Basic Concepts of Direct Hydrocarbon Indicators (DHIs

By: Staffan K. Van Dyke
Van Dyke Geoscience; Houston, TX, 77024

Direct Hydrocarbon Indicators, or DHIs (also commonly known as, HCIs
[HydroCarbon Indicators]), are used every day in the oil and gas industry by
technical professionals to help locate hard to find, or simply overseen, hydrocarbon
deposits. DHIs are a cornerstone application for the hunt of oil and gas deposits
today. A fundamental understanding of basic wave phenomena, along with sound
geological reasoning, and ideally, the ability to conceptualize these phenomena in
3-dimensions, is required in order to properly identify DHIs. Determining if DHIs are
the oil/gas response coming from a commercial accumulation of hydrocarbons to
that of a seismic relic, could be the difference between a commercial well and a
dryhole. To elaborate more specifically, one needs to: 1) understand basic rock
physics [acoustic impedance, reflection coefficients, etc.]; 2) understand the
acquisition survey parameters [shot/receiver spacing, CMP/CDP spacing, fold, etc.];
3) understand the survey’s prestack processing workflow [migration, deconvolution,
etc.] 4) understand the survey’s poststack processing workflows [if applicable], and
so on.

When gas or oil migrate to replace the interstitial brine water in subsurface
reservoirs, the seismic reflection coefficient inherently changes. The reflection
coefficient is most accurately represented by maxima/minima assignments within
the trace envelope by an interpreted seismic horizon. This horizon is considered to
represent a time-equivalent surface, i.e., it is generally interpreted to be a paleodepositional bedding plane. The reflection coefficient value is calculated by
measuring the difference in acoustic impedance of the hydrocarbon-bearing zone as
compared to the brine-saturated zone, either above or below the reservoir being

analyzed. Put more easily, there are two significant reflection coefficients to any
reservoir – its top and its base.
Another consideration is that the relative amplitude value can be deteriorated
and/or altered dramatically by post-processing of the seismic data (mean/median
filters, spectral whitening, etc.). That is, the numbers associated with the seismic
amplitude values are unitless, therefore, they fall into no particular unit scheme
(there is a large misconception in the oil industry that all seismic amplitudes fit
nicely into -128 to +128 unit boundaries). This is not so. In fact, the unit samples
can range anywhere from + (1.0 x 10-8 / 1.0 x 108) to - (1.0 x 10-8 / 1.0 x 108) before
processing. As amplitude values are unitless numbers, by definition they are
qualitative, not quantitative.

During processing, erroneous artifacts may manifest themselves in the seismic
dataset. These need to be studied with great detail to be certain they are indeed
real or not real; an error of this magnitude could cost a company $100's of MMUSD.
Therefore, it is fundamental to understand the physical concepts behind Direct
Hydrocarbon Indicators, as well as very important to apply the proper reasoning
while evaluating them. Outcrop/subsurface analog data, calibrated well logs, the
creation of synthetic seismograms, among many other valuable quality control
measures, all must be used to help determine if the suspected DHIs are true
representations of commercial accumulations of hydrocarbons.
Other major issues include the calibration of wells that are not in the same geologic
province because they come from a different environment of deposition, or the wells
used to calibrate the data are simply too far away from the well being studied.
Additionally, if things such as stratigraphic changes (e.g., going from a channel fill
sandstone environment to a thin bedded levee environment) the well ties and the
prospects will be wildly different. And perhaps the most common error is the lack of
sufficient integration of geological data/interpretations for the prospect being

It should also be noted that not all seismic anomalies are DHIs, and not all DHIs are
of equal quality. Amplitudes can be caused by factors not related to hydrocarbon
accumulations - this is a key point that many geophysicists commonly overlook.
This work must be done in order to determine if a well should be drilled - OR NOT
DRILLED - this cannot be stressed enough.

DHI or HCI: Measurement which indicates the presence or absence of a hydrocarbon
accumulation (bright spot, dim spot, flat spot, shadow zone, etc.)
Bright spots: Local increase in amplitude on a seismic section (presumably caused
by a hydrocarbon accumulation)
Phase/Polarity Change: Seismic peak changes to a trough (or vice versa)
Dim Spot: Local decrease in reflection amplitude

Figure 01: Flat Spot showing fluid contact of a gas field with an underlying water leg (bluedashed line)

Figure 02: Gas reflections from the Nile Delta in Egypt; the high amplitude red reflection
(trough) is from the top of the gas reservoir in this antiformal trap, as the high amplitude
blue reflection is from the base of the gas reservoir, also known as the GWC (Gas Water

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