An interview with Marcia Couëslan

Principal Geophysicist, Vault 44.01 Ltd.

Interview COORDINATED BY Satinder Chopra

Marcia is a principal geophysicist and the MMV (measurement, monitoring, and verification) lead at Vault 44.01 Ltd., Calgary, with over 15 years of technical experience in CCS and oil and gas. She has worked at Schlumberger Carbon Services and Shell on a range of CCS projects including Rocky Mountain Carbon Vault and Athabasca Banks Carbon Hub, Shell Quest Project, Illinois Basin – Decatur Project, ADM Industrial CCS Project, TransAlta Project Pioneer, and PTRC Aquistore / SaskPower Boundary Dam. She has published her work in international journals, presented at geophysical conferences, conducted short courses for AAPG and US DOE, and served as a technical reviewer for the International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control and for multiple Greenhouse Gas Technology Conferences. She also contributed to the Alberta Regulatory Framework Assessment for carbon capture and storage.

Marcia graciously agreed to our request for an interview and was very responsive and encouraging in answering our questions, some of which were looking for factual and detailed answers.

Marcia, please tell us about your education qualifications and work experience.

My undergraduate degree in geological engineering is from the University of Waterloo. I was exposed to a wide range of topics related to geological engineering, including hydrogeology, geophysics, geochemistry, engineering geology, rock mechanics, and oil and gas (O&G).

My work terms while at Waterloo ranged far and wide. I worked at the geochronology lab at the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa, did hydrogeology field work for Waterloo at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, worked on erosion research in the Scottish Highlands, worked in the mill and smelter at a gold mine in northern Ontario, and worked for a gravity and magnetics company in Houston, Texas.

After I earned my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate to join the depth imaging group at Schlumberger/Geco-Prakla in Houston. After three years, I moved into the borehole seismic processing group.

Two years later, I left Houston to focus on my master’s degree in geophysics at the University of Calgary with Dr. Don Lawton. My thesis project set me on the path towards the carbon capture and storage (CCS) industry. Don gave me an incredible opportunity to present my work at an International Energy Agency Greenhouse Gas Programme (IEAGHG) conference, and that led to a job offer from Schlumberger Carbon Services. Since then, I have remained involved in the CCS industry, minus breaks to have children. At Vault 44.01 Ltd. (Vault), I am currently Principal Geophysicist, Measurement, Monitoring, and Verification (MMV) Lead, and Risk Lead.

You had the opportunity to study at four universities. What differences did you perceive, and how did they each influence your training?

I did! I began with a year at my hometown university in Brandon, Manitoba before transferring to the University of Waterloo. While at Waterloo, I did a student exchange at the University of Leeds in the UK, then did my master’s degree at the University of Calgary.

It was a rough first year at Waterloo, with all the assignments, labs, midterms, etc. I had to increase the amount of effort I put towards schoolwork… I also learned the importance of being on the right side of the bell curve. Leeds has an excellent geology/geophysics program, so I focused on those classes. I had to take more responsibility for my own learning, in that there was not a multitude of assignments and labs to be completed every week; in one case, I had a final exam that was worth 80% of my final grade. The learning style was more relaxed and, as a result, I enjoyed it more, although the work ethic I developed at Waterloo helped me a lot. The UK approach sets you up well for a graduate degree.

It was beneficial that I spent time in industry before I did my master’s degree. This gave me a better idea of what I wanted to get out of the experience, as well as where I did (and did not) want to go with my career. After five years of working as a professional, I had built the confidence and independence that a new graduate doesn’t necessarily have.

Hiking in the meadow at Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, Lake Louise

After your bachelor’s degree, you joined Schlumberger and got engaged in depth imaging and borehole data processing. What prompted you to get a master’s in geophysics?

In terms of life management, I used my master’s as an opportunity to move back to Canada. My partner (now husband) was able to work in Calgary while I went back to university. I also wanted to move out of processing and explore other areas of geophysics.

Your master’s thesis was on “Monitoring CO2 Injection and Storage with Time-lapse VSPs”. Interestingly, on completing your master’s, you rejoined Schlumberger, worked there for the next seven years, and stayed the course in monitoring, etc. Thereafter, briefly at Shell and now at Vault, it has been related work. Was this deliberate, or did these opportunities just happen to come your way?

