An interview with Abhi Manerikar

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Al Bradshaw
Abhi Manerikar

Abhi Manerikar is part of a dynamic group of young Calgary geophysicists just entering the prime years of their careers. As Exploration Manager of Conoco Canada’s Frontier group, Abhi and his peers represent the future of Calgary’s geophysical community. The RECORDER editors were lucky to squeeze some time into Abhi’s busy schedule to interview him on issues of interest to CSEG members.

[Satinder]: Abhi, let us begin by asking you about your education and early professional experiences.

Well, to start with, I’m still really not sure why you chose to interview me. Not that I mind, but I thought you only interviewed really smart or famous people, like Fred Hilterman!

[Satinder]: You’re really too modest! You’re young, you’re local, and you’re an Exploration Manager for one of the world’s most successful oil companies, heading up geophysical operations in a region that represents the future of Canada’s oil and gas industry, and presents difficult and interesting technical challenges. People are interested to hear your opinions!

still think you’ve mixed me up with someone else, but I’ll humour you.... I graduated from U of C in 1984 (a fairly grim time in the oilpatch), and landed an interpretation job with Petro-Canada, working the East Coast. It was really a great job, because I was exposed to a lot of fairly sophisticated techniques early on, and a variety of both geologic concepts, such as basin analysis, seismic stratigraphy, and geophysical problems, like water bottom multiple removal and depth conversion. After a few years, and still with Petro-Canada, I spent 2 years running field crews, which was a fantastic learning experience again, because you really can’t understand acquisition issues unless you’ve had direct exposure to it. I was involved in projects which you could call “off the beaten track”, such as Burma, and Yemen, as well as programs throughout Alberta and BC. This exposure to different basins, with their different depositional environments was really a great experience for a young geophysicist.

From Petro-Canada I moved to CanOxy. By some quirk of fate, as soon as I was hired, the company made its big Yemen find, and announced that it was phasing out of Western Canada and concentrating on international plays, primarily Yemen. So again I was thrown into a really great learning experience. I was working new ventures and we evaluated plays all over S. America, N. Africa and the CIS. I also had the opportunity to work on a project offshore Romania which was one of the most technically challenging and rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on. After a while at Canoxy, I felt that I wanted to put all this interpretation experience into some actual wells. International plays are great, but the wells are few and far between, and it’s only when you drill that you can really see how good you are at predicting what is in the subsurface. I really wanted to drill more wells, so I moved over to CNRL. I had the chance to work with some great people there and certainly satisfied my itch to drill!

Following a brief stint at Chauvco, I moved to Crestar, about 4 1/2 years ago. And then as you of course know, Crestar was bought by Gulf, and then Gulf was bought by Conoco, and that brings us up to today!

[Satinder]: Some professionals feel that sticking with one company leads to stagnation, and that moving around is what makes a real professional. What’s your take on that?

Well, there’s no doubt that moving around broadens your perspective. Every company, not just oil & gas companies, but any company, does things a certain way, and believes it’s the best way, the smartest way, and that other companies do things badly or “wrong”. If you move around you quickly realise that there really isn’t a right way or a wrong way of doing things, there’s just different ways - and that realisation can be very valuable. Also, on a personal level, you quickly learn that your professional reputation is the most valuable thing that you have, and that you need to protect it by refusing to engage in unethical behavior, and also enhance it by continually upgrading your skills. From a company point of view, if you’re having a high turnover of professional staff, you can lose your company’s technical brain trust or legacy. For instance, Gulf built up some world-class arctic expertise in the 70’s and 80’s, and that expertise has nearly vanished, through layoffs, through attrition, and because of some short-term focus by the company. And so here we are today, going through the same learning curve again!

[Satinder]: What differences in work culture did you perceive as you moved from Crestar to Gulf to Conoco?

I’ll get a chance to edit this, right? No, seriously, I think the differences I’ve experienced can mainly be explained by both the size of company and its corporate history. Crestar was only in existence for about 9 years and so it had a culture that was driven by the need to optimize existing properties, meet short-term production targets and therefore had a hurry-up and get it done approach.

Abhi Manerikar

Gulf, in contrast, was around for nearly 100 years, had successfully explored in Western Canada, in the Arctic and on the East Coast, as well as internationally. Due to recent financial difficulties, the short-term focus at Gulf had been to optimize production and cashflow, but the exploration focus was much longer-term. I can’t say that the Crestar acquisition had really been digested before the Conoco deal occurred.

My employment at Conoco has really only just begun, so it’s too early for me to comment on how it compares to my previous positions.

[Oliver]: In your career you’ve moved from the technical role of an interpreter to more of a managerial position. How do you feel about that?

