“You are making a great contribution to society...”

An interview with John Boyd

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
John Boyd

John Boyd is one of Calgary’s most respected geophysicists, known for his efforts and accomplishments on many fronts – technical, business, and community most notably. He has been active in the industry since 1960, and remains one of the CSEG’s most dynamic and vibrant members. While now semiretired, John continues to learn and employ new techniques doing project work for the company he founded. He can also always be counted on to volunteer his support for both industry society efforts, and those helping the community at large.

RECORDER editors Satinder Chopra and Eric Andersen recently met with John and conducted the following interview.

(Photos courtesy: Joyce Au)

[Satinder]: John, let’s begin by asking you about your educational qualifications and your work background.

I graduated from the University of Toronto in 1960 with a geophysics option in Engineering Physics. Two people that I studied under were Tuzo Wilson and Fraser Grant, both important names in geophysics. It was fun because – and this was a couple of years after the International Geophysical year – when we had a lecture from Tuzo he would start off talking about geophysics or continental drift and then in the next moment he might be talking about his ride in the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Russia to China or some other adventure from the IGY.

[Satinder]: Can you also mention something about your work experience?

I had had one summer working in mining geophysics up in Northern Ontario and Northern Quebec, and I liked that but I decided that I would look for a job in the Oil Industry so I could compare them. There weren’t a lot of jobs in 1960 but I was lucky enough to get hired on by Pan American Petroleum who changed their name to Amoco a few years later. I started with Pan American in Edmonton, then was moved to Calgary. I worked there for about six years and then left to join a small consulting firm. After that I worked for a contractor for a couple of years, and then I joined IBM. I joined Digitech in 1970 and I was there until I left in 1977. I guess you could say that I was rattling around quite a bit in those years!

[Satinder]: Didn’t you form your own consulting firm?

Yes, in 1977.

[Eric]: The change from Amoco / Pan American to IBM, that’s interesting.

Yes, but there were two steps in between. The consulting company that I worked for had an interest in a new company called CDP (Computer Data Processors) and they were one of the very early companies trying to move into digital processing of seismic data. I had some experience processing with GSI in 1966 (they were the only commercial digital seismic processors at that time) and I was assigned to be our contact with CDP. I used to go over to their office and talk to a young engineer by the name of Dave Robson who was about my age, and Dave and I did a lot of things together, there and later at Digitech. Dave went on to a small processing company called Veritas and turned it into one of the major geophysical companies in the world. I did a lot of work with processing in those early years and I knew some people at IBM and I ended up there for a couple of years doing development work and sales work. Then I moved to Digitech because I knew Ben Berg from Amoco who had started the company and they were going to open an office in Australia. I thought, “I’ll go for that,” and I joined Digitech. So it wasn’t a direct jump from Amoco to IBM, there were some steps in between.

[Satinder]: You joined Amoco in 1960 and stayed there for about six years time; were you engaged in exploration projects interpreting seismic data?

Yes, I was, it was basically interpretation and field work. With Amoco in those days you spent a lot of time in the field, especially in the first couple of years. It was fun, in my first winter in the field we were actually interpreting data in a crew office. That was probably the last time that happened because the analog processing centres were just coming into their own. Geophysicists stopped interpreting paper records in the field because they could work with processed seismic sections in town. Anyway, there were four geophysicists on the crew, we slept and worked in a trailer with a diesel furnace that kept cutting in and out. Ralph Lundberg and I used to pick first breaks and work out weathering corrections and there were two senior geophysicists interpreting a Slave Point play on monitor records. We picked locations for a slim hole rig to drill and log holes to verify structure. I think that’s probably the last time anyone at Pan American ever did that kind of a field interpretation and I might be one of the few people still working in Calgary who has been part of one.

The following winter I was a bird-dog on a crew in Fort Nelson and I also used to pick reflections on paper records to compute static corrections for the analog processing centre back in Edmonton.

Then I started to interpret data and we had a major exploration effort in the Devonian. So, over a period of a few years, we essentially covered the ground from Grand Prairie to Hinton with a grid of seismic lines about two miles by two miles and we would then infill with more detail if we found any Leduc anomalies. We made some good discoveries and I worked on that project for a few years. And then Rainbow Lake was discovered and it was a major geophysical success that suddenly created a boom in the industry and that’s when I got kind of lured away to join a consulting group in 1966.

