‘Establish your credibility at the beginning of your career...’

An interview with Santosh K. Majumdar

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Santosh K. Majumdar

The RECORDER editors recently had the opportunity to interview Santosh Majumdar from Husky Energy. With 43 years of experience in the worldwide exploration industry he has worked on so many different plays it is too much to list here. Satinder Chopra, Jason Noble and Vince Law enjoyed an entertaining and lively discussion with Santosh.

[Satinder]: Can you tell us about your educational background and professional experience?

Well, after being in the industry for 43 years, this will not be an easy task. How much time do we have? (laughter). When I was in university, India followed the British educational system. In order to obtain a M.Sc. in Applied Geophysics one had to have a B.Sc. in Physics, Mathematics and Geology combination. Therefore, after graduating with this B.Sc. combination, I completed my M.Sc. in Applied Geophysics.

[Satinder]: When was that?

That was in 1960. Back in India, Geophysics included courses in Seismology, Meteorology, Oceanography, Earth Magnetism, Atmospheric Electricity and Exploration Geophysics. At a certain phase in your studies, an individual needed to specialize in one of the above-mentioned subjects. For example, one may have decided to specialize in Meteorology to become a Meteorologist. I elected to specialize in Exploration Geophysics.

At the end of 1960, I went to West Germany to pursue a Ph.D. at Technische Universität Clausthal, with a very meager scholarship. At that time, because the West German Government directed their economic policies towards African countries, only nominal scholarship funds were available for Indian students. In order to continue my university studies, I needed to supplement my meager scholarship by interrupting my studies and working at a mining company (Preussische Bergwerke Hütten A.G) for 3 month intervals. With these repeated interruptions to my studies, it would have taken 5 to 6 years to finish my Ph.D. Therefore, I decided not to continue, but to accept a position as Assistant Party Chief at Seismos G.m.b.H, the oldest seismic exploration company in the world. They hired me, not because of my experience, but based on my educational background. The second day on the job they sent me to the field in Rhineland. I had to learn from scratch, recording, jug hustling, surveying, drilling, and everything related to seismic operations. After a year and a half, I became a Party Chief. In order to operate as Party Chief, one has to obtain official recognition from the German Mining Academy. I spent 5 years as a Party Chief with Seismos, and worked in most of the West European countries and some time in South America. My last year at Seismos was in the interpretation group seconded to the North Sea Consortium created by several oil companies.

Subsequently, I worked with the Preussische Bergwerke Hütten A.G. as an Interpretation Geophysicist for one year. In 1967, I immigrated to Calgary and was fortunate to receive three job offers within three days from Mobil, ARCO and PanAmerican (AMOCO). It was a good time in the oil industry in Calgary. I could not decide which offer to accept so I went back to the Immigration Officer and asked for his advice. He indicated that all these companies were good, but he recommended Mobil. I worked for Mobil for three years as a Senior Geophysicist. Within that time, I was sent to their field research lab (FRL) in Dallas for interpretation training.

In 1970, DeGolyor McNaughton, a consulting company in Dallas that recruits professional people worldwide for their global operations, offered me an excellent position in Algeria as a Regional Geophysicist. I worked there for a total of 4.5 years, and had been promoted to Chief Geophysicist for the Triassic basin after 1.5 years.

I always wanted to come back to Calgary, and was able to do so when Canadian Superior Oil Company offered me a consulting job for foreign operation and interpretation. After six months I discovered that consulting was not for me. The pay was very lucrative, however you had to work long hours, which was not conducive to my family life with my wife and small children.

Thus, I began evaluating other opportunities, and eventually received an offer from Conoco to work as an expatriate in the UK. I was sent to Ponca City for training and then to England as an Area Geophysicist. After working for three years, I requested a transfer to Hudson’s Bay Oil and Gas (HBOG) which was 68% owned by Conoco, as I wanted by children to be raised in Canada. I worked in Calgary for six years, primarily focusing on East Coast and Foothills projects, and six months in Houston at the International Division of HBOG to evaluate the Throms Basin seismic data of Norwegian North Sea offshore. In 1980, HBOG sent me to Indonesia on foreign assignment, in charge of the Interpretation Division. I stayed there for three years. In 1982, HBOG was bought out by Dome Petroleum. The bank of Nova Scotia had a lien against the HBOG’s Indonesian property. Dome was under severe financial problems, and almost immediately sold the Indonesian properties to British Petroleum and Lasmo. Out of 23 expats, only four elected to return to Calgary due to their children’s university going age.

