Ernie Pallister

Fifty-five years ago the Leduc oilfield set off the oil boom in Alberta. Fifty–four years ago I graduated in physics from the University of Alberta. My timing was wonderful — the first of innumerable fortunate events that were to follow. In this memoir I concentrate on a few learning experiences that may provide guidance and confidence to readers who are early in their careers. It is only now, as I condense my geophysical career into these few pages, that I have come to recognize what have been my guidelines. I hope that as I relate highlights of an exciting and highly varied career some useful principles will emerge.

Off to the Persian Gulf

Many oil-industry jobs were available to science and engineering graduates in 1948. United Geophysical Company offered me training in California and a two-year contract in the Persian Gulf – and good pay! Although I knew little about applied geophysics and nothing about Bahrain Island where I was to be stationed, I accepted with enthusiasm. While in California and wondering what I was getting into, and being naïve about corporate protocol, I went to San Francisco to discuss my foreign assignment with United’s client — the California Standard Company. I simply went to the Bush Street office tower and asked to see the “person in charge of the Arabia”. Amazingly, I was ushered into the spacious office of an international vice president. He took time to relate the history of oil development in the Middle East, answered all my questions and bade me good luck. My colleagues at United couldn’t believe my audacity! This experience stayed with me as an ongoing reminder that people in senior positions are approachable and usually have a strong desire to help young people. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday on Bahrain Island as a “computer”.

Muskeg and Prairies

After returning to Canada in 1950, I worked for Century Geophysical, Subsurface Exploration, Seaboard Oil Company and Texaco during the next eight years. Like others during this boom time I was doodlebugging throughout the western Canada sedimentary basin, learning-on-the-job. In my first job in Canada I was assigned as “chief computer” on a tractor-mounted crew in the Peace River country. I was informed that a party chief was “on-his-way” and I was to be temporarily in charge. My limited experience was in marine seismic – very different from land seismic. This presented a challenge. Many problems arose in operating in remote summer muskeg. In making decisions, by necessity, I sought the advice of the people operating the equipment. Daily crises tackled through frank discussion usually lead to good solutions and teamwork implementation. This was another very important lesson that I carried with me constantly in later years. The party chief never did arrive.

My next learning experience came when a company of which I was an employee, shareholder and officer, went into tough times and eventually into bankruptcy. This was a painful but effective way of appreciating the importance of understanding business economics, market instability and financial management!

After a few months of job-hunting, I landed a job with Canadian Seaboard Oil. There I had the wonderful experience of working with dynamic geophysicists, geologists and engineers. They gave me a broader understanding of how seismic surveys were being applied in oil exploration. A few years later I became assistant chief geophysicist and was promoted to Seaboard’s Dallas headquarters. Shortly before I was to move, Seaboard was taken over by Texaco.

Stepping Out

Then age thirty-one, I concluded that I had accumulated enough encouraging and discouraging experiences to be more self-reliant. Fortunately, Bud Coote gave me that opportunity. It was 1958. Bud and his partners had recently sold Accurate Exploration to Geoprosco of England and Bud had plans to buy it back. I participated in this acquisition and created A.E. Pallister Consultants Ltd. as an Accurate subsidiary. Now the excitement really began! Supported by Bud’s business acumen and successful operation of geophysical companies, and the patience of other shareholders, I was able to gradually build a large consulting practice. The opportunity was waiting to be seized. Dozens of U.S. independent oil companies had been attracted to Canada and were conducting seismic surveys. Unlike the major companies, they commonly did not have inhouse geophysicists in Canada. Their seismograph contractors provided them with raw seismic data together with an interpretation report. In a very price-competitive seismic business, contractors’ geologic interpretation of the data was necessarily given less attention than it deserved.

