“Enjoy your profession! Our job and our industry is an extremely exciting work place.”

An interview with Rainer Tonn

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Rainer Tonn

Rainer Tonn is a professional geophysicist who has over 20 years of experience in the oil and gas industry. Having earlier worked for Wintershall, EnCana, Oilexco, Rainer is now residing at Statoil Canada. During his long innings, he has gained international onshore and offshore experience in Europe, North and South America and North Africa.

His strong technical background has always aided his understanding. He has focused on seismic reservoir characterization for almost all projects that he has done, and so is regarded as a proven expert..

Rainer has participated at the CSEG/SEG/EAGE Conventions by occasionally making presentations. He has also been an invited speaker at the CSEG luncheons as well. He is a member of CSEG, SEG, EAGE and APEGGA.

The RECORDER requested Rainer for an interview, to which he sportingly agreed. Following are excerpts from the interview.

(Photos courtesy: Joyce Au)

Rainer, tell us about your early education and your work experience.

First of all thanks a lot for inviting me; it is a pleasure to be here and to be “quizzed”.

The University of Kiel was my alma mater of choice. Not only had Kiel an excellent reputation for Geophysics but it also offered Oceanography as a major and in the early years of my studies I was not sure whether I wanted to focus on Geophysics or Oceanography. Therefore, during the first few semesters I kept both options open. Sure, the other attractive thing about Kiel was its location: Kiel is right at the shore of the Kiel Bay and Baltic Sea and I love water sports, in particular rowing.

I must say that I had some really exciting years during my time at the university. After my “Vor-Diplom”, vaguely comparable to a Bachelor degree, I received a scholarship for the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The time in Salt Lake not only gave me the opportunity to study different aspects of Geophysics but also generated a “love” for North America. And you know how it ended: I have been living on this continent for the last 16 years. After my return from Salt Lake I finished my Diploma (MS) with a thesis about the long-term variation of the Earth’s shape due to the tidal influences. It was an amazing topic in theoretical geophysics. I loved the math and physics.

By the way, working with Earth tides for many years, I am wondering whether Brain Russell might need some ideas for future questions at the SEG/CSEG Challenge Bowl. For example: What is the magnitude of the tides in Calgary or what do the Love’s numbers h, k or l measure?

After finishing my Diploma I got the chance to travel to Antarctica with the German research vessel Polarstern. This was a fantastic experience. Our research mission was the investigation of the tide-dependent dynamics of the Ekstroem shelf ice. In a team with a friend we traveled for one month with ski-doos and tents across the shelf ice and installed and monitored our equipment. It was like a camping vacation in Antarctica. To be honest the summer weather in Antarctica was not quite as cold as some winter days in Calgary, but several weeks of camping with night temperatures below -20C was special.

For my doctorate I changed my research interest and moved to seismic. I analyzed various methods for the computation of the seismic quality factor Q (i.e. attenuation). In particular I focused on VSP data, because borehole measurements not only are of higher quality than surface seismic but also allow for a direct tie to the subsurface strata. At the university, I shared one office with Manika Prasad, who is now a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, and we got excited about the potential of Q for reservoir analysis. It is amazing, more than 20 years later, Q is still an exotic parameter and we cannot make use of it in standard seismic interpretation.

After finishing my Ph.D. in Geophysics I received a job offer from Wintershall and started my career in Germany. After learning the ropes on some domestic oil projects I moved on to one of Germany’s largest onshore gas fields, “Rothenburg”. Later I was involved in projects in North Africa and the Middle East. A funny note on the side: while working on Rothenburg I tried to publish a paper demonstrating how multi-seismic attribute cluster analysis can improve the reservoir interpretation. It was rejected because the reviewer felt that this topic would not be of interest to the community.

I believe you worked at Wintershall in Germany, came to Canada for 4 years, and then returned to Germany. Was that because you got home sick?

