“Whatever you decide to do in life, you should do it with passion…”

An interview with Mike Bahorich

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Vince Law

Mike Bahorich, a familiar name in the geophysical world for his invention of the Coherence Cube, was in Calgary recently. Having worked as an explorer, geophysical interpreter, development geophysicist, seismic processor, stratigrapher, researcher, software developer and research supervisor, Mike is presently Executive Vice-President Exploration & Production Technology with Apache Corporation, and is also the current SEG president.

Ron Larson, CSEG Director Communications, helped coordinate this meeting with Mike. They were joined by Satinder, Jason and Vince to participate in the discussion. Mike was very encouraging in sharing his impressions and opinions on different topics. The following are excerpts from the discussion.

[Satinder]: Mike, tell us about your educational background?

I have a B.S in geology from the U. of Mo. Columbia, and an M.S. in geophysics from Virginia Polytech.

[Satinder]: So, you do not lend credence to the notion that a Ph.D. degree is a necessity for doing R & D work?

I believe in the value of education at any level. A Ph.D. is helpful for obtaining a job as a researcher and provides research experience that can be a great foundation to build on.

[Satinder]: Within Apache, what are your responsibilities as Executive Vice-President Exploration & Production Technology?

I work with a talented group of technology experts who help Apache find new reserves and lower finding and developing costs.

[Ron]: Starting at Apache in late 1996, that was pretty hard at the heels of... what I expect heady days of coherence technology. Would you comment on that a little bit?

The work that I did in coherence really started with the interval attribute mapping I developed in the late 1980s and later patented. Amoco management noted that I was interested in technical things, so they decided to send me to the research lab in Tulsa which I enjoyed very much. I was doing further research on interval attributes when a geophysicist brought in a 2D dataset with diapirs and said, “Your interval attribute mapping technique isn’t working because I can see the diapirs on the seismic lines but I can’t see them very well on the maps generated with your software.” So, I started working on a different attribute that would show the areas of low signal and developed a 2D coherence attribute. It worked pretty well identifying the diapirs. I later ran the 2D algorithm on a 3D dataset. You could see the diapirs and you could also start to see something that looked like faults but they weren’t very clear. When I ran the algorithm on the crosslines, I could see the faults perpendicular to the initial faults which were no longer visible. I then developed a 3D algorithm from that so that faults would be visible in 3D. It was interesting that I was working with a geologist and a geophysicist at the time who were both interested in the results. The geologist said, ‘Oh my goodness, those faults are showing up nicely.’ The geophysicist said, ‘You can’t see faults with attributes’.

At about that time, the future of the Tulsa research lab was in question, and so I returned to Denver for two-and-a-half years as a geoscientist and later as an exploration manager. It was 1995 when Amoco approved publication of the Coherence Cube paper first as an oral paper at the SEG in Russia and then in “The Leading Edge.”

I was working as an exploration Manager and writing the publication on the side. And I can remember arguing that once people see this concept, there will be a number of people that will be able to duplicate this very, very easily; because there are a variety of ways this can be done. And in fact I told a group of researchers that the only thing I am certain about is that the cross correlation algorithm that I developed is not the best way to do it. This initial algorithm produced some pretty spectacular images that hung in the offices of Coherence Technology Corporation for years. I used these images to attract more talented researchers than me, including Kurt Marfurt and Adam Gerstenkorn, who could apply more sophisticated mathematics to the problem. Adam has a Ph.D. in math and I encouraged him to drop his basin modeling project and come to work on the coherence project. He and Kurt later developed the Eigen code which was an improvement on what I did.

Other improvements have been generated since that time. In my original patent, a two-stage process is described — the first stage is to calculate coherence and the second stage is to use a larger operator to enhance certain geometric shapes. For example, if you are looking for a fault, the second operator would be a larger planar operator that would enhance fault planes. We never coded up the second stage operator. More recently, other researchers have come up with improvements based on their own development of concepts like this and we now have fault enhancement techniques that are a lot better than anything we had available at that time. Also, there are better implementations, ideas, and concepts than we had at the time.

[Ron]: Technology evolves.

Yes, it does.

[Satinder]: Coherence Cube technology fetched you the Virgil Kaufman Gold Medal from SEG. Could you tell us about other significant discoveries you have made?

In terms of R & D, I mentioned the interval attribute mapping patent which later became Landmark’s PostStack/Pal. At Apache we have been working on a few things on the side. We have two patents pending on different algorithms for spectral decomposition and one of those is mine.

[Satinder]: Is it the Landmark one?

It is one of the features on the Landmark one. The original spectral decomposition work was done by Greg Partyka, a Canadian, and a terrific geophysicist who really should be recognized for this invention. The work done since that time has been fairly modest I think. In essence, the idea that Greg came up with was fantastic and a truly new concept.

