“Seismic is like democracy, there is no other alternative”

An interview with Mike Corrigan

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Mike Corrigan

Mike Corrigan is one of Calgary’s more experienced geophysicists, a veteran of over thirty years in the industry. After a few years in mining exploration, he entered the oil and gas industry as a geophysicist. Since then he has worked for nine companies in full time positions, and is currently an active consultant. Outside of work he has a passionate love for fishing, and has caught over thirty different species of fish, and had stints as a professional guide and as a professional fly tier. RECORDER editors Satinder Chopra and Oliver Kuhn were privileged to spend time with Mike gaining his fascinating perspectives on work, life and family.

(Photos courtesy: Joyce Au.)

[Satinder]: Mike let’s begin by asking you to speak about your educational background and your work experience.

Okay. I graduated from High School in Ontario in 1973. I attended Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario taking the Geologic Technician Program, and graduated in 1975. Upon graduation I started working in the Mineral Exploration end of the business, working both exploration as well as within both open pit and underground mines, and in 1977 I decided that it was time to go back to University. I graduated from the University of Waterloo in 1981 with an Honours, B.Sc. in Earth Sciences. At Waterloo the degree is more an all encompassing degree in which you are exposed to geology, geophysics, groundwater, engineering – a little bit of everything. My graduating class was about 50 people and I think 48 of them ended up in Calgary and two of us stayed back East. I got a job with Hudson’s Bay Oil and Gas (HBOG) Mining Division, and that’s basically where I started my career.

[Oliver]: I have known you for a while Mike – would it be fair to say that your career has reflected the changing face of the Calgary Oil Industry?

I would say so Oliver. As I said, I graduated and took a job in mining, and in 1982 Hudson’s Bay Oil and Gas was taken over by Dome Petroleum and our Toronto office was effectively shut which was symptomatic of what was about to happen in Calgary with the merger mania; a lot of mergers ended up working out very poorly for the oil companies.

Personally, I was transferred to Calgary and Dome asked me to be re-trained as a geophysicist. With my mining background we worked kind of soup to nuts. We did the geophysics but we also did the geology. We logged the core, planned the drilling locations, we did everything; our job titles with HBOG were as project managers. So making the transfer into geophysics was a no-brainer for me. It was something I was always very, very keen on. The mining business was totally different from oil and gas though and so I arrived in Calgary in 1983, with a pregnant wife and with the industry in a bit of upheaval. It was post – NEP and to answer your question in a round-about-way, the first part of my career was not only learning to interpret seismic data, but also learning to roll with the punches. There were wave after wave of layoffs, several rounds of pay cuts, a lot of staff movement within the industry (lots of beer buyouts at the old King Eddy) and a lot of the “older” people packaged out of the industry. So it was a time of change but a time of challenge and learning and that’s kind of been what I found throughout my career. Calgary is such a dynamic city. Like most employees, Calgary seems to be able to roll with the punches as well. As a Geophysicist you have to always be up for a challenge and be adaptable. In order to survive for 30 years in this business one needs to constantly prepare for change.

[Oliver]: So, if you had to break your career into phases would the first phase be big companies, down-sizing, merging etc., the second phase would be more juniors and start-ups and the third phase consulting perhaps?

I think that would be a fair way to put it. Looking at the industry itself, a lot of the larger companies back in the 70’s and 80’s, had work-forces of thousands of people; some even had company jets, and nurses and doctors on staff. A lot of people left the larger companies to go to the smaller ones; a lot of my colleagues at Dome and other companies ended up doing the start-up thing and it was a totally different game, a lot more hands on and I think a lot more challenging than what people expected. There were rewards all along the way, some financial and some were more technical or personal rewards.

The consulting part of my career has been the most rewarding for me personally because of the challenge. When you are a consultant, you are essentially a team of one. You are responsible for everything that goes on in your consulting practice, from computer problems to learning new software, new plays, new people and learning everything about dealing with different people’s styles and expectations. It is a matter of having the confidence to succeed. The early days of my career I wouldn’t trade for anything. There were hard economic times at Dome and we were a very young and very inexperienced group of geophysicists, but we drilled a lot of wells and we learned from our mistakes and had a lot of success despite what we didn’t know. A lot of those young geophysicists have gone on to very senior/leadership roles in Calgary and around the world. It was kind of baptism by fire and I think that really helped a lot of the professionals back then.

