An interview with An interview with Leon Thomsen

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Al Bradshaw
An interview with Leon Thomsen

When Leon Thomsen was recently in Calgary to give his 2002 SEG Distinguished Short Course, the RECORDER editors, along with local anisotropist Rob Vestrum, took the opportunity to conduct the following interview. Leon answered their questions with the insight and intelligence that has made him one of the preeminent scientists in the field of geophysics.

[Satinder]: Could you tell us a bit about your educational background and experience?

Sure. I was an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology, a small school in Los Angeles. 800 students, 800 faculty! <laughter> They have an outstanding geosciences program, and I graduated from there in 1964. Then I went to Columbia University, and its associated Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory (also an outstanding program) and graduated from there in 1969.

[Satinder]: You worked at Amoco and later BP.

Well, let me just tell you how I got into geophysics. My father was a geophysicist before me, with Amoco. Basically the only reason I went into this business was because of his influence, although only indirectly. When I was young, I could not imagine anything more boring than following in my father’s footsteps. But when I was admitted to Caltech, then as now, it was an expensive school. I also was admitted to Rice University, which was, at that time, absolutely free. So naturally I chose the expensive alternative!

My father sat down with me, and we talked about how we were going to finance this thing. He said, “Well, my society {the SEG} offers a Fellowship.” So I said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to be a geophysicist.” My plan at that time was to be a nuclear physicist, because I thought that the girls would really respond to a nuclear physicist! <laughter>

Unfazed, he replied, “Well, let’s look at the requirements for the SEG Fellowship. It says, ‘the recipient shall pursue a course of study leading to a degree in geophysics’. What’s the curriculum at Caltech?”

I said, “Well, in the first year there are no electives; everybody takes math, chemistry, physics, history and English - that’s it.” So he said, “Well that’s OK, if you get the Fellowship, you could say, truthfully, that you are ‘pursuing a course of study leading to a degree in geophysics’. We’ll figure something else out, for the next year.” I could see the logic in that, so I applied, and got the Fellowship, and it helped the family finances substantially.

The second year he said, “OK, so what are your plans?” I said, “Well I don’t have to declare a major until the end of the sophomore year. In the sophomore year, we get one elective in each of the trimesters. It’s customary to take one-each of the “soft” sciences, which are: astronomy, psychology and geology. I thought I’d do that.”

He said, “Great, if you do that, you can keep the scholarship for one more year! We’ll figure out next year what to do after you declare nuclear physics as your major.”

To make a long story short, in my sophomore year, I encountered a charismatic geologist, Professor Bob Sharp. (We have kept in touch all these years; I last spoke to him last about three months ago.) He was well renowned at Caltech for converting nuclear physicists into geophysicists! <laughter> ....just through force of personality.

As a matter of fact, I liked all of the Geology faculty, all of the Geology graduate students, and I didn’t like any of the Physics faculty and graduate students! I felt, “I want to be like those guys.” So that’s what I did, just in that casual way I decided to change from nuclear physics to geophysics. I learned from a number of great faculty, including my advisor, Professor Clarence Allen. I think I got a great education, although it was very challenging. For me, Caltech was like a crucible, a trial by fire, but after surviving that, everything else in my life has been easy.

Naturally I didn’t want to do exploration geophysics, I was going to do academic geophysics. And, I did do that for two postdocs (at CNRS in Paris, and back at Caltech), and then for 8 years at the State University of New York,. So, I came into exploration geophysics only after a prior career in academic geophysics.

I came into this business completely naïve. I didn’t even know what deconvolution was. But I had a certain self-confidence, from being a professional already for some years. I had been studying the deep interior of the earth - 3000 km down. To do that, I was studying relativistic quantum mechanics in anisotropic media, because the crystals down there are anisotropic. It leads to certain seismic velocities, and that’s how you might determine the composition and structure of the deep earth. So I knew about anisotropy, and when I came into this business, hardly anyone else did. And that certainly was not what Amoco hired me for. But that preparation made for a classical case of serendipitous cross-fertilization of ideas, from one discipline to another.

When I first walked into Amoco’s Research Center in Tulsa in 1980, they said, “We have a call from our Denver office for help.” I had been assigned to the Rock Properties group, and Denver had asked if we could go out there to look at some data coming from offshore California; was there anything we could see in the data to give them an edge in the upcoming licensing round?

