An interview with Dr. A. Easton Wren

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Dr. A. Easton Wren

Dr. A. Easton Wren received a B.Sc.(Hons) in Geology and a Ph.D. in Geophysics from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. His professional experience includes positions with Ray Geophysical Company in Libya, the United Nations in Uganda, Amoco Canada and PanCanadian Petroleum in Calgary. He founded Petrel Consultants, has been an Independent Consultant, a former Director of BowLeven PLC., and is recently retired as Exploration Vice President and still a Director of Americas Petrogas Inc., a Calgary company with oil and gas operations in Argentina and a large potash/phosphate project in Peru. He is also on the board of International SoftRock Oil Company with assets in Arizona and Cameroon.

Dr. Wren has lectured at U.S. and Canadian universities and has presented industry-oriented courses in the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, S.E. Asia and Australasia.

He was President of the CSEG in 1981 and received Honorary Membership in 1987. He is the author of several published papers on seismic processing and interpretation and Editor of the 1974 CSEG Journal (after R.B. Cruz in 1973).

In 1987 he was the Distinguished Lecturer for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) and is an active member of SEG, CSEG, and APEGGA. He was the producer and host of CFAC-TV Calgary’s “Science Spectrum” documentary programme.

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

was born and raised in Scotland, went to Glasgow University initially to study Chemistry but after a year I lost interest in the laboratory atmosphere and Geology was an option which took me out of the lab. So I transferred into geology and discovered that I had a real passion for that. I graduated with a Geology Degree and started to look for a job but at that time things were really slow. However, in London I met up with a friend of mine who was working on seismic crews in Libya and he said “have you thought about doing seismic?” I had a professor, a Geophysicist, who had just come out of Shell. He taught a great course on seismic and gravity and I was really interested. He kept asking me about Poisson’s Ratio, and it turned out that he had been a roommate of Otto Koefoed who, in a sense, was the father of AVO. Shortly after I went to Libya working on Robert H. Ray seismic crews and I liked it. I loved the desert, it was clean and quiet. Two years later I went to Uganda in East Africa for a couple of years in mining geophysics and decided that I preferred the oil and gas business. Then, for reasons that don’t matter in this interview, I went back to Glasgow University, did a Ph.D. in Geophysics, finished in 1968 and came to Calgary with Amoco which turned out to be my finishing school. Amoco at that time was the best place I could possibly be in. I had a thoroughly exhilarating time there and benefited enormously from the people that I worked with.

However, in mid 1976 I was to be transferred to New Orleans with a substantial promotion, but the idea of moving family to New Orleans was not attractive. I liked to visit the place, but did not think it a suitable place to live. So I did the honorable thing – I quit Amoco. Not because I wanted to leave but because I didn’t want to face the consequences of being in what they called “the penalty box”. If you refused promotion and a transfer it was a sign of disloyalty. So I quit. The very next day Pete Savage phoned me and said “would you like to come to PanCanadian?”, and I didn’t think about any other options, I just jumped at it. Chief Geophysicist, North America, PanCanadian, wow, why not? But after two years I felt in a rut.

In late 1978 Wes Rabey, whom I had known for many years and I consider to be a dear friend and mentor, kind of caught me at the right time and said “I would like you to start a consulting company here that would go global with geophysics, geology, engineering, a processing centre, strategic planning etc. I started Petrel Consultants in December of 1978 with some good friends of mine, Neil Hutton, who was a VP at Texaco, Don Crane who had been Chief Geophysicist at Pacific, and then the three of us looked around and found bright young men (Derek Gillespie, Bill Clack, Frank Chappel, John Varsek) in the industry and we built a company which certainly by late 70’s was, in terms of the work we did, sort of a standard, an icon in Calgary.

I left Petrel in 1986 to go my own way. Actually, I went on what the Australians call a walk-about. At my age at that time and at that stage of my career I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Was I going to be a consultant, independent, was I going to work for another company, was I going to teach at an academic institution? I taught semesters at the U of C and Mount Royal College. I was still floundering, I don’t mean I couldn’t perform, I really didn’t know where I was going or what I wanted to do and then finally it was a case of settling in to the teaching business, but commercially. I had been giving occasional industry courses for Petrel in the 70’s and into the 80’s and really enjoyed doing that. The flagship course “Geophysics for Geologists” was first given in 1979 and has been given every year since. I was an instructor for GeoQuest, AAPG, SEG, and others. About 15 years ago an Amoco engineer started PEICE (Petroleum Institute for Continuing Education) and I have been teaching for that Calgary organization ever since.

