“Know what you are responsible for, and deliver more than is expected of you.”

An interview with Don Umbsaar

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Don Umbsaar

Don Umbsaar is an experienced explorationist who has worked in many different basins around the world, including ones in Algeria, Tunisia, Hungary, Romania and Brazil. With his working stints at PetroCanada, AEC / EnCana, Winstar and currently Grand Tierra, Don has had a well-rounded exposure to various plays, and is convinced that newer geophysical techniques are a viable means of characterizing reservoirs. Outside of work, Don likes to be with his family and all are active in their local community church and like to be physically active.

The RECORDER approached Don for an interview, which he very modestly agreed to. Once the interview was underway his initial reticence was replaced with enthusiasm, and the Q and A session resulted in the following interesting exchanges.

(Photos courtesy: Joyce Au.)

Could you tell us about your educational background and your work experience?

Well I attended the University of Calgary and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Geophysics in 1988. At that time jobs were somewhat scarce and I had even considered and applied for a Masters Degree, but Petro Canada offered me a job and I decided to accept it. Actually it would have been quite easy for me to stay in school because I really enjoyed school and work was a new experience for me. I thought that I would get bored working and that I would require some extra mental stimulation. My plan was that I would maybe work for a few years and then when I got tired, or thought I was not learning things or not feeling excited about what I was doing that I would go back to school, but I never did.

You enjoyed your work so much?

Correct. And Petro-Canada turned out to be an excellent place to be a new explorationist. They had a great training program, projects to work on, and people to work with. In the first several years, I was working in Western Canada and was exposed to areas in Northern Alberta, Northern B.C. and Southern Saskatchewan. Later they asked me to participate in the Algeria Team where I worked for 5 years. With some reluctance in 2000, I left Petro Canada and joined AEC where I worked on the Foothills Team in B.C. and Yukon. That was before the merger, and after the merger into EnCana I worked on the East Coast.

In 2005 I went to Winstar, which is a Junior International Company with interests in Tunisia, Hungary and Romania, and then more recently in 2010 I joined Grand Tierra. I am predominantly working in Brazil.

So you had a pretty diverse exposure?

I’d say.

Good. How did you get into Geophysics?

When I was in High School my strengths were in math and the sciences, and I really enjoyed solving the practical physics problems. I was somewhat fascinated by the Newtonian physics: objects in motion, and that you could see an object that seemed to move in a very complex way but describe it with relatively simple mathematics. So I enjoyed those kinds of problems with forces, masses, acceleration, and solving those made me feel like a real scientist. I thought about enrolling in Engineering but then I read a rather simple description of Geophysics and it just seemed interesting to me. Given that I was living in Calgary and I liked that, I thought that I could stay here and live and work in the Oil Patch, so I enrolled in the Geophysics Program. Looking back it seems like one of the more spontaneous and ill informed but better decisions that I have made.

Don, you have spent the last 23 years of your life as a seismic interpreter; is that right?


So, you chose interpretation and not acquisition or processing, how is that?

I would say it’s because that is the kind of work that was offered to me in the beginning, and then I found that I enjoyed it. So Petro Canada invested in me in terms of the training and opportunities that it gave me and so that’s where that direction came from. Also I found it quite motivating, because my Supervisor Neil McKeith was encouraging me. As well, I found that after being involved in some successful exploration projects that I understood how mapping and interpretation and things that I was doing added value. I liked that feeling.

You got hooked on to that and you have been at it since then. Okay, so what were some of the early landmarks in your career that put you on a sound footing in interpretation?

When I think of landmarks I don’t think so much of events as I think of people, and I will call them leaders. A leader is somebody that shows you how to do something and then gives you independent opportunities to do it. Kevin Collings and Wayne Gillis were those kinds of leaders for me, both of them at Petro Canada. Kevin gave me opportunities to work on interpreting 3D data on Keg River Reefs and although 3D wasn’t cutting edge at the time it was not commonplace for exploration projects. Kevin showed me what he did, how he worked, what he looked for in the data, and then gave me an independent project area that I worked on. It was a fabulous experience.