So it was a complete fishing expedition! The situation in 1980 was that it was a boom time - that’s why they were hiring people like me, with none of the requisite credentials - and we were losing a lot of good people, senior people, to independents who were offering them commissions on their discoveries.. We were exploring (in complicated areas, like the overthrust belt, and offshore California) using new hires, who basically hadn’t seen much data, didn’t know much about our business.

But my boss was a former explorationist, with a lot of experience, so he knew more than the exploration team did. He and I went out to Denver, and looked at this Santa Barbara Channel data. They had these crossing 2D marine lines, and my boss saw immediately that, at the tie point, they did not tie in amplitude. So he said, “What’s this?”, pointing. The kids on the exploration team had never noticed it - they were just kids, with Bachelor’s degrees and a couple of years of experience.

So he looked at me and asked what I thought of it, and I answered that it looked like some kind of anisotropy. (If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail!) He asked, “What could cause anisotropy like that?”

I answered, “I don’t know, maybe oriented fractures.”, because this was a situation where fractures were expected.

He asked, “Do you know anything about that?”

I answered, “No,” because in the deep earth there are no fractures, “but I can figure it out.”

So we went back home, and in about four weeks I figured out most of what I’m well known for today! It was a good four weeks! <laughter> And then I phoned up the kids in Denver and said, “Good news, I solved your problem.”

And they said, “ Which problem was that?” Because, of course they had no faith that any of these pointy-headed folks from the Research Center could be of any practical help, and so they had made their own interpretation, in classical terms, ignoring the mistie in amplitudes.

But I thought it was cool, so I wrote it up in an internal report and put it on the shelf. This was what we would call today “azimuthally variable P-wave AVO”. Of course we didn’t have any of those words in our vocabulary at that time. (We actually saw it only on the stack, because we didn’t have prestack data available.) Of course, it was not a practical idea, in that 2D era, since it was only applicable at the crossing point of 2D lines. Soon after that, we heard rumors about Mobil’s ability to detect shear waves from amplitudes, and shortly we figured out what they were doing, in terms of isotropic AVO. So, we actually were using azimuthal AVO (to find fractures), even before we used isotropic AVO to find fluids!

Very soon after that, Heloise Lynn from our Houston office called us up, and brought to our attention a dataset involving crossing shear wave lines, which showed what we now describe as azimuthal anisotropy in shear waves, or shear wave splitting. Since that can be seen in a 2D survey (if you have two orientations of source polarization, or 2C receivers, or both), it’s a better technique for 2D.

So we dropped the P-wave azimuthal AVO thing immediately, and concentrated on the shear waves. Eventually 3D came, and then wide-azimuth 3D, and now I think it’s a great way of finding fractures, and characterizing fractures in situ, if you have the proper acquisition. And, those early shear wave studies prepared us for our later discoveries in converted-wave exploration.

That took us a long way off your question, but it is a coherent, integrated story! <laughter>

[Satinder]: Well, you have answered my next couple of questions also!

[Rob]: Let me ask a follow-up to the previous question: how did you find the transition? I don’t have a feel for the nostalgic days of Sven Treitel and all that.

Well, we had a wonderful research environment at Amoco in Tulsa, and it was due mostly to Sven, and the cadre of bright young people he had collected around him, and also to his boss, whom you might not know. His name was Mike Waller, and he was VP of Research at Tulsa. It’s my understanding from what other people said, that we had the finest research center in the industry, in geophysics anyway, and I credit mostly those two guys for the environment they created and the great people they collected around them. You’d probably know most of the names , but if I were to start naming them, I might forget some, so I won’t start.

[Ron]: But was it a dramatic transition from the academic world?

Because it was such a great research environment, I found the change pretty minor. We really had a lot of talented people. And we were doing things, you see, that were not prescribed to us. We were not doing things according to project-to-project funding; we had the freedom to follow our noses. Some of these have turned out, over the years, to be rather valuable. Every year, at performance- review time, my boss would say, “Well, you didn’t do what you said you were going to do. But what you did was pretty good stuff; keep up the good work!”

I don’t know if that kind of free enquiry is encouraged at very many places today. We were sometimes accused of doing self-indulgent, “blue sky” research, but that was a bum rap. It is my view that nobody there was working on anything that was not directly motivated by his vision of profitability for the company. We didn’t expect to have payoff for our ideas this quarter, but we did expect that it would pay off for the company sooner or later, and a certain number of ideas did. In fact, the good ideas did pay for the entire effort, although it was not clear at the beginning just which ideas were the good ones (that is a characteristic of research, as opposed to development.)