[Satinder]: So you spent a long time with Digitech and then moved on to the consulting company?

I went to Australia with Digitech for six months in the autumn of 1970. They closed the office in Australia and I went over to start up an office in London in September of 1971. We had a contract with BP who had the same type of computer and software that Digitech had, so we had a group in BP’s office contracted to do processing input, primarily marine processing. I did that for a couple of years with BP and then saw the opportunity to set up our own processing centre in London which ran for several years. In 1976 the decision was made to close it down because there was a downturn in activity in both Calgary and London and we couldn’t keep both centres going. So I came back to Canada in the summer of 1976. I enjoyed working in Australia and England and in the North Sea. The work was fascinating and you will appreciate this Satinder, you get more of a global look when you move around the world and I have always treasured that. It was good for me.

John Boyd, Satinder Chopra and Eric Andersen.
(L-R): John Boyd, Satinder Chopra and Eric Andersen.

[Satinder]: Now I was going to ask you – you started your own company in 1977. How did that idea of starting your own consulting company first come about, and then what were the initial hurdles that you faced?

There were a couple of things. I wanted to get back into interpretation, I thought that the years that I spent in processing were extremely useful and would help me in consulting. I wanted to be an interpreter again and I wanted to start my own business. I talked it over with my wife – we had three small children then – and she said, “Go for it, you can make it work,” and so I did. The hurdles, well it was somewhat slow starting up because the activity level wasn’t very high and I was a bit out of touch with the Calgary market after being away for five years, although I knew a lot of people. The fact is that when I left Digitech to start consulting I had absolutely no work lined up. I thought that it wasn’t ethical to go looking for work for myself when I was working for somebody else. But quite quickly I found a few things to work on. My wife laughs about the first morning that I was on my own. I got up and put my suit on and she said, “Why are you putting your suit on, what have you got to do?” I said, “Well something will show up, something will happen,” and it did. In that first year I grossed less money than I made net on salary the year before, but it kept building. I was also lucky that I started soon before the West Pembina discovery which created a leap in activity.

[Satinder]: Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs in terms of what they should be looking out for or keeping in mind when they start their own businesses?

Well, if you are a young geophysicist starting your own business you should remember a couple of things. You have to stay technically competent and you will no longer have courses put on or organized by your employer, so you will have to attend the conventions, take the Doodle Train courses and all that sort of thing. It is vitally important because if you don’t you become obsolete. You also have to remember that you are in the service industry so you had better give good work and good service to your clients or you won’t stick around You should appreciate the geophysical industry because you are part of it – data brokers, processors, contractors and consultants, and oil company geophysicists. One of the things I love about the geophysical business here is that all these people work together so nicely and so you get into that loop where you work with clients and competitors and it all seems to work.

[Eric]: Nowadays new grads go directly into one specialized aspect of geophysics, either at an oil company or a service company, and the diversity of training isn’t the same as it was years ago. When you were working your way up, you went from picking field monitors, to bird-dogging, to processing, to interpretation and so on. Do you feel we’ve lost something as an industry?

Picking monitor records in the field is not really important, just an interesting piece of history! I probably had a better field background than most young geophysicists today and I think that was good but, by and large, the geophysicists today are better trained and more quickly trained than they were in my day. I mean, where I was after six years, I think the average young person is probably there in two or three years today. There is a lot more to the science and profession than there used to be.

[Satinder]: At this stage in your life, you can look back on your life and a quite illustrious career. Do you get a sense of satisfaction, a sense of fulfillment, or is it something else?

I can look back and I can say that I helped to build Boyd PetroSearch into a great company, and really there were three of us who built it. Larry Herd and Neil Thompson and I were the ones that made the moves and put it together, so I have a lot of satisfaction about that. I have satisfaction about what I have done with APEGGA and CSEG and the community work that I have done. I also have regrets at times, and we probably all do, that sometimes we are so busy that we don’t spend as much time with our families as we’d like to. That’s a regret. There are some interesting things that I did that I’m proud of. I know somebody asked me once, “What important contributions have you made to the geophysical business in Calgary?” Well, one of the great contributions I feel I made was when I was Chairman of a committee to select the second Chair in Geophysics at the University of Calgary and we recommended Rob Stewart. He was not well known and he was not the first choice of the University people, but we picked him and so I often say that one of my great contributions is helping to bring in Rob Stewart – just look at the things that Rob has contributed to geophysics in Calgary. I kind of got a kick out of that.