Pursuing a career in CCS has been deliberate. As I was finishing my master’s thesis, I was confident that I wanted to continue my work in CCS. I found it engaging, challenging, and rewarding, so I jumped at the opportunity to go back to Schlumberger to work on CCS projects. My time with Carbon Services allowed me to work on a wide range of both small and large projects that had their own challenges. It was fulfilling to be able to see the results of cutting-edge research, share my own experience and knowledge, and generally be part of the greater conversation, as thoughts and discussions about the strategy behind CCS and monitoring progressed.

The opportunity to join the Shell Quest team and support the monitoring program was exciting, given that it was going to be, and still is, one of the largest CCS projects in North America. It was interesting to see how a different company (Shell) approached a CCS project. I still regret that I wasn’t with the Shell Quest team long enough to see the monitoring data after injection commenced.

Returning to my professional life after a six-year break has been amazing, exhausting, and challenging in a host of new ways. At Vault, I feel fortunate to work in an area that I love, with some of my favourite people from the past as well as a new set of smart, funny, hard-working, and highly qualified folks that I continue to learn from.

The whole family hiking Spineback Trail at Island Lake Lodge, Fernie, BC

What are your aspirations for the future?

I hope CCS makes a big impact to curb carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and, in the grand scheme of things, succeeds. Beyond that, I know Vault will continue to be successful and grow into the company we know it can be, and I want to contribute to and be part of that success.

I want to continue to work on these challenging and engaging projects, with colleagues I enjoy and who push me to keep growing as a professional. I like to write papers and present at conferences so, ideally, there will be more of that in the future, as projects progress.

Finally, as a mother of three, I want to continue to strive for balance in my work-life interface and for personal sanity. I would also like to top 55 days on my ski pass next year!

If I were to ask you to list three qualities that would reflect Marcia’s personality, what would they be?

In a work context…I would say I am creative, ambitious, and strive for excellence in my technical work. In my personal life, I am adventurous, funny, and organized.

At the top of Polar Peak, Fernie Alpine Resort

You have a large body of experience behind you and are recognized as an expert in risk-based MMV plan design for CCS projects. How does it feel to reach this point in your life, and what has your learning curve been like?

Part of me laughs, looks around, and thinks, “Surely you aren’t talking about me.” … so I guess it feels a bit surreal. It truly is an honour to be recognized in the industry. There isn’t a playbook with guidance about building the skills to succeed at risk management and MMV design. For me, it has been the accumulated experiences that presented the depth of opportunity, as well as good mentors.

I was fortunate to be able to focus on learning about CCS during my master’s, and to make connections with great mentors that have made a big impact on how I approach these projects. When I returned to Schlumberger, the multitude of demonstration projects the team was able to work on presented further opportunities to learn. I also had some good managers, some of whom I still work with, who had confidence in me and empowered me to explore these new projects.

My learning curve is always climbing. It never seems to flatten out for long before a new challenge presents itself.

Besides the QUEST project by Shell, tell us about the other similar CCS efforts underway in Canada.

This is a really exciting time for CCS in Alberta. This year, the Alberta Government has awarded twenty-five proposed carbon hubs the opportunity to pursue evaluation studies for CCS projects. Six were awarded in March 2022, and a further nineteen were announced in early October. Vault has been involved in three successful applications and been the lead proponent for the Athabasca Banks Carbon Hub near Whitecourt and the Rocky Mountain Carbon Vault near Hinton.

The Rocky Mountain Carbon Vault is one of the carbon hubs that Vault will be developing together with West Fraser and TorchLight Bioresources. This carbon hub is associated with the Hinton Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Sequestration (BECCS) Project Study that has been awarded funding from both Emission Reduction Alberta and Natural Resources Canada. This project proposes to capture and store about 1.3 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of biogenic CO2 emissions from West Fraser’s Hinton Pulp Mill. This project could lead the way for other biogenic emitters in the country.

Beyond Alberta, companies are actively developing CCS projects in Saskatchewan. In Ontario, the province is looking to support some early demonstration projects, and on the east coast there is interest in developing offshore CCS.

Vault also has several other projects at various stages of development in the US and Canada. We have submitted our first EPA Class VI permit application to drill a CCS well in the US, which is a huge undertaking. We are working on a further two Class VI applications at this time.