[Satinder]: Do you still enjoy the feeling of discovering something new, and demonstrating its effectiveness to people?

Yes, I do. I’m more conscious now than I was before of the bearing of economics in our business, but the thrill of discovering something new is still with me. As a matter of fact, just in the process of preparing the notes for this Distinguished Short Course I’m offering, I solved a problem that had been waiting to be solved for almost a hundred years. I’m not sure if it’s going to be useful, because it involves an exotic phenomenon of anisotropic shear waves. But the point is, that we didn’t have any way of using this phenomenon before, because the exact solution of the problem was too complicated. But I discovered a simplification, an approximation, that reduced a sixth order equation in four elastic constants down to one line that you can write with three symbols, so that anybody can understand it. Now we can work with these ideas in our minds, and look for the effects in our data, and who knows, they might turn out to be important.

[Oliver]: What is the promise of anisotropy?

Well, I don’t want to tip my hand for the DISC offering tomorrow! But here’s the basic idea, Oliver. Seismic waves travel as vectors through anisotropic materials. If we ignore that, then we lose the ability to profit from some of the information they carry. It’s always better to be more realistic than less realistic. Of course, you always have to make simplifying approximations; in fact, the Art of Geophysics lies in finding the appropriate approximation. Although those approximations are usually made in a way that is correct at the time, they are often retained longer than they deserve.

For example, we’ve been exploring and finding a lot of oil using acoustic wave propagation, isotropic acoustic wave propagation, for 50 years, and look at the tremendous amount of oil that we’ve found, and the tremendous amount of progress we’ve made with that. And yet we know ultimately that it must be wrong, because we know waves travel as vectors in anisotropic rocks. If we could now take advantage of the facts that, number one, we have all this acoustic experience under our belt, so we’re smarter; number two, our computers are better; and number three, our data are better. If we could take advantage of that so that we have a more realistic paradigm of wave propagation in the earth, I have no doubt whatsoever that it’ll help us do a better job of finding oil and gas.

[Oliver]: Why do you think we’ve been able to get away with it for so long?

Well, of course the anisotropy is weak. In almost all cases the anisotropy is weak, so as an acceptable approximation, you ignore it. So that works for you, you stick with it, you refine your ability to handle complex macrostructures; you learn how to do depth migration, and you sort of brush aside errors that show up. But, eventually you have to confront these errors, instead of ignoring them.

Let me expand on that, through a related issue: we always ignore attenuation in the earth, even though we know that it happens. (As a matter of fact, it’s a very good thing it happens, because if it didn’t happen, all the sounds that were ever made in the earth would still be with us! <laughter> We couldn’t hear ourselves think because of all the dinosaurs stomping around!) Attenuation is a second order effect that is crucial to our business. We know about it, we see it every day in our data, at long record-lengths we lose the high frequencies, but we don’t force our data to fit that - we don’t seek an explanation in terms of elastic theory. So we set that aside, “It’s a short coming of our theory, never mind, we understand that, it’s not crucial to us,” we just don’t worry about it.

Leon Thomsen

But here’s another one: when we do our best depth migration, with a good velocity estimation using our best methods,we get a depth image that often turns out to have the wrong depths. Now, this is a real problem. I think you guys know that the answer, at least in part, is due to anisotropy. So there is an example where, when we learn how to more accurately describe how sound propagates in the earth, we’ll actually be able to do a better job.

Let’s extend that line of thought. I gave you two excellent examples - one of errors we could ignore, and one of errors we ought to learn to take advantage of, and now of errors where we absolutely have to do better, such as this business of azimuthally variable AVO. There’s an example where it offers a new tool to find out something about the subsurface that is important to our business. In this case, and several others, the anisotropy makes a first-order effect, even though it is weak. The anisotropic effect is magnified, since all of the terms in the reflectivity equation are small, and the weak anisotropy term is no smaller than the others.

