Mutualism between Paleontology and the Petroleum Industry

By: Dakota Barella

Since humans first inhabited the Earth, we have been at least somewhat curious of life in previous times. We have desired to extract resources from the Earth since first finding a use for them. But, did you know the two go hand-in-hand? Paleontologists use the information gathered from exploration and extraction teams just as the said teams use the knowledge of paleontologists to help drill.

Let’s look at how the study of ancient life has benefited from oil and gas production. In 1944, Hunt Oil Company drilled an exploratory well in Madison County, FL named J. W. Gibson No. 2. At a depth of 5,162 feet, a fossil was found. The trilobite, Colpocoryphe exsul, is an extinct marine invertebrate that lived around 470 million years ago. This was the first and only trilobite ever found in Florida. The discovery also helped lead scientists to a more profound realization. The same species is found in two other localities around the world, one of them being West Africa. This one fossil provided evidence that peninsular Florida was once attached to what we now call West Africa.

Conversely, paleontology helps exploratory geologists find economically viable oil and gas using fossils. Conodonts are an extinct marine animal that left behind mineralized microfossils similar to teeth. By using the CAI (Conodont Alteration Index), where scientists look at the color of the conodont fossils, we can get an indication of the thermal maturation of the kerogen in the subsurface. The darker the fossil, the more thermally mature and the more likely the formation is to be productive for gas. Knowing if there is oil and/or gas underground can spare companies from expenses related to drilling dry wells. This exact scenario occurred in the Hudson Bay Basin in Canada when researchers used this method to determine that the kerogen of the Boas River Shale is too immature to produce oil.

This mutualism exists because even though paleontologists acquire information from the petroleum companies, the industry benefits in the long run by having more advanced knowledge of the subsurface. The industry’s employment of paleontologists has declined a good deal in recent decades, however, it is important as ever to understand the rocks beneath our feet.