“Learn as much as you can...”

An interview with Lawrence (Larry) Mayo

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Melanie Bauce
Lawrence (Larry) Mayo

Larry Mayo has been a stalwart in the Canadian geophysical industry for over 30 years, successfully exploring both domestic and international basins, onshore and offshore. Recently Satinder Chopra conducted the following interview, and discussed with Larry his interesting career and views on the seismic industry.

Larry, let’s begin by asking you about your educational background and your work experience.

I graduated in 1980 with a Mining Engineering Degree from the Nova Scotia Technical College, which now is part of Dalhousie. At that time seismic was a black box. I learned the job starting at Amoco Canada who had quite an in depth training program. Their program involved going to their training centre in Tulsa where we were taught by all the top people in the Industry. That was a great learning experience and we had lots of fun. I got to work with many other recent grads at that time including Norm Cooper, Cathy Martin, Jamie Alison, Paul Garrisino and Ken Umbach to name a few, all of who are still active in geophysics. After five years at Amoco I jumped to PanCanadian and worked there for 15 years. I took a short sabbatical from PanCanadian to join Husky East Coast Operations for 1½ years working in their St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador offices. Since then I’ve been back at PanCanadian who merged to become EnCana and then split to become Cenovus for the last 12 years, so it’s 33 years in the Oil Patch. I have seen a lot of friends and trends come and go through the highs and the lows, and hopefully we are still on a good upswing these days.

Okay, let me ask you this, you’ve got a Bachelor’s Degree in Mining and from there you switched over to Geophysics.


So was it because of this black box?

No, actually the guy who was mostly influential was a guy named Norm Pullin – a geophysicist from Amoco many years ago who actually graduated from Nova Scotia in Mining Engineering in the late 50’s. He came recruiting to Nova Scotia and out of the 18 people in our mining engineering class he hired 7. Four went to geophysics and three went to engineering. Ian Reglar, Terry Zwicker and Glen Lines were the other geophysicists from that grad class. 1980 was a bloom year. We had well over 50 graduates out of Nova Scotia from the various engineering disciplines, and we still keep in touch to this day since we all migrated out west starting families together. We have a huge alumni in Calgary, and the 1980 class is still the largest contingent.

You mentioned briefly about your 5 year stint at Amoco; could you tell us a bit about that?

At Amoco, the first couple of years learning was all about seismic, starting from basic principles and field acquisition. When I started working at Amoco, initially they stuck you into the training program where you did processing. I got lucky as there was an overflow of new geophysicists that year, so I went directly into interpretation. So I got to do some interpretation and processing all at the same time. Initially I worked the Keg River Reefs of Northern Alberta in the Rainbow, Zama and Shekilie basins drilling wells and shooting 2D in what was one of the hot plays of the time. We had a great team up there mapping prospects, and then the last two years at Amoco I was involved in a little bigger project, the Gregoire Lake In Situ Steam Project.

Yes, yes, I read about that.

Lots of firsts including 3D and 4D monitoring in the oil sands. Norm Pullin put a team of specialists together including Larry Matthews, Larry Lines and Keith Hirsche, who have published a number of papers on it. I was involved in doing the 3D design and interpretation, the first 3D for Amoco in 1984, followed a year later by the 4D. Amos Nur of Stanford did our rock physics and had an innovative VSP tool that was a step ahead of tools of the day. Good timing on my part as a lot of the development seismic I have done is rooted to this project.

Very good. Larry, the next 14 years or so at PanCanadian were equally good, right?

Yes. I went to PanCanadian and I drilled a ton of wells. There was no lack of prospects as I started working southern Alberta on everything from Belly River to Glauconite and Basal Quartz channels, down to Pekisko and Banff strat traps, to Leduc Reefs in the Fenn Big Valley area, Nisku in Lacombe; I even got outbid by Shell on a land sale on a little project called Caroline... We had a good exploration team but having the PanCanadian land advantage let us jump prospects quickly when one failed. Technically we had the dynamic duo of Bill Goodway and Dave Cooper there, and they brought a lot of intellectual knowledge and helped us to develop the junior geo’s at PanCanadian.

So you left PanCanadian in 1999 to join Husky Energy?

I had always wanted to work the East Coast where I grew up, but lacked the offshore experience. Towards the end of my last few years at PanCanadian in the late 90’s before going to Husky, I had good fortune smile upon me as PanCanadian wanted to move offshore. The Deepwater Gulf of Mexico was just starting to take off. So myself and cohort geologist, Glenn Karlen were involved in setting up a team to explore in the deep water. We found an active partner, mapped numerous prospects, and were successful at numerous land sales. We eventually ended up having 3 rigs drilling in the deep water Gulf of Mexico. One of those 3 wells was our initial discovery, Llano. At the same time Deep Panuke was discovered and we started exploring the salt basin offshore Nova Scotia. That offshore experience gave me some opportunities to go to the East Coast. So having family down there, when an opportunity came up at Husky to go work down there at the White Rose Field we decided to go for it, and it worked out well. When I came back I returned to PanCanadian and worked the offshore drilling extensions to Panuke and exploratory projects off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

Why was it was only a short stint at Husky?