Well, I do not believe you can call it homesick. Originally I had an expat position in Calgary for two years. First I extended it to three years, then to four and finally after four and a half years the head office really demanded my return to Germany. It was definitely not easy to leave Calgary. I tremendously enjoyed the work environment in Calgary and even more so the community of geoscientists. I believe here in Calgary we have the most vibrant community of oil and gas geoscientists in the world.

Coming back to the head office was somehow boring and I managed to move to the next international assignment within 8 months. The next destination was Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Obviously, your fluency in German language must have helped while you were at Wintershall, and then your knowledge of English came in hand while in Canada. You must have picked up Spanish while you were in Argentina. How was your stay there?

Argentina was a great experience. Wintershall’s exploration and development projects were really fun to work on. I was the only geophysicist in Winterhall’s fast growing South America business and I managed all the different geophysical responsibilities. The biggest project was the development of the offshore gas and oil field “Gran Carina”. We had high quality 3D seismic over this acreage and my main focus was the seismic reservoir characterization.

Sure I had to learn Spanish in Argentina. You cannot expect that you can get along with English down there. Even in the business world Spanish knowledge was essential. The official business language at meetings was English, but during controversial discussions some of the business partners were fast to move to Spanish when they got excited (and people can get excited down there…) So I had Spanish lessons every day and was pretty fluent after a while.

By the way, Argentina is a beautiful country. We loved traveling. Even with our small children we were able to explore the country from the glaciers in the South to the Iguazu Falls in the North, from the salt deserts in the high Andes to the penguins and sea elephants at the Atlantic coast.

So you worked for Wintershall from 1989-2000, which is a rather long stint at one company, is it not? Tell us what made you stick at one place for so long.

Actually for a German it used to be more the other way around: people were surprised if one left the company before retirement. Over the longest period of time it was quite the norm that employees worked the whole career for one single company. However, things did change in Germany over the last decade or so. For me it was quite a hard decision to leave Wintershall.

Satinder Chopra and Rainer Tonn

The next move you made was to join EnCana. And then again in 2006 you switched over to Oilexco. What prompted these moves?

Even though, as said before, it was a hard decision, I believe joining Pan Canadian (later EnCana) was an excellent move. I wanted to embark into new territory and expand my professional experience. Starting in Pan Canadian’s COE (Center of Excellence) and then continuing in the East Coast team was just great. The team I experienced at Pan Canadian was superb. In particular, I want to mention Bill Goodway, who strengthened my background in geophysics significantly. It was wonderful to work on one floor with Bill and enjoy constantly the discussions about Geophysics. It was not only Bill, but also a group of extremely knowledgeable peers who were just fun to work with. I also really appreciated Dave Cooper, who did a fabulous job as the Chief. It was also Dave Cooper who made it possible for me to start at Pan Canadian.

When Jon Downton and I gave an LMR presentation at one of the CSEG luncheons in 1998, it was apparently special for Dave and Bill that someone from outside of Pan Canadian was using their LMR technology successfully. So ever since we stayed in contact and when the opportunity came in late 2000 I moved from Buenos Aires to join Pan Canadian. I cannot recall that I had within my 20+ years of work experience such a productive technical environment of peers and mentors, always openly discussing Geophysics and never afraid of engaging new technology introduced by whosoever had good ideas.

In 2006 I completed the Deep Panuke subsurface evaluation and I had to move on. At the same time I had a great opportunity to join the small and ambitious team of Oilexco and so I dove into the next adventure. I was lucky to join Oilexco at the right time and experienced a great ride with the company. While I was enjoying tremendously the technical environment at PanCan/EnCana I loved the pace of the business at Oilexco, which was breathtaking. Within my 3 years with Oilexco I possibly “drilled” more North Sea wells than other peers do in their whole North Sea career. And Oilexco had some world-class discoveries like the Huntington field in the UK central graben. The beauty and fun was that Oilexco’s main North Sea plays were within the Forties reservoir, which is the perfect playground for LMR. For example in the prestack inversion the Huntington reservoir was detectable and I am still surprised that it was not drilled earlier. Unfortunately Oilexco went down during the financial crisis in 2009. But I found a job right away with Statoil.

