An interview with John Duhault

Coordinated by: David Gray
John Duhault

Mr. Duhault, Senior Geoscience Consultant at Starbird Enterprises, is a time honoured senior geophysical interpreter. He likes to tell stories of hunting for, and FINDING, oil and gas reserves for his shareholders and other clients. He has done technical and “Life’s a journey not a destination” type presentations in Canada, and when invited, in other countries on this planet. He created two private juniors in the 2000’s but still needs to work. He has been in leadership roles in the CSEG and SEG and continues to volunteer as a mentor, interpreter, and storyteller. He especially enjoys giving his “Every Rock Tells a Story” presentation to attentive elementary students.

DG: John, you became an accomplished geophysicist, then decided to devote a large part of your energy to value integrating geoscience (VIG) with other disciplines, including business. What inspired that focus?

JD: In my early career, working Kaybob at Chevron, I was exposed to where the money came from in our industry. Before that, I was just a scientist looking for neat bobbles to shine up and show the powers-that-be. Later, when I was at CS Resources, I realized that some geophysical attributes could reduce exploratory risk and improve project profitability. I also learned that the business proposal or structure was even more important than I had realized earlier.

DG: Why you are so passionate about the value of geophysics?

JD: I love the interpretation game and I believe so much money can be made, or saved, if we use the most appropriate integrated geophysical tools to mitigate risk.

DG: Why do you think geoscientists are not taking up the opportunities offered to learn about promoting the value of geophysics within their companies? Do you think something is hindering geoscientists from demonstrating their value? If so, what?

JD: It is very frustrating that, at the moment, geoscientists and engineers don’t seem to care about learning from past experience. Today’s geoscientists think they can download the answer from Google, without understanding the backstory of what they are reading. Drilling a thousand wells into the same formation is not a broad foundation for finding new reserves and discoveries. Engineers consider geological risks as part of their business plan and expect a 10% economic failure rate as part of their resource development statistics. So, they feel they don’t need to take the time to understand how integrated geophysics can improve their project’s profitability.

DG: What have been your biggest wins in applying VIG?

JD: My biggest win was drilling an exploratory well in eastern Alberta using AVO analysis for Dragonheart Energy. It increased our production by 4X.

My most recent success was as an expert witness on a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project, where I defended the client’s proposed location, which helped win the case.

DG: What are the biggest challenges in promoting VIG?

JD: Energy professionals don’t seem to care. They let other people, or machines, make the decisions, and they accept the outcomes. Today’s geoscientists need to be proactive in getting results. The biggest challenge is getting geoscientists and energy transition professionals to listen and learn how integrated geoscience can improve their bottom line. I get that they are all busy, but they could help their companies make a lot more money if they spent some capital enhancing the economics of their project. They need to remember that you have to spend some money to make even more money.

DG: I would also like to ask how you have helped people through the CSEG mentorship initiative, and about your philosophy of hiring summer students.

JD: I have helped my mentees by opening their eyes to opportunities that are available to them. I tell them always to have options. If one road is blocked, be prepared to go down a different path. I always state that a good geophysicist understands geology, a good geologist understands geophysics, but a great geophysicist or geologist understands the benefits of integrating geophysics, geology, and engineering data.

DG: Tell us about your educational background, work experience, and what you are engaged in these days.

JD: I am an “Advisor Risk-Mitigator Trainer” geoscientist with over 43 years of industry experience, including over 50,000 hours as a geoscience interpreter in Canada and internationally. I teach the business value of integrated geophysics through the “storytelling” of case histories, and have presented papers in North America, Europe, and New Zealand. I have developed many geophysical tools to help explore for hydrocarbons throughout my career. I have discovered significant oil and gas reserves for senior exploration companies and numerous junior independents. I founded and led two private junior oil and gas companies.

I am currently the President of Starbird Enterprises, a consulting and training company. I specialize in geophysical interpretation for conventional exploration, unconventional resource plays, and the energy transition industries (geothermal, CCS, and helium). I provide training services to large and small companies and government agencies, and also teach “Rock Stories” to Grade 3 students. I am a Past President of the CSEG and am currently Vice-Chair of the SEG.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Geological Engineering from the University of Manitoba in 1979. I graduated in May, got married a week later, and took a six-week road trip honeymoon. I started working for Chevron Canada in July. I initially worked as an acquisition geophysicist while “birddogging” up to 17 crews operating in Alberta. I was seconded to Chevron Sudan and helped with their seismic acquisition in 1981. My initial interpretation years involved searching for Keg River reefs in Northern Alberta where, one year, I was responsible for acquiring and interpreting over 3000 km of 2D data. In 1985 I was transferred to Chevron Spain where I worked onshore and offshore. I supported the Casa-18 well drilled in the Casablanca pool offshore Mediterranean.