[Jason]: Any regrets for moving away from R & D and progressing further in your career?

No regrets at all. I really enjoyed every minute of R & D, but I have really enjoyed my position at Apache as well, because it has given me an opportunity to be involved in a variety of things including the business side. As an officer, I have had the opportunity to see all of the critical activities going on within the company and to be a part of them. That’s another aspect of my career I have enjoyed very much. I guess in looking back, I enjoyed R & D and exploration, and I enjoy my current job as well.

[Satinder]: Tell us about some of the new technology ideas you are experimenting with?

Apache provides a great environment to try new things. We have used high altitude helicopter weight drops as a seismic source which may provide a way to lower the cost of remote heliportable operations. Another thing we have done at Apache is attempt to load seismic gathers for all active project areas. We have 30TB of storage that should be filled up fairly soon with seismic data. This enables us to quickly review prestack data over a prospect to ensure we know what the stack represents. It also provides the opportunity to quickly tweak the velocities and statics if needed. Regarding seismic technology, I am interested in the improvements that are coming in seismic acquisition hardware which enable higher channel counts, especially the recording of individual geophones. I have seen a number of examples where increased channel counts provide clear benefits, and there are a number of seismic contractors are working on variations of this idea. I realize traces are expensive in Alberta and British Columbia, but seismic acquisition systems with a lot of channels are going to make traces cheaper. I was recently talking with Sam Allen, a former SEG president who had published a paper in Geophysics in 1980 detailing the value of increased channel counts, which at the time averaged about 100. It reminds you of what is happening in the computer business with Moore’s Law.

I am also very interested in the inversion of seismic data to rock properties. Some talented people at Apache have been doing some very interesting research in that area with a service company. Since we have limited staff, it’s been beneficial for us to work closely with service company researchers and I think the benefits have been on both sides.

[Ron]: In the different sessions, papers and discussion about the direction of research in business with fewer of the large companies doing real active research, consortia are coming into play, that kind of stuff. Are you finding from your perspective, say Apache’s rather than SEG perspective that that kind of project based research is working for you?

I think it is working for us at Apache. I will also say that it is a shame in many ways that we have seen a huge decline in oil company research. Oil companies have specific problems that they need to solve and a team of researchers focused on critical problems generate significant benefits. The problem has been an economic one: The improvements the oil company labs have made have benefited companies that have not made the investment in R&D. The rest of the industry has been able to get quite a bit of benefit without spending any money. So, it becomes a situation where no company wants to spend the money because they will get the benefit from somebody else’s spending.

Many have asked the service side to pick up the research, but in reality the larger service companies are stretched very thin in terms of their margins. So they have not been able to take risks associated with R&D. What they’ve ended up doing is buying the small technology companies that have proven technology likely to offer growth potential.

[Satinder]: Some years ago BP launched an initiative ‘Deep Look’ which was an industry consortium to develop technology that could provide information about the fluids and reservoir properties farther away from the well bore. Do you think such a thing is beneficial, remembering that some of the consortia members are competitors, so this won’t be technology that gives one an edge over the other?

I think research consortia are a very good idea not only because it is a good way to bring in money but because it is a good way to bring in a lot of ideas. A number of different companies offer different perspectives and gathering these ideas along with funds to do something with them makes sense. Consortia research is a lot cheaper than individual oil company research, and provides the added benefit of more ideas in the system. Of course, it puts the consortia in the business of raising money and some talented scientists are not interested in that.

[Satinder]: So, it will benefit the oil companies more than the service companies?

A lot of consortia are funded by oil companies and service companies together. The technology ends up going to the service company products that are then purchased by oil companies. Everyone benefits because the oil companies get needed technology for relatively few research dollars and the service companies benefit down the road by selling products.

I think there are very few examples where oil companies have made substantial sums from licensing research; I would include the Coherence Cube as one that did not make a great deal of money. Money was paid back to Amoco, but not something significant to shareholders. I think what is more significant to oil company shareholders is the value generated from applying research. In general, oil companies shouldn’t be focusing on how to make money from their research but rather from their oil and gas assets.

[Ron]: In your responsibility for Apache and also in terms of volunteering for SEG, you see a lot of technology and you have to make decisions on what is the right stuff to deploy in certain basins and circumstances. Can you comment on the complexity of this task and how it is changing in the managerial world and where you see it going?

I am fortunate to see a lot of technology within Apache and the industry. One of my primary tasks at Apache is to recognize useful technology applied in one area and communicate this to other regions within the company. Apache has terrific people with a lot of good ideas and one of the enjoyable things about my job is to spread the word about useful technology.

