“Practice the full breadth of geophysics”

An interview with Bob Hardage

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Bob Hardage

Bob Hardage is well-known the world over as a leading authority on VSP. He gained a rich experience in this technology while working at Phillips Petroleum, where he joined in 1966. He published his first book on VSP in 1983, which is now in its third edition. Besides VSPs, Bob was one of the architects who established the worldwide network of seismic stratigraphic interpretation sections at Phillips Petroleum, soon after the concept was introduced by Peter Vail and others in 1975. Bob went on to publish his second book, on seismic stratigraphy, in 1987. In 1988, Bob moved to Western Atlas where he was instrumental in creating a business division for providing downhole seismic services. His third book, on crosswell seismology and reverse VSP, was published in 1991.

Bob now works at the Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas at Austin, where he has established his Exploration Geophysics Laboratory, which focuses on 3D seismic technologies for providing meaningful information about reservoir geometry and petrophysical characteristics. Besides his work-related responsibilities, Bob has volunteered his time in the SEG and other related activities. He was an Assistant Editor and the Editor of Geophysics, co-editor of the SEG book on ‘Reservoir Geophysics’, the former chair of SEG Publications Committee, and presently is the Editor for the Geophysical Corner in the AAPG Explorer, amongst other roles. Bob has published many technical papers focusing on seismic stratigraphy and 3D applications. Amongst the many awards that Bob has received for his varied services, the prominent ones are the SEG Life Membership award (2003), SEG Honorary Membership award (2007), and SEG Certificate of Appreciation in Recognition of Significant Service. Bob is the 2009 SEG/BEG Distinguished Lecturer and was in Calgary to deliver his talk on Nov. 18, 2009. We seized the opportunity to sit down with Bob and engage him in a conversation. Following are the excerpts from that meeting.

(Photos courtesy: Joyce Au)

Bob, let’s ask you about your educational background and your work experience.

I went to a small rural school in Eastern Oklahoma and then attended Oklahoma State University where I majored in physics. I stayed at OSU 10 years and got three degrees – Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D. After receiving my Ph.D. degree, I went to work for Phillips Petroleum Company and was with them 23 years. I left Phillips in 1988 and went to Western Atlas where I was Vice President of one of their Divisions and stayed there until 1991. I then went to the Bureau of Economic Geology, and I have been at the Bureau 18 years now.

So you got all your degrees in physics? Why did you switch from physics to geophysics?

My research in physics dealt with micro-meteorite impacts on space vehicles. That research caused me to go to Goddard Space Flight Center several times and interact with NASA and some of their contractors. When I completed my Ph.D., I interviewed with two defense contractors who impressed me and with two Oklahoma-based oil companies – Sinclair and Phillips. I decided to go to work for Phillips. I was the first Ph.D. they hired in their Geophysics Research Branch. I knew little about geophysics and began to take geology courses from the University of Tulsa. I completed enough courses to get a Masters Degree, but I never wrote a thesis, and so I have no geological degree. Without studying geology, I would have been a poor geophysicist.

That’s very creditable. If I were to ask you to list three qualities that reflect Bob’s personality, what would they be?

First, I would start with my work ethic. I grew up in Eastern Oklahoma in a rural area where many people were migrant farm workers. Our school had all 12 grades, but only about 10 kids per grade level. I grew up doing things that migrant farm labor people did – handpicking cotton, baling hay, harvesting wheat, loading watermelon trucks, and so forth. This work was hard, physical activity that required long work days, and I have kept that work ethic all of my life. In almost every college class I took there were people in the class smarter than I was, but I would outwork them and usually end up with the better grade.

Second, I have tried to never leave any unhappy people behind me. Every place I have worked I have tried to have good relationships with colleagues, with people who reported to me, and with people that I reported to. I have always thought that some day I would probably be working for someone who worked for me at some time, so I better be a reasonably benevolent boss to everyone. I have tried to treat all people fairly, regardless of whether they were a colleague or were reporting to me.

Third, I have tried to be ethical in everything that goes on in life. I have certainly made mistakes through ignorance, carelessness, or lack of attention, but I have never done anything that was knowingly an unacceptable ethical practice.

Very interesting. You went from Phillips Petroleum to Western and from Western to Bureau of Economic Geology. Tell us how you decided to make each of these moves.

