“Be a Jack of all trades, but Master of one.”

An interview with Pratt Barndollar

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Joyce Au
Pratt Barndollar

Pratt Barndollar is a senior business manager and explorationist with a proven track record in large and small oil companies. He has a broad North American and international experience in strategic planning, integrated prospect evaluation and operations. He has worked for Phillips Petroleum, Apache Canada, Samson Canada, Devon Energy. Since 2006 Pratt has assembled Napa Energy Ltd. management team and generated and commenced execution of initial exploration portfolio. He is an experienced user of seismic characterization and calibration techniques including AVO, LMR and inversion. He is also experienced in depth conversion and prestack migration techniques, and knowledgeable in most industry standard software tools.

It was a pleasure chatting with Pratt. His answers were straight forward and spontaneous, and one can perceive in them the passion Pratt has as an oil-finder. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Pratt, let’s begin by asking you about your educational qualifications and your work experience.

I have a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and a Bachelor of Science in Geophysics, both from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. I started in Pre- Veterinary Medicine but switched to Civil Engineering after I took a physics course and really liked it. I then worked summers in the oil fields which led me into a geoscience minor and ultimately to the geophysics degree.

After university I started with Phillips Petroleum Company, and was with them a total of 15 years in a number of assignments. I started with 2 years processing and acquisition in Louisiana and Texas, then 4 years in Gulf of Mexico Exploration as a contributing geoscientist and team leader. I had 4 years of international work in Southeast Asia and China, including 2 years as project leader on a long-term Papua New Guinea exploration project. I did 3 years in Calgary subsequent to the international assignment, working primarily in the West of 6th Area and Northeast B.C., including some thrust belt and coal bed methane exposure. Finally with Phillips I did 2 years in the U.K. stationed in Woking, Surrey, where I worked in the North Sea and Ireland as a project leader.

During that assignment I came back to Calgary and spent a week doing three interviews a day to find a job here – we really liked Calgary – and in 1997 started with Apache as their only geophysicist. I worked primarily in West of 5 Mississippian plays, but also did some work in West of 6 up around Blueberry, had broad exposure in Cretaceous and Devonian plays West of 4 and also worked the Triassic in B.C.

After Apache I was about a year and a half with Samson, working the Homeglen-Rimbey Trend and Northeast B.C. That was also the period when Samson did a number of corporate and property acquisitions.

After Samson I went to Devon Canada as Frontiers Exploration Manager. I was there for 2 years and subsequently went down for a 3 year stint in Houston as their World- Wide Exploration Portfolio Manager, where I worked with all of the various Exploration Managers to look at the corporate exploration business. Now I’m back in Calgary again as President of Napa Energy.

As you mentioned you served at Phillips for close to 15 years which is a rather long innings; what prompted you to switch from there?

It was 15 years but it had a number of different of types of assignments. So 2-4 years each in a number of different things. That kept my interest high, but I had been looking for opportunities outside of Phillips for several years. Every time I would get serious about leaving, a new opportunity within Phillips would come along, but ultimately I decided to make the switch to Apache.

Thereafter you changed jobs every 2 or 3 years. It is probably the same reason?

Well, each change has been either to follow a strategy or for a specific reason. I liked Apache quite well. They were a very active company during those years, drilling around 60 wells a year in total, both exploration and development. I was the only geophysicist, and was involved in a lot of those projects. After Apache did the property acquisition of Shell in 2000, their corporate culture changed fairly dramatically. The size of the company in terms of people about doubled, and it just became a different place to work. So I went to Samson, and later to Devon for the Exploration Manager’s job.

Did you have a particular strategy in mind when you went through all these job changes?

I always try to think about 3-5 years ahead. I try to envision where I want to be in that time frame and then take advantage of opportunities that come along that move me closer to that vision. I wouldn’t say I necessarily aggressively pursue those goals, but I try to position myself so that I can recognize a favorable opportunity when it comes along and act on it.

You have 24 years of service; please tell us about some of your prominent accomplishments.

Well, okay, on the prominent accomplishments in 24 years—one of the first things I think of as an accomplishment was in Gulf of Mexico exploration. At the time I was working there in the mid ‘80s, the sub salt play was just beginning to be recognized and developed, and Phillips was looking heavily at wells drilled in the southern part of South Marsh Island which had penetrated the salt and seen sediments below.