[Eric]: John, what are you looking forward to now, what is your goal?

I am semi-retired. I am still on the Board of Boyd PetroSearch along with Neil Thompson and Larry Herd. I am also on the Boards of a couple of junior oil companies. I do a little bit of consulting work because I enjoy the technical part – and the business – of geophysics. I don’t know how long I will do that. I stepped down as president of PetroSearch at the end of 2006 and Larry Herd is running the company now and taking it to new heights. I still look forward to still having an association with the industry, I look forward to the community work that I do. I have lots of other interests.

[Satinder]: I was going to ask you to name a few of the landmarks in your career.


[Satinder]: Successful landmarks.

Well, when I started consulting in 1977 there were some things I wanted to do differently. The consulting business is primarily made up of one person shops, and they do very, very good work. I wanted to build an organization that would outlast me. I also wanted to develop some product rather than just do consulting by the hour, so one of the landmark decisions that I made was when I saw an opportunity to get into the synthetic seismogram and forward modelling market. I retained some people to write some software for me and hired Dave Normandeau – who was my first employee; the second was Larry Herd and the third was Neil Thompson. This was in about 1980, so I made a move early on to grow and the growing wasn’t a power move, it was to build something that would last. So that was kind of a landmark, the first staff that I hired.

Then, a landmark decision was take a run at geophysics in the potash industry. We had an enquiry and the three of us sat down and we decided that we’d send Larry, so Larry drove to Saskatchewan because we couldn’t afford airline tickets and we got some project work. That started it, more than twenty years ago, and it has turned into a very important niche business for the company, so that was a real landmark event.

[Satinder]: Tell us about the Saskatchewan potash mining industry – why is it important, how much potash is produced and consumed in Canada and so on?

Well, it’s a huge industry and there are three producing companies, with others coming in. Most of it is exported, a lot of it interestingly enough to China. The Chinese think red is a lucky colour, so they love our red potash! You see the CanPotex trains headed to the West Coast and it is a very important export and Canada is the world’s leading producer. I don’t know what the production is or what the dollar volume is, but it’s huge and it’s huge for Saskatchewan.

[Satinder]: Tell us of how your work helped in the exploration for potash.

It’s not exploration, it’s development. We know where the potash is. There have been enough test holes drilled through the Prairie Evaporite to tell us where the potash is present. It is a thin layer of potash in a very thick evaporite sequence, but it is present over a very large area. The interesting thing is the contrast between mining development and petroleum exploration. Oil and gas is usually trapped in local anomalies rather than being regionally present. We run our seismic surveys looking for anomalies because oil and gas migrates into anomalous geological features whether they be reefs or anticlines or buried channels. Mining engineers hate anomalies. Abrupt changes in rock type or interruptions at the mine level are major problems. What we have done historically, and got better and better at, is look at the ground before it is mined and predict changes or problems at the mine level. The Prairie Evaporite can be unstable and there are collapse features – areas of salt dissolution – and these things are hugely disruptive for mining equipment.

We started with reconnaissance 2D seismic and then we went to closely spaced 2D lines and then sometime in the early 90s moved into 3D.There isn’t enough impedance contrast to differentiate potash from halite, but you can detect some impurities in the potash from their density contrast, so we are getting to the point where we are using inversion and things like that to improve our interpretation.

[Eric]: That’s interesting John, would you say that your potash work got you into various high resolution techniques well before the rest of the industry?

Yes, that’s a good point Eric, perhaps. It’s probably partly because of the subtle differences or changes we need to go after, and partly because a lot of Saskatchewan has very good near surface conditions for seismic, so we get the necessary high frequencies. We are shooting in good solid clay, not much sand on the surface, so it’s beautiful data. With some exceptions we measure frequencies up into the 200 Hz range.

[Satinder]: John, with five decades of experience under your belt, can you give us your perspective on the many technical changes and advances you’ve seen in your career?