Phillips was one of the first oil companies to do serious downsizing, which involved three staff reductions and reorganizations over a two year period in the mid-1980s. When the third downsizing came, I was Exploration Manager for Asia and Latin America. I was told that I would have to leave the company, so I quickly accepted an offer from Western Atlas to manage their new Borehole Seismic Division. Interestingly, two days after Phillips told me I was to be severed from the company, the Human Resources people came to me and said there had been a mistake. They wanted me to stay with the company and be Chief Scientist of Exploration and Production. I thanked them for the offer, but said I intended to honor my commitment to accept the offer from Western Atlas.

I worked at Western Atlas three years. I reported to Walter Fertl, president of Atlas Wireline, and Walter and I had a great relationship. When Walter died, his replacement and I were not compatible, so I decided to leave. There was an opportunity to go to the Bureau of Economic Geology, and Susan and I decided we would go to Austin where I could step away from several years of management jobs and return to my research roots. I have now been a researcher at the Bureau for 18 years.

Bob and Satinder

What do you have to say about how your career has shaped up?

I am pleased with my career. Things have worked out far better than I really deserve. Any two people can be in the same working environment, and one will be happy and the other unhappy. I have decided to be a happy and contented person in any work environment where I am. As I was growing up as a farm boy I would never have dreamed I would be doing what I am doing today, that I have been able to visit the parts of the world that I have, and that I would have a worldwide network of colleagues and friends. It is quite a step from the cotton fields of Eastern Oklahoma to an annual SEG meeting where I cannot walk 50 feet without having to stop and chat with a friend from another country.

Looking back at your geophysical career, would you like to share with us one or two of your most exciting successes?

My role in getting vertical seismic profiling started as a world-wide service and in demonstrating VSP applications to many companies has provided great satisfaction.

I was also fortunate to be involved in the early evaluation of the giant Ekofisk Field that Phillips found as the first offshore oil field in Norwegian waters. I began going to Norway back in the 1970s when there were only four exploration wells drilled on the structure and we were just beginning to understand the magnitude of the discovery. I was able to get in on the early-stage exploration and development of the greater Ekofisk area and to stay involved for several years. Some of the earliest demonstrations of VSP technology were done across the greater Ekofisk area.

Today, something that brings me great pleasure, and even excitement, is the Exploration Geophysics Laboratory that I manage at the Bureau. I am now able to develop multicomponent seismic technology. It has taken me years to get to this point where I can do the things in multicomponent seismic research that we are now doing at EGL.

I know you are regarded as an authority when it comes to VSPs and other areas, but I wanted to hear from you – what according to you is your most important contribution to geophysics?

I guess that would have to be the impetus that I gave to develop vertical seismic profiling in the western hemisphere. In the second year of my development of VSP at Phillips, I was fortunate to work with Dr. Evsey Gal’perin, the noted Soviet expert in VSP. Evsey loved to call himself the “Father of VSP”, a correct assessment in my opinion, and he would point to me and call me the “Son of VSP”. I managed to accomplish in the western hemisphere what he was doing in the Soviet sector of the geophysical community.

During the past few years, I feel I have made contributions that are helping small independents apply geophysical technology. Before I came to the Bureau, I had not interfaced with small independents. Now I appreciate the important role they play in the oil/gas business across the U.S. Small independents are most receptive to technology that works effectively and helping them evaluate and apply appropriate seismic technologies has been a great pleasure.

Bob, you achieved so much professionally and of course along with that comes the name and the fame, but now what personal and professional vision are you working towards?

I am concentrating on one broad area – the development and application of multicomponent seismic technology. The mission of the laboratory that I now manage, the Exploration Geophysics Laboratory, is to develop multicomponent seismic technology across all facets of the discipline – testing S-wave source concepts, optimizing P and S field procedures, processing P and S data, using rock physics theory to support data interpretation, and showing applications in oil and gas problems as well as in CO2, geothermal, and hydrate areas.

Well, I’ve been following up on your research efforts starting off with borehole seismology, seismic stratigraphic interpretation, reservoir characterization and as you mentioned just now, multicomponent seismic technology and also hydrate research. Could you tell us in a general sense, apart from the multicomponent that you have already mentioned, about the different problems that you’ve tackled in each of these areas?

