Apple's rich profits are a huge incentive to pursue innovation. Koch Oil's rich profits are a huge incentive to fight harder for access to declining oil stocks. These are not equally valuable pursuits, in so far as society as concerned.
To gather a consistent picture of the subsurface and to ensure “repeatability” during 3-D and 4-D surveys, the towed streamers need to be kept in a fixed position relative to the source vessels and to each other. So the oil-services companies devised techniques (such as the Q-Fin system from WesternGeco and the Nautilus system from CGGVeritas) to measure and adjust the position of the streamers as they travel through the water.
But the mechanics of the new acquisition techniques are a doddle compared with the challenge of making sense of the vast amount of data produced. A typical 3-D survey uses about 80km of streamer cable containing a total of around 25,000 hydrophones. Shot points occur every 10-15 seconds, and after each one the hydrophones record a 24-bit signal every two milliseconds. This results in around 500 megabytes of data per shot point. With 50 seismic vessels working around the clock industry-wide, this adds up to a total of around 12 petabytes of new data every year, according to Mr Walker.
The resulting data must then be processed to produce a picture of the subsurface. The amount of computing power used for such calculations is staggering. BP’s computer centre in the Gulf of Mexico operates at 270 teraflops (270 trillion calculations per second), nearly 3,000 times faster than a decade ago.
The fact that oil can be extracted from the depths of the ocean (or countries halfway around the world), refined, transported to your local gas station and then sold for roughly the same price as a gallon of milk is one of the everyday miracles of capitalism.