And then with Wayne Gillis, he mentored me while we were working together on a large regional 2D interpretation project in Southern Saskatchewan. Although we had workstations doing line tying was not part of a standard toolbox. Wayne had developed his own creative solution using GRITS, which was a PC-based program where we tied the lines for phase and amplitude, and then we loaded them into Landmark. I found this really inspiring. He inspired me to look for creative solutions and to make better maps and better interpretations. It also really encouraged my confidence in working with large 2D data sets and data uncertainties.

What has been your most challenging project?

I am going to divide that into technical challenges and personal challenges.

So, technical challenges are the ones where you may be lacking something that you need to do the work, and that’s typically either time, or data, or both. But I don’t think technical challenges are the most demanding.

Personal challenges are the ones where you find yourself in some type of conflict, and a few times I have been asked to work on projects that were corporate obligations. So I knew before I even started working on the data that the company had no real interest in pursuing further exploration. But I was obligated to do my interpretations, make my maps and document my results. I found this really difficult to stay motivated since I never really felt that I was adding value or even minimizing losses. Corporate obligations are typically not well supported and they simply feel thankless.

So with the technical challenges that you mentioned, you mean if you need a particular tool and you don’t have that?


And some of the projects are like that?

Yes, I simply didn’t have the data that I really wanted, or needed, to give what I considered a quality interpretation. So you tend to compensate for it by managing it as a risk. I’d say, well, if we can’t gather the data that we need, then we’d have to risk it appropriately.

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

There are several qualities, but I can think of two attributes that I think are more essential to exploration, and the first one is the ability to listen and to integrate the ideas of other people.

Because in exploration we are often dealing with very large uncertainties, it means that most often we get it wrong. I find that opinions and suggestions of other people are really helpful. In particular, the Geologists and Engineers often ask very good, probing questions and they cause me to go back and look at the data and to look for answers. Most often this results in me building more confidence, either confirming and building confidence in my interpretation or identifying other risks that I hadn’t really considered. And even that adds value, because even if you can’t minimize a risk then you are aware of it and maybe able to quantify it.

A second attribute that comes to mind is courage. And this is somewhat linked to the first one. Again, because we are dealing with big uncertainties in exploration projects, it takes courage to make your recommendations to invest money. After you have invested a certain amount of technical work, at some point you have to make a decision and make direct recommendations. That may be to stop, to proceed, to gather more data, but you will have to make a decision. And very often you don’t have, or you never have perfect data. So I find that making recommendations along with the associated risks and uncertainties takes courage. And for some of these projects it can take months or years for them to come to fruition so it can feel like a long time if you are championing your convictions. If I had to choose only one answer it would be that I wish I were a better listener.

True. Whatever you said so far, you seem to have done a lot of work on international projects rather than the domestic ones. Is that a preference or is it just that the work came along like that? Would you like to comment on that?

Actually there is a little bit of both, but I do very much enjoy the variety of working in different basins. I enjoy learning about the different petroleum systems and I find that the more structural styles and depositional environments that I am exposed to, the broader my interpretations become.

Any favorite basins?

I can’t say I have a favorite basin. I did think that some of the really neat structures I saw on the East Coast were quite fascinating and good data quality as well. Culturally, I also am somewhat of a cautious traveler but I still enjoy learning about the different cultures and learning to appreciate their different life styles.

Don and Satinder

In the last 11 years of your professional life you worked on projects in Algeria, Tunisia, Hungary, Romania and Brazil. So how are these basins different and based on your experience, could you tell us a little bit about each one of them?