[Oliver]: The anisotropy one is funny, because it’s so obvious in hindsight. I remember back when I started in the 80’s, I must have spent a million hours picking velocity semblances, and a lot of the events just can’t be corrected flat - and yet we’re out on the plains, so we know it’s not something to do with floating datum issues, or topography issues, or structural issues. I’d ask people, and they’d answer, “Oh, it’s just that’s something - just mute it out.” <laughter>

[Satinder]: With regards to anisotropy, where are we, at present? Are we right at the edge, or have we a long way to go?

I think we are in adolescence. I think especially with regard to polar anisotropy, which used to be called “VTI”, we are well advanced, although it is uneven. I think most of our firms (who want to) can do migration with a polar anisotropic velocity structure, if only they know the parameters. That’s the hard part, determining the parameters. We’re not very good at that. We’re especially poor at handling anisotropy of the azimuthal sort, because most of our thinking is 2D thinking, extrapolated to narrow-azimuth 3D, and well adapted to towed streamer acquisition.

When you think about that, many of the concepts we have developed with that kind of acquisition, which are scalars (like velocity for example), need to be vectors in the case of wide-azimuth acquisition. As a matter of fact, even the concept of offset needs to be a vector concept, it can’t just be a scalar. When you consider all the fundamental rethinking that has to be done to enable us to properly migrate wide-azimuth data of the sort that we can now acquire (both on sea as well as on land), then you can see there’s a long way to go.

We have barely taken the first baby steps in dealing with simultaneous complicated structure and complicated anisotropy. We can do one without the other fairly well, but when both are present together, we are just beginning. What that means is that the young people in our discipline can look forward to many years of progress still, in learning how to get the most out of seismic data, through properly imaging and characterizing the subsurface.

[Rob]: Just a cultural thing - you’ve come here to Calgary to give your class. There’s a potential 255 seats, and now there’s a waiting list for people to get in. My personal observation here in Canada is that a few years ago people almost considered anisotropy to be a swear word, but now it’s more like a buzzword. People want to know about it, they want to learn about it. Have you noticed this kind of thing worldwide?

I have been consistently surprised and pleased to see the large turnouts for my course. Here in Canada we have a particularly difficult application of anisotropy, and some of the important light on that has been shed by your work, Rob. I remember when I first came into this business it was a miracle when we were able to place a well properly in an overthrust environment, because of the complicated structures. We’ve learned how to solve that problem, but now in the last few years we’ve learned how to solve it better, using the model of tilted polar anisotropy in the overburden. When we do that, we find we avoid misplacing our wells. Looking here at last month’s RECORDER (March 2002), I see a couple of articles by Isaac, Lines, and Lawton, and that’s exactly what they’re talking about - proper imaging in the context of tilted polar anisotropy. So if you guys are looking for small targets in that kind of a context, that’s exactly what you need.

[Rob]: Do you think because Canada has a particularly difficult imaging problem with anisotropy, does it look like more of a focus on anisotropy here in Canada than you’ve seen in other places?

Well maybe that’s one reason, although I don’t suppose everyone is interested in that sort of a play. But I’ll tell you one other insight I had from the time when Amoco bought Dome; it must have been 18 or 20 years ago now. It was my impression that the people that came along were really smart people, exceedingly well educated and very bright. I remember saying at the time that the people were more valuable than the assets in the ground! I think the reason for that is that you have such a good education system here in Canada, and most of the Canadian-trained geophysicists have a very good background in mathematics and physics, and so are mentally able to respond to this challenge (of a need for a more realistic subsurface rock model). Just a guess!

[Rob]: Cool, that’s flattering - I’ll take it! <laughter> What about other parts of the world as far as applications of anisotropy are concerned, are there others beside the two you mentioned - imaging in complex structures, which is big here, and amplitude versus azimuth?

There are lots of anisotropic effects in our data, and I presume, Rob, that you know most of them. In my course I talk about most of them, and it takes me 8 hours to cover all that! Maybe I ought to defer that question until tomorrow! <laughter>

But as a generalization, we need these sorts of advanced geophysical ideas as we acquire better data, and expect more from that data.

For example we routinely record longer offsets. When I joined this business it was common to have 3 kilometer maximum offsets, but now it’s extremely rare to be limited to 3 km offsets. Why do we have such long offsets? We don’t have them to search for anisotropy, usually we acquire them to gain AVO leverage. But then when we’ve got them, what do we do with them? We find that, as you were saying, the long gathers are not flat. In order to deal with this, we’ve got to learn how to deal with anisotropy. That scenario is repeated over and over - the better quality of data that we have (often driven by different considerations than the search for anisotropy), the more often anisotropy shows up. So, we have to solve that problem before we can address the problem we thought we were following. And sometimes this better data reveals something completely new, like the azimuthal variation of AVO.