Could you tell us about the differences in work cultures that you perceived as you made these moves?

The differences are quite impressive. While hierarchy was already pretty important in Germany, I experienced a very solid hierarchical system in Argentina, where the boss clearly demonstrated that he is the boss. I believe the Canadian system is more relaxed. It is more the open door policy. Another observation, which I exaggerate with the following summary, is the attitude toward work:

In Germany: Get the job done. — In Argentina:Work or at least stay in the office until the boss heads home. — In Canada: Workplace and private life have to be in a good balance.

What has been your philosophy towards your professional growth?

Enjoy it!

I believe our profession is one of the most interesting work places in the world and I consider myself lucky to be part of that business. Overall, I tried to build my professional development around activities I like. So far I have been pretty successful with this strategy. And if your personal enthusiasm is aligned with your professional growth it is a wonderful situation.

Tell us about some of the challenging projects that you worked on?

Each project has specific challenges. However, in many cases the challenges are less technical but more “selling” results to management, partners or in particular to the operators in non-operated areas. For example I believe Wintershall G&G team did a terrific job in the subsurface characterization of the Grand Carina field in Argentina, but the operator was Total and it was not easy to convince Total to accept our ideas. But in the end, looking back, in most cases, technical arguments succeeded.

The technical challenges are really keeping the fun in the business, for example the carbonates in Deep Panuke. We worked extremely hard to discriminate the prolific dolomites from the tighter limestone in this Jurassic reef. Eventually we identified seismic attributes, which helped us to understand the composition of the reef better. Or take the oilsands projects I am currently working on; for a successful SAGD project it is most critical to identify the high quality sand fairways and to discriminate against, let’s say, the IHS facies. Seismic reflectivity within the sand is poor and an interpretation based on stacked seismic sections is ambiguous. As demonstrated in my RECORDER paper last November a combination of prestack attributes really supports the interpretation.

Going by what you have just mentioned, you have been a successful seismic interpreter. What would you say is required to become one?

Well, first of all we should never forget the basics. Can the input deliver what we desire or expect as the output? We have to check the acquisition parameters and look at the processing sequence. While understanding the limitations of the input, I try to get the best out of the data. For this purpose I “illuminate” the subsurface from all possible “perspectives”. Sure, we have a limited set of independent seismic attributes, but nevertheless, I claim that we have always a certain subset of attributes, which are imaging the ssubsurface in a superior way than others. Poststack inversions, prestack data or prestack inversions are always extremely helpful characterizing the subsurface. So I create well ties and cross plots in all possible domains and continue working with the most promising ones. Finally mapped attributes like coherency, spectral decomposition etc. are powerful and have to be part of the interpretation.

Integration of data of other disciplines is also critical. Sure it is obvious (well, hopefully…) that a geophysicist works together with the geologist, but in particular in the stage of field development, the value of integration of engineering data into the seismic interpretation should not be underestimated. Again Deep Panuke can serve as an example. The definition of the high permeable reef front was a challenge, but with the integration of history match data from production tests we were able to reduce the ambiguity of the seismic interpretation.

Tell us about the most exciting moment in your professional life?

Well I guess that would be the days in 2007 when we at Oilexco drilled the first exploration well in 22/14b in the UK central North Sea, and discovered the Huntington field. Huntington was deemed as one of the largest discoveries in the UK in recent history. We were able to watch online how the drill bit penetrated the Forties sand where we confirmed a thick oil column and a few weeks later the very same well penetrated another oil column in the Fulmar reservoir. We had days when the whole team was tensely watching the computer screen seeing online the live drilling results. However, I remember also a day a few weeks later, after the official press release of the discovery, that again the whole team was watching very tensely the computer screen. We were all in one office and looking at the monitor. This caught the attention of Art Millholland, Oilexco’s president, and he came in wondering why nobody was working but watching the screen. Our excuse: We are looking at our rising stock price. Art’s reply: Good job – continue :=)

What personal qualities did you draw upon as you have gone through your geoscientific journey?