With the oil price collapse in 1986, I returned to Canada and worked on the offshore East Coast of Canada from 1986 to 1991. During those years I had interpreted every line of 2D seismic that Chevron owned, from the Scotian Shelf up to the Labrador shelf, and drilled a well at East Rankin. I invented a palinspastic restoration technique, using 2D seismic plots and scissors, to unravel the two directions of extension found in the East Newfoundland Basin. This methodology led to numerous other exploration plays, including the South White Rose pool that Husky eventually drilled. During the ’80s I helped design Chevron’s 2D workstation using the East Coast data. This included working at Chevron’s lab in La Habra, California. At the lab I got to know Bill Ostrander, who was developing his AVO theories and practical applications thereof.

During my career at Chevron, I had the opportunity to work as a pure geologist in the Kaybob area. I had barely started when the Development Geology Manager came into my office and said: “I don’t want to see a stick of seismic on your desk, and if I do, I’ll kick your butt back to Exploration faster than you would know what.” I thought this was great because I wanted to be a geologist. I started by looking at all of the wells for my project area. I calculated the pay thickness, contoured them up, and created my first pay map. We drilled a well, 6-14, based on those maps. It was a dry hole. Duh! The District Geologist said to me: “Duhault, you need to understand the geology. It would help if you spent time at the core shack. So, I want you to go to the core shack and understand the geology of the reservoirs that we’re developing.” I spent most of the first year looking at core, doing core interpretation, creating environmental deposition geo-stratigraphy concepts and recommending relative permeability studies. I had access to a sedimentologist, palynologist, and other clastic specialists that Chevron had on staff to help me. In the end, I developed a new model on how to interpret the clastic reservoir sands in the Kaybob area. This new model was different than any previous Chevron internal interpretation. It changed the interpretation from three clastic zones of meandering channels to two marine barrier bars of Jurassic age and one channel system of Cretaceous age that was now predictable because of the new model. We drilled 20 subsequent wells on that play concept, and they were all hits. It had a lot to do with taking the time to understand the core the geology, and then integrate the results with the drilling, production, and reservoir engineering team members.

DG: Business Value Understood.

JD: Midway through our drilling program, the gas marketers in the company showed up at our Kaybob team meetings. They told us we could make considerably more money if we drilled outside of the “A Block” where Chevron could get $1.25/MCF, the spot price, versus $0.75/MCF, the contract price, inside the “A Block.” We adjusted our program to get the higher-priced gas.

One day, the assistant to the VP of Exploration came into my office. He said: “I’ve been at this company for 35 years, and nobody has ever mapped Kaybob as you have.” He showed my map to the VP of Exploration. It was a big pat on my back for great ideas and good work, especially as a pure geologist.

What is essential about this story is that I figured out how Chevron made money at Kaybob, and that the geology work we did was not merely for the sake of science. It was for profit, and project sustainability.

Near the end of my second very successful year at Kaybob, I was told I would be transferred to the Beaufort Sea Project the following year. I told myself, no freaking way. Based on the business values I had just learned, Chevron would never drill a well there, and they still haven’t. Shortly after that conversation a few things happened, and I started working for CS Resources as their first full-time geophysicist.

Within a year of being at CS Resources I became Exploration Manager for their Light Oil and Natural Gas Business Unit. It was then that I learned that you will not make a lot of money for your company if: a) you are not the operator; and b) you do not have enough working interest to make it profitable for your staff to work on. Operate and develop your own properties and ideas. Farm-out all or a portion of your interest as you manage your corporate risk profile.

I started my first consulting and production company, Starbird Energy, after PanCanadian purchased CS in 1997. As a consultant during that time, I developed my first “Starbird Cube”, with help from Rod Couzens at Sensor, for interpreting AVO on 2D lines.

The Starbird Cube, or “Poorman’s AVO,” was a seismic attribute 3D cube made from processed products from a 2D line. Inline 1 was the migrated stack, the structure stack was Inline 2, three angle-stacks became Inlines 3-5, and then the common offset data out to maximum offset were the rest of the inlines. Sometimes we put in an intercept-gradient stack for additional information.

The Starbird cube is a junior oil and gas company’s AVO interpretation tool, and I used it for my clients to identify gas zones. Instead of Starbird Cubes, I called them Ostrander Cubes because of my respect and friendship for Bill Ostrander. No, David, I did not patent the idea. Some of the remaining processing houses in Calgary still have the processing flow that I developed with them to create these cubes.

Before it was sold, Starbird Energy had 150 mcf/d of gas production in about 20 gas wells in Eastern Alberta. I used the proceeds to be a Founder and CEO of Dragonheart Energy. Dragonheart Energy was a private energy company with a business plan that focused on using geophysical images, “SAM x” (Seismic Attribute Mapping for eXploration), integrated with geology and engineering data to reduce the technical risk in finding oil and gas in Alberta. We used many Starbird Cubes and other seismic attributes to select our well locations. We grew the company from 0 to 350 BOE/D of production, and share value from $0.10 to $0.35, with a total investment of $8M, resulting in proceeds of $18.2M for an ROI of 2.28. Some of the initial investors got a 3.5X their money in <2 years and asked me to do it again.