I have done a lot of other things along the way but as far as a career has been concerned since the mid-80s, it has been patch work, it has been different things and to be honest I have enjoyed every minute of it.

Very nice, Easton. Could you elaborate on your stint at Amoco?

Amoco hired me as a geophysicist with field experience and a geological background. I spent a relatively short time working in Alberta and was transferred to the Offshore District where I was the client rep on seismic vessels in Lake Erie, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Grand Banks. We drilled some good gas wells in Lake Erie and eventually sold our interest to Consumer’s Gas of Ontario. We had little luck offshore Newfoundland where we drilled 34 mostly dry holes in partnership with Imperial Oil and eventually farmed out our acreage. Later I moved into the Tech Group which was responsible for local R&D, helping the district people with technical problems, interacting with the other division offices and the lab on research items. Frank Van Humbeck became part of that team and he had great technical abilities.

had an excellent training programme at the Amoco University in Tulsa and I spent a lot of time at the Research Centre and the other division offices. I was very privileged at Amoco in the sense that I was given fairly rapid promotion and also increasing responsibility. And to be honest, I think it had something to do with having a Scottish accent. For some strange reason in North America people like to listen to it. We like other people’s accents, you know that, and so I think in a sense this helped, and also I was egotistical enough to like presenting and telling stories and simplifying things for people in the company.

My good friend Larry Wood, who I consider to be the most complete geophysicist that I have ever known, was a mentor of mine and I see him in Houston still. Like me, he is getting old but he is still healthy and he is still fascinated by seismic. He taught me many things and together we did a lot of things. And of course, you will know the names Larry Wood and Bob Kalweit. They published that paper on the limits of resolution of zero-phase wavelets which I think is still a classic. I know Larry Lines has quoted me on this, when I said, if you went to the lab in Tulsa, it was like going to Hollywood because the names on the doors: Enders Robinson, Sven Treitel, Norm Domenico, and others were all renowned geophysicists. Robinson and Treitel were part of the GAG Group at MIT that formulated deconvolution. There is nothing I could say about Amoco that would not be complimentary.

A. Easton Wren w/ Satinder Chopra
L-R: Satinder Chopra and A. Easton Wren. Books on the table (L-R): 1969 CSEG Photo Directory (1200+ photos and member list) and the 1973 CSEG National Convention Proceedings (Editors: A.E. Wren and R.B. Cruz – both in the 1969 directory).

Tell us about the kind of work you were doing at Petrel Consultants.

I was the President which meant that I had to come up with the focus of the company and delegate these bright young people into various projects that we had. The kind of work I did initially was more management and marketing but I could not ignore the technical innovation we were committed to. I have an old friend in Houston, Mike Graul who is still on the Leading Edge Committee I think. He had worked for Chevron, and we had taught courses together for SEG and AAPG. We met at the 52nd SEG Convention in Dallas in 1982 and he said to me “ you got to go and listen to this guy, his paper is important”.

The speaker was Bill Ostrander. Ostrander opened the door to AVO which my professor had hinted to me years previously because he came out of Shell Research and was already aware of the significance of Poisson’s Ratio. In any event, I came back to Calgary thrilled with this concept that you could look at data pre stack and while this became my passion at Petrel I deliberated on it for a long time. My business partner Don Crane was very nervous about the concept and not happy about the idea of us putting it out to the market. I had an able assistant, a bright enthusiastic young man called John Varsek. John and I sat and talked about this and decided we had to look at pre stack data, had to give it a try, and had to see where it might go with real data examples. John rose to the challenge, coded up some simple software, ran out some models, dug into the literature and became an authority on the concept. When we gave the first paper in Calgary – perhaps May of ‘84 at the CSEG Luncheon – I got hate mail. People wrote letters in those days, and I had dozens of them on my desk basically saying “you have compromised seismic by suggesting that you would not stack data”. That is not what I actually said, but the idea got around that I was saying that stacking is bad, but I didn’t maybe qualify it properly. Many people were asking me “why would you ever want to suggest that you would look at data before you stack it?” On it went, but the rest is history.

So now you are also active as a consultant in some ways?