[Oliver]: So when you went from working within a team environment at a small company to be a consultant, did you miss the team aspect of it?

That’s a good question because that was the one thing I missed when I left Canadian Hunter (Burlington), and I’d spent twelve years there, Hunter was all about teams. When you go to the start-ups it’s all about making money and it’s not so much about doing the good technical work anymore. And that was difficult. As it turned out, I ended consulting for a lot of ex-Hunter start-ups which was very satisfying. There were a lot of other opportunities out there that I looked at and just felt it wasn’t going to be satisfying enough from a career point of view.

[Satinder]: Let me ask you this Mike, so choosing between the stability of a national oil company or a very big company, where once you get in you just simply retire from there, or a fast pace of work at a small company, private company, which one would be better from your perspective?

From my perspective the fast paced, definitely. You know, our job is all about making money for our employers but it’s also about testing ideas and I don’t know that that opportunity is there in the larger companies. You have to make mistakes and you learn from your mistakes and the only way to do that is in a fast paced environment where you are testing your ideas a lot.

[Satinder]: As you just said, you spent half your career at Hunter and you look back fondly on those years, so tell us what made your long stint at Hunter so enjoyable and satisfying?

Hunter was a very unique company to work for. It was a place where you were constantly challenged to do better. You were challenged by the people you reported to but more importantly, by yourself. We were doing a lot of things on the “bleeding” edge and a lot of things on the leading edge and so you got to see people thinking out of the box and a lot of very good intellectuals at Hunter at that time. Jim Gray and John Masters were basically funding every good idea, which almost led to Hunter’s downfall. We regrouped in 1995 and went from 450 people to 150 and became a self sufficient oil company (our parent Noranda Mines mandated that), one that had to learn how to survive on its own cash flow.

The turning point for me was sitting in a post-layoff meeting with Senior Management and they stood up in front of us all and said – we know we have to take this company in a different direction, we have some ideas but it’s the people in this room that are going to make it happen. That seemed like a daunting task, but the reality was that everybody brought their game up a little bit and we became a company that was focused on making money. The end result was a career that was a lot of work, but a lot of fun. Our attrition rate over the next number of years was basically nil which says a lot about Hunter. We lost maybe a handful of people in the next five to six years and there were no goofy ideas. We didn’t do them all but we talked about them and it was important to have everybody’s input in the decision making process, it wasn’t just one person making the decision anymore. From a job satisfaction point of view it was probably the best environment that anybody could ever ask for.

[Oliver]: So if you view the Canadian Hunter style culture as almost the perfect type of work environment, how do you feel about the trend towards companies using temporary workers, consultants – I believe contingent work-force is the term? How do you see that both from the company point of view and from the employee view?

Well, if you go back to when a lot of us started in the industry, because of salary constraints, a lot of the senior staff were let go. Nowadays, a lot of the senior staff are consulting and so the expertise is still out there. Personally, I think that not enough consultants are being used properly and I am thinking more from a mentorship point of view as opposed to pure, “down in the trenches” interpreting. I honestly believe there is a real role out there for mentors right now for the young geophysicists because you know there is a saying that, “A good geophysicist is expensive, but an inexperienced geophysicist is very expensive,” and I firmly believe that we’ve all made mistakes in our career that others can learn from. Our daughter is a geophysicist now and when I sit with her I realize how much I have learned over the past thirty years while she is just touching the tip of the iceberg on very basic stuff.

[Oliver]: I suppose what you are saying is that the more creative use of the workforce is a good way to transition from the baby boom period to the post baby period, if we do it properly.

Right, I agree with that. However, there are a lot of companies out there that just do not like consultants because of the perceived extra costs.

[Oliver]: You have been through several upturns and downturns as we all have – what are your thoughts on the whole up – down cycle now that it appears that we are coming out of this most recent downturn (we hope)?

The upturn obviously brings a lot of good people into the industry but I think it brings too many people into the industry, and then the downturns kind of flush a lot of that out. I think it’s difficult in terms of a morale point of view. The reality is good people always will find jobs and so I don’t see the cycles as being a bad thing.

