An interview with Fred Hilterman

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Fred Hilterman

Fred Hilterman is a familiar name in the geophysical industry. After his ten-year stint with Mobil, Fred joined the University of Houston in 1973 as Professor of Geophysics. While at UH, he co-founded the Seismic Acoustics Laboratory (SAL) as Principal Investigator till 1981. He then co-founded Geophysical Development Corporation (GDC) where he still serves as Vice President of Development. Fred has served as SEG as President (1996-97), Associate Editor of Geophysics, Chairman of TLE Editorial Board, Distinguished Lecturer and both Technical and General Chairman of SEG Annual Meetings.

On April 11, 2001 Fred was in Calgary to deliver the SEG/EAGE sponsored 2001 Distinguished Instructors Short Course on Seismic Amplitude Interpretation. The RECORDER grabbed this opportunity to talk to Fred about his long experience in the geophysical industry. Fred (along with his wife (Kathi)) was kind enough to give a part of his time and share with us his experiences. The following are the excerpts from the talk.

Fred, why did you choose to become a geophysicist?

When I entered Colorado School of Mines, they experimented with the incoming 300 freshmen. The students with the top high school grades were placed in the same class for the first two years. At the end of my sophomore year everybody in the class looked at each other, and asked, “What field are you going to choose?” We all enjoyed mathematics and physics, so geophysics was a natural choice for half the class. Sort of spur of the moment and not a good advertisement for career counselling.

You are a well-known geophysicist and have spent the last 39 years in the seismic industry. Looking back now, how does it feel? Tell us about the exciting moments in your professional life.

Definitely, graduate studies at Mines was exciting. You were left on your own and I spent my free time doing physical modeling. At the same time, Mines provided a solid theoretical background that allowed me to easily match my seismic experiments with forward Kirchhoff modeling. This was my introduction to a career involved with modeling. Next, while at Mobil, I was part of Al Musgrave’s team of geologists, log analysts, geophysicists and program developers that were brought together to capitalize on the new Bright Spot technology. After Mobil came UH where as a consultant, I extended Kirchhoff theory to multi-velocity media that became part of GeoQuest’s AIMS modeling program.

The next exciting time period at UH came when I formed the SAL consortium and was able to build a 3-D seismic modeling facility and continue theoretical and physical modeling. Remember, this was the development time of 3-D where acquisition, processing, and interpretation techniques were being formulated. Being part of exploration geophysics during this period was exciting. Even today at GDC, exciting moments continue on those days when you are able to solve a problem for a client and find that “silver bullet”.

People ask, ‘Are you going to retire?” And I say, “Why retire?” After all these years accumulating knowledge, it’s rewarding to solve problems. Why would I give that up? It’s something you look forward to. We started GDC to work on those projects we desired to. I never really worked with the intent of making money; I worked for the excitement on jobs. If I didn’t like the work, I didn’t do it. I had clients whom I told the work is free, now please go away, I don’t enjoy working with you. They said, “You can’t do that”, and I said, “Yes I can!”

Suppose you were to begin your geophysical odyssey all over again, what would you do differently and why?

I don’t think I would do anything differently. I don’t see any part of my career that I didn’t enjoy. I didn’t stay in a position that I didn’t enjoy – I left. I’ve changed jobs twice because I felt professionally constricted. So I went to different arenas to play.

Fred, you never mentioned anything about AVO, where you have been so successful. You published a number of papers on AVO - you didn’t find that exciting?

Of course I did. But AVO is only one aspect of the story. At GDC in 1982, we had a steep learning curve to climb before AVO became a practical tool for our clients. We worked internally trying to integrate AVO with petrophysics. We must not have succeeded ... we’re still working on aspects of this integration today.