In the multicomponent arena, my colleagues and I have focused on depth registration of P and S data and on developing proper rock physics theories that explain P and S reflectivities. Anything you do in the multicomponent seismic world requires that you confront the issue of how to depth register a P-wave image against whichever S-wave image you are utilizing. Depth registering P and S data is an interesting and challenging problem. An equally important requirement is to implement rock physics theories that correctly explain why P reflectivity across a target interval often differs from S reflectivity.

In the deep-water hydrate world, it has been difficult and challenging to understand the physics of seismic wave propagation in the medium that hosts hydrates. Deep-water, nearseafloor sediments have high porosity. Lab measurements of deep-water piston cores show porosity tends to be about 70-percent and higher at the seafloor, and at the base of the hydrate stability zone, several hundred meters below the seafloor, porosity reduces to only 50 percent or so. Also the medium has zero effective pressure at the seafloor, where overburden pressure and pore pressure are the same value. The challenge is to describe rock physics properties and the physics of P and S wave propagation in media that have near-zero effective pressure and extremely high porosity. A new mindset and different modeling concepts are required.

In the area of seismic stratigraphy there are many problems to solve. I began working in seismic stratigraphy literally the week after Exxon researchers introduced the concept at the 1975 AAPG convention. I became Chief Geophysicist of a new group, called the Seismic Stratigraphy Section, that Phillips set up immediately after that AAPG convention. Thus I have been embedded in the science of seismic stratigraphy since the discipline was described by Exxon. Today I am trying to demonstrate that we as a profession have erred by utilizing only one seismic wave mode – the P mode – in our seismic stratigraphy applications. There is such a rich amount of rock and fluid information in the various S-wave modes that can be used to describe geology, that we must expand the science of seismic stratigraphy to the full elastic wavefield.

My next question is about VSPs in seismic exploration. Based on my earlier experience with VSP data I believe the oil companies do not make full use of it. Could you comment on this as well as the current state of the art and future challenges?

I concur with you that there are many VSPs that have been acquired and not properly utilized. People have not taken advantage of the rich amount of information provided by those data. They just put the VSP reports they receive from VSP contractors on the shelf, or file them away, and forget about them.

My philosophy is that a VSP is the most robust measurement that can be made to calibrate sub-surface geology to surface-acquired seismic data. An equal, maybe even more important application of VSP is that the data allow you to understand wave propagation physics across a prospect area. When I teach a VSP school, I have attendees bring VSP reports to the classroom so we can look at the data and discuss the information that can be extracted. What I find time and time again is that only the P-wave mode is analyzed, yet when you look at the raw, unprocessed VSP data, you see a rich amount of shear wave information that has been totally ignored. Whenever I have any opportunity to educate an individual or group about VSP, my message is that they should extract every wave mode, both P and S, contained in the data and that they should image each of these wave modes in both time and depth.

Yes, I think more needs to be done in this area. Let’s come to the multicomponent seismic; it has been demonstrated that it is very useful for imaging through gas clouds and that’s one of the most important applications that is talked about. It is still considered expensive and not commensurate with the benefits that it could yield. How would you comment on that?

Cost justification depends on what your business objectives are. For example, if you are engaged in shalegas or tight-sand gas plays, you find a common factor in almost every prospect area is that there is some kind of embedded fracture system that has to be understood and mapped in order to position wells at optimal locations. Because these fracture systems are better analyzed with S waves than with P waves, the added cost of acquiring multicomponent data is well justified. Using S waves to image through gas clouds is a valuable application of S-wave seismology but it is only one application in a long list of applications. The principal activities we do at my lab are to document the value of multicomponent seismic technology and to build a compelling portfolio of case histories that illustrate these values. I see multicomponent technology developing in the same way that 3D seismic technology did. It took a number of years to get 3D seismic technology to the point where it was considered to be a standard, offthe- shelf commodity. In the early days of 3D use, the only way you could justify acquiring 3D data was in a high capital investment project, which usually meant a field-development effort. Eventually the technology progressed to the point that cost came down and anyone could afford 3D data. I see multicomponent technology following almost the same path. Multicomponent data will first be acquired in projects where the capital investment of a project justifies the cost of multicomponent data acquisition, and eventually multicomponent data will become a standard, off-the-shelf commodity just like 3D data.

What are the directions in which the future R&D world-wide in our Industry is going? I would like your impression on the important developments that people can expect in geophysics. It is an open-ended question of course, but still I would like to have your views on that.