[Satinder]: I’ve heard people talk about frequency dependent anisotropy; how does it differ from normal anisotropy?

Well, anisotropy is normally frequency dependent, but normally we don’t have the bandwidth to see it.

[Satinder]: But why are we specifically talking about frequency dependent anisotropy now?

Well I think the context you’re talking about is the borehole, where the anisotropy being measured is the azimuthal anisotropy of shear waves. The measurement is done with a dipole source in the borehole, which excites a torsional wave in the borehole, which is detected by a dipole receiver. It’s not a body shear wave; instead the whole borehole moves in torsion, so it’s like a surface wave. The amplitude of it dies out radially away from the borehole, in a wavelength-dependent way, with low wavelengths reaching further out into the untapped formation than the high wavelengths. If you figure that the borehole is an anomalous region (since it has a surface free of shear stress, at the borehole wall all the principal stress components are lined up radially, so that’s clearly an anomalous place) then the further the wave reaches into the formation, away from the borehole, the more it sees a native anisotropy, unaffected by the borehole. So we should call it wavelength-dependent anisotropy instead of frequency-dependent anisotropy, but the two are coupled in an obvious way.

[Satinder]: How does this anisotropy vary with the porosity of a particular lithology?

I have a slide on that to show you tomorrow! Think of a shale as it’s first formed on the sea floor with a porosity of 60 or 70%. It will be composed mainly of clay particles, which are shaped like little plates. They won’t necessarily be lying flat; since if they were all lying flat, there wouldn’t be any significant porosity. So they’re probably like a house of cards. You might be wondering if a clay platelet settles down through the water, how can it land vertically on a flat surface? Well the answer is the surface isn’t flat - the surface has all sorts of topography at that small scale. So the initial structure is like a house of cards.

As it’s axially compacted, the platelets don’t just crumple up in compaction. If you look at any compacted shale, you see that the clay particles tend to become aligned. Because of uniaxial compression, the minerals are more aligned, and the complementary pore space is also aligned. You can see how, during that process, the anisotropy grows. So that’s sort of a hand-wavy argument, but I’ll show you some recent data tomorrow at the course to back that argument up.

[Oliver]: Speaking of the course, let me switch topics a bit, and ask you about that. Is this the first stop?

No, no. This will be the 5th stop. I presented the course once for practice within BP in December, just after I finished the book. That was an amazing thing, because I was scheduled to give the first offering of the course in Mumbai on January 6, and that was only 3 weeks later. I knew that I needed to have a practice session inside BP. So on 3 days notice I emailed a bunch of folks, saying, “I’m going to have this practice session, come along if you’d like.” Now, this was the party season, pre-Christmas, and I expected only 3 or 4 of my friends, those who really owed me, to show up <laughter>. But in fact, 45 people showed up in Houston, plus 3 more in Sunbury, and 5 more in Anchorage, via video conference links.

The guys in these other time zones really had to distort their schedules in order to attend the course - the guys in Anchorage had to get up at 4 in the morning; the guys in Sunbury had to stay until midnight. They gave me some great feedback, and I gained a lot of improvement on the course right there, among friends. Then I presented it in Mumbai, and they were very polite, but I would not say it was a particularly smooth presentation.

Then there was a gap of several weeks while they printed the book. It went to press on a Saturday, and the following Monday I presented to 225 people in Houston. A tough audience, a lot of experts, a number of former Distinguished Instructors in the audience. They seemed to like it, so I began to gain some confidence that maybe it was not a bad course.

The next day I left for Germany, where I gave a course in Hannover. That was also a tough audience, because Klaus Helbig was there, one of the fathers of anisotropy. Then last week I gave it in Midland. Midland is a mature province, in “harvest” mode, and you might think that people there would not be particularly interested in advanced geophysics , but 60 people showed up! It was amazing, and they had very good questions, a very alert audience.

Now you’re telling me, “250 people with a wait list” here in Canada, and I’m beginning to think it’s not surprising. When you look at the SEG abstracts, and scan down the list, how many do you think involve anisotropy? Something like 20% of the papers these days involve anisotropy. When I first started, it was like 2%. We are becoming mainstream.