Using the same unique business plan as for Dragonheart Energy: integrated geophysics, with a planned closure model (sell, merge, or go public within two years), we founded Dragonheart Resources. Due to negative political influences in Alberta, we merged Dragonheart Resources into Eagle Rock in December 2007. We had some success at Eagle Rock, drilling horizontal wells in Southern Alberta and SW Saskatchewan. The demise of Eagle Rock occurred when one of our horizontal wells became an $8M liability instead of a $4M success.

At Lightstream Resources (2011-2015), I provided geoscience integration, interpretation, and mentorship for many multidisciplinary teams. With my geologists, we identified three new exploration fairways and potentially five new resource plays. I believed that integrated microseismic interpretation was an essential geophysical tool to improve profitability in completing and producing horizontal wells. I even published a paper in 2012 for the CSEG RECORDER that got me “Best Paper of the Year.” I teach microseismic and distributed acoustic sensing/distributed temperature sensing (DAS-DTS) as “completion geophysics” tools that can significantly improve a project’s profitability.

Starbird Enterprises, my consulting company, looks at business and geoscience operations with direct ownership, including data analysis, interpretation, and mentoring. It has allowed me to work on several different geoscience projects:

  • Expert witness in structural geophysics
  • CCS and wastewater disposal projects
  • Updating federal government geophysical regulations
  • Geohazard interpretation around an astrobleme
  • Completion Geophysics: microseismic, distributed acoustic sensing (DAS) and distributed temperature sensing (DTS) interpretation
  • Interpreting thousands of kms of 2D seismic and hundreds of km2 of 3D seismic.

I have been recently teaching the Business Value of Geophysics through numerous course offerings and continue to be empathic to the needs and concerns of my clients and students. I will always be a hands-on entrepreneur-explorer looking for new opportunities.

DG: What is it you love about our industry that has kept you going?

JD: I love the exploration game – finding new reserves and resources. Acquiring new or re-imaging old seismic data is like opening Christmas presents to me. I can’t wait to see what is under the “tree.” I love rocks and, as I said, especially enjoy teaching geology to Grade 3 students.

DG: Can you give us a “Day in the Life of John Duhault”, say, in the mid-2000s vs. today?

JD: In the early-mid 2000s, I was running my private junior oil and gas company, Dragonheart Energy. I was President and CEO, senior geologist, senior geophysicist, receptionist, and dishwasher. I also took out the money-recyclables to a homeless dude named Barry on Thursdays. It was the most dynamic, stressful time of my life because I cared for the company and the people who counted on its success. I cared about my shareholders (some of whom were family), my staff, and my family. Running a company is tough if you are empathic to the people around you.

Today, I get up at 9:00 and read a technical paper or two to help keep my course decks relevant to teaching in today’s environment. I create new course offerings to capture the energy transition industries. I do volunteer work for the SEG, GeoConvention, or the CSEG. Look for work. Fix stuff. Play with grandkids when they are around! Look for an open pool to swim in, or just go for a walk! Pretty boring shite! I need some billable hours.

DG: Don’t we all. Outside of the work that keeps you busy, what other interests do you have?

JD: I am a purple martin landlord and have 38 rooms available on four towers at Buffalo Lake in Central Alberta. Last year, we had 56 adults stay with us for the summer and had 150+ birds leave in August. It was our best year! I also make birdhouses for other species. I spend my spare time landscaping and doing deck work out of stone and wood. I do enjoy sipping rums and single malt Highland scotches.

DG: Do you have anything to add that you think would help the readers understand you or VIG better?

JD: Are companies aware of the many geophysical apps, such as pre-stack inversion and DAS - DTS fibre optics, that you can use to mitigate risk and improve the profitability of your company’s assets?

Are company employees or management uncomfortable with geophysical applications and technology in oil, gas, and the energy transition industries? I teach an introductory course, “Fundamentals of Applied Geophysics with Case Histories”. It is an excellent course to help learners understand the basics of geophysics and how geophysicists think, presented in an entertaining and easy-to-absorb technical manner. From June 14th-June 15th, I am teaching this course attached to GeoConvention 2022 and also planning to present it at the SEG’s IMAGE Convention in August 2022.

DG: John, thank you for sharing your insights on the value of integrated geophysics (VIG), and how you got to be such a passionate advocate for these concepts. I hope that your experience will encourage today’s geophysicists that listening and taking some individual actions as a result can lead to very good results for you and your company. I really appreciated learning more about you and how you got to be who you are.


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