World-class training for the modern energy industry

Meet the Expert: 5 Minutes with Richard Swarbrick

calendar February 29, 2024
Richard Swarbrick

We sat down with Richard Swarbrick ahead of his upcoming GeoLogica course: Seals, Containment and Risk for CCS and Hydrogen Storage (E570)

What is your field and specialization?

I’m a geologist. My interest in geology started when I was probably in my early teenage years. I was somewhat influenced by having an older brother – quite a lot older – who was a geologist and who went to do geology in Australia as a Ten Pound Pom. I inherited some of his rocks and some of his books and friends tell me that he influenced me. I was also really interested in geography. I thought that if I went to university to do a geography degree, though, I’d end up teaching geography. So, I chose geology. I could see that it had the potential of a profession, so after getting a First in my geology degree, I went on to do a PhD. My PhD involved mapping southwest Cyprus to try and understand how it fitted into the bigger eastern Mediterranean picture, particularly its relationship to the uplifted ocean crust (the Troodos mountains in the middle of Cyprus). I had a great time. I had a van and big water container and some food, a tent and mapping equipment. Off I went on my own for a week. I’d return to town, spend a night in a youth hostel, collect mail, collect more food and water and then go back into the field. I did that over three field seasons for a total of eight months and mapped the whole of southwest Cyprus in quite a lot of detail. You won’t be able to do it on your own anymore for safety reasons, but it was great fun.  

Tell us a bit about your teaching journey.

After 10 years in the oil industry, I realized that I loved working in the industry but I didn’t enjoy living in London. I knew I was going to be in London for most of my career and I just hated commuting. I took an opportunity to go to Durham University as a mid-career move into an applied geology area and I spent thirty years teaching and researching. My research was linked to understanding subsurface pressures, which was poorly known from a geological point of view. It was generally seen as an engineering challenge rather than something that needed understanding from a geological point of view. From there I started professional development courses teaching small groups of professionals. My first teaching assignment was with JAPEC (the Joint Association of Petroleum Exploration Course) run by the Geological Society and the PESGB. Very soon after that, I was commandeered to work for Nautilus and had an extensive period teaching quite a lot of Nautilus courses in Europe, USA and SE Asia. 

I thoroughly enjoy working with small groups of professionals who are really interested in the topic, and who themselves have quite a lot of personal experience to bring to the table. We have lots of discussions, which are particularly good if there are geologists and engineers present, since each learns from the other – after all, the petroleum industry is very much a multidisciplinary area of science. More recently, I’ve become much more interested in the energy transition and helping people understand how subsurface pressures can be applied to carbon dioxide sequestration, hydrogen storage, and compressed air storage and recovery, to find new ways of dealing with the climate change challenge. 

What is your favourite memory from fieldwork or field training?

When I was working for Mobil, I really wanted to work in frontier exploration, and I asked for a posting in an area where frontier exploration was underway. I was transferred from the London office to the Dallas office and worked for the Alaska division there. The Alaska division was looking for new oil and gas opportunities in basins where previously there had been nothing other than a stratigraphic well drilled, purely to find out what the rocks were. So, I became involved in some of the very first oil and gas exploration wells in new basins where there was no infrastructure, not even any meteorological records. It was very exciting. One of the things I did at the same time was attend a field exercise collecting geochemical samples in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the last year in which the Alaskan authorities and the federal authorities would allow people to do such work. We were helicopter supported, we lived in a tent and we collected geochemical samples across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge right on the Alaska North Slope, overlooking the Brooks Range. The Arctic ice shelf was just offshore. It was extremely exciting. There were polar bears, midges, moose, elk; it was a landscape that I’d never experienced before – tundra – and had geological and ice features that I’d never seen. It was just the most extraordinarily visual and exciting opportunity to see a region that is very little visited – to see it from the air, to see it from the ground up and then to be able to take all that back and try and fit it together from a geochemical and geological point of view was extraordinarily exciting. It was a great bit of outdoor field work combining my love of the outdoors with my passion for geology. 

Organic sediments, North Slope, Alaska.

Tell us about your upcoming course with GeoLogica – what is it about and who is it for?

So, the course is intended to give geoscience and engineering professionals a feel for how rocks and fluids behave in the subsurface, with specific reference to the containment of CO2, hydrogen and compressed air at a suitable storage site. For example, how and when might CO2 leak into the ceiling rocks of the container, and at what rate. Is it through the pore network of the seal, or could it be by generating new pathways, such as hydraulic fractures or via chemical reactions? Another element of the training will be to address what the changes are that take place when injecting hydrogen into a storage site repeatedly. What is the effect of putting hydrogen in, increasing the stresses inside the container, then reducing those stresses, and repeating the pattern over and over again? What are the maximum volumes that can be stored safely? And in this context ‘safely’ means with no leakage or, as a minimum, such a slow rate of leakage as to be acceptable to regulatory authorities.  

In terms of who might attend the course, geoscientists will find it especially relevant, with their background and the knowledge they need to define rock behavior. I would also argue that engineers, particularly those who are responsible for modelling reservoirs for storage sites and injection programs, will find it very relevant. The course will link very closely to their discipline area. The style of training and my background will allow engineers to engage with the material without having to have a detailed geological background.  

 

Calcite cement – indications of fluid flow.

Tell us a fun fact about yourself that most people don’t know.

In 1972 I took at gap year working on a tin-mining project in Niger, Southern Sahara, before starting my geology degree. Outwards, I made my passage on a cargo boat of the Palm Line from Liverpool to Lagos. Months later, I returned overland across the Sahara Desert by buying lifts to Algiers, then hitching back through Europe. Budget £100. Returned with 50 pence! 

What would be your advice to junior geoscientists starting their careers today?

I think my advice to anybody graduating with a degree or a further degree in geology would be to look very carefully at what’s going to be needed when there is no oil and gas. If we accept that all the oil and gas that has been discovered now is probably sufficient to see us through energy transition, then the question to answer is, ‘Where does geology fit into the new framework of the energy industry, particularly of energy storage?’ I would recommend graduates look very critically at mining or the source of rare earths and metals.

I also think there is a shortage of skilled hydrologists – we know water is an essential part of life, but it’s going to be far more challenging in the future with changes in weather and the loss of the glaciers in upland areas. Understanding underground fluid distribution and, hence, where the best aquifers are and how they could be accessed is going to be incredibly valuable. 

Give us your best/worst geology joke?

Question: What is a geologist’s favorite accompaniment to their morning coffee?
Answer:  Rock e-rode!