I believe multicomponent seismic technology will become widely used. I hesitate to predict the length of time that will take to transpire, but eventually our industry will be practicing multicomponent seismic technology in much the same way that we now practice 3D seismic technology.

Other areas where I see there will be growth in applying geophysical technology are in projects that evaluate and monitor sequestered CO2 and in programs that analyze geothermal systems. Seismic researchers and contractors need to start looking at what they can do in applying our technologies to CO2 sequestration and geothermal projects in addition to what we are doing now to assist the evaluation and extraction of unconventional resources.

An interesting aspect of your career, which I have really admired, is that you have documented your experience in the form of books as you went along, starting with the book on VSP, then a book on seismic stratigraphy, followed by a book on crosswell seismology. Could you share with us some of your writing experiences, how you decided to write each time and what your philosophy about writing is?

The VSP book got me started of course. I never had the slightest thought that I would ever write a book. The VSP book came to be because a publisher came to me and asked if I would write the book. Usually an author proposes a book to a publisher, but in this case a start-up publisher called Geophysical Press contacted me and asked that I write a book on VSP.

I had been in VSP research only a couple of years at the time, so I was no expert. I was a young guy but fortunately had established a bit of a reputation as a VSP researcher because no one else in the U.S. was involved in VSP studies in the late 1970s. I told my Phillips management that I had been contacted by this publisher to write a VSP book and I planned to turn him down because I did not see how I could find the time to create a book. I then got a second surprise. I was told, “Hold on, that’s a great idea, we want you to make your research objective for the year to write that book.” That unexpected response stunned me. Thus the book was written.

My second book was on the topic of seismic stratigraphy. Again Geophysical Press contacted me about writing a book on that subject, but I did not initiate the book until a particular reason developed that caused me to start writing. As I said earlier, Phillips was going through some serious downsizing in their E&P operations and staff in the mid-1980s. Because colleagues were being laid off, they needed a citable reference to a publication in their resumes which they could use to demonstrate their analytical talent. I contacted Geophysical Press, told them I would write a seismic stratigraphy book, and that I planned to have numerous Phillips colleagues provide background material. The book credits many people at Phillips for their contributions, and I know the book helped many friends and colleagues find jobs after they left Phillips. If Phillips had not undergone these staff reductions, the seismic stratigraphy book would probably not exist.

After I published these two books, I develop a writing bug and I still write often. I offer here a little bit of philosophy about how to write because my writing strategy was emphasized in the 2008 Annual Report issued by the Bureau of Economic Geology. Basically I have to see the story I tell in pictures before I can write the story. As a result, I am constantly making graphics that illustrate concepts and research findings. Fortunately I have access to an excellent Graphics Section at the Bureau, and I keep a good number of those people employed by the graphics jobs I give them. When something has to be written, I dig through my graphic files, lay out a pile of graphics on a table, and start shuffling the pictures around like a deck of cards until I see a possible storyline through the picture sequence. I then arrange the figures in a different way and make a different story. Once I decide which story I want to tell, I put the unused graphics back in the file and start writing text around the graphics I chose. Everyone has their own style of writing. What I have described works for me. It may not work for others.

Bob, you have conducted courses on VSPs, 3D seismic techniques, reservoir geophysics, multicomponent seismology and others – tell us how and why you do this?

Because I have a tremendous library of graphics, it is not too hard to put a course together. Good graphics are probably 80 to 90% of the content required for a course. I benefit from teaching because when I find I cannot explain a principle with easy graphics and simple text, then I really do not understand that principle even though I thought I did. I then know what I need to study to become a qualified teacher of a particular technology. Also when I am teaching a course, I encourage people to ask questions. Every question makes me look at the subject from a different point of view and shows me if I have failed to grasp a principle correctly or fully. Thus teaching is one way that I force myself to continue to grow in technical knowledge.

Another practical reason that I teach courses and workshops is that our research at the Bureau is funded by soft money, not by hard money from the State or from the University. We need industry support for our research studies, and I am able to recruit research sponsors through some of the courses I do. If teaching courses and workshops results in a new research sponsor every one or two years, it is worth the effort.

Certainly. Bob you’ve taught at the Universities also. Please tell us about your university teaching experience.