In 1983, I relocated to Calgary as a District Geophysicist for Dome Petroleum. My area of responsibility was from the 5th to 6th meridian and from the US border to the Northwest Territories. It was a large area with eight Geophysicists. After six months I was actively looking for a job as I was not enjoying my current working environment. Again I was very fortunate to have three job offers from PetroCanada, Canterra, and lastly from Husky Oil. At that time, out of my 24 years of experience, I had worked 14 years in International and ten years in domestic. Obviously, my preference was to work in the International Division, therefore I joined Husky in 1984. Since then I have been working at Husky as an Exploration Specialist, initially ten years in International, four years in Heavy Oil, and the last five years in Foothills Deep Gas.

[Satinder]: When you first decided to leave India to work, what led to that decision?

In mid 1960, I applied to universities all over the world for a PhD degree. Of the UK, USA, Australian and West German universities that accepted my application, all were subject to the condition that one must bear the cost for the first year, which was 600 US dollars. The remainder of the years would be at the expense of the university. In those days, 600 US dollars was a huge amount. I had received a scholarship from the University Grant Commission in India, when I was doing my M.Sc. studies, but it was only a small fraction of the 600 US dollars. Seismos G.m.b.H. in West Germany was the only company that offered me a position that would have enabled me to financially support my education. That was the reason I left India and went to West Germany.

After one year Seismos sent me to Sicily, and at that time I decided to go back to India. Seismos gave me a return ticket in case I changed my mind. At that time in India, Geophysicists had to work almost eight months in the field, and four months at the office for interpretation, which would have been detrimental to my health as I was somewhat asthmatic and very susceptible to dust. Asian parents usually do not encourage their children to move away, but my father having my best interest in mind, advised me to return to West Germany, for my health.

[Satinder]: Yes, still in India party chiefs are in the field for eight months.

My decision was also based on the fact that it would have been very difficult to raise children, as I would have been in the field for eight months.

[Satinder]: Did you always want to become a Geophysicist?

Around 1950, India embarked on a huge oil and gas exploration project, but was not equipped with enough professional manpower. It was my understanding that a large number of bright students from diversified disciplines were sent to Colorado School of Mines USA or to Moscow University. After they completed their MSc or PhD degrees in their respective fields, they returned to India and established the Indian Oil and Natural Gas Commission (IONGC). In 1954, during my college years, short documentaries were previewed at the movies that “India has embarked on a huge oil and gas exploration project”. It was very fascinating and strongly influenced me as a young kid. Furthermore, one of my father’s acquaintances who was a Geologist, use to tell stories regarding geology. He occasionally brought me to the university to look at mineral and rock samples with a microscope. It was a very exciting experience. Concurrently, the Indian government was offering scholarships to attract student to the Geophysics Faculty. All of these factors drew me into geophysics.

[Jason]: When you were working in Germany as a Party chief, what was your impression of the technology at that time?

That is an interesting question, as you almost have to go back into history. (laughter) In 1960, when I joined Seismos, digital recording was nonexistent. Shots were recorded on analog techno magnetic bands. Seismograms were 16 centimeters wide, only 12 traces, six traces on either side, and each one had 50 to 80 meters of trace spacing. In one day, we used to shoot a maximum five to six shot points. In those days, data acquisition, processing and interpretation were all done in the field, and the interpretation report was subsequently submitted to the respective oil company. These three disciplines were combined together; it was a very narrow science at that time. Processing was only done on a techno magnetic band; DFS III was a recording instrument at that time. The processing sequence only included filtering, to get rid of ground roll, and at the most, mixing of adjacent traces with different percentages. That was the extent to processing. After receiving 16 cm seismograms, the timing lines were marked manually. All the calculations were done manually using slide-rules as no computers were available in those days. Multiple coverage was non-existent. In 1964, Seismos was taken over by Prakla G.m.b.H (semi-government organization) and they adopted digital technology. You cannot believe how much technology has changed and advanced since then. Analog to digital technology was a revolutionary change. Digital recording and multiple coverage with DFS IV instrument (equipped with floating point and broad dynamic range) was introduced.

[Jason]: You have been pretty well everywhere you can go in exploration, where would you say is the most interesting place you have worked?

I would say after working physically in nine countries and four continents, I found Calgary is the best place to work and live. Whenever I accepted a foreign assignment as an expat I had to consider all the variable parameters in that country, namely political situation, schooling, medical facilities, climatic condition, currency, transportation, infrastructure, expatriate bonuses, relocation costs and COLA, etc. When all these aspects are taken into consideration, I find Calgary exceeds all other places I have been. But if you want to work outside Canada as an expat, my first choice would be Indonesia. An expat’s life in Indonesia is similar to colonial style living, and you can easily be spoiled. It is not unusual to have a household staff of six – a cook, housekeeper, gardener, driver, day and night security guards, and all kind of other perks. The difficult part is that it is a tropical country, with a very warm and humid climate, and one can be very vulnerable to bugs. Therefore, I would suggest only accepting a position in Indonesia for two or three years, because if you stay longer it may be very difficult to come back to Calgary and readjust.