I could have stayed a number of years but decided to come back and be active drilling wells again. We had mapped out the project and sent the application to the regulators to await approval, and we were not to drill anymore until approval and no new seismic either. So it ended up being a short stint and family was sad to see us go, but it was an eventful time for all to remember.

Since 2001 you have been with EnCana/Cenovus?

Yes, I came back, and as I said I was doing the development drilling for Deep Panuke, acquiring 3D as well as prospecting offshore Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Eventually the petals fell off the rose after a few dry holes, but I still believed there were more discoveries to be made. Budget cuts made the move to Oil Sands in 2005 easy as this was my third life in Oil Sands. The first was with Amoco in the early 80’s while the second was with PanCanadian in the early 90’s when I was involved in starting up a heavy oil group that was highly active since the advent of progressive cavity pumps made a lot of pools in the Provost to Lloydminster area very attractive. I have been involved in expansion drilling at Foster Creek and Christina Lake and the Borealis area northwest of Fort Mac. since 2005.

Satinder and Larry

Do you feel like a veteran?

Some days I feel like a Vet, having to battle through cost controls and poor seismic data! But eventually prospects come to the fore and off we go again drilling for new resources. I was very fortunate to go to the oil side prior to the split with EnCana as the Oil Sands offer their technical challenges to find the sweet spots. Recently I have done 4D seismic where not much has changed since I cut my teeth on it in 1984 and never lost the flavor for it. So I enjoy that.

Well, in the last 32 years you have spent your life as a seismic interpreter, basically?

I consider myself an interpreter, a plumber…I like drilling wells and shooting seismic, I have been fortunate that through my career I have been able to rotate around different projects and areas and actually have been involved in numerous success stories. I’ve had my fill of dry holes as well, but that just adds to the learning process.

You spent some time processing data, but have you spent time on acquisition?

My strengths are acquisition of the right data for the type of prospect, which leads to processing so I can get into the interpretation. I enjoy this probably more as the interpretation side is always trying to find the right geologic model.

You like processing stage then?

Processing I am knowledgeable in, but I rely on strong support from my colleagues to stay up to date. Ann O’Byrne and I have worked together since the early PanCanadian days and she has seen a lot more than me, so often she comes up with better processing solutions to get the best out of the data.

What were the early landmarks in your career that put you on sound footing as an interpreter?

One of the first ones was actually beta testing seismic work stations at Amoco in the mid 80’s – Landmark was their choice. The days of hand picking, posting and contouring by hand were over. You really got into the data pre-computer gridding, and so the transition to work stations was extremely interesting. The Gregoire Lake project was done on WesternGeco’s seismic interpretation system. PanCanadian had their processing center in Palliser Square at that time, in which they had a single interpretation system, and it was this which attracted me to PanCanadian from Amoco.

That must have been in the mid 80’s, correct? And was PanCanadian an early adopter of 3D?

Yes, actually in 1985 I was involved in the first 3D for PanCanadian after doing 3D and 4D for Amoco. I have acquired numerous 3D’s since those days, the largest using twin boats with multi-streamers shooting 6 km long offsets to image subsalt in the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps the most interesting was another 2 boat project offshore Nova Scotia to undershoot the Cohasset and Panuke Platforms.

What were your most challenging projects? Do you have some memorable incidents from your professional life that you can share with us?

There have been what I thought to be slam dunks, but I learned, Mother Earth is never kind and so I am always ready to be humbled. Drilling those high risk / high reward exploration wells offshore deepwater Gulf of Mexico was always a technical challenge given those water depths, but having to evacuate three rigs three times in one month as hurricanes swept into the Gulf definitely added another risk… Development drilling at White Rose and Deep Panuke where you think you have the right geological model but there is always another solution that you discover you never thought of, which leads to management stopping any new seismic because the pool gets smaller, and then you don’t reprocess the seismic because the pool gets smaller… Then there is the time you drill a secret well, post the land, and bid on the play only to find out you are not successful because the bids did not make it to the government in time… All projects have challenges, and it just feels good when they are overcome.

So in your opinion, what is required for doing good and effective exploration?

Good and effective exploration is having a skilled team to work with, having a logical plan to work with, and a supportive management that recognizes the risks and is willing to spend the necessary capital. You develop a geological model first, then match that with seismic modeling, and then go about acquiring, processing and interpreting the data, to get to a state where you can define a drillable prospect. This is an obvious progression of events, which unfortunately breaks down or gets delayed more times than not!