I’ll try. Actually in my project areas in Algeria and Tunisia there are a lot of similarities. I worked the Illizi Basin in Algeria and the Ghadames in Tunisia, which are loosely connected by a hinge, and they even share the same type of Silurian source rocks. Both basins are characterized by a long history of multiple subtle tectonics. The faults and fractures appear to be almost vertical, and because they are subtle they are also difficult to correlate but they are critical for the timing, migration and trapping of hydrocarbons. Data quality is strongly linked to the surface so it’s variable in terms of what you find in the Sahara Desert.

My project areas in Hungary and Romania were both part of the Pannonian Basin, which is, in my mind, a series of interconnected sub basins. It is strongly extensional, and it is a very young basin. Probably the older rocks you find might be Cretaceous but most things are predominantly Miocene or younger. And it has a lot of syn-depositional faulting, so you end up with challenges in terms of lateral correlations, which are difficult. Seismic events do not carry on for long distances. It’s predominantly gas prone, but one of the fabulous things is that it has great seismic data quality; I think it’s excellent.

Most recently, I am working in the Reconcavo Basin in Brazil and it’s a failed rift system so it bears some similarities to styles in the Pannonian Basin. Reconcavo has a long history of exploration - the first production was found there back in 1939, but I would consider the basin semi-mature. There is plenty of room still for additional things to be found. Again, it’s extensional with a series of high ridges and then interconnecting depressions that are in-filled with what looks like complex inter-fingered clastics. There is both oil and gas in Reconcavo.

Don, do you think new geophysical techniques hold the promise of extracting more information from the seismic data in terms of characterizing the hydrocarbon reservoirs? Do you use them in your interpretation to lower the risk?

I am convinced that some of these new techniques are a viable means of characterizing reservoirs and I have used AVO, coherence, curvature, and spectral decomposition on a number of different projects with reasonable amounts of success. What I find is that the attributes are able to highlight more subtle details than I would interpret from the regular seismic data. So it has a means of filtering out things that are subtler than the interpreter would see by eye. So when the quality and quantity of data is sufficient, then I do make use of these for both exploration and development.

That is good. For generating prospects, what has been your strategy that you may have followed? And tell us something about how you typically go about interpreting a project.

My starting point is usually a discussion with the Geologists where we will talk about the petroleum systems, the tectonics, depositional environment, trapping styles that you can expect and main horizons that would be most useful to map. Then I need to ground everything with the well data – so I will make some synthetics, and I look for the consistency of the response for the reflectors of interest. Then I will start interpreting and do a coarse grid of seismic between the well points. I will often make preliminary maps, contour maps, even with the coarse grid, so I can see how trends may be developing. I usually interpret my horizons first and later go back and interpret faults.

As far as depth conversion goes, I like to apply a couple of different methodologies, just to look at the range of uncertainties so I use average velocity maps, or I also like velocity functions, where you plot time depths. I find Excel charting is a really useful thing for that, because you can even extract things like polynomials that give you a velocity function, which you can then apply for depth conversion.

Then the next step is usually if you find some anomaly of interest, to review it with the Geologist. At that point, the main questions are usually about how big could it be. That usually requires making some additional maps so you can get an idea of the size range, the possibilities of size, P10, P50, P90 inputs for the rock volume.

You seem to be conversant with a range of software interpretation software packages. So tell us which ones you like the best and why?

Although I used multiple ones, I find it difficult to stay current on very many. More recently, in the last several years, I have used Kingdom. There are a number of things I like about it.

Firstly I like that it’s integrated software, so you can work on the same project with the Geologists and Geophysicists, there are no difficulties with data sharing. I find that the mapping and gridding, particularly the grid editor, are very good. As well, the 3D auto picker, I think is excellent. In the past, having worked on Landmark, I have to say I appreciate its versatility and I liked, in particular, the flexibility of how you could manage 2D misties on Landmark.

And what other software’s have you used apart from Landmark and Kingdom?

I used Seis-X and Petrel. Some are more intuitive than others.