Our business strategy was to de-bundle the survey package by offering data acquisition and interpretation separately. The result was that the data acquisition business became more cost-competitive and the interpretation of data more meaningful. Professional geophysicists and geologists were recruited for the consulting company. Professional fees were charged for their services. A value-added interpretation of the data was accomplished by integrating known sub-surface geological information with the seismic recordings. It was an important step in collaboration between geophysical and geological disciplines. Initially, using seismic velocity surveys from scattered wells, seismic reflection-times were converted to sub-surface depths and interval thicknesses. We christened the derivative maps “Seismogeological Maps”. Geologists and exploration managers found them valuable additions to the normal seismic reflection time maps.

These maps quickly became increasingly accurate as more formation velocity information became available. A major step was the use of sonic well logs — a new tool in evaluating the stratigraphy in exploration wells. Using an instrument designed by Accurate employees dubbed the “Magnetrace”, well logs were digitized onto IBM punch cards. The incremental sound travel-times were integrated to yield a continuous transit-time vs. depth profile. Key interval velocities were calculated and presented alongside the geologic markers. We called this a “Sonigram”.

With computers then coming to market we formed a subsidiary named EDP — Engineering Data Processors to process the digitized well logs. Through the work of consultant Roy Lindseth the Sonigrams were quickly upgraded to give greater resolution. Roy wrote computer programs that calculated seismic wave reflectivity from sonic-log density and velocity changes to create a “synthetic seismogram”. With this advancement it was possible to display simulated seismic reflections alongside the sonic log converted to a reflection-time scale. The Sonigram provided a valuable template for integrating geological and geophysical data — essentially the ability to view subsurface geology on a seismic reflection-time scale. EDP was later folded into CDP — Computer Data Processors, a consortium of Calgary seismic contractors sharing the high cost of installing the first large scientific computer in Calgary. Lloyd Flood joined CDP and brought his geology and management expertise to this new venture. Roy and Lloyd pioneered the processing of both geophysical and geological data in North America.

Gaining Credibility

Having extolled the need to strengthen the link between seismic and geologic information, I felt an obligation to also show the limitations of the use of seismic reflections in mapping the subsurface. The seismic method was then suffering an unfavorable image, since many exploration wells drilled on seismic “anomalies” encountered no geological anomaly. I delivered short courses and papers to geologists and several related associations. One of the lectures that resulted in a popular booklet was “Seismic Applications in Finding Reef Traps”. The publication had illustrations showing seismic responses to reef structures in various environments in Alberta. It was also an opportunity to display the limited resolving-power of seismic reflections.

A seismogram superimposed on a photograph of the Elveden House (the tallest office building in Calgary) at common scale had a profound impact. A single cycle of a seismic reflection extended from the street to about the fourth floor – a graphic illustration of the limitation of precise mapping of structural or stratigraphic changes from reflection-times alone. It illustrated the need to use additional criteria such as reflection “character” changes and velocity-induced effects. The booklet was republished several times over the following decade. Another product we developed was the “Classic Section” library. This was an assembly of actual seismic profiles across known stratigraphic changes. It was enlightening to see how, in many cases, the responses were barely perceptible, while others gave strong evidence. This empirical tool provided another template in relating seismic data to subsurface geology.

My knowledge of geology had been greatly increased from working with numerous clients who possessed a wide range of geological backgrounds. This experience emphasized to me the benefits of cross-discipline communication for both geophysicists and geologists. From involvements with the geology community I found myself on the executive of the Alberta Society of Petroleum Geologists (now Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists) and then as its President. Along with Hon. Jean Luc Pepin, Minister of Energy Mines and Resources, I had the honour as ASPG President to cut the ribbon on the new Geology Survey of Canada’s Institute of Sedimentary and Petroleum Geology in Calgary headed by Dr. Digby McLaren.