[Oliver]: That brings to mind a funny little saying – “If the wind blows strong enough even turkeys can fly.” I guess during the upturns a lot of things happen or people are employed or whatever that are less than desirable.

[Satinder]: Mike you always made it a point to find a balance between career, family and hobbies. Talk to us about how important you feel it is?

I think twenty years from now I would like to be remembered not by the jobs that I had but by the person I am. I would like to be remembered as a Geophysicist, fishing guide, fly tier, husband, father, and whatever else the future holds, but I think without balance in your life, stress and dealing with stress is a real problem for a lot of people. Those who are remembered by only the working facet of their lives will have difficulty transitioning to retirement. This is a very high stress city, extremely high stress. With the amount of money that we spend or commit to spend on the work that we do, and the reality that we are wrong more times than we are right, and that people have to get back on the horse and go again – I think some sense of balance is vital, and I am talking both ways, you can work too hard but you can also play too hard too. So I think it’s just finding a happy medium in there that allows you to be a high performer in your job but also to have a family life as well.

L: Oliver Kuhn, C: Mike Corrigan, R: Satinder Chopra

[Satinder]: Well, it seems you have led a good life on your terms, professionally and personally, so is there anything you wish you had done differently or achieved differently?

Honestly, life is about making choices but also life is about rolling with the punches and I really don’t have any regrets. Everything we do is about taking a risk. We took a risk coming to Calgary in 1983, basically starting all over again. Changing jobs was always a risk and sometimes the changes were better than others, but I just look at the way my career has unfolded and honestly wouldn’t change anything about it.

[Satinder]: Very nice. Still on the same topic, what differences in your personal and professional life did you notice when you turned 30, 40, and then 50 years old? As an example, some people think the 20s are a time of adventure and risk, the 30s a time for experimenting with options, and the 40s a time for introspection; talk to us about that.

That’s a tough one. Early on in your life, in your career, you are on a steep learning curve and you know it’s all about trying to cram in as much information and ask as many dumb questions as you can to try and understand what the job entails, how to deal with people and the rest of it that goes along with that.

When you are in your 40s I think you kind of hit the point where you are still learning but the job is becoming second nature to you.

I think once you get into your 50s then you are starting to look back on your career, again hopefully without any regrets, but also look down the road and look for new challenges, and you can’t stop learning. You have to constantly be asking questions and you have to constantly be accepting of change and of what life is going to bring you. As I head down the road towards retirement, I guess I’d like to cram in a bunch of projects that I am still keen on doing. I don’t need to be re-doing some of the things that I have done in my career already. I want more challenges.

[Oliver]: On the topic of continual learning, what technologies and innovations have you experienced in your career that made a particular impact, the really significant ones?

Certainly 3D. I was involved in some of the early 3Ds up in the pinnacle basins and I think we embraced that technology. Once the first ones were shot and you saw the results it was like a whole different world.

The work stations, absolutely. They have allowed us to get through a lot more data and look at things, dozens of ways differently than we could when we were picking things by hand. But I think as we head into the future now I think the innovations or the challenges are more related to the geophysicist finding a role in the industry. With a lot of the shale gas/oil plays I have seen – I have been almost exclusively working shale gas and shale oil for the past three years – there is a huge opportunity for seismic but it’s getting the word out there and selling it, company by company that there is a need for seismic. I have seen AVO and inversion come and (almost) go, and some of the other technologies that have kind of gained acceptance in some parts of the basin or some parts of the world. I think what we are seeing right now with a lot of the fracture detection work that it is going to be an exciting future and geophysicists, especially the older guys, have to retrain themselves, because it will be the bulk of the work.

[Satinder]: Mike, you have mentioned that you were involved in authoring and presenting several technical papers on reservoir characterization and AVO display techniques in the late 80s during your short lived “geek” phase. So my question is why was your “geek” phase short lived?

That’s a great question Satinder! For me public speaking was a real challenge and when I had to deliver my Thesis at University, that was the most difficult week of my life leading up to it. You come to Calgary and it’s all about presentation day in and day out with managers, with co-workers, it’s difficult. So I found a couple of topics in which I was involved with some other authors on AVO and reservoir characterization, and the opportunity came to present these at the SEG as well as CSPG joint session here in Calgary and I thought – it’s time to take the next step, in other words get over that fear, take the leap and so it was a challenge, I think I met the challenge and that was over and done with.