Well, I told you about the first interpretations that I did in an uncomfortable trailer up in the Caribou Mountains. I can also remember the first 3D that we did. It was in 1986 or 1987 and it was a small 3D, I think it was two square miles. We didn’t have a workstation and what we did now seems ridiculous. We had the processor play out each inline on paper, we picked those things manually, and then we had the picks digitized. It took weeks to interpret that little 3D. In contrast – I was thinking about this the other day – two weeks ago I was filling in for one of our geophysicists who was away on holidays. He had a 3D coming in with a drilling commitment on it, and it was a similar size, a couple of square miles, but it was in an area of complex geology in the Mannville Section. Anyway I got that 3D on Tuesday morning and the client was scheduled to come in at 8:00 a.m. the next day to pick two well locations. I put in a solid day and worked until about 7:00 p.m. in the evening. I knew that I didn’t have all the answers because I didn’t have time to address all of the subtleties, but I had enough to pick two well locations which, incidentally, have been drilled and they came in.

Another thing I laugh about is remembering when we were sitting around many years ago and we were saying, “We have to buy a workstation,” and then one of us, probably me, was saying, “What’s going to happen if we spend all this money on a workstation so that we can do everything a lot faster so we bill less and it will actually reduce our revenue?” But of course it didn’t! It allowed us to see more and do more, and in the end we spent more time at a much higher level digging deeper into the data. We have always invested in technology and now we can do things with data that we could only dream about.

I can remember at Amoco actually doing an amplitude study on the Cardium. We did it – not with paper records in the field because by now we were into analog playbacks, so we used dividers and measured peak-totrough deflection in millimeters and wrote the numbers on the map. When you think what you can do now with attributes it seems funny! These are the changes that I have seen, and they seem to come in jumps. 3D was a tremendous jump and the concept of an interpretive workstation was too, although the first ones didn’t do as much – some of the early ones were mostly just pickers but that concept of using a computer to help you interpret was a big forward leap.

Satinder Chopra, Eric Andersen and John Boyd.
(L-R): Satinder Chopra, Eric Andersen and John Boyd.

[Satinder]: John, what kind of advancements do you think we can expect in geophysics?

Well I think a lot of the improvements are going to be in the field. Look at wide azimuth marine acquisition for example, that’s a huge leap because the marine 3Ds suffered from good azimuth and offset distribution in one direction and poor in another. You know, we are approaching the concept of recording the data on every geophone. It’s going to happen and in fact there is a really good article in the RECORDER that came out last week from CREWES. [Editor’s note: see March 2010 issue.] Did you see that Satinder?

They demonstrated in a field experiment that if you have even a short array, say 20 metres long, you start to alias surface waves and once that happens, you can’t properly recover all of the data.

I think we are close to going as far as we can with imaging. We seem to be able to handle the really tough problems, like sub salt structures. I don’t think there will be further major improvements in imaging. I think there will be improvements in attribute work. I think there will be improvements in the three component area, which is something you know I am very interested in. I think there will be some breakthroughs in microseismic and passive seismic measurements. So there will be good things, lots of good things.

[Satinder]: I look forward to many of these. John, apart from the huge accomplishments that you have to your credit and there are a number of presentations that you made, I see on the publication side it has been rather slow.

I’ve been lazy. I have presented many times, primarily to the CSEG and the EAGE, and I tended not to write them up. There have been times that I have been asked to publish and I didn’t, so I have not been very good that way Satinder.

[Satinder]: But people with your knowledge and experience should write...

[Eric]: John seems to like back seat driving – he supports a lot of people who write and present!

Let’s change the topic! You know I have always been interested in 3C work. Back in 1987 we organized a shoot in the Carrot Creek Area. We did two 3C lines over conglomerate bars, and it was successful and many companies joined in. Some companies didn’t join because they didn’t believe we could actually generate a shear wave from a P-wave source, but it was a good experiment. Then of course we donated the data to CREWES and they did good work with it. The Blackfoot 3C 3D happened because the U of C came to us and asked if we would help organize a symposium where we would invite companies to present their ideas on a good test area for a 3D 3C survey. We had half a dozen submissions and Blackfoot was chosen because it was interesting geologically, it was close to Calgary, and it was in an area that was easy to operate in. The data was good, it was an interesting experiment, and it provided some useful data to CREWES.

Now I am working on a 3C 4D, a time lapse measurement of two 3C, 3D surveys, and it’s fascinating. I am finding that there are things that the converted waves are showing that the P-wave doesn’t show, and I think this is wonderful. We all realize that the resolving power of shear wave data is much less than P-wave data – the wave lengths are much longer, and it’s noisier. But the fact that rocks respond differently to pressure waves and shear waves means that there will be differences, and it’s those differences that you are looking for. It’s not the ability of shear waves to resolve small things that’s important, it’s their ability to respond differently to changes in the subsurface, and we are seeing examples of that. Kind of neat.