B Line to the Arctic

While mapping prospects in Alberta, I was struck by the fact that western Canada oil exploration was almost entirely limited to south of sixty degrees latitude — especially considering that there was a good oil reservoir in a shallow reef at Norman Wells (discovered long before Leduc), and encouraging geology in the few wells drilled near the Mackenzie Delta. The major reasons were apparently the different government permitting/leasing regimes, the higher cost of exploration due to remoteness and the continued successes in the provinces. From my naval and marine seismic background, I came up with the idea of recording a seismic profile along the length of the Mackenzie River. Labeled “Operation B-Line”, it was a pretty wild idea for a company with very limited resources, but all of us at Accurate and Pallister worked together in finding a practical method of recording seismic reflections in a river. Our first trial, in which we used a land cable floated with inner tubes and anchored to a shoreline tree, and explosives detonated in shot holes along the banks of the Bow River east of Calgary, acquainted us with the unrelenting power of a river current. When last seen the cable and tree were headed for the Hudson Bay.

We tried again. The new site was beneath the high and low level bridges in Edmonton where the geology was known and seismic results nearby were known to be of good quality. This time, we anchored small boats and set off explosives in the North Saskatchewan River. Operationally the trial was encouraging but river noise overwhelmed any reflected signal. Finally, a trial was conducted across the flanks of the Norman Wells reef. This location was chosen since it was in the Mackenzie River, but also because an examination of the spot-correlation seismic profiles recorded by the US Army during the early 1940’s clearly showed the flank of the Key Scarp reef as a direct reflection. Floating the cable with the current, this trial was entirely successful. It showed the technique as feasible making it possible to assemble financial contributions from the petroleum industry to conduct the full thousand-mile continuous participation survey from Great Slave Lake to the Beaufort Sea.

This venture is a long story in itself. Briefly, it illustrates the multitude of innovations that were employed – including hauling two small war-surplus landing crafts from the west coast; equipping them as recording vessel and living quarters; controlling the cable; recruiting local Native People to navigate the shallow river channels; detonating ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel in plastic bags in lieu of dynamite; and photographing a radar screen to establish locations – all in the absence of communication with the outside world. The logistics of this were accomplished due to the tireless energies and imagination of Pete Todesco and Vagn Madsen. The crew successfully arrived in Aklavik after a month drifting down the river. Since we were recording strong reflections from a subsurface structure, we felt impelled to continue the survey into the shallow waters of the Beaufort Sea. The equipment was transferred to a small vessel that we borrowed from the local Anglican Church. It had been retired from transporting children from coastal Arctic communities to school at Aklavik. Soon the RCMP pulled alongside and “suggested” we get back to shore before we got in trouble with our small craft in a rough sea. This small amount of 1960 data led to the oil industry’s aggressive seismic and drilling activity in later years.

I have many photographs of this adventure including plumes from dynamite shots in the Saskatchewan River with the Alberta Legislature in the background, the “flotilla” making its way down the Mackenzie River, and square dancing with the friendly folks at Aklavik. I still have the hand-cranked foghorn and a prayer book from the church boat. There was much magazine coverage on this innovative joint venture, even to the point of my being named “Oilman of the Year” by the Oilweek magazine. Bud Coote then continued surveys in the lakes and shallow waters east of Tuktoyaktuk using local tug boats.

Quests for New Information

Accurate and Pallister and Boundary Drilling merged with Kenting Aviation, a public company. Through acquisitions, Kenting expanded into a full spectrum of oil service subsidiaries. Geophysical components then included seismic, aeromagnetic, magnetometer, gravimeter, data processing, graphics and geophysical consulting. They were supported by other Kenting subsidiaries and affiliates specializing in shot hole drilling, fixed wing aircraft, helicopter, and heli-portable drilling. We were then well-equipped and financed to carry out more participation surveys in the North. But, there was an important step to be taken in attracting participants. Oil companies had rushed to file on very large Canadian government exploration permits where only preliminary surface geological information was available. Vast areas particularly in the offshore had not yet been permitted. Federal regulations required permit holders to make minimum scheduled expenditures on their permitted area. There was a provision however that, subject to prior approval, expenditures made off-permit to obtain information of a regional or environmental nature could be applied to individual permits. A clear opportunity/challenge was presented.