I believe the curiosity to learn more might be the most important. And sure this is not only limited to the geoscientific journey. Learning more about the business aspects or learning new languages is part of this.

For generating prospects, what has been your strategy?

We could fill the whole issue of this Recorder to detail this strategy. But let me simplify it in a few sentences. Initially, it really depends on the stage of the exploration. The geological concept is most important in the early stage of exploration. Combining this concept with a solid structural interpretation of 2D, or if available of 3D data, should deliver the first leads or result in abandoning the license. Building on the leads a detailed seismic interpretation has to follow. This interpretation has to focus on the lead itself but also on hydrocarbon migration path or kitchen area if one is dealing with a new exploration area. Let’s say we know that hydrocarbons are present in a particular area and migration paths can be established, then the focus will shift on identifying hydrocarbons in the lead. The easy approach will be looking for an amplitude anomaly but more likely it will be a result of post stack or pre stack inversion. At this stage it is critical to understand the character of the seismic signal, therefore synthetic modeling is important. If the lead is a structural closure and the seismic hydrocarbon indicators conform to the structure, the lead becomes a pretty solid prospect. In case of a stratigraphic closure you start looking for consistency of the hydrocarbon indicators and meaningful geometric shapes, which are related to the geological concept. For a number of my offshore prospects it was worthwhile looking at seabed logging. However, it is important to study the environment first and analyze whether or not this EM technology is promising.

And sure I love employing special technology! It is rewarding to use spectral decomposition and identifying shapes, which are confirming the geological concept. It is great if you can simplify the struggle of mapping faults with coherency or curvature processing. Or what an experience if you run a special inversion process and you make the GOC and OWC in a thin bed reservoir visible. I guess this was a project we did together, Satinder.

You are working in heavy oil / oil sands areas these days. Tell us about the challenges you face in characterizing oil sand formations and how you meet them using the available geophysical technology.

Yes I work for Statoil and evaluate Statoil’s oilsand licenses south of Fort McMurray. In Statoil’s Leismer assets the bitumen-saturated McMurray formation reservoir is at a depth of about 450 m and SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) is the production technique of choice. For an economic SAGD project a very good understanding of the subsurface is necessary. However, the McMurray formation is pretty tricky for the seismic interpreter. The reflectivity contrast is frequently too small to create a reliable interpretation on a stacked section. To push the limits of interpretation I work with post stack and pre stack inversions and use neural network tools to invert for reservoir parameters like gamma ray or porosity.

But we have to understand that interpretation is only one part of the game. The game starts with a well-designed 3D seismic acquisition and continues with a carefully controlled processing sequence. Thanks to some very bright colleagues at Statoil, I believe with our recent 3D acquisition in Leismer and our plans for this winter we acquired and will acquire prime data. Well, and I am afraid the processing company, who will be doing the processing of our 2011 acquisition, will have a hard time to meet our high demands for an AVO-compliant processing flow!

You have used a fair bit of neural network technology in your reservoir characterization exercises. Could you share these experiences with us?

Yes, you are correct. I started using neural networks to support my interpretation in the nineties. I remember working with easy programmable neural network routines to analyze the Halfway formation in NE British Columbia. Even though these routines were simple and not user friendly, I had good success applying them. The January 1998 cover page of the RECORDER, related to Jon Downton’s and my luncheon presentation, showed my simplified diagram of a neural network workflow. Not much later I started using Hampson Russell’s EMERGE program and dGB’s GDI (later OpenDtect) program for my neural network interpretation. Both programs simplify the use of neural networks; they are user friendly and flexible. Combining the best of both packages and including LMR attributes as input attributes, I generated my first successful oilsand interpretation in Pan Canadian’s (EnCana’s) Christina Lake area. Pan Canadian gave me the permission to publish the work in The Leading Edge.