Not really Satinder, I have certainly been consulting, but fifteen years ago I was invited to join the board of a public oil company in the UK working in Cameroon West Africa. More recently I have been on the boards of two Calgary junior oil companies, both public. One has assets in Argentina and Peru and the other is working in Cameroon and Arizona. So I have moved from the consulting world back into the oil industry and am the exploration member of these boards.

Secondly, of course, the teaching has been a huge part of my career. I like having an audience. I like to spin a story and I don’t mean a fairy tale. I like to make theory simple and obvious. I have always tried to do that and I use analogies that try to simplify seismic.

I have also been an Expert Witness in a variety of different issues; some of these were with the EUB representing companies with sensitive drilling location requests, such as sour gas problems. Others included civil actions, one of them in San Francisco between Nexen and Occidental over a land dispute in Yemen. In cases like this the opposing lawyers try to get you to contradict yourself to compromise your testimony. It is a challenging experience.

And most recently, I am not sure whether you are aware of this, but I was the expert witness for GSI against twenty five oil companies and two Offshore Boards back in November/December. The case focused on the issue of copyright in terms of illegitimate copying of seismic data and transfer with breach of license agreements. My evidence as an expert witness was to explain marine seismic operations and processing to the court and not be involved in the legal issues such as copyright and licence agreements. Since it was a civil action there is only a judge, no jury. You and Penny know well that people outside of our business have very little insight into what our business is. They don’t often know what a geophysicist does.

Tell us about some of the differences you perceive when you see the work being done today in seismic interpretation or for exploration as a whole.

Well, the big difference of course is that everything we worked on in the 70’s at Amoco was on paper sections, logs and maps. We didn’t have a work station. We had diverse responsibilities whereby the geophysicist was assigned an area, had to put out bids for a seismic crew, supervise the crew in the field, hire a processing company on the basis of a bid (and prior relationships), supervise the processing and finally do the interpretation. Since it was all 2D data at the time it was manageable. I had data sets from the Grand Banks that might be several hundred kilometres which was a lot. However, we had technical assistants who did all the plotting for us and we hand contoured the maps. About in 1975 we had machine contouring packages which were rather unsatisfactory. Then in the mid-‘80s the Landmark workstation came along and that changed everything and so today the big difference is the automation, let’s say the visualization.

On 2D to 3D?

On 2D to 3D. So it is an enormous leap. I am not too sure on how I want to put this because I don’t want to sound critical and say I am an old guy and I don’t like the new tools and technologies. That is not the impression I want to convey. I have used Mark Sun’s excellent workstation, EarthWorks, off and on for years. But perhaps today there is too much faith in the workstation. I mean that you can auto pick, then use a mapping package and produce a structure or an isochron map and you could end up with a lot of maps. Most mapping packages are not transparent. When you add in attribute maps we can be snowed under with maps. In wearing my Exploration VP hat and being presented with a prospect I always ask for the key data, both geological and geophysical. I do not wish to see numerous maps which are not relevant to the prospect and the well location.

Then the consequence of this workstation world I think is that our individual capabilities have been reduced, meaning that a young geophysicist today has perhaps never been on a field crew and been confronted by a grizzly party manager. He might also be a bit timid about going into the processing center and communicating with processors and is perhaps really only focused on the finished product that is loaded into the workstation and can then happily do the interpretation.

Many years ago Michael Enachescu’s brilliant young son Vincent told me an interesting anecdote: If the bus stops at the bus station and the train stops at the train station what happens at the workstation? He might have been only 10 years old.

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’ is a quote by Albert Einstein. How important is this in seismic interpretation?

It has to be a bit of both obviously, but we are in the imagination business. The idea that you can visualize or imagine prospectivity in seismic data, given a good sense of the geological background, the idea that you can visualize, imagine and create is really the business we are in because not many people can do that. Now more and more geologists are interpreting seismic on a workstation and they are excellent practitioners. I have always known that geology comes first. We are all in the rock business so I have always been very appreciative of geological input to anything I was doing but I am also a geologist. Imagination versus knowledge? You need the tools and the knowledge to be able to apply to the data to understand the pitfalls and so on, but then creativity and imagination should take over. So it is maybe a two-step process with the imagination coming after the fact, but certainly fundamental.