I met with the young (age 36) Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development to request blanket approval for geophysical participation surveys to qualify under this provision. Though inexperienced in government, the minister was very keen to encourage exploration and maintain Canada’s sovereign position in the North. He freely granted the request on the basis that such information would be placed in the public domain after five years. Today, thirty-two years later, he’s very experienced in his current portfolio. The minister? Prime Minister Jean Chrétien!

During the following decade we organized and conducted several participation geophysical surveys in vast uncharted regions of Canada’s Arctic and offshore. Tagged “Quests”, they were designed to include operational collaboration among service providers, and financial collaboration among oil company users. Oriented by geological consultant George Collins and oil company participants, the terrestrial projects carried out multi-discipline components of seismic, core drilling, gravity and magnetic surveys. Reports included an integrated geological/geophysical interpretation. GeoQuest in the southern NWT was followed by marine surveys: ArcticQuest in the Beaufort Sea; PolarQuest within the Arctic Archipelago; BaffinQuest in Baffin Bay; and BayQuest in Hudson Bay. Private proprietary surveys were conducted in conjunction with the Quests. The collaborative work was an excellent way for companies to acquire reconnaissance information at minimum cost.

Prior to embarking on PolarQuest in ice-covered waters where the offshore had not yet been filed upon, it was necessary to determine whether it was feasible to carry out marine seismic work in this environment. Equally important it was desirable to confirm that there were sediments in the offshore. Esso’s oil tanker “Manhattan” was about to make a demonstration voyage through the Northwest Passage. Seeing this as an opportunity to answer these questions I applied for and received permission to place seismic equipment aboard the Canadian icebreaker “John A. Macdonald” that was escorting the Manhattan. It wasn’t practical to install full seismic gear aboard, but we were able to record short sparker shallow-penetration profiles when the ship was not engaged in icebreaking. The scattered profiles yielded sufficient information to indicate that reflections could be recorded from sediments in Lancaster Sound.

An Icy Reception

This experience, together with thorough research of records of historical voyages and interviews with such Arctic authorities as the Canadian Navy’s Capt. Tom Pullen and the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine Capt. Calvert, gave us confidence to launch Operation PolarQuest. The seismic equipment and air guns were mounted in Halifax and St. John’s aboard ice-strengthened sealers the “Theron” and the “Theta” operated by a Norwegian shipping company with a long history in ice transits. PolarQuest ships circumnavigated Cornwallis Island and pushed through the ice to Axel Heiberg Island — the farthest north point in the archipelago any commercial vessel had reached. Further south there were some exciting moments off the Boothia Peninsula where, like Franklin, one of our ships was beset in the ice. Fortunately, the Canadian Coast Guard came to the rescue.

PolarQuest resulted in extensive new offshore filings for exploration permits with the Canadian government. This action supported Canadian sovereignty in the ice-covered waters of the archipelago. One of the gratifying rewards of the northern Quests was the ancillary knowledge gained from research. In addition to developing scientific and technical innovations, the knowledge gained in the “soft” sciences of historical and social order of the Arctic was important and had great future application. The study of pursuits of explorers in whose footsteps we followed, and the contacts with Native People gave us an opportunity to know Canada better. In delivering the SEG Distinguished Lecture series (entitled “Canadian Arctic — The Sleeping Giant”) throughout North America, I spiced the geophysical presentation with slides depicting nineteenth century exploration and life in Arctic communities – even illustrating the steps in making an igloo! It was all well received.

Socio-Economics Issues

With the spectrum of challenges in Arctic exploration emerging, the First Canadian National Convention of the CSEG, of which I was Chairman, offered the opportunity for the membership to address some special characteristics of exploration in the Canadian North. On the program were the Minister of Science and Technology and representatives from the Geological Survey, and Ministries of Transport, Environment and Indian and Northern Affairs from the federal government. From the N.W.T. government and northern communities we had the Mayor of Inuvik, Native people and other northern community representatives. The published Convention Transactions describe the range of technical, social and environmental topics discussed. These topics have taken on immense significance to the entire petroleum industry in subsequent years, as activities have expanded to drilling, production and transportation phases.