You have interpreted 2D and 3D data and I notice 2D forms a bigger percentage of the data that you interpreted. Any special reason for this or was it just the way it came to you?

That’s simply what was available in the project areas that I was working; it was predominantly 2D data.

Is this because some of these basins are not commercial or is the reason that because once it reaches a mature stage it’s under development, and then you start using 3D? Or perhaps you have predominantly used 2D for exploration purposes?

I wouldn’t say that the basins were non-commercial just less developed. For instance, in Algeria, there had been very little 3D data ever shot in the entire country. In the remote areas it (3D) is just something that hadn’t been applied yet, at that time.

That’s good information. Don, based on what we have heard, you have been a very successful interpreter. Tell us, what does it take to become one?

I have to think about my answer again.

A couple of critical things come to mind. One is the ability to conceptualize the larger scale deposition models and structural styles while you are interpretating the data. And this is particularly of use when you are interpreting the 2D data. You need to be able to understand what could be in between the gaps, between lines, and not just allow the workstation to interpolate or correlate between those gaps. You need to consider if what you are doing, what you are interpreting, really fits with a viable model.

The second thing is to make multiple maps using the same data. This is important because that’s the input for volumetrics. It’s what you use for the reserve calculations, and it requires some creativity. At times it feels like you are doing something that isn’t really efficient, but it is effective; and it helps you also to understand the data uncertainties.

Let’s get away from the technical aspects – what influences you and your work?

Relationships. My relationships with God, my family, my friends, my coworkers, the things in people that I love or fear have the strongest influence in my life.

Could you elaborate a little more on that?

On the last statement or on the whole thing?

On the whole thing. Let’s hear a little more. That was too brief an answer.

Very often, how a person works depends even on how they feel about themselves, so then, whether you are getting encouraged by others and motivated by others has an impact on what you do.

As well, we work, at times, to please someone. And when you are working to earn the affirmation, or to win the approval of someone, it also has another influence on your work. If you honour and esteem the person that you are working for, you are motivated to do good work for them. So that’s where relationships come into play.

There is a certain amount of creativity that is required for doing effective seismic interpretation. Do you agree with that statement?

Yes, I agree with that statement.

Well, do you think seismic interpreters lack creativity? What is required to be creative?

Well, I don’t think anybody lacks creativity, but I do think that our culture suppresses it. Creativity requires thinking. Thinking requires time. Our culture does not value meditation and reflection. Our culture values productivity and action. So if you want to be creative you need to make it a priority to set aside time simply to think.

I also think that creative people work from their heart, so if your heart is not fully engaged in what you are doing then you will not be creative.

Very good point. Please continue.

And, I suppose that comes back to what I do, and what I like to do.

When I see things where I have been successful and came with creative solutions it’s because it was something I had really been working on, and really enjoyed doing, and wanted to find that solution.

Good. Don, if I were to ask you for your off-the-cuff assessment, how would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 – 10 in terms of first communication skills? Let’s go one by one.

Well I think my communications skills are excellent. I try to make the best I can of getting the idea across to my coworkers and people I am with.

All right, so would you give yourself what?

An 8 out of 10.

Willingness to admit mistakes?

I rate myself as a 9 out of 10.

Extemporal speaking?

When I think of extemporal speaking, or thinking on my feet, it is not my strong point and I will say 4 out of 10.

It’s not mine also. What about the tricks of the trade? Or maybe I should phrase it as technical awareness?

Although I try to stay current and do a fair amount of personal reading, I still think there is a lot to learn and I will say 6 out of 10.

So that takes you way up the ladder you know. What has been your philosophy towards your professional growth? Obviously with experience one gains more knowledge and application of that knowledge helps in the profession, but still there needs to be a certain strategy in place so that you keep ahead of the game. So what has been yours?