Hiking Porcupine Ridge, Kananaskis Country

Before CO2 is injected into a subsurface formation, how do you assess its storage potential, and the viability of the confining zone or caprock?

I will not go into the nuts and bolts of site screening, as I know many readers are familiar with evaluating porosity, permeability, and assessing reservoir simulations for O&G projects. However, this is a good question, as site characterization for CCS has some differences from traditional O&G projects.

First, CCS projects are not typically data rich environments, unlike O&G projects. We are looking at saline formations in areas where there has been little previous commercial interest, so scarcity of data is the norm. It makes these formations attractive from a containment and leakage risk perspective, but also means large uncertainties in terms of the storage and confining zone properties. For instance, I am working on one project where the closest deep wells to the site are about 55 kilometers (35 miles) away. To be successful in situations like this, it is important to extract maximum value from the seismic data acquired for the project.

Another difference is that characterization of the caprock or confining zone is just as important as the characterization of the storage formation. If the confining zone is not competent, you don’t have a project. Ideally, a project should have multiple confining zones within its defined storage complex. It is important to characterize the porosity, permeability, thickness, lateral extent, fracture pressure, etc., of the confining zones, through well logging, core analysis, in-situ testing, and seismic data.

Also, these CCS projects do not require a structure with closure. In fact, in many cases, an open formation is preferred because there is better pressure dissipation over the long-term.

Besides these two aspects, what other factors do you consider for the MMV plan design for CCS projects?

I always try to think of MMV from a risk perspective. It is difficult to design a project- specific MMV plan if you are not aware of what risks need to be mitigated. It is a thought exercise in “what might go wrong”–i.e., what is going to change if a particular scenario should occur, and how might the project detect it? The technology selection should always come last, and any one technology might mitigate multiple risk scenarios.

Of course, the regulatory requirements must be considered for the jurisdiction in which the project is operating. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is more prescriptive with monitoring requirements than Alberta. For instance, the EPA requires more continuous operational monitoring at the surface, whereas in Alberta the outcomes from the risk assessment drive some of those monitoring decisions.

One example would be the use of distributed temperature sensing (DTS) fibers. People want to deploy them for projects because they are one of the relatively new things out there. I tend to view DTS fibers as a well integrity monitoring tool, so I think about which other well integrity monitoring tools a project might use over the life of the project. If there is already a combination of other continuous monitoring techniques at the wellhead, plus annual well logging to ensure external well integrity, then a DTS fiber might not bring a great deal of additional value to the project, given the cost.

A final thing to consider when designing an MMV plan for a project is the long-term conformance between the MMV data and the reservoir simulations, which should be implicit in the risk assessment, but is worth calling out. Ultimately, to obtain a closure certificate from the regulator for a project, the project must demonstrate that the reservoir simulations and MMV data are in agreement and that there is an understanding of how the CO2 and pressure plumes have behaved and are anticipated to behave over time. To demonstrate this conformance, a project must consider the types of data that will be used to build the initial static and reservoir models as well as the MMV data that will be needed to calibrate the reservoir models during the injection and post-injection phases of the project.

As CO2 is captured and stored in a subsurface formation, you monitor the behaviour of the injected gas through time-lapse seismic and other monitoring tools. What other techniques do you use, and could you comment on their effectiveness?

I think it is important to recognize that there is no single “silver bullet” technology that is going to give all the answers for a project, because of the range of monitoring objectives and targets that exist.

As I mentioned, the development of the pressure plume as well as the CO2 plume must be monitored over time. Monitoring the pressure plume is particularly important in the post-injection phase of a project, because the risk of out-of-zone fluid migration drops as the pressure drops in the storage formation, once injection operations cease. However, monitoring pressure in the storage formation also needs to be weighed against long-term containment, because every penetration of the confining zone will increase the potential risk of fluid migration out of the storage formation.

A robust commercial monitoring plan will typically include time-lapse surface or vertical seismic profile (VSP) monitoring, time-lapse well logging, microseismic monitoring, pressure monitoring potentially within multiple zones in the storage complex, fluid sampling with geochemical and stable isotope analysis, and a shallow groundwater monitoring program. Depending on the risks identified for a particular project, the MMV plan may include an assortment of other monitoring techniques, such as surface deformation, soil gas, or atmospheric monitoring.

