core today, they didn’t mind if I published on that data next month. There was some non-disclosure stuff in my contract, but it related specifically to ore reserve estimates (sampling assay data) not purely geological data. I could publish on the stratigraphy of our exploration sites until the cows come home. This might be because there wasn’t such a thing as “open” exploration, but I thought that’s how it was in petroleum as well - you need a licence for an area to even begin seismic soundings or exploration drilling. So by the time you’re getting data, you competition should already know you’re looking in the area.

True. But aeromagnetic, gravity, those you don’t. The whole point is to work out which are the exploration leases you should try to win, so that your ruinously expensive seismic is put to best use. You are in direct competition for those exploration leases with the other companies. Any bit of intelligence about what your competitors are interested in can be quite valuable in the bid process.

No, here you need a permit to fly those, too. The law makes a distinction between reconnaissance (remote sensing & geophysical) and prospecting (drilling, sampling, etc. ) but both require permission.