Well, it’s good and bad. I really do love the science of geophysics, the detective work that goes into prospecting, and miss that aspect of the job. As exploration manager, I’m lucky to have a very talented team of people to work with, and learn from. I also find the frontiers a very intriguing place to explore, with a myriad of technical and operational challenges to overcome. For me, both being back on the steep learning curve and having the opportunity to be part of a team in fascinating geologic areas are ideal.

[Satinder]: What do you think are the essentials of a good manager?

Three things: communication, communication, communication!

[Satinder]: But those are all the same! When you picture an effective manager you may imagine a person with strong interpersonal skills, or a very skilled orator....

[Oliver]: Well that is communication.

Well, I was kind of kidding, a play on the real estate agents’ “location, location, location” thing. Of course there are other aspects to being a good manager. For instance the ability to get people to make the most of their strengths and work on improving their weaknesses - that’s a very tough thing to do, and I don’t pretend to be an expert or even particularly adept at it. I’m a strong believer in teamwork and the way that great teams complement each other.

[Oliver]: Brilliant individuals, combining passion and obsession, are the ones pushing the boundaries, often by either questioning or ignoring conventional wisdom. What would you do to keep such talent within the company?

That is a really tough one! You’re absolutely right, it’s those kind of rebels, those kinds of geniuses who are the ones who come up with the revolutionary new ideas that can make a huge positive difference in a company, and yet perversely companies naturally tend to push out non-conformists.

[Oliver]: They move towards a homogenized work force. People tend to group with like-minded people.

Exactly. It’s really tough to create an environment that can accommodate those types of individuals, nurture them, without upsetting the mainstream corporate culture. As a manager, the ideal situation would be to have everyone do whatever they are most passionate about, or interested in, and be able to orchestrate the results into the bottom line that the company needs. That would be a fabulous work environment to be in!

[Oliver]: Sometimes it’s the other way around, you need to protect the other employees from the “geniuses”!

Yeah, you’re right!

[Oliver]: When I think Conoco, I think Vibroseis. Are there other techniques and technologies that Conoco is known for?

Well, yes. In a general sense, while we’re big, we’re still very much driven by technology and innovation. We’re one of the few big US oil companies that still maintains a full scale R & D effort.

[Oliver]: Is that out of Ponca City? Do you interact a fair amount with them?

Yes, Ponca City, and yes I think we will interact with them a lot. Not in a formal sense, it’s more like we define a technical challenge and present it to them, and then they’ll work with us and help us solve it.

[Satinder]: Problem-oriented R&D.

Yes. But to get back to your question, one high profile area where Conoco is a leader is in deep water drilling. We have a drillship the Pathfinder, which can drill in up to 10,000 feet of water depth. From a geophysical perspective, much of the R&D effort has been focussed on Gulf of Mexico type problems like AVO and AVA, full 3D depth migration as well as fluid prediction and pressure prediction.

[Satinder]: The problems researchers are tackling now are a lot narrower than those of 50 or 100 years ago. Why is that?

I’d have to say that it’s mainly because back then geophysics was an emerging field with lots of unknowns, whereas now, for better or worse, it’s driven by economics. Geophysical research is largely focused on solving specific problems preventing oil and gas companies, or mining companies, from fully realising their assets’ economic potential. That can clearly be seen in the universities. Consortia are formed, like CREWES, in the hope of offering solutions to companies, which will then be motivated to sponsor or participate in the consortia.

[Satinder]: What novel interpretation techniques do you recommend? Of course that would depend on the objective at hand, say delineation of thin sandstone reservoirs, determination of porosity zones, reservoir compartmentalization, etc.

I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t think there are any ‘tricks’. It’s not a novel technique, but I think you have to make sure your geophysical interpretation agrees with your hard data, like outcrops and well information. I’m also a believer in using multiple working hypotheses, rather than converging quickly to the ‘right’ answer. You begin with multiple geological models, and then you see which ones your geophysical interpretation does or does not agree with. You work with your geologist, you iterate, but ultimately it must make geological sense. You also need to have an eye on whether it makes geophysical sense: Is that thin bed really resolvable with my frequency content? Does that porosity really change my impedance enough to be observable? Is that really an AVO effect or is it actually due to RNMO?

[Oliver]: I’ve heard interpreters say that they’ve seen partners’ geophysical interpretations of foothills seismic that looks good, but geologically it doesn’t make sense; the physical model may not work, or the volumes of rock don’t add up, like the palinspastic reconstruction doesn’t work, there’s too much or too little Mississippian or whatever. I think what you’re saying is just this, at every level, not just large scale agreements like that - the geophysical interpretation must match geology or else it’s just fantasy.

Yes. It’s not what you’d call novel, but that’s my answer!

[Satinder]: Reservoir characterization is a buzzword these days. How much are we doing to really characterize a reservoir?