Once the project starts to collect MMV data, the next challenge is to integrate it all within the project models to develop a full picture of plume development, as there are multiple datasets with widely differing spatial and temporal resolutions.

Given your insight into CCS as a viable means to achieve a significant reduction in carbon intensity for industrial facilities, how do you see the oil and gas industry changing over the next ten years or so?

In Alberta, a significant portion of the CO2 emissions are from the O&G industry, so CCS has the potential to dramatically impact both the economics and public perception of the industry. Three of the biggest CO2 enhanced oil recovery (EOR) or CCS projects in Canada are operated by O&G operators. Big O&G companies have extensive subsurface experience that they can leverage to solve complex subsurface problems.

Upstream O&G companies generally have the technical resources needed for carbon sequestration development. Large companies with big resource pools may be willing to operate hubs to deal with their own emissions, but smaller companies may not be keen to divert resources from their core business, given today’s pricing environment. I think that smaller companies with lower emissions will wait to see where CCS hubs develop in Alberta, and look to store their emissions at a hub, if indeed they choose to go the CCS route with their decarbonization plans.

All of this makes it easy to overlook the other industries in Alberta that also need CCS solutions, many of which have higher purity CO2 sources and a lower cost of capture. Of the eleven projects awarded funding through Emissions Reduction Alberta’s funding call for carbon capture design and engineering, half are not directly related to O&G. Part of that funding is going towards capture projects related to cement, power generation, fertilizer, pulp and paper, and biofuels. Beyond those industries, facilities that produce hydrogen, ammonia, and methanol may also be looking for CCS solutions.

When you look back at your professional life, what is one narration that comes to your mind?

I have had a non-traditional career path as a geophysicist. Hahaha. I have always tried to stay true to what interests and challenges me and helps me grow.

Here is a philosophical question for you. A quote I have heard many times is that “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”. What would be your take on it?

I think this is absolutely true. During much of my time with Schlumberger Carbon Services, I felt like I was out of my comfort zone. I was always learning or doing something new and having my boundaries pushed. This last year with Vault has felt the same. I am constantly doing new things and expanding my skill set. While there are some weeks that I would honestly prefer a little boredom, overall, I would not enjoy my professional life if I didn’t push my boundaries on a regular basis.

Marcia, I notice that you have volunteered for many different committees or programs, but not so much for the CSEG. Any specific reasons for that?

The years that I spent at home with my children gave me a bit more space to volunteer for the school and with some of the Facebook groups I am a member of. Now that I am back at work, family time has become more precious, and I tend to be more selective about where I devote volunteer time. Being part of a start-up company led to a decrease in my volunteer hours last year, but I would totally be open to volunteering with the CSEG if it fits into everything else in my world!

Besides your day job, what other interests do you have?

My family has a pretty active life outside of work and school. We do a lot of camping and hiking during the summer in Alberta and BC. I also like to paddleboard with my friends. In the winter, we downhill ski and do the Fernie, BC weekend commute. We have a trailer there, so that often serves as a base for us during the summer and winter. We even put Wi-Fi into it last year to make it easier for my husband and me to work from there.

What would be your message for youngsters who have joined our industry?

There is more opportunity to apply O&G subsurface skills towards other resource industries than before – be it CCS, geothermal, helium, or lithium. Chase what most interests and fulfills you! Also, find good mentors that help support you to achieve your goals.

And finally, what other question had you expected me to ask, that I didn’t. Please state the question and answer it.

I really expected you to ask something about mentors. I attended a Houston SPE presentation given a couple of months ago by Sue Hovorka at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas. I have known Sue since I was a grad student, and she was always supportive whenever I ran into her. Anyway, at the end of her talk, there was an invitation for other people on the call with a great deal of CCS experience to join her to answer questions. Specifically, I was invited to join her, which was completely unexpected and exciting. This also reminded me of how important it is to have these people cheerleading for you throughout your career.

On that note, I want to give a shout out to some other people who have been influential in how I think about CCS, and who have supported me in my career. Beyond Don Lawton, who gave me so many great opportunities during my master’s degree, I have learned a great deal from Don White at the Geological Survey of Canada, Rick Chalaturnyk at the University of Alberta, and Kevin Dodds who is in Australia working on CCS projects. On the geophysics side of things, I have learned a lot from people like Allan Campbell and Scott Leaney in Houston, and Mike Jones and Shawn Maxwell in Calgary.