Geophysicists had recognized for a long time that there were reflectors below the top of salt, but the model of laterally expanding salt wasn’t really widely accepted at that time. The work I did at Phillips was one of the early efforts by a major company to map out the salt and identify those sub salt areas. It resulted in quite a bit of activity over several years by Phillips in offshore Louisiana sales and some subsequent discoveries in that play. It was quite exciting to work on that because we had to develop a number of new techniques to look at the time structure, taking into account the effect of salt that was twice as fast as the surrounding lithologies. There were also – I’ll say political challenges – because selling a new play like that to the management of the times was – well, required a lot of background work.

Another assignment that I consider as an accomplishment was the work on the Papua New Guinea exploration project in the early 90s. That was a complete wildcat area. There was no continuous satellite coverage – this was before GPS was available – and we had to shoot a large seismic program, plus a gravity and magnetic program, and drill wells. One of the first things we had to do was ground- truth the area since we didn’t have any good maps. We had to establish an entire survey coordinate system with surveyors who were ex-British Army. The seismic acquisition was all heli-supported and in dense rain forest jungles. The final culmination of that work was the Bujon-1 Well, which was a large gas discovery but not economically viable, then or now. That entire multi-year project was near $20MM US then, and was completed on time and on budget. I published results from that in the Second PNG Petroleum Convention Proceedings in 1993. That project taught me a lot about logistical organization as well as project management.

And then, of course, there is the exposure I have had in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, particularly some of the work I did in the Gordondale Area. I was working with a young geologist (at least he was then), and as we looked at the maps, we could see that it hadn’t been followed by one exploration team lately, so the maps were patched together and the contours didn’t flow well. It just didn’t seem to hang together. We pulled the contours off the maps and tried re- contouring with a different geologic concept. That led to new pool discovery and in an area that had previously been considered uneconomic, so I like to look back on that as success.

Satinder and Pratt

So are there any success stories from what you just mentioned about some of the accomplishments?

Success I guess is in terms of finding petroleum. I would include in that group the Gulf of Mexico South Marsh Island 147 new field discovery – we acquired one of the first 3D’s shot in the Gulf of Mexico for that project. The last reserves I have on it, which are several years out of date, were 50 bcf and 20 million barrels of oil. The Bujon Well I mentioned earlier has about half a TCF. I don’t really keep track in Canada just because too many wells get drilled. During my time at Apache we were about 60% completion rate on mostly exploration drilling.

You describe yourself as an explorationist. I would like to hear what sets an explorationist apart from say a seismic interpreter? Or before that let me ask you this: you have done integrated geophysical interpretation in WCSB including thrust belt and CBM opportunities. What is your idea of integration? Were you actually able to achieve it? How about integration of disciplines? Have you adopted that too?

I think of my business as the integration of a number of different scientific expertises, if you will. The goal is to understand the petroleum system – what is the history of deposition, the thermal history, where is the source rock and where does it mature, when was oil generated and what’s happened since. There is a lot that needs to be considered here; basement tectonics, depositional systems, the reservoir diagenesis, things that happened after the petroleum was in place. We look at well logs, we look at historical production data, we look at seismic data, but we’ve also got to think about the surface geology that we have available to us here in this basin. We’ve got magnetic and gravity data, we have core data, there is sample work and fluid analysis, and a lot of publications of previous worker’s learnings from the area. We need to consider all of those things. Even though we don’t necessarily have to do all that work for every new play we do have to think about it.

We have to understand the over-all effect on the petroleum system. And of course we have to synthesize that information. We ask what could there be in the no-data area? Where can I jump out? Where can I follow this play to take it somewhere fun? All of that requires a lot of cross disciplinary integration because nobody can do it all. One of my big sources in this basin is the Western Canadian Basin Sedimentary Atlas, both geophysical and geological. They have a lot of good basin-wide maps that help with the synthesis.

So to get back to your earlier question – how do I differentiate an explorationist from an interpreter? To me, seismic interpretation is one component of the exploration process. It’s an extremely valuable tool early on in putting together the overall shape of the basin and the burial history and to walk back through the layers to understand what the basin looked like when the zone of interest was being deposited. Then you bring in a lot of the other data to integrate with that, and finally you go back to the seismic at the prospect generation stage to effectively map your present day configuration.

Since you have worked both inside and outside of Canada, tell us, how exploration in WCSB is different from exploration in other parts of the world?