I have been involved in some really interesting projects since then, that I think probably would have been as good if not better from a technical presentation point of view. I saw some amazing differences using pre-stack time migration that we did in some of the Slave Point reefs which would have been a great paper, but I didn’t need to do that. I had enough satisfaction just getting the project done and drilling the wells.

[Satinder]: Mike, tell us something about the role you see geophysics playing in the development of unconventional resource plays.

When I was at Hunter, John Masters had an interesting comment for me one time when I was presenting and we were looking at trying to drill some Leduc reefs. As usual we were asking for more money for some seismic purchases and John had looked at some of the things that we had done and he turned to me and he said “Mike, seismic is like democracy, there is no other alternative.” Those words are kind of interesting in today’s world. With the unconventional plays it’s very difficult (impossible in some areas) to see trends solely based on wells.

I mean with a Halfway Sand play or reef play you can see changes laterally based on well control, but with the unconventional plays you can’t see fractures in one well and correlate them with another one five miles away or three miles away, it doesn’t matter the distance, you can’t hook A to B. Regionally you can put a big blob on the map and say this is possibly where my play is. But the reality is when you look at the seismic and some of the work that is being done with attribute analysis, you can most definitely see the trends but, more importantly, you can see the reason for trends. So I think the role of the geophysicist in the future is going to be that initially of a salesperson. Some of the recent work I have been involved in has shown new value for existing 3D’s. It is a very expensive tool but the flip side is you can get into a situation where you don’t know there is a (hazard) fault coming up on your horizontal well and you hit the fault and now you’ve got trouble. The seismic at that point becomes pennies on the dollar for what it’s going to cost you to get the well under control.

[Oliver]: Just to be more specific, you are primarily trying to detect hazards like faults?

Hazards, but also predict where the fractures are and the orientation of the fractures.

[Oliver]: So, more or less define trends in the fracture characteristics.

Right, which ultimately will lead you to align your wells properly and put your fracs away properly and I believe we are just on the cusp of understanding it right now and I think probably in a few years’ time, if my crystal ball is still working, there will be a lot of fracture analysis and it will be done hand in hand with microseismic and 3D.

[Satinder]: Absolutely, that’s the trend here.

[Oliver]: Perhaps this is more mundane, but just keeping the well bore path in the zone, is that something else that you would use 3D for?

Yes, those are no brainer reasons for why you should have 3D. If you are drilling some of the horizontals in areas with a lot of structure, absolutely, because once you pop out of the zone you are pretty much done. I think we will be able to, in a few years time, use the seismic a lot more effectively than just keeping its trajectory where it should be.

[Oliver]: Do you ever anticipate that we would be able to integrate the microseismic with the conventional seismic?

Yes, I believe you can. I think the microseismic is going to help us sort out what a lot of these fracture patterns are that we are seeing on the attribute maps.

[Satinder]: At Peter Duncan’s lunch box talk yesterday, he was showing that microseismic integration with seismic is being done already. As they frac at a number of points along the length of horizontal wells, they can show the pattern in which the fractures are propagating, and how some of them line up with the patterns that have already been predicted with seismic. So it’s technology that is already coming into the main arena as we speak.

[Satinder]: Mike, the next question is not technical. A geologist wife and a geophysicist husband – do you ever discuss exploration problems at home?

Honestly, we never did. Work was work, home was home. We would talk about our days but we’d never get into discussions about how to solve geological or geophysical problems, we never did. We were in the heat of the battle with raising kids, when my wife was working, so it was diapers and dinner and hockey and swimming and it was all the other things.

[Oliver]: Continuing on the non-professional front, I know you are a very keen fly fisherman....well other forms of fishing too. I am not a fisherman, but what is it about fishing that gets people so addicted?

I will start out with the work part. As I mentioned at times work can be very, very stressful and it was difficult to shut work off, whereas with fly fishing I could go out on a river and they could be dropping bombs around me and I wouldn’t know because it’s all about putting yourself in a different place and space and concentrating on that tiny little fly on the water waiting for the fish. It is just a great form of relaxation for me and when I tied flies commercially, it was the same thing. I made no money at it but it was a way of just turning work off for an evening.