Do you think new geophysical technologies hold the promise of extraction of more information for characterizing hydrocarbon reservoirs? Have you seen their application for lowering of risk?

Satinder, you deserve a compliment in this context, because you have been, I would say, the most prolific publisher of books and papers in the history of the CSEG. I extend my sincere compliments. And not only have you published prolifically but it is fundamental and brilliant material. You deserve accolades for this. You helped to push the envelope and bring us to the point where we are today. But we are never done, it never stops. There is probably another attribute to the seventy odd that we currently have. Possibly there is a new combination of say three attributes, where you take the cube root of the first times the envelope of the second and divide by the derivative of the third. You know that kind of approach, so it never ends. But I think there are certainly some frontiers that we would like to get to and we’ll get there. One that always frustrated me was the AVO response for oil, and, secondly, how to dig out permeability from seismic data. I see you nodding your head with a confident look. Seriously, things just keep improving and looking back on my career the curve has been really steep and now it’s not quite as steep because it’s getting tougher. But just because it’s tougher doesn’t mean it won’t happen, so I have lots of confidence that we will break the barriers in due course.

You have switched through different companies in your working career. Which company or which stint was the most satisfying and why do you think it was so?

Well, Amoco was certainly the most beneficial and exciting, and then Petrel because they were so different, but they were both places I wanted to be. Amoco was, as I say, finishing school, but I was well educated there by the system; everybody was. And then Petrel is where I had to do it, take advantage of what I knew and then of course, being familiar with the industry by that time, knew people and knew companies and I knew what was happening here. At Amoco I was in a big company and I was sort of oblivious of what was going on outside in terms of the oil price and all kinds of important issues, but at Petrel I had to do it as opposed to just being sheltered in Amoco. So these were the two companies and it would be hard for me to pick one.

Easton, you were the CSEG President in 1981. How do you think the role is different now than what it was for you three-and-a-half decades ago?

In those days it was a small Society. Today it is more than a Society – it is big business. There is a large budget and the Convention is a substantial component of the business. When I was president we had a Convention, we had a budget, but we didn’t have the financial requirements of today. And, of course, 1981 was early days for the National Energy Program. So in that regard it was similar to today. Remember we came through the late 70s into the 80s and the oil price was going supposedly to $100 a barrel and that’s why Pierre Trudeau and Marc Lalonde, the Energy Minister, introduced the NEP to try and get Canada self-sufficient because it wasn’t self-sufficient at that time. They introduced the “made in Canada” policy. Therefore as President of the CSEG I had a similar responsibility to what Rachel has had and what Marian is going to have this year, namely the effect on our industry. Remember that the NEP only affected Canada. Then in 1985 the oil price crashed and Calgary was into “downsizing” and “re-location counseling”. So my responsibility was not just the technical aspect of the CSEG but it was this dark umbrella of the NEP and its effect on the work force. As a consulting company (Petrel), our receivables were maybe three to six months delayed, and to keep the company going and to pay salaries the management of the company stopped taking salaries. We didn’t let anybody go, but we certainly were under pressure. So in summary my Presidency at the CSEG was essentially trying to build morale in a time of gloom and doom caused by the National Energy Program. Consequently, at the monthly technical luncheons I would have a surprise guest speaker who was never announced beforehand and people came, I think, just to find out who the speaker was. They were generally connected to the oil business: Arne Nielson, President at that time of Superior, Cam Sproule of Sproule and Associates, Warner Loven and his colleague Jock Coull from Western Geophysical, etc. The guest would be introduced with others at the Head Table and have the floor for five or ten minutes and that helped. This was followed by the technical presentation.

You have a talk coming up which has the title ‘The Oil Price and Seismic Exploration – A Roller Coaster Ride’. What is your mantra about oil company or service company survival through such low oil prices?

I am going to play with that in the talk. That’s a tough one. First of all guessing about the future is usually a waste of time. When people ask me “What’s going to happen to the oil price by the end of 2016?” I always say “you know I can’t predict, I can look back and see things that have happened but to predict is not intelligent. And the question I ask in return then is “what age you will be when you die?”. There is no answer to that one. I believe it is impossible to predict but I am going to make a stab at it in the talk, so if you want to get the answer you are going to have to show up.