Well, a couple of things pop out at me along those lines. The first is that a lot of what we call exploration here is really exploitation. We extend trends into undrilled areas and we look quite closely at reservoir characterization, but we don’t need to worry about whether or not there is an effective source maturation and migration history because we know there is hydrocarbon all over the basin.

The volume of data that we have here is unlike anywhere I have seen in the world. Just what you can get through the public agencies, the AEUB and B.C. Ministries, and whatever tool you used to retrieve it is just tremendous. Believe me, I have never been anywhere that had that kind of data available to them. Usually data is tightly held by companies. The Government may have it but it’s usually deeply buried – not by intent, they just don’t have good structure for keeping it.

I noticed early on that there is a very sharp distinction between geologists and geophysicists in Calgary, more so than anywhere else I have ever practiced. The idea of an integrated team here can frequently mean an engineer and geologist, whereas that is not the case in most other places I have worked, although that’s changing as seismic data becomes more prevalent here.

One interesting note is the extension or parallel development of AVO techniques here from the Gulf of Mexico. AVO was really developed in the Gulf and through its infancy and development was a technique to identify the porous and gas prone zones. In the GOM you are dealing essentially with a single set of lithologies, sand and shale or sand of different qualities and shale. Here we have a broad mix of other lithologies present, so it’s important to take it to the next step with LMR and inversion techniques being developed here in Canada. In fact a number of US geophysicists I know who use that type of information extensively use Canadian companies to perform the work. I think that the hard rock aspect of the AVO is developing here while the soft rock development was in the Gulf of Mexico.

Exploration in the Gulf of Mexico shelf involves high stakes and different plays, so how did you find doing that?

All of the components of a petroleum system we talked about before still come into play. Seismic data plays a much larger role there because of the structural heterogeneity. There is the overprint of the salt diapirism as well as the wide variability in sequence stratigraphy due to the heavy influx of the Mississippi Delta sediments. A lot of sediment went into the basin – lateral variation in time equivalent section is tremendous. You can go in just a few miles from tens of feet of shale to hundreds of feet of sand to tens of feet of shale again in the same time interval, so it’s very difficult to use just well log character correlation to map these things. You need the seismic not only to create your structural map but also to help you identify the lithologic sequences and an idea of sequence stratigraphy.

There is a different set of technical risks; I mentioned lithology already, but I would say lithology is less risky than here since there are essentially only two rock types. Like the Western Canadian Basin, in the GOM we don’t worry too much about source rock. Even though they are not completely sure yet where the hydrocarbon is coming from, it’s obviously there. I think sometimes not enough time is spent in either basin looking at what happened to the trap since the hydrocarbon was implaced. Frequently the dry holes I’ve seen there occurred because we did not adequately consider post migration events. The trap was breached.

A similarity, I guess, to the Canadian Basin is amount of time spent thinking about the surface work that needs to be done. Here we think in terms of seismic acquisition, road building, pipelines or wells, but surprisingly enough, even though it is an off-shore environment, there is as much or more that needs to be done. There is an unstable seabed, which has a major impact on operations decisions – imagine if you had to work summers in a winter-only access area here. There are pipeline industries, plus oysters, shrimp boats and commercial fishing. Water depth itself is an issue if it’s changing dramatically, so there are lots of bases to cover.

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Now that you run a new start up company, tell us how difficult or easy it is to do this and what all is required for such a start up?

First of all, the technical part is easy, because all of us are experts in our professions, we’ve all got a number of years experience, and the type of problems that we address daily we’ve seen before. Also we are together because we know each other, our strengths and weaknesses. We respect each other and our day to day interpersonal relations are good – a benefit that you don’t often get when you work for a big company is the ability to select your co-workers. Finally, we share a similar vision of where we see ourselves in a few years.

The difficult part comes when we are trying to reach some type of consensus on our non-technical strategic decisions. By consensus I don’t mean that we all have to agree 100%, just that we come to a solution which addresses all our individual concerns and takes advantage of all our individual contributions, and still does what’s best for the company. We all bring valid solutions to the table, but not necessarily compatible solutions, so it’s important to arrive at something we can all be comfortable with. We’re in it together. That certainly is the difficult part.

A couple of years ago I had asked a question from some experts and we published that in the RECORDER also to ask why geophysicists do not prove to be very successful managers. What is your take on this?