[Oliver]: I think also I’ve seen a trend away from the situation 20 years ago where technical people thought that, to advance their careers, they needed to get into management. A lot of those people have come back to technical work, and they feel it’s very important to stay on top of things technically, because that’s their job security, that’s what makes them more employable.

I think that’s true. If you are a manager, then your contribution to that company comes from knowing the system of that company. That can be very valuable to that company, but what use is it to another company? By contrast, if you’re a technology-oriented person, your talents are transferable. If your present company decides it doesn’t need that expertise, then some other company probably will. And, of course, technical people always need to keep updating their skills, so they need to attend conferences, and continuing ed courses, as well as to read the journals.

I should say also that it’s very healthy to have managers who are astute in the science. Virtually every decision a manager needs to make in our business has a technical component, so managers who are not technically astute are more likely to make poor decisions. So it’s good to see managers, who have strong managerial skills, attend these technical courses.

[Oliver]: I think it was last year that I found out Bombay had been renamed Mumbai, when we interviewed Fred Hilterman and he talked about his course. I was like, “Mumbai, where’s Mumbai?” Kind of behind the times! <laughter>

Bombay is one of these colonial words. It comes from the Portuguese, meaning “good bay”. So you can’t blame people for deciding 400 years of colonialism is enough! <laughter>

[Satinder]: You have done most of your work with the Amoco Research Center. Now with R & D funding becoming more and more scarce in our industry, how do you think this type research is going to get done in the future?

Research is not very expensive actually; the early stages of research require mainly thinking and computing, and are not that expensive. Usually you can do it with existing data; in fact usually it’s driven by existing data. What makes it look expensive is that a lot of it doesn’t work out. But the parts that do work out can be fabulously successful and pay for the whole effort. Of course, you don’t know, in advance, which projects will be the successes, so you have to fund them all. The key to minimizing wasted resources is to hire the best people you can, tell them you expect them to be world leaders in their specialty, and then make sure that they know which problems are important to the business. You do this by also requiring each one to also do some technical service, actually talking to the people who apply the existing technology.

So the first stages of research can be done at lots of companies, and of course I shouldn’t neglect the universities. (As a matter of fact, they may be the most important part.) Because that’s not so expensive, I think there are many opportunities to do that kind of work.

The hard question is, who’s going to do the large-scale experiments that prove an idea is true, and it’s feasible, and it’s economically important; such experiments are usually expensive. And then the final idea is, that once the idea is proven to work, you put a lot of resources into actually applying the results, throughout the business. And, you do this even if the original idea came from somewhere else. That is where the economic payoff is.

It’s my view that BP has a pretty good handle on this. We don’t have a research center; instead we have a technology group, of which I’m a part. We have large concentrations of technology people in Houston, in London, in Aberdeen, and a few in Anchorage. These people are generally located close to operational business units; they’re not in some distant place like Tulsa. We’re in the same office complex as our colleagues whose jobs are to find oil, this quarter, and we talk to these people every day. Being close to them and their data and their problems, I think that when we do research, we do a better job of research because of it. It’s a very rare case where any of us in the technology group have research as our entire mission. Most of us do some combination of research and tech service.

When I left Amoco’s Research Center, about 6 years ago, and joined our exploration department in Houston, I immediately got involved in the possibility of doing converted wave exploration in the marine environment. This happened only because I was in Houston, not in Tulsa. At that time I became convinced that being close to the people with the exploration problems was really important.

Later on, when BP and Amoco merged, I was very amenable to BP’s idea of having research people distributed throughout the company. In many cases, our research people don’t work for the technology group, instead they work for a business unit. There are often very good partnerships between us in the technology group and our colleagues in the business units.

Each of the business group leaders has the mandate from CEO Lord Browne to produce so much oil and so much profit, while (of course) adhering to the HSE policies. These are all very strong goals, very strong targets to be met. Many of our business unit leaders look down the road and see they aren’t going to be able to meet these targets, this next year or the year after that, unless they start now to learn to solve certain problems. So they pay some of their people to work on solving those future problems, instead of finding oil this quarter.

This has its best expression when it comes time to do a field scale experiment to prove up an idea. This is normally done with full business unit participation and leadership. One of our business units will say, “We really need this particular problem to be solved; let’s work on it together.” Then a year or two later we get ready to do a field trial, and we do it together

[Oliver]: So overall, you like the new look of research, the distributed look, and you’re not lamenting the loss of the research center - it was good, but this is pretty good too?