[Oliver]: So although the activity in itself is enjoyable, it’s more the state of mind that it gets you into. I see. Now, because you are a keen fisherman you are probably well aware of the various water management issues, especially down in the Crowsnest where you like to go, and you are also part of the Oil and Gas Industry and sometimes these two sides butt heads. How do you feel about these issues?

I think the Water Rights need to trump the Oil and Gas Industry, but having said that I think as an Industry we really have cleaned up our act. I remember in the early years when I’d fly up to Rainbow Lake or up into Grande Prairie to oversee some of the seismic crews the scarring of the trees up there was unbelievable and it left a mark on my psyche. I think it left a mark on anybody who went up there, but over time we have become stewards of the land much more than we once were. You know it’s not all about taking a D8 cat and just blazing an eight meter wide trail, it’s now about doing things the way they should be done and trying not to leave a footprint out there and the same thing with the creek crossings. So I think the industry still has got ways to go but I think it’s done a great job of cleaning itself up.

[Oliver]: Now I think there is some kind of development proposal, I am not sure whether it’s mining or oil and gas – is it in the Whale Back or somewhere like that?

Yes, there is a mine –

[Oliver]: So where would you stand on situations like that where there are currently protected areas and Industry wants access?

I think protected areas we’ve got to be very careful with. Would I completely shut it down – I don’t know because progress is progress but it’s all about making sure that we do things right. Can we ever stop oil and gas drilling? Not a chance. And I think it’s way more than just revenues for the Government, I think it’s strategic need more than anything. You know we have to heat our homes, we have to drive our vehicles so until we find an alternative, let’s just be careful.

[Oliver]: You said that drilling wells can be very stressful and fishing can be very relaxing, but are there similarities between catching a fish and drilling a well?

Geophysicists and lake fishermen use similar technologies. A fish finder uses exactly the same technology as seismic. It’s a lot easier to catch fish however….. Let’s put it this way, as a young geophysicist it was very difficult to drill a good well. As you get older you know what the pit falls are, your success rate goes up. When you start out with fly fishing it’s very difficult to catch your first fish but then it gets really easy after that.

[Oliver]: And the sense of accomplishment, are they the same?

I don’t know. I have to think about that one. I still think it’s probably more satisfying drilling a good well.

[Satinder]: A good well, ya, because the investment there is huge.

[Oliver]: And you can probably catch several fish in an afternoon, but you can only drill a few wells every year! You have a very scientific family, with your wife being a geologist and your daughter is a geophysicist, and I believe your son is a scientist too, am I right?

He is in Psychology.

[Oliver]: Psychology, that’s it. What sort of dynamics occur with teenage kids when they get to that age that they are choosing their careers? How did you find that?

Certainly I think we all look at our kids and we all have thoughts about what they could do. We were careful not to direct them into anything specific because I think we felt that we didn’t want to live with a situation where they got themselves into being a doctor, a lawyer or whatever because it’s what we wanted. So we kind of backed off, we certainly encouraged them if they asked, but beyond that they kind of made up their own minds. With our daughter, I felt right from the get-go that she would make a good geophysicist because basically what we do is solve puzzles with a minimal amount of information. She was always good at solving puzzles as a young child and she has gone on to become a geophysicist, and we are obviously both very proud of her, but we would have been equally proud if she would have taken something else. We are equally proud of the less-traveled path our son has taken.

It has been interesting for me because I’ve had the opportunity to go in and mentor our daughter. I would spend time with her a couple of afternoons or three afternoons a week or she would email me problems or images and then we’d talk about it on the phone. I found that really interesting especially at this point in my career that I had a chance to give something back.

[Satinder]: Okay, Mike let’s ask you –as Oliver says – it’s my question. What would be your message for young geophysicists who are entering our profession? I like the quote that you just mentioned, seismic is like democracy, there is no alternative, shall I put it on record?

Attaining a Geophysical Degree is very difficult and I think once you’ve made the commitment you want to learn and keep learning. What happens after you graduate is probably more important and I think if you can latch on to a working geophysicist while you are going through University and treat that person as a mentor and not only look to them for guidance but also for tapping into their experience, I think that would be my most important message to any new Grad. Don’t be afraid at reaching out to somebody and saying, “Would you mind helping me through these first couple of years?”, because I think once you get past that part of it, then you’ve got the building blocks.