That conference marked the closing of my direct involvement in geophysical affairs. The experiences in the profession lead me in new directions. My appointment to the Science Council of Canada was an exhilarating experience – a chance to see Canada in a much wider perspective. It afforded me dialogue with leaders of research and development in industry, university and government in all regions of Canada.

Beyond Geophysics

In 1973, my son Jeff and I established Pallister Resource Management Ltd., which continues today as a technology management consultancy under his presidency. Together we performed numerous studies and projects, mainly to do with Arctic and offshore exploration. In collaboration with other consultants our work had widened to include research, technical, socio-economic, communication and environmental assignments for the petroleum industry, its associations and consortia. We also assembled industry projects as they came into the public domain and operated “Infopal”, an Arctic and offshore report library now domiciled at the Arctic Institute of North America in Calgary.

During that time I accepted an invitation by Donald Harvie to be an Associate of the Devonian Foundation. My role was to organize the funding and to chair the boards of new scientific research ventures. The process I followed was really an extension of the work I had been doing for the previous twenty-five years in geophysical exploration. That is, encouraging collaboration among industry, learning institutions and government in developing technologies to meet unique Canadian conditions and needs. Three major research centres were established: Centre for Cold Ocean Engineering Research (C-CORE) in Newfoundland; Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) in Saskatchewan; and the Centre for Frontier Engineering Research (C-FER) in Alberta. Following seed funding by Devonian, the organizations have grown and thrived by meeting the common requirements and priorities of the three sectors. Bob Blair called on me to serve on several boards of the Nova and Husky companies. My advisory work with the Nova Husky Research Corporation was another opportunity to apply my geophysical experiences.

Principles Learned

I mentioned above that in writing this memoir I have come to recognize some mileposts that I passed during the last half century. In keeping with the “success” theme of this special issue of the Recorder, I attempt here to translate the mileposts into three principles — innovation, communication and collaboration. Hopefully they may be valuable to young scientists as they develop their careers.

Serendipity played a large part in my career, but I think that it was because I always worked within a firm “context”. That context has been to make an impact within the scientific, physical and social environment in which I live. More plainly stated, I wanted to play a meaningful part in the combined advancement Canada’s scientific, economic and social development.

The success that I have enjoyed has been largely through innovating and applying that which was on hand; recognizing that more sophisticated technology would surpass my modest initiatives. This required adapting to new situations and being prepared to move to another challenge. Becoming self-reliant was necessary but difficult. It meant taking risks and accepting the pain of failure and finding strength to recover. Fear of the unknown was overcome by aligning myself with mentors for whom I continue to have respect and appreciation. Independence was made possible by both sacrifice and support by my wife and children.

When designing a new venture, I simply made certain the “product” would satisfy an unmet need. Involvement with similarly motivated people in this and other professions, together with knowledge gained from experienced practitioners, gave me a unique perspective and capability to make this judgment.

Communication was extremely important – both internally and externally. While being courteous and thoughtful, it was necessary to be very firmly persuasive in establishing client acceptance and team commitment. Together, our teams performing the projects carried them out with conviction and tenacity — never allowing constraints to blur our focus.

Encouraging collaboration and cooperation in exploration projects and research centres has been an underlying thrust in my work. The benefits of bringing minds and money together are enormous. While direct rewards flow to members and subscribers through cost sharing, the greatest rewards are in the cross fertilization of knowledge and ideas in planning and application of the results. And, to see things get done. I have seen many cases where these inter-personal relationships have catalyzed major achievements of national significance.


I was at an offshore conference in St. John’s. A young geophysicist, having seen my A.E. Pallister name badge, approached me and asked, “Are you any relation to Ernie Pallister?” I replied, “I am Ernie Pallister”. Much to my shock he said, “I read many of your papers years ago. I didn’t think you were still alive.” And that was fifteen years ago!

It has been an extremely rewarding life and it’s still going strong — here in California where I “winter” just a few miles from where I started my geophysical career doing offshore seismic work in the Santa Barbara Channel.



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