AVO illustrates a dilemma that the industry is facing today. Many researchers worked on AVO prior to 1982. In fact, in 1975 I published an article on how to recognize gas-saturated rocks using AVO in GeoQuest’s consortium reports. In 1976, one of my master students, Andre Rosa, introduced the concept of measuring the normal-incident and Poisson reflectivities. All of this was based on basic research published in 1955. But it took Ostrander’s verification in 1982 to motivate the industry on AVO.

Another example of this dilemma. In 1995, we were examining CDP gathers with long offsets that had ‘hockey-stick’ appearances ... that is, poor moveout corrections. Bryan DeVault, a Mines Ph.D. candidate, recognized the strong correlation between the far-offset energy and hydrocarbons. He introduced Mines’ work on anisotropy to us. Like many, I didn’t invent AVO or anisotropic NMO corrections ... I just capitalized on them. Once industry started shooting very-long offsets, then the existing basic theory was applied. The basic research might lay dormant for 15 to 25 years.

The dilemma that is facing us: “When a new acquisition technique comes along, will we have the basic theory to capitalize on the anomalies that our interpreters recognize?” Who and how are our next Koefelds, Leon Thomsens or Iyla Tsvankins going to be supported for development of this basic research?

Take another example, deconvolution’s development at MIT was supported by industry during the 1950s. Decon is still the best seismic processing technique we have and it has withstood 40-50 years of testing. Would decon be where it is today without industry’s early support?

You published a paper with Richard Verm on predicting lithology from AVO. How much can we say about lithology from AVO?

That’s a great question. I spent the last 6-7 months writing the DISC course notes and believe it or not my thought process on AVO changed. While putting together the notes, I started to rethink the integration of AVO to petrophysics. What amplitude attributes are best for discriminating pore fluid from rock-type variations? How does one quantify the ranking of these attributes? How are they related to geology? That’s the message in my DISC course. And, I’ve got to admit, a good part of the initiative to look at AVO this way came from Bill Goodway’s paper. Bill came down to Houston and I was to give a presentation right after him. In preparation for my talk, I thought, “I am going to look really close and prove lambda-rho isn’t any good.” And after I was done, I said, “Wow!” what he comes out with I can immediately quantify to Gassmann’s equation – it’s a really good concept! So everyday I learn a little bit more from our interpreters and that’s what makes geophysics exciting.

Where does AVO analysis stand today?

Industry’s acceptance of AVO analysis today is similar to their acceptance of 3-D from 1988-1990. Prior to that time, 3-D was shot only after a discovery ... not so today. Today, amplitude interpretation (AVO) is recognized as a significant risk reducer. Industry today realizes that in many environments, hydrocarbon prospects can’t even be recognized with only a stock volume ... AVO is needed. I think we are there. However, a problem still exists. There is still a tendency to test AVO’s creditability by analyzing a single 2-D line out of a 3-D survey. The philosophy is similar to, “Why don’t I shoot a bunch of 2-D lines? I can get the same information as I would from a 3-D, but for way less!” With pre-stack migration as a standard product today, total amplitude analysis should be conducted. Why throw away information that will assist in reducing exploration risk?

I’ve seen some of your papers where you’ve shown anisotropic NMO correction is necessary to see additional amplitude information and changes a Class I to a Class II anomaly. What are its limitations? How does anisotropy affect our ability to do AVO?

Actually, anisotropy is not a hindrance. Rather than ask what are the limitations introduced by anisotropy, maybe we should ask, “What else can be extracted from seismic data?” You get the gut feeling that more information can be extracted. For instance, Canadian researchers have examined and verified that variation of amplitude for PP reflections on long offsets can detect fractures. Will this technique detect preferred cementation orientation and/or stress-field direction for predicting permeability paths in non-fractured reservoirs? Are incident angles up to 45, 50 or 60 degrees necessary for this detection? Maybe we haven’t provided the interpreters with the proper processing product or visualization tools to see the effect of permeability on the very large angle offsets.