I was going to ask you about risk –

Oh, how do you lower the exploration risk? Drill above the pipeline is always a quick solution! Actually the best way to lower risk is to have a sound geological model, which means having the basics of petroleum source rocks (the kitchen), migration of fluids to the reservoir, and the trap and the seal to contain it. Technical success of finding a reservoir is of little use with no petroleum. And having quality data to image the reservoir is of no consequence if the reservoir will not produce. In my years of exploration the first thing I look for is the petroleum system and then the seismic follows.

Excellent. You spent a fair bit of your professional life working on projects in the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast of Canada as you said. Tell us a little bit about other projects apart from that challenging project that you mentioned.

I remember a lot of them like it was yesterday. I worked on a number of interesting plays and prospects in my early PanCanadian years. PanCanadian had a lot of acreage and there were plays and prospects from the shallow to the deep, and so I had a unique opportunity at that time to pick the hot trends, being the sole geophysicist covering an area from Calgary to Edmonton from the Alberta border to the foothills. Eventually we staffed up and I got to work on more local projects, spending the time on each that they deserved.

Frontier-wise I have been fortunate, like you say, working in the Gulf of Mexico we were able to make a discovery early in the program. Then we drilled some dry holes there as well, as we were learning the basin’s petroleum system. When I left the company, we were doing some subsalt plays on the land we acquired and was glad to see the team make a few discoveries, and that success later on turned out to be good fortune for EnCana.

On the East Coast we were not so successful with our exploratory drilling, at least not as much as we were on Panuke, but ironically those lands have been recycled recently and I believe there are discoveries to be made.

You have a good population of engineers in your company now.


And so do you think or do they think that geophysical technologies can provide useful information and lower the risk?

Well, the major evidence or proof I see that seismic is adding value and supporting what the engineers require – which is to help build an efficient project – is that we keep acquiring new 3D seismic over the development and exploration areas. I am presently working in the oil sands where we shoot seismic for two reasons: one is for baseline information supporting the geological model and second is to use that baseline to do 4D to monitor reservoir performance. The engineer sees a lot of merit in 4D work that we do, but it is the team that succeeds.

Is this Christina Lake you are talking about?

Ah well, it’s Foster Creek and Christina Lake where we have most of our 4D to date. We have some super people led by Jeremy Gallop and Weimin Zhang in those respective areas but I am not personally involved in those projects. I work in the northern Athabasca oil sands on a project called Telephone Lake. On the other projects, Christina and Foster, I worked on the exploratory side of things, in stepping out the fields, and that was more at the 2D stage than 4D.

At Telephone Lake the 4D I do right now is for tracking air injection into the top water for future development plans; by displacing water we were able to come up with the best solution to do SAGD and lower our steam oil ratio. We create in effect our own gas cap or air bubble that is seismically detectable using surface seismic or downhole VSP’s, and then we can integrate our data with the hydrogeologic model and reservoir pressure data to provide a solution. Cenovus promotes internal technology exchange and recently this project and a multitude of others were presented in a two day conference where we all benefited by the knowledge sharing.

What is the steam/oil ratio that you get there?

Cenovus strives to get the lowest steam/oil ratio on every project, which affects the bottom line on producing properties and plans for future projects. We have top quality reservoirs in which we are able to maintain low steam/oil ratios.

All right. For generating prospects, what has been your strategy? I mean what strategies have you followed and how do you typically go about interpreting your prospects?

Geology is KING, so I start by talking to the geologists, looking at a lot of well logs – sitting down looking at the density, the sonic and having the acoustic model and seeing how it fits with the geological model fit – then sitting down and going through seismic lines and coming up with a plan for mapping, whether it is structural or stratigraphic or even if seismic is going to work at all. If seismic does not work, as it does not in numerous situations, best to admit it and move on rather than plug away trying to create fact from fiction. Recognizing that sometimes takes time.

Okay, now based on what you described, have you been a good interpreter?

I would say I have been fortunate to work on a number of plays that have worked and sometimes I haven’t. In my early years I had a manager who had a plaque on his wall which said “To them that drill it shall be given”, to which I have added “To the lucky and the skilled”, because over time I have benefited from things working out by serendipity or by detailed analysis, but all the time learning never stops.

Is creativity required to become a successful interpreter?

Being innovative, you have got to know which and what data offers the best information, whether it is 2D or 3D or 4D or all of the above. I have done limited work with some non-seismic methods and someday their benefit will rise, but seismic rules as there is lots to learn from the seismic that we do not use. It always goes back to the geological model and petroleum system, knowing the petroleum system as to where the things are. That’s one thing I focus on as I said earlier.