I read the article – at least two of the respondents differentiated between managers and leaders, and I support that distinction. So I’ll answer your question literally and focus on managers.

Personally I disagree with the premise. It’s kind of like saying that all accountants are bad baseball players; there is not a correlation really. The geophysics, as I said before, is one piece of the business, just as is the well log correlation or the pipeline construction or the drilling of the well. None of those tasks are the whole business. It’s up to an individual to look beyond his professional expertise and recognize where his role is in the broader business. As a person starts to step away from their first skill set, and look at the flow of the business process, they are thinking as a manager. I don’t think you would claim that all engineers are good managers. I hope there are no engineers reading this.

Usually there are two types of geophysicists, one those who love the science and will continue to do that all through their career, two those who would combine the scientific skills with their ability to be entrepreneurial. May be it is the latter who would be successful as managers. Would that be something that you would agree?

I would certainly agree that you can lump any group of people together like that, not only geophysicists. I would agree that to be a good leader probably requires some entrepreneurial skills or desire, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that being a good entrepreneur makes you a good leader. In fact I might suggest that strong entrepreneurial tendencies may be to your detriment as a manager, presuming a manager tries to maintain or optimize the status quo whereas a leader focuses on taking the next step.

Now, with the wealth of experience that you have gained over the last 24 years, did you get a chance of mentoring other people also so that your invaluable experience could be utilized fruitfully?

Actually, several of my roles with Phillips were specifically designed to fulfill just that – to mentor not only individuals, but to be a core component of an exploration group, to bring some depth. Some of the most personally satisfying times in my career were when I’d work with young geoscientists with just a few years experience, or just out of school and suddenly one morning there was a “click” and they got it. Once that happened, everything started to flow from them. It’s quite a rewarding feeling to see that happen.

I would say it is just as important to select your own mentors carefully. I don’t think we are ever so old that we can’t use people as mentors whether they realize it or not. The trick is to recognize people who do something well, and to nurture that relationship to learn and understand their considerations as they perform their tasks. Of course as I get older I have to be more selective – I don’t have that much room left in my brain – but it is important to continue to learn from people and take assertive steps to capture that knowledge.

The oil and gas industry is a high-technology industry or a technology-driven industry. Now, you don’t get this indication from public perception, why do you think it is that?

I think one reason is that we try to project that technical expertise first, and that is not always successful. The general public sees us at the gas pump, they see the drilling rig on the side of the road or they hear about us on the news when something bad happens – a spill or windfall profits or some thing that they perceive to have negative impact to them. I don’t think that they ever see our technical specialization because there is nothing personally and individually impactive on them. Most people know what an MRI or an Ultrasound is because they know someone who has been impacted by that, but they don’t have a feel for seismic imaging. Why would they? I expect that it would take some kind of non-technical media campaign to get that perception across. I do see an interested response from school age children when you communicate on their terms. They like to talk about it and ask about it, so I think that all of us as individuals can contribute on that level.

Pratt, in your opinion which technologies are favorably impacting the economics of oil and gas industry, because you remember in the later 1990s it was the seismic technology and the 3D at the forefront.

I think one of the technologies most impactive on our oil and gas economics is the focus on non-conventional resources such as coal bed methane or tight gas. What it’s doing is opening up new fields in reservoir characterization and production technologies. It’s a little early for those new technologies to impact us in conventional exploration, but as they become refined and we are able to understand them we will bring those technologies back to conventional production. This will open up new areas we currently think of as non-prospective. How we look at well logs and characterize the reservoir is going to change – I’ve seen this happen already in the shale basins in Oklahoma. What they are trying to do is map out the petrophysical characteristics of the basin, which of course brings them back to the geophysics as a tool. So I think these developments are very favorable for geophysics – it turns the team into more of a reservoir characterization team than just an exploration team.

What is your opinion on the future of oil? It is an exhaustible source but what timeline can we expect?