Let’s talk about development of E and P technology. Today’s research is tomorrow’s technology. Also, it is true that big companies like BP feel that internally funded R & D is no longer vital. Other companies are abandoning their commitment to in-house R & D. Funding in the universities is also tight. In such a dismal environment, do you think there will be appropriate technical development that will become available tomorrow? The answer appears to be a no as extracting oil and gas from complex and hostile environments requires developed technology.

You’re correct about the demise of research in the oil companies. Many of the companies are so devoid of technical folks that contractors or universities are the only outlet for them when problems arise. These are the problems that were once relegated to the technical support group of the former oil-company research labs. Many of these problems are such that off-the-shelf products are not the solution. They require experienced research geophysicists. For the time being, the industry has the benefit of all the research geophysicists who have migrated to the contractors after their former research labs were closed. That’s the good news. The bad news is where did these research geophysicists acquire their knowledge on basic research? That’s right ... doing it. What scares me is that if basic research continues to die off, where are the answers to tomorrow’s problems going to come from? Where are the future technical support geophysicists coming from?

The blurring of distinctions between the modern geologist and geophysicist plus the absolute need for total cooperation and understanding between them clearly suggests a new oil finder classification - explorationist. Do you think we are practicing this in the industry or have we a long way to go?

Unfortunately, (or should I say fortunately), I’ve heard that same statement 40 years ago. However, I see geophysicists facing a different identity crisis. Recently, I was shown an AVO interpretation package with full seismic processing, petrophysical analysis, and both geologic and geophysical interpretation capabilities. After the presentation, I asked, ‘That’s spectacular, but who on earth is going to run that?”, and was told that was the problem. They talked to major oil companies and were told that there were only 2 or 3 people in the entire company capable of learning and running that software. So do they learn the skills of running particular software programs or do they learn geophysical technology? What does it tell you when you read ads that say “Wanted geophysicist with Landmark or GeoQuest Experience.”

You were the President of the SEG for 1997-98. How much does it help professionally and by way of business?

My first inclination is to say that it definitely helps professionally but the business aspect, if you own a company, will suffer. However, the intangible benefits are still coming to GDC from the time that I spent as President of SEG. Thus, it is a bit difficult to see which side of the balance is short. Fortunately, I had several folks back at GDC who were capable of covering for me while I was away.

What type of work is your company, GDC, engaged in?

One that changes quickly with the flow of the industry. GDC was founded in 1981 by three of us. John Sherwood and Reg Neale talked about starting their own data-processing company. They heard I quit UH and called to see if I would be interested in starting a company. I got off the phone and discussed it with my wife Kathi. We called them 20 minutes later and said, “Let’s go!”

John Sherwood was a phenomenal theoretician, Reg loved administration and watching the books, and I liked to work on seismic data. So, GDC started with a good mix of folks and a million- dollar loan at 23 percent interest that was personally guaranteed by the three of us!

We started off solving 2-D seismic problems in rough terrain. Then one year later we saw opportunities working with petrophysical data ... calibrating rock-properties to seismic. In 1982, we started the petrophysical division, and over the years we’ve calibrated seismic data to rock properties, not just in the Gulf Coast, but worldwide. Along the way, we developed our own petrophysical, 2-D and 3-D land and marine processing software along with visualization capabilities.

We sold GDC 3 years ago to Geokinetics. Our sister company at Geokinetics, Quantuum, does land acquisition. So, in essence, we are a full-service geophysical company with the exception of no marine acquisition.

Calgary is quite an entrepreneurial environment. Do you have any advice for geophysicists who want to start up their own company?

One piece of advice is, “Don’t do it for the love of money, do it for the love of the work.” You have to enjoy what you’re doing - life is too short. If you really enjoy what you do and work hard, the money comes!

I’m not a financial expert who can provide all the steps from a business plan to whatever. But remember, a one-time geophysical trick or algorithm is not going to sustain a company. Your business plan must have staying power, and you have to continually change, be flexible and adaptable, whatever your specialty might be.


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