In the past I was definitely more passive about this when I started in the Industry, and likely that’s because I associated professional development with taking formal courses, and the corporation always organized this for me. So it was relatively easy to attend the programs that were organized for me. As I became older I was more involved in asking for the courses that I wanted and thought that I needed, but I also broadened my perspective to include not just professional development but personal development. I realized that I couldn’t compartmentalize my life, and things that I was learning in my personal life had great application in professional life as well.

So my current philosophy, if you will, towards it is that formally I still attend some courses and conventions and try to read as much as possible to stay current, informally I also associate change with growth in that the times when I have grown the most are times when I either initiated change or I was forced to adapt to a change. So although change is hard, it is also a necessary part of growth.

In terms of courses, I will be attending a course at this upcoming SEG - I am going to the Convention down there, so that’s an example of a formal one where I am still involved.

In terms of informal things and this is personal development, I have seen a lot of applications for instance even with my family as in how I learn patience dealing with children, and how can that apply and help me in my interaction in the office.

That is important, because at the family front, if there is harmony then you work much better in the office. I fully endorse that.

I suppose another example is learning to understand yourself, and how you work, and how you work best. For instance: eliminating bad habits, or how you deal with stress. Understanding what are the helps and hindrances – these are all part of personal development.

What is your recipe for busting stress?

Mostly exercise.

Good. Do you also go jogging; is that an exercise?

Actually I am not a runner. No, I do like to stay active and my preference is for cycling, backcountry skiing, and I do some rock climbing and mountaineering.

Don, you are a registered member of APEGGA, right?


Why did you think it was necessary for you to become a member of APEGGA?

At the time when I finished University it was very easy to apply to be a member in training and it only seemed very logical to me. If I wanted to use the designation of Professional Geophysicist and comply with the law, I would apply to be a member. Along with that, I do think that APEGGA has some valid goals. Most jobs require the workers to have certain qualifications and to follow instructions, and I think that we can do the same. I also appreciate that APEGGA has standards for conduct and that the cornerstone of it is ethics; well not so much ethics actually, it is integrity.

You are aware that we only have about a thousand Geophysicists who are members of APEGGA but I think the population of Geophysicists in Calgary is a lot more. So there are people who are not members of APEGGA at present so by way of this question I am just trying to explore, why is it that other people are not becoming members? These interviews are a chance to air some reasons why is it important to become members of APEGGA, so your comments will probably help in this regard.

Don you seem to be having a flare for languages. You converse in English, French, German and Spanish – four languages. Now that you are working with Brazil data, you must be visiting that country, any plans to learn Portuguese?

Well, let me say that conversing in these is probably too strong a word, but I will give you some history of this.

The history of this is I think I inherited some of that attribute from my parents – the ability in languages. At quite a young age my brother and I were somewhat forced into taking German lessons and French was part of the Standard School Curriculum at the time. I never really used those languages so much until I started working in Algeria and then I found that the French was really useful and it improved dramatically through travel and visits there and extra study.

So did it come back when you wanted to converse in French?

Oh yes. The French had come back from High School days and then I was adding to it and improved a lot.

And Spanish?

Well, Spanish is a more recent addition of something that I have taken up. So I am a beginner in that one and I opted to study the Spanish only because it is more widely applicable than Portuguese or more widely spoken. But I do have to say that I enjoy being able to communicate in other languages, and I find it even exhilarating.

So you are able to find the time to pursue these languages.

I make the time.

Good. What are your other interests?

My family is my priority for sure. I have a wonderful wife and three great teenagers. We are all quite active in our local community church and asides from that I do like to be physically active.

What would be your message for young entrants into our Industry? And we will also pick out the title from this interview for that.

Well, I think I will keep this one short and it is to know what you are responsible for, and deliver more than is expected of you.

Very good, that is the secret of your success.

There are probably multiple things, but it’s a factor!

On that note Don let me thank you for giving us this time to sit down and chat with you. It has been a pleasure. So thank you very much.

Thank you, it has been a pleasure, and an honour actually.


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