You can always come up with some kind of extrapolation. The way I like to answer the question for people is like this: There are over 3 billion barrels of oil surplus in the industry, and now how much is the demand and how much can you spread it out? And you know what it tells you is that 2016 is probably going to be a wash-out year, it’s not going to change; it’s going to be almost the same. Of course if the geopolitical situation changes there might be changes coming our way.

The story that I will tell looking back will be the fact that the oil price was about a dollar a barrel for about a hundred years. When I joined Amoco in 1968 oil was $1.00/barrel. There was no way anybody could predict $100 oil.

A. Easton Wren

Easton, when you look back on your career spanning four decades, how does it feel? Would you have done anything differently if you were to begin all over again?

Looking back it has been nothing but a great experience here. It has been exciting and depressing at times given the markets. I have had the pleasure of working with absolutely wonderful people and learned a lot from great mentors and coaches. Would I do anything different? Perhaps the timing for some of them would have been different but overall the answer is NO. I am thrilled with the experience I have had here. Coming to Canada that was a huge thrill and, well, you probably feel that way too, living here and being part of the Society has been a great privilege. In addition to my coaches and mentors there were the younger ones that I met and developed relationships with: John Varsek, Mark Sun, Andy Williamson and John Byers come to mind as brilliant and stimulating young men who taught me a lot.

So is there anything in particular that comes to mind if I ask you “What did you like about the oil industry so much that you have remained within its confines?”

In Calgary, the CSEG is the kind of Society that, if you had to invent one, has all the characteristics. We are small enough, we are concentrated enough, and we get to know everybody. There is a community aspect, aside from the technical sharing and the social events. When the Society used to meet at Penleys for the monthly Technical Luncheon there might have been less than two hundred people. Norman Christie, Pete Savage and Roy Lindseth were some of the famous ones who would be there. Many members had been in the armed forces during World War 2 and came to Alberta after the Leduc discovery in 1947. They had found it difficult to settle down in civilian life and the Alberta oil rush was irresistible. In my view these entrepreneurial geophysicists (interpreters and field personnel) built the seismic industry here and I always refer to them as the “Giants”.

The CSEG RECORDER changed to its magazine format in‘85, about four years after you were President. Do you remember what led up to changing it to a magazine publication from the earlier newsletter format?

The Leading Edge had an effect on that. The SEG had obviously decided that the SEG Journal was tending to be a research outlet and a lot of the membership didn’t have any affinity with it. Whereas The Leading Edge had an immediate general appeal.

Light reading material...

Yes, and interesting geophysics articles, Lee Lawyer’s column, people changing companies and obituaries and things like that, so it was a kind of magazine that you pick up and go cover to cover flipping pages although you might not read it all.

So as with The Leading Edge, the RECORDER became very successful; readable, as well as a technical publication that got people paying attention. In general, it was a bit more readable perhaps than The Leading Edge because it was mostly Canadian content.

I checked the CSEG Journal online archive. People like Hagedorn, Anstey, Lindseth, Boyd, Treitel, Lines and Jain, were in the CSEG Journal in the early days.

Some famous geophysicists in there, especially Treitel, and Anstey. I had a close relationship with everyone on that list except Hagedorn.

Nigel Anstey... What an ability to convey things, absolutely fantastic.

What is it you like the most in each issue, what do you read most first?

Well I go through the Index obviously, I am curious about the contents and the luncheon speaker and the title of the presentation. Then I read the Interview. I like this business of somebody telling their story. I said to Satinder before we started, if it is somebody I know then I like to relate to that and say – oh, yes, I remember when you did this and so on. These are good memories.

What would be your message to young entrants in our Industry?

This is the question that I look at in every one of your Interviews. It is difficult to say anything different that hasn’t been said already in all of your previous Interviews. My approach with the young ones that I have had to deal with is simply since you come in with a passion, try and not lose it. Don’t lose heart when things seem difficult or you are given mediocre tasks. The science and technology in this business are incomparable. So my advice to young ones going into anything, not just our business, is be optimistic, be enthusiastic, learn all you can, take every opportunity to get your hands on to the things that are part and parcel of what you need to know. The industry is up and down but it keeps coming back and you are going to have the kind of career in the oil business that you will look back on and say – that was a smart move.

Easton, thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to sit down with you and chat about all these different topics; we appreciate it. Thank you.

Well, my pleasure, I have looked forward to this for a long time and telling one’s story can be a bit embarrassing but thanks for your patience and thanks for the opportunity.


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