I do not do classroom teaching at the University of Texas. I could if I chose to, but I devote my time there to fulltime research trying to make my laboratory stronger and to expand our portfolio of multicomponent seismic research projects. I did teach at UT the year after Milo Backus retired. Because UT had no one to teach exploration geophysics when Milo left, I stepped in to teach while a search was done for Milo’s replacement. That year I taught two graduate courses and part of an undergraduate course and also did all my research at the Bureau. It was a tough year. I have also taught graduate courses at UNAM, the large University in Mexico City. These courses have been part of a specialized, accelerated Masters Degree program that Pemex implemented at UNAM for selected Pemex geoscientists. At UNAM I always teach a course that concentrates on VSP and sometimes a course on practical use of seismic attributes.

Bob and Satinder

Tell us about your experiences so far as the 2009 SEG/BEG Centennial Lecturer.

The reason for this SEG-BEG Honorary Lecturer Tour is that this year, 2009, is the Bureau’s 100th birthday. The Bureau was established in 1909 and in celebration of 100 years of scientific research, twelve senior research scientists at the Bureau were asked to be Centennial Lecturers. I let SEG know that if they wished to have any of these 12 lecturers participate in any of the SEG lecturer series, that the speakers were available at no cost to SEG. SEG thought that no-cost offer was attractive, and I have been asked to represent both SEG and BEG at several venues. I offer two topics, one on Expanding Seismic Stratigraphy to the Full Elastic Wavefield, and one on Deep-Water Hydrates. The interest in the two topics has been equally split, and I have given each talk the same number of times (six presentations of each). SEG will digitally record the talks so the general membership can soon dial in and hear either talk if they choose to.

Bob, you have been invited by many universities, companies and professional societies to deliver presentations. Are these requests usually for presentations on particular topics, or are they more general invitations for you to participate as you choose?

It is probably an equal mix of those two things I suppose. Another reason is that the Bureau is well known as a supplier of speakers. It does the Bureau good to be a source of invited speakers because being a soft-money research organization, the more we present ourselves, the more we build an image as an organization where technology-focused organizations should put their research funding.

You have won many awards for your achievements. Tell us which award is most dear to you and why?

That would be the Honorary Membership in SEG. This is the second highest award that the SEG gives and the oldest. The number of awardees is a small crowd. Over the 80-year history of the award, less than 150 people have been named Honorary Members.

Another award I get pleasure from is my Special Commendation from SEG. The reason is that the award was for the work I did to deliver 3D seismic technology to small independents. Small independents are an important segment of our industry. I enjoyed working with independents to transfer 3D seismic technology into their operations and appreciate being recognized for that effort.

You have been actively participating in professional society activities. Tell us about some of these activities and all that you do.

I am a member of only AAPG and SEG. I try to stay rather active in each society. For SEG I have twice been Chairman of the Technical Program for an Annual Meeting and have served on two Executive Committees – once as Editor and once as First Vice President. For AAPG, I have written the Geophysical Corner article for the AAPG Explorer for several years and assisted with a few AAPG workshops.

Okay Bob, let’s switch gears here, and ask you about your interests. What do you do in your free time?

I have grandsons now and they are a pleasure. Susan and I devote as much time as possible to them. We also enjoy the theater and attend many of the Broadway shows that perform in Austin as they tour the country. Because I grew up in a rural area, I became an amateur outdoorsman as a small boy. I have always been interested in fishing, and I fish every opportunity I can. I am fortunate to be close to lakes in Texas where I can fish often. Recently I decided I would try to develop some woodworking skills. I am not too good at woodworking, but I enjoy getting in the shop and playing with power tools. So far I still have all my fingers.

One last question Bob. What would be your message for young geophysicists entering our profession?

Geophysics is a great career. However, young people should enter geophysics with a flexible attitude, because they may have to change locations, companies, and even technical areas. I find too many geophysicists have constrained themselves to only one part of our science. They are either a data processor, or a theoretical person, or an interpreter, and they don’t get involved in topics outside their specialty. I encourage people to try to practice the full breadth of geophysics. That is what I have done. I am not an expert in anything, but I get involved in everything.

You are an expert in many of these things.

I would also encourage young geophysicists to participate in professional societies at both the local and international level.

That’s how you become well rounded geophysicists. Was there any question that you had expected me to ask and I didn’t?

Not a one. This is an impressive list of questions. I believe you’ve done this before!

Yes, I have. Bob, I thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to sit and chat.

My pleasure.


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