With this success I continued using neural networks in each field development project including EnCana’s Deep Panuke, Oilexco’s Huntington and Statoil’s Leismer project. I don’t believe that I would have been able to drive my interpretations as far as I did without the application of neural networks. But having said this, I have also to emphasize that neural networks are very dangerous if you are just driven by fascinating but non-physical correlations. Never forget your true blind tests!

Rainer Tonn

You consider yourself a proven expert in seismic reservoir characterization. In your opinion, what is required for doing good and effective reservoir characterization?

Know the limitation of your data, but stretch your goal as far as possible. Don’t get caught by spurious correlations, otherwise it will not take longer than drilling the next well to bring you back to reality. And sure, know and understand your tools.

Putting a team of people (a geophysicist, geologist and a reservoir engineer) in the same working room may not guarantee that the study will be an integrated one. How can integration be achieved, now that it has been a buzzword for quite some time?

Yes it is amazing, if you go to one of the geophysical conferences and see how many papers do have the word “integrated” as part of the title. It is definitely a buzzword. But integration is critical for a successful subsurface evaluation. The team has to take it to the heart that the better the cooperation between the disciplines of geology, petrophysics, rock physics, engineering, and geophysics, the better the results. How can the geophysicist start an interpretation without a geological concept, how can we generate synthetic ties without the input of petrophysics, how can we model the seismic response without having an idea of the rock physics? The experience of success will be the most important driver for integration. Discussing history matches with the engineers and discovering that including certain faults in your interpretation gives a conclusive story can give you the “ah” experience. Or looking at the FMI interpretation and combining it with the seismic can suddenly make the geo-story more complete. A good workroom can be the facilitator for the integration.

Your Ph.D. thesis was on the determination of the quality factor Q using different methods and their comparison. Tell us about this Q. As you mentioned, even after four decades of work, this quantity remains shrouded with uncertainty. Do you use inverse Q filtering in your work?

You are very correct. Even after decades of research, Q computation and interpretation is not a robust technique. Attenuation could be the favorite seismic attribute to identify bitumen in oil sand plays, if, and this is unfortunately a big IF, if we could determine Q reliable for short intervals. Frequently I try to make indirect use of attenuation effects by using frequency attributes. It’s not a great substitute for the real “Q” but there is some success. However, in the lab and in theory the group at the Colorado School of Mines and my colleagues at Statoil’s heavy oil research in Trondheim are delivering very interesting results. If we were able to analyze Q from surface seismic data, like those guys are doing it in the lab or mathematically, we would be able to map the bitumen in oil sand plays much better.

What other interests do you have?

I have a passion for traveling and exploring different countries. My wife and I share this gusto and so we travel quite a bit. This passion can be ideally combined with my profession, so starting as a student I was already on field trips on five continents. The continuation of this resulted in living on different continents.

I also love being physically active. I enjoy biking, not only the real fun stuff in the mountains but also my daily commute to work. Sure if it gets really cold or too slippery on the road I skip a day, but otherwise you can see me riding to work even most of the winter days.

What would be your message for young geophysicists who are entering our profession?

Enjoy it! I believe our profession and our industry is an extremely exciting place with lots of fun.

Have you ever heard an accountant telling you about his interesting job creating balance sheet? Or is it more likely to hear a geoscientist sharing the experience of acquiring data in the Libyan desert, exploring a challenging offshore prospect, or following up on some interesting WCSB well. (Hopefully, we have no accountant reading the Recorder who is taking this statement personally!)

Last but not least, perhaps some general recommendations:

– Follow your interest, work in the field of geophysics you enjoy most.

– If you decide to work for the oil and gas industry, start your career with a “good size” company. In most cases this will make excellent internal and external training possible as well as mentoring from more senior colleagues.

– Stay flexible and be open to different paths of professional development.

– Establish a network. The CSEG and SEG allow for great opportunities to work on this network. Go to luncheons, conferences, present your work and establish contacts, perhaps with the help of your professor.

– Finally… Never stop learning.


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