That’s right. Amoco’s Tulsa Research Center was good primarily because of individual leadership from Sven Treitel and Mike Waller. Once those guys retired, it wasn’t so good. So I believe that, if Sven was working for us today, he’d be working alongside me, in Houston’s upstream technology group, and he’d establish the same sort of dynamite environment today that he did back in those days.

[Oliver]: That’s interesting. I just finished editing Bee Bednar’s interview; actually, not just him, a lot of the folks down south talk about this sort of golden age, that it’s all lost, and things are going to seed, so it’s refreshing to hear you speak positively about the state of research - there’s still good research going on, and it’s working well, in most cases.

I would say it’s a smaller effort now, surely, than it was then, because so many research centers have closed. On the other hand, I think it’s true that, whereas at Amoco we did some great research, we were not very good, back in those days, at managing our research.. Let me give you an example, from my own experience. I mentioned earlier that I had been in the middle of Amoco’s early AVO research; in fact I authored our first internal research report on the topic, in 1981. In that report, I described what we now call Elastic Impedance, or more precisely “Extended Elastic Impedance”, although of course the name was different. But, I could not get Amoco interested in it, and the AVO project was transferred into other hands, where this particular idea was never pursued.

Many years subsequently, Pat Connolly of BP had the same idea, but (unlike me) he was able to convince his company that it was useful, and BP has benefited substantially from this work. Pat received the SEG’s Kaufman Award for his work last year, and he deserved it, not only for inventing good technology, but also for getting his company to use it. At Amoco, we often failed at that stage of actually putting our good ideas to use.

I’ll tell you about one other thing we do at today’s BP; we have what we call an Innovation Fund, standing at several million dollars a year. Anybody with any idea of any sort can apply to a committee of his peers, no managers here, just guys like us, and get himself $50,000 or so to prove the feasibility of his idea. Or, he can get a couple of hundred thousand to do a trial of some sort. That’s our way of enabling all sorts of “off the wall” ideas to get a chance to fly.. It’s completely unstructured, that is to say these are typically ideas that no business unit is interested in because they’re too bizarre for them, but here stands the Innovation Board that’s willing to offer seed money for a wide variety of ideas. It’s been very successful: we generally get several hundred ideas every year, of which a significant fraction are funded at some level, and of which a very small fraction are fabulously successful and pay for the whole thing.

[Oliver]: Let me ask you about the BP-Amoco merger. First of all, from a narrow technical perspective, within your technical peer group how has it gone, and then in a broader sense, have the two cultures come together well?

We were the first of the recent major mergers, as you may recall. As an insider at Amoco for many years, and my father before me, I was skeptical about the new company. At the time of the merger, BP had a reputation for having hollowed itself out, and letting go most of its talent and technology, dissolving its research center and so on. So we went into this with a lot of trepidation. But on the other hand, we recognized that Amoco was failing as a company - we had terrific technology but we didn’t manage it very well. As you know, it takes more than good technology to have a successful company, and we weren’t doing very well financially. So I think that despite our doubts, most technically oriented people went into the merger saying, “Well, let’s see how this is going to work out.”

In my view it’s worked out extremely well - an extremely rapid integration of cultures, with very vigorous, intellectual debates on how to manage technology. Out of that has come a real increase of understanding on both sides. As a result of those discussions, for example, our geophysical technical people in Houston and Tulsa were given a chance to show that we could make a positive contribution, and now we’re widely viewed as central to a successful operation.

Let me expand on that. At the time of the merger both BP and Amoco were very successful explorers, but with very different strategies. BP’s strategy was to do fundamental basin analysis; then to buy the best acreage in the best basins, whatever it cost to get in there; then to explore it with very ordinary geophysical technology. Amoco’s strategy was to get the cheapest acreage; and then to explore it with the best technology we could bring to bear. So BP was “doing the right things”, and Amoco was “doing things right”! Now, in today’s BP, we’re “doing the right things right”!

Since the merger, we’ve been extremely successful at finding oil. I expect we’ll continue to be successful because we’re now applying the best technology in the best areas. It’s paid off for us.

[Satinder]: Do you have any unfulfilled dreams?