The other message is to look at as much seismic data as possible early on during your career once you have graduated. Don’t wait for somebody to give you a “box” of seismic to look at, if you have some down time, go grab a bunch of data and figure out what’s going on. That’s how you learn.

Avoid the auto picker. Pick every line by hand.

[Oliver]: Because it forces you to actually look at the data properly?

However you do it, if you can go through a pile of data you start to see things – as you get those lines flashing before you, all of a sudden the world doesn’t appear as random as it often does when you are just zapping the data and looking at the maps.

Another thing is to learn enough about the other disciplines. Find out what the other people do, find out what a geologist does, find out what an engineer and a land man does and an economist, because I think if you have aspirations to run a company some day, you need all that. You can’t just become a geophysicist.

[Oliver]: I think you have also touched on a more specific aspect to that in our industry, and that is that the traditional role of the geophysicist is changing right now and it seems to be moving more towards geomechanics, rock physics and that sort of thing and so that would involve exactly what you just said, learning more about some of the disciplines that touch geophysics and moving in the direction that makes sense.

In so many of the plays that we are involved in Western Canada the geophysicist plays the role of an aid.

[Oliver]: A support role?

Support role, yes, that is a good word, support role as opposed to a lead role. The pinnacle basins were different. Geophysicists were the king because you can’t drill a well unless you can see a “bump”. In my opinion the next phase of shale gas is going to be driven by geophysics, because the geologists can’t see the trend as I mentioned before and the engineers want data, they want to be able to quantify, they want to be able to say, is it northeast – southwest, is it north – south or whatever, and so I see geophysics as taking a lead role.

[Oliver]: There was one question I wanted to ask you, and kind of missed the opportunity earlier. How did you get from the mining industry into the oil industry, was that through a take-over?

Yes, through a take-over. Dome Petroleum took over Hudson’s Bay Oil & Gas (HBOG) in ‘82 and transferred three of us to Calgary in 1983.

[Oliver]: And so when you were doing the hard rock work, was that all in Northern Ontario?

I worked from B.C. to Newfoundland. That was the one thing, as a young Grad, the ever changing scenery was the excitement for me, the changing of the opportunities, seeing lots of different things. But I mean a tent in B.C. was the same as a tent in Newfoundland. There were less flies out in B.C. The one thing I think about with my geophysics career is it is constantly changing and constantly challenging.

Interpreting seismic in Saskatchewan is similar but it’s very different than interpreting seismic in Northeast B.C. A whole different set of tools have to come out of your toolbox to interpret structural data in B.C.

[Oliver]: What’s the 40,000 foot perspective on your career?

Well, it has honestly been an incredible career and I am not ready to pack it in yet and I don’t want you guys to think that I am packing it in, but it has been an amazing career. Where else can you live in this great country of ours and walk down the street and know so many people in a city of a million people? You will never get that in Toronto, you will never get that in Montreal. We, over our career, will get to know more people than we realize and I think that is unique.

This city just breeds entrepreneurship. Think of the things that have happened in this city during our collective careers, all the different oil companies that have come and gone, the different service companies, the ideas that have come out of here, – for example, land 3D probably nucleated in part out of this city and that’s a huge boon to the industry.

[Oliver]: You mentioned that at this point in your life you are not finished but you don’t want to repeat projects, and there are some projects that you still want to do. What would some of those be?

Any new projects have to be challenging. I would like to try a little bit more international work if the opportunity arises. With the new unconventional plays I come to work in the morning, ready to try and challenge myself to try and sort this stuff out because there is no manual to follow. It’s make the manual up as you go and there are people like yourselves that have pioneered some of these techniques as well as some of the stuff coming out of the U.S. It really is a beginning point for a lot of other new opportunities but I need to be challenged and I guess the day that I come downtown and I don’t see the challenge anymore is the day that I am done.

[Oliver]: I see, so it’s not specific projects that you have already earmarked, it’s that you are looking for new projects that you haven’t even anticipated yet. I understand.

[Satinder]: Mike, thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to sit down and chat.

You’re welcome – I’ve enjoyed it!



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