It is a non-renewable source but there are still, in my mind, a lot of proven but unexploited areas in the world like the Canadian Arctic, Southeast Asia, deep water Gulf of Mexico, Northern China and U.S.S.R. Plus I think there will be new exploration in the coming years in previously unexplored continental areas like South America and Africa. We know the hydrocarbon is there; we’ve drilled wells and seen it. The question is how do you produce it, how do you get it out? The limitation is not so much on the quantity as on the production technology. Look at the Beaufort Sea gas hydrates. We can map those, we know it’s there; it’s just a matter of figuring out a way of getting it out. In the deep water Gulf of Mexico, it’s only been in the last couple of years that we’ve implemented technologies to produce there. If you look back over 20 or 30 years, you see that every year there is a progression in that we are able to drill deeper and produce from harsher environments. So I think that in our lifetimes, certainly, and probably well beyond, there is going to be exploitation of oil and gas. Whether we rely as completely on it as we do now – I would say that will start to change.

To be more on the optimistic side, do you think we could simply say ‘never’, because sooner or later technology will be catching up?

I think there will be a place for it for the foreseeable future. The way that we look for it and exploit it will probably change, so new people coming into the industry should think about that in choosing the technologies they pursue.

Let me ask you this – what role do professional societies play as far as the careers of the members are concerned?

For me personally, the huge benefit I get from the professional societies is that they act as a mechanism for knowledge transfer. The bulletins, the conventions, the training courses, and the technical talks – all of that is far and away the biggest benefit. So in terms of career development, it’s my self improvement. I have not seen them being as strong I would like or as effective in terms of the public education or public perception that you were asking about earlier. I think they have the potential to do those kind of things but haven’t yet.

Yes, you have a point there. We can continue to explore and extract oil and gas till the cost remains lower than alternative. Do you see an alternative source or technology on the horizon that can serve as this alternative?

I think we are already seeing gradual shifts to alternative power sources as they become viable for certain projects. You see the southern Alberta wind energy generation – I don’t know how much of it, but a large bit of our C-Train system is powered by that wind energy.

The U.S. recently announced some changes in how they are going to consider nuclear power plants, so they are starting to think about a nuclear future. And of course much of Europe is already well along that trail. So I do believe that alternate power sources will emerge as they make sense for certain industries or certain projects. I think it will be a very gradual change over several generations – I don’t necessarily see a sweeping change to nuclear power for instance.

I do believe that oil and gas companies – we call them Energy Companies already – should be right on top of that change. They should be the ones thinking about alternate power sources other than just oil and gas. If you believe that our new reserves to be discovered are smaller and smaller in size you have to think that way. For example, if I own a grocery store and Wonder Bread says that from now on loaves will be smaller and they are going to cost more – I am going to start looking for alternate suppliers. I think that energy companies need to evolve with that changing reality or they are going to drill themselves out of business.

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Another alternative source could be ethanol but it is being looked at very seriously I think Chevron is the biggest producer of ethanol...

I don’t know much about ethanol – are you talking about grain alcohol?

Yes, in Brazil they extract ethanol from sugarcane, and I think in the US they are using grain for extracting it. In Brazil, on the transportation side, the engines have been built that run on ethanol.

I hear a lot of people talking about it. From what I’ve heard so far I think it probably still has some infrastructure and technical draw-backs. It is not going to be economic everywhere.

Apart from exploration, what are your other interests?

Well, I have four children, so family activities take up most of my time. I would say as a hobby I enjoy DIY or Do-It-Yourself projects like renovations or construction, those types of things. My wife enjoys interior design, so we are always busy along those lines. I have been involved with Scouts both in Canada and the U.S at various times in the past and expect to be in the future, and enjoy hiking, canoeing and back-packing.

What would be your message to our young friends joining our industry?

Well, that is a pretty open question – there are a lot of things.

One maxim I developed early on and that I like to keep in mind is to be a Jack of all trades but Master of one. What that means is even though you keep your expertise high in your particular field, don’t let that keep you from broadening your horizons, both professionally and culturally. We are very much in an international business here and we need to keep that in mind. I don’t think we help ourselves by being only the Bakken Sand Formation expert, for instance.

I do think it’s important to solicit and really consider other people’s ideas when you are putting solutions together, particularly people who have a different background than you or who may disagree with you. Those are the people you really need to hear from. A few times in my career I have been lucky enough to be part of perfect, elegant solutions – those are only achieved when a number of people fully participate.

As I said before, develop good mentor relationships, but ultimately you are responsible for your own career. If you think you are stuck in a box it’s up to you to get out of it – to recognize it and to work on it but I guess I would say don’t be a jerk about it.

Pratt, thank you very much for giving us this opportunity of interviewing you. It was nice and exciting.


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