I have a problem with the term reservoir characterization - it seems everyone has their own definition. If you ask a reservoir engineer, they will talk about the characteristics of the reservoir as it relates to production behavior, a geologist might talk about depositional environments or the effects of porosity enhancement or destruction in thin-section. A geophysicist might think of it in terms of the wavelet response and the physical morphology of the reservoir.

[Satinder]: But what are the main challenges facing effective reservoir characterization? Where are the advances to be made?

One really big obstacle at the seismic end of things is the lack of resolution. We’re getting 70 or 80 Hz, 10m resolution max, but when you’re talking about reservoir characterization with engineers you’re talking resolution requirements in the centimeters.

[Oliver]: That’s not achievable with surface seismic....the near surface is a filter. I think you have to look towards technologies like cross well tomography.

[Satinder]: Yes, but that has one big drawback, and that is it’s only giving you a 2D slice.

[Oliver]: Well there are 3D VSP’s being acquired.

[Satinder]: What do you consider the “hot” areas of research?

Depth migration, definitely. It’s becoming a necessity anywhere there’s structure, like out here in the foothills - also in plays like sub-salt. I think that as computer power increases, pre-stack depth imaging will become affordable and routine, even in basins with flat stratigraphic plays like in the WCSB. Ultimately all geophysical interpretations need to be converted to depth, so why not move that step earlier in the process, especially since it is more accurate from a theoretical point of view?

Abhi Manerikar
Editors in conversation with Abhi Manerikar.

Another big field of research is the whole shear/converted/time lapse area. All that is showing great promise in delivering way more in terms of the reservoir characterization we talked about earlier, telling us what the rock properties, and maybe even what the lithologies actually are, and perhaps what fluids they contain.

[Satinder]: How about seismic visualization? Big 3D volumes are now being interpreted on workstations - sliced, diced, turned every which way. Visualization adds an additional aspect to that, with today’s “visionariums”. How much does that help?

I’m really not sure. The interpretation is still being done essentially by individuals on their personal workstations. However, these large visualization rooms do add something. First of all, they improve communication - you get a whole exploration team together in a room, looking at the same thing, a fully integrated data volume. The fact that all of the data is available at the team’s fingertips means that any questions that come up can be answered right away. Also, in highly structured areas with lots of faults, visualization allows you to really see what the prospect looks like, how the faults interact with the reservoir, and where the potential lies. In general, it tends to force a gathering of people and data, and promotes communication. And that’s a very positive thing.

[Oliver]: Satinder, I try to ask some of your questions, but this next one is really tough! I graduated and entered industry the same year as Abhi, and this question makes us sound like old geezers, but I’ll give it a go! Abhi, having experienced success in industry yourself, what message do you have for young entrants?

Let’s go for a beer! No, seriously, I would say that it’s a good idea to have as broad a base of knowledge as possible in geophysics, geology, engineering, computer science and business and combine that with a curiosity about everything including all of the stuff ‘that everyone knows’.

[Oliver]: Well, how about this? I remember back when I graduated, 1984. Oil companies were just cutting back on hiring. I had expected to work for an oil company, but circumstances dictated a job with a service company. By 1986 Calgary was a bloodbath in terms of geophysics job opportunities. At the time I felt very unsure of myself. Having gone through some highs and lows, what sort of advice do you have to new grads, or kids just deciding on what to take in university? Would you do it differently if you could go back in time?

Absolutely not. I’ve had a blast so far. I’ve experienced a really interesting and challenging career, and I see good prospects for young geophysicists.

[Satinder]: What are your future aspirations as an explorationist?

I’m really not looking too far ahead at the moment. There’s been so many changes over the last year or so, and so many interesting challenges in the immediate future, that medium or long-term goals aren’t that relevant right now! I’m really focused on doing some good things with Conoco in our frontier regions, and I’m sure that will bring more than its share of excitement, challenge, and reward; beyond that, we’ll see.

[Satinder]: What hobbies and pursuits do you enjoy outside of work?

I enjoy working out at the gym, cross-country skiing, playing hockey, and wandering around in the mountains.

[Oliver]: Whenever Satinder asks that question I can’t help giggling! He told me that when he was still at ONGC in India he worked for a similar geophysical society journal. Anyway, when Oz Yilmaz was there he interviewed him. Dr. Yilmaz said that he loved geophysics. Then Satinder asked this “hobbies” question. Oz answered that in his spare time he worked on geophysics. So Satinder, hoping to draw out some interesting personal aspect of the famous geophysicist, asked him what he did in his spare time when he wasn’t working on geophysics. The answer was, “I think about geophysics.”

[Satinder]: Yes, Oz Yilmaz is an absolute geophysics addict! But I believe every person needs balance in life.

I agree totally.


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