[Satinder]: We heard of Apache taking over BP’s Forties Field in the North Sea. This field is probably past its prime. So, acquisition of the field at this stage suggests Apache has some innovative tools in its arsenal that it is confident it can use to boost production where BP could not. I’d like your comments on that.

I think the BP sale of Forties Field to Apache is a win-win situation because I think Forties Field is at a stage where it can be operated more efficiently by an aggressive independent like Apache. BP has a lot of other opportunities and places to put capital and Forties Field was no longer a core asset to them. On the other hand, Forties is Apache’s largest field and we will invest a significant amount of money and talent in order to see production grow. One of our core areas of expertise is to operate older fields efficiently and we intend to apply our techniques, processes, and culture to the Forties Field. A lot of what we do is not just technology but an attitude and sense of urgency about our activities. After making a huge capital investment, we work hard to get things done quickly in order to get a return on our investment. We intend to upgrade facilities and accelerate development drilling in order to generate quick production increases.

[Satinder]: Apache has had huge successes in Egypt. What do you attribute this to, the attitude or advanced technology?

I think it is both. There were some specific technologies that Apache applied in Egypt that have helped tremendously. For example, in the Western Desert we aggressively pursued a solution to the severe statics problem generated by both high velocity and low velocity conditions in the near surface. After a significant amount of testing, we found tomographic statics provided huge benefits but at the time no contractors in Egypt could do this work for us. We encouraged our contractors to send Egyptians to Houston to acquire software and training and that made a big difference. Apache improvements in seismic acquisition design have made a huge difference in the quality and cost of our seismic data. We are now using much larger templates and higher fold with better azimuth and offset distribution in an arrangement that is very efficient for the contractor. Dave Monk and August Lau in Apache’s E&P Technology Group in Houston have worked with our Apache Exploration people in Cairo and have done very good work in these areas.

Our exploration people in Cairo are extremely talented at finding oil and gas because they understand what is important and don’t waste time getting to it. They also value technology for solving specific problems. Rod Eichler has built an impressive team in Egypt.

[Ron]: There appears to be a reliance on applied project research or higher level technical analysis and not so much on pure research. That is what Dave and August do. Do you see that elsewhere?

I do see that in some companies. If you have highly talented people, like Dave and August and others in the group, it can make a huge impact. I think Apache has been successful because we have a sense of urgency while carefully controlling costs and we apply technology with the same mindset in order to generate the biggest impact for the fewest dollars. Groups like ours are critical to independents and majors alike because an organization needs many different skill sets in order to be successful. Most importantly, you need people who understand how to find oil and gas for the lowest price per barrel. As part of that effort you need technology skills that you don’t necessarily use everyday in areas such as seismic acquisition, seismic processing, and modeling. These are the skills a specialized group can bring to the table to provide a boost to the exploration and production groups.

[Satinder]: How do you like your role as SEG President?

I consider it an honour and privilege to be SEG President; I am thoroughly enjoying my term. SEG is an international organization with just under 19,000 members in 100 countries which has enabled me to meet a lot of interesting and talented people. Fifty percent of our membership is now outside of the United States. It has also been a pleasure working with the nearly 50 full-time hardworking staff in Tulsa.

[Ron]: Trying to outreach to students worldwide, how are you going to do that and secondly, the demographics of SEG membership is top heavy. Some comments on those?

First, in looking at SEG demographics it is clear we are an older technical society with a median age of 45. It is interesting that our U.S. members have a median age of 48 while our non- U.S. members have a median age of 41. As people retire, SEG membership will become predominantly non-U.S. We see growth in our profession outside the United States and a dearth of young people from the U.S. entering the field of geophysics. One of the things we did this year was to encourage students to join SEG. Through the generosity of John Gibson of Halliburton, we have been able to offer free memberships to students anywhere on the globe which has resulted in a nice increase in our student ranks. We have also recently initiated a global membership program sponsored by Apache that enables geophysicists from developing nations to join SEG at no cost. With these programs along with our “member get a member” campaign, we’ve seen SEG membership jump significantly. In fact our international membership hit another record high and if this level of growth continues we will see an all time membership high next year. Right now we are at a 17-year high.

[Satinder]: How much does serving a professional society like SEG help professionally?

I think new challenges and opportunities always help a person’s career. Volunteering time to the SEG helps people expand their professional network, exposes them to new ideas and technologies and helps develop management skills. It has been rewarding, fun, and beneficial for my career development.

[Satinder]: Apart from the students and the demographics you mentioned, are there other significant developments taking place in SEG?