All right, then let me ask you this – what influences you and your work, what gives you direction?

The search to solve the geological model riddle and then be of support to recover the most out of the reservoir. I have switched from exploration to development and back numerous times, and each time I find new challenges.

So have you followed any philosophy for professional growth in your career?

Professional growth – well I have been fortunate to work with a lot of people a lot smarter than me who have shared their knowledge, even though at times I did not fully understand what they were saying, but I took the time to learn. The past 30 plus years I have had great opportunity to also work with a lot of new grads and summer students and given a few minutes could name most all of them or at least their influence on projects we attempted to solve. I have also presented a few technical papers and co-authored a few others through the SEG or CSEG, and it is always rewarding to have someone come up and discuss the material. So sharing knowledge has been my main mantra.

You’ve spent 32 years in Industry so far – what is it that you love most?

That is easy. It’s Plain Jane shooting seismic and drilling wells. I enjoy most reviewing new seismic, whether it is a purchase or better than that, new data from seismic programs that I designed. Reviewing new seismic and drilling a well is like Christmas even though sometimes I end up with a lump of coal. It’s like, you open up that seismic section and okay, does what you believe you thought was going to be there when you shot the program actually show up, and when you actually go out and drill a prospect and the prospect works out, then that’s the cat’s meow like I said, that’s the fun of it.

Okay, I have one question here before I go on – are you a registered member of APEGA?

I registered with APEGA, but I am not an APEGA member. I registered with APEGGA in 1980-81, I did the ethics exam, all the tests, registered, and my status was “Student in Training”. I found out later that one of my reference checks had failed to submit the documentation. I never did follow up on it since then it expired. So the hiccup in my career, like many of my generation, was that I was an Engineer Graduate working as a Geophysicist.

Oh, okay, there were complications.

So therefore I did not have the geophysical education to qualify as a Professional Geophysicist, but I guess I would consider myself more a Reservoir Geoscientist than a Geophysicist on a professional basis. I’ve published three papers in the SEG or CSEG, presented papers at a number of conventions and workshops, received a couple of awards over the years. So I feel I am a professional, even though I am not a certified professional. It’s always been a beef of mine as to not being certified, but it hasn’t hampered me. Ironically when I was in Newfoundland I was the sole geophysicist on APEGN. I would recommend that new grads become members.

I was just wondering and wanted to get your opinion on that. Now if you apply, based on your experience nobody is going to ask you to go back and do courses in geophysics.

I probably should enquire. It is always my fear to write thirteen exams.

No, 32 years of experience in geophysics probably means a certificate.

It would definitely be an accomplishment in my mind to get certified by APEGA, especially for the years of service, since I have abided by industry’s code of conduct influenced by the iron ring I wear from Engineering.

What are your other interests Larry?

I have a lovely wife who supports me tremendously. Three young children, actually they are not that young anymore, who are finishing their education and working. I presented a paper at this year’s GeoConvention, the first in many years and they attended to listen to what I said, which was a pleasant surprise since they did not follow my footsteps. I have also done 30 plus years of involvement in amateur hockey in Calgary, between coaching, coordinating and scouting for junior prospects. During winter doing geophysics actually was the time between hockey practices and games.

Very nice. What would be your message for young entrants to our Industry?

My message for young entrants to the Industry – learn as much as you can from the senior people who have been through the wars winning a few battles but losing others. Come with an open mind that it is not as simple as you always think, but sometimes the simplest solution is the best. Get as much industry training as you can because what I have found over the years is that new grads are technically sound but need to ground truth that knowledge.

One last question – what would be your opinion for three unsolved problems and from your perspective, what do you find still difficult and have not been able to solve in geophysics?

Wow...just one last question little question!

First – The simplest unsolved problem comes from data acquisition where surface conditions vary locally, either wiping out reflections or changing in depth through multiples or mode converted noise. Acquisition parameters are set to best get the average solution. Acquiring more data with more geophones with the mega channel cableless systems helps to improve the signal to noise and is a start, but comes at a cost. Interpolation has helped this issue tremendously from my experience.

Second – Passive seismic monitoring systems are being advanced with 4D and microseismic but are costly and dependent upon seasonality. Newer systems and techniques (borehole fiber optics) are being developed but are taking time to advance other than on a well-by-well basis where they should be applied to the field to get better recovery.

Third – It is hard to choose between two others! I have not found the ideal seismic interpretative workstation while on the other hand I believe that non-seismic methods have a future as another tool in the toolbox.

Satinder, thank you. This has been an enjoyable experience to travel back in time and review what I had the opportunity to do in my career, but the most enjoyment over the years was having co-workers with the passion to learn and succeed.

Larry, the thanks should be from me! Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, and for sharing your many interesting experiences and observations.


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