That’s a tough question! I’ve never been much of a dreamer. I see so many non-linearities in life that I don’t aspire to look too far ahead. I sort of look 5 steps down the road, instead of 1 step or 5 miles. I’m not a dreamer.

[Satinder]: Would you like to share something about your personal life?

Well, my wife Pat and I have been married 36 years; she’s the love of my life. She’s very supportive and very important to my success. She always gives me good advice, and honest advice. I think many of our wives are like that. It’s been my observation that most of my colleagues have long, stable marriages. I think that, as a profession, we’re probably unusual in this respect. I don’t know why that is, but I do remember...

[Oliver]: Maybe because our jobs are so unstable - we’ve got to hang on to one thing that has stability. <laughter>

Well, that may be. Let me tell you this amusing story. I was at a convention once, and in the lobby of the hotel, late at night, after midnight, walking through the lobby. I was not with my wife at the time; I was with a bunch of colleagues. And there were a couple of hookers in the lobby sitting on the couch complaining how lousy business was. One of them said to the other, “What are these guys, anyway? [it was a convention, that’s all they knew] Why aren’t they interested in us?” And the other says, “They call themselves gee-oh-fizz-uh-cysts, but I don’t know what’s wrong with them.”

[Satinder]: You’re a geophysicist, your father was a geophysicist, how about your children?

Well, we didn’t have children. It’s probably the biggest disappointment in my life. On the other hand, it’s been my observation that although children are a great blessing, they are a mixed blessing. My wife and I have had the other half of that mixture. I think we’re closer as a couple because we didn’t have any children. I think without a doubt it’s true that, when you’re sharing your love among a larger family, each one gets less.

My father was a geophysicist (he’s gone now), a well-respected oil-finder. In addition, he was the one that discovered Bright Spots for Amoco, in the 1950’s, long before it was known elsewhere in the industry. That discovery was ignored within the company, because his job was to follow the recipe, not to think of new ideas (an early example of poor management of technology by Amoco!). After Mobil invented Bright Spots, he became a local hero within Amoco. Because of that legacy, they took a chance on hiring me, even though I didn’t have any of the standard qualifications.

That first episode I told you about, discovering azimuthal anisotropy in P-AVO, was observed in amplitude anomalies on the stack, so I thought that was an amazing extension of the work my father had done. That was an idea before its time, but my father’s idea was well before its time. When he first had the idea about Bright Spots, he was exploring the onshore American Gulf Coast. In those days, they were exploring with dynamite, and they controlled the gain with a Good Ol’ Boy, in a computing doghouse, moving the rheostat like this <hand motions> with a practiced flip of his wrist. In those conditions of amplitude control, you can imagine that...

[Rob]: That was time-variant gain?

Yes. <laughter> They knew that their target was at about 3 seconds, so they were going like this. <hand motions> Everybody who knew anything about it was saying, “Amplitudes don’t mean anything.” But my father knew as much as any of them, because in those days geophysicists moved with the crews. He moved 34 times in his lifetime; he followed the crews, and he was out there all the time. He knew about the difficulties, yet he saw there was a correlation between amplitude and eventual successful discoveries. Some ideas are so good they are obvious even though the data doesn’t support it, in the strict sense.

[Oliver]: So did you grow up in Houston?

No, I didn’t grow up in Houston, I moved 14 times before I left my father’s house. In those days they were exploring all over the American southwest - East Texas, West Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma.

[Oliver]: So generally the family went along with the crews?

Absolutely. I grew up in the days of the Doodlebugger. I see here in the March RECORDER there’s something about the 50th anniversary of the Doodlebug; is it the 50th anniversary of the use of the word “Doodlebugger”?

No, it is a golf tournament. When they first named the golf tournament, it was with permission from G.S.I. - I guess they owned the name.

Maybe they owned the name, but their ownership sort of got lost over the years. In those Doodlebugger days, it was common for my father to come home on Friday and say, “We’re moving on Monday.” So, we packed up and moved. It never occurred to me to complain, we just did it. So, I have limited sympathy for my colleagues who experience great angst in asking their kids to move with them to the new job, leaving behind all their friends. I did it, many times, and it did me no permanent harm (although some will say that these early experiences might explain some of my personality defects!)

[Satinder]: Well, despite those defects, we thank you for giving us this opportunity to talk with you; we really appreciate it.

It’s a pleasure.


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