[Satinder]: That’s the way they use multicomponent data in areas where they have gas plumes.

Gas plumes, yes, exactly, just a beautiful example. Some of those examples in the North Sea are fascinating.

[Eric]: You have received a lot of awards John, from the CSEG and APEGGA and such. I was just curious to know how you feel about getting these awards, and which ones you treasure the most?

Well I have always wanted to give back to the industry, so I have supported the CSEG and APEGGA, and I think they are both wonderful organizations. CSEG I think is a brilliant organization because when you consider what the CSEG does with the paid staff of two people in terms of putting on conventions and courses and Doodlebug golf tournaments – it’s wonderful. The CSEG to me also epitomized what I was talking about earlier – this relationship we have between service companies of all types and oil companies.

We have a great advantage over the geologists –there isn’t a geological industry comparable to the geophysical industry. We have this great mix of the service side and the oil company side and I think it makes the industry very special.

Getting the CSEG Medal was a great honour for me. The year that I handled honours and awards I was approached by an anonymous donor who suggested the award and funded its design and production. I presented the idea to the CSEG executive, and we gave the first medal to Roy Lindseth. Quite a few years later, I received it, so that was very special.

And then the Charlesworth Professional Service Award from APEGGA, which recognizes service to the professions, was special. I have been involved with APEGGA for many years and it meant a great deal to me to receive that award.

[Satinder]: Good job. John, one advantage of communication, especially written, is that your experiences can serve to inspire others. You have a wealth of experience, 5 decades, so we were just wondering if you ever have toyed with the idea of writing your memoirs.

Well, I just told you I didn’t write much, but you keep coming back to it (laughter and mixed talk).

[Satinder]: Now at this stage in your life you might think of—

Well I might think about it. You know I have done a few things. I was looking recently through some of my stuff and I found a diary of my – I think it was my third trip to China – and it was an interesting trip because I was doing field work in a remote area of China and I got sick and it was difficult. I kept this daily diary and it was fun to read it after many years. Yes, there are a few things like that I could do.

[Satinder]: My suggestion here is give it a serious thought.

Yes, I can give it a serious thought.

[Eric]: Apart from the science and the business, what other interests do you have?

On the community side I have been a member of the Rotary Club of Calgary for many years. I was President of it back in 2001. It is a great organization – does great things in the community, raises a lot of money, and spends it wisely here and internationally. I am a skier and a hiker in the summer time; I am a bad golfer. I go sailing every year with a bunch of geophysicists and we call ourselves the Doodle Buoys. There is a Doodlebug and a Doodle Train and a Doodlespiel……well, we are the Doodle Buoys. I have became determined to improve my French, you know, to learn to speak French reasonably well, so actually I have taken a run at that in the last few of years by taking courses at the Alliance Française, and I am progressing.

I was involved in this International Year of Planet Earth, which was a three-year joint initiative of UNESCO and the International Union of Geological Sciences to promote the concept of Earth Sciences for Society. I was Canadian Chairman of that and started in the fall of 2006 and I am almost wrapping it up here in the spring of 2010. We’ve done some interesting things; we’ve done some good outreach activities. I’ve learned a lot and attended meetings in Paris and Lisbon and San Francisco. I read a lot, I like the Theatre – I do lots of things.

[Satinder]: Eric, you know Oliver has labeled this last question the “Satinder Question”. Why don’t you ask it this time?

[Eric]: John, what would your message be for young entrants to geophysics? What are the rewarding aspects of taking up a career in geophysics?

Let’s assume that we are talking about people that are in the oil and gas industry, I’d say get as broad knowledge as you can. Try to learn something about reservoir engineering, drilling, and of course a lot of geology. As well, make sure you always keep your geophysical skills as high leveled as you can, by taking courses, going to conventions – you need a broad knowledge to be a good geophysicist. Certainly you need an appreciation for the problems that a reservoir engineer has, you have to have that. The reward is the satisfaction you can get from being part of an industry that discovers and develops earth resources – and the excitement of success. That would be my advice – learn a broad spectrum of knowledge and be aware of the fact that you are making a great contribution to society in the work that you do.

[Satinder]: Wonderful. John, thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to sit down and chat with you. It’s been a pleasure.


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