We are an international society and it is important to me to reach out to SEG members across the continents. Earlier, I mentioned “SEG Global Membership” which is one facet of our services. The primary purpose for SEG is to archive and disseminate geophysical knowledge and our track record is impressive as most major geophysical innovations benefiting industry today can be traced back to our journals beginning in the 1930s. Today, the most efficient way to archive and disseminate knowledge is through the web, which easily reaches across the globe. So, one of the first things we focused on was to redo our website, which is now substantially improved. You can get to most pages in one or two clicks from our home page and you can quickly access articles back to the 1930s.

[Ron]: A similar thing is going on in the CSEG. The RECORDER and the Journal articles have also been listed in the SEG digital cumulative index.

We are currently working with a number of societies to build a web-based aggregate of geoscience knowledge. We hope to build software that would enable a user to enter a single keyword search across a number of journals and then be able to immediately download articles. People no longer want to be human search engines sifting through mountains of paper when the web is far more efficient.

[Satinder]: What has been the toughest challenge in your professional life?

When I left Amoco to join Apache, people pointed out that I was leaving a job with a staff and budget for one with no staff and no budget. I guess Steve Farris, who is Apache’s CEO, talked me into it but I can’t remember what he said at the time. When I arrived, Raymond Plank — Apache’s chairman and founder — told me that the data quality in a particular area was terrible and needed to be improved. I was about to explain why the data set was poor when I looked at his face and realized that he was not interested in reasons why things might not work. We were spending tens of millions of dollars drilling and we simply needed better data. It was also a challenge moving from exploration to research. I remember telling my wife that the purpose of research is to invent useful things and that I had no idea how I was going to come up with an idea to work on.

[Satinder]: What has been the most memorable moment in your life as a geophysicist?

The most memorable event was when I first developed the 3D coherence algorithm and looked at the initial results. I screamed at the screen.

[Ron]: Kind of a Eureka moment.

For me it was.

[Satinder]: Who inspired you the most in the geophysical industry? Any role models?

Definitely. I was always interested in the earth but was inspired to switch my major from business to geology by George Veely, a professor who taught “Introduction to Geology.” Later, I took my first physics course and loved it, wondering if I should switch to physics. I was inspired in graduate school by Cahit Coruh, Ed Robinson and John Costain at Virginia Polytech. Since beginning my industry career I have been inspired by a number of geophysicists who I worked and interacted with including Rutt Bridges, Rick Clark, Allan Skorpen, Gordon Greve and Sven Treitel.

[Ron]: When you talked about your education, you were torn between Geology and Physics and kind of fell into Geophysics. I often characterize Geophysics as an accidental career. Do you notice that?

I sit on a couple of University advisory boards where I have heard presentations explaining that many earth science students initially start with other majors and then switch after taking an introductory course. Not many young people are aware of earth science careers. In fact, many years ago I asked one of my sons at the age of 4 what he would like to do for a living. After some pondering, he replied that he wanted to be a pirate. As a parent, I find this career choice disturbing and I hope he considers other options when he attends a university.

[Ron]: Can you comment on the boards you are sitting?

I sit on advisory boards for the earth science schools at Virginia Polytech and Stanford University. The purpose of the boards is to provide an outside viewpoint from members of both industry and academia.

[Satinder]: What are your other interests?

I got through college playing in a rock and roll band for high-school proms and college dances. The highlight of my musical career was singing a jingle on the radio for a lawn care company. I got the job because my starving musician friend knew that I would play guitar and sing for free and not take any of his $100 payment. “We trim your trees and shape your shrubs, cut your grass and spray your bugs”. I still enjoy music and sometimes play worship music for church functions. My wife and three boys all play an instrument and enjoy music. I enjoy outdoor activities, love to snow-ski, water-ski, hike and camp.

[Vince]: Name of the band?

There were many different band names and all were equally ridiculous <laughter>. One was Legend, another one was Muslin Kale.

[Ron]: Any recording existed?

Not that you would want to hear. <laughter>. This year at the SEG President’s reception, we are going to have several different groups of geophysicists play all sorts of good music, from classical to rock and roll. I did learn from my friend and they will be playing for free.

[Satinder]: What are the essentials to becoming a successful geophysicist and what would be your message to young entrants to our industry?

Whatever you decide to do in life, you should do it with passion. Life is a lot more interesting and fun if you put your heart into it.

[Satinder]: Specifics for becoming a successful geophysicist?

I think it is important to get a well-rounded education with a decent background in mathematics, physics and computing. If you are interested in the oil and gas business, a background in geology with a little bit in engineering will help as well. In general, it is much better to get a broad background because many problems you face can only be solved by synthesizing different types of information. A broad technical background will help you do that.

[Satinder]: I thank you Mike for sparing your time for this discussion and it has been a pleasure talking to you. I appreciate it.

Thank you for asking. Not many people are interested in interviewing a technologist.


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