[Jason]: What sort of differences have you seen in the work culture between the various places you have been?

I cannot comment very much on the service company side because I worked for only one service company (Seismos). I found that in general, the individuals I encountered in the oil industry in West Germany were very disciplined, methodical and hardworking.

Some oil companies have horizontal integration between various disciplines and almost transparent hierarchy. In my opinion, HBOG and Conoco fall into this category. I found Mobil Oil, Dome and Canadian Superior Oil to be different in character in that they have a distinct hierarchy. I find Husky to be in between.

Santosh K. Majumdar

Over the years it has become apparent to me that an Interpretive Geophysicist should work in conjunction with geology, engineering and drilling. Some companies are very good at integrating these disciplines, but others are still very compartmentalized.

In terms of work culture in different countries, my comments obviously relate primarily to the oil industry. Some countries have a very laid back attitude, which I had experienced in Sicily, British Guiana, Surinam and Algeria. They have a siesta from 12 to 3 o’clock, and the culture is very easygoing. In Indonesia, England, Holland and Germany there seems to be more of an American influence. They follow the same sort work ethics as Canada and the USA, and so I did not see much of a difference.

[Satinder]: You have been in this industry for 43 years, so maybe you could share with us the trick for surviving in this industry.

First of all I would like to say, I have always been fortunate by the grace of God. Normally you see that a lot of professional people have gaps in their career. I have been very fortunate to have a continuous professional life. Secondly, I think it comes down to being at the right place at the right time.

I learned early on in my career in West Germany, that no matter what project you have been assigned, you need to work hard and establish your credibility early. In my opinion, you have the right to work, but not on the consequences. In other words, be diligent and disciplined without expecting reward and you will see your performances appreciated accordingly later. In an oil company you may get a project where no matter what you do, how you evaluate, you are still unsuccessful in finding hydrocarbons because they are not there, period. In my experience as long as you have sincerely devoted your time and effort to evaluating the prospect, engaging every available tool and idea, no matter what the outcome, this is how you establish your credibility with your superiors. In other words, discipline, perseverance and tolerance are the keys to survival.

[Satinder]: Most of your experience has been in interpretation, what in your opinion, over the years, has been the greatest technological advancement?

There has been so much progress and technological advancements over the years that I could not possibly talk about everything. Therefore, I will just talk about my last two assignments in Heavy Oil and Alberta Foothills. In Heavy Oil seismically we tried to determine very thin sand, at very shallow levels. We recorded up to 110 Hz, which means that it could detect maximum sand thickness of 7 to 8 m. There was a software tool available to determine sand thickness up to 2 m. This was done by calibrating the wave form to the existing wells. You will find it hard to believe we had 98% success in Heavy Oil development. In the Alberta Foothills, when I drilled my first well in 1976, I had predicted three imbricates, and encountered seven. Those days we used to take seismograms, and cut into three trace pieces and splice them back together to make the basement flat. The only reflectors one could visualize were Wapiabi, Cardium and Precambrian event. The interpreter had to imagine all the Mississippian imbricates. Over time, data quality has improved considerably because of the processing sequence applied by the processor based on advance algorithms. 3D seismic survey in the Foothills has become a common practice. Husky is currently involved in doing Prestack Depth Migration with Anisotropy. This requires a considerable amount of modeling and rigorous interaction with the processor. Husky has been in the forefront in this process. We have recently carried out numerous 3D seismic surveys in the Alberta Foothills. Based on 3D interpretations, Husky has had good success in the Foothills. Prestack Depth Migration and Anisotropy have definitely brought a lot of confidence about the subsurface structural configuration and positioning.

[Jason]: Where else in Canada and outside of Canada is Husky active?

At present, Husky is extensively active in China and partly in Indonesia. Husky is heavily involved in doing exploration and development work in China. In the East Coast, Husky is the discoverer of White Rose, I was not involved (laughter), soon it will be on production. Husky is also a partner in the producing Terra Nova Oil Field. Husky has very large land holdings in the East Coast, in fact we are almost the biggest player there. In Western Canada, Husky is active in the Foothills and the Deep Basin, looking for deep as well as shallow targets. There are four distinct exploration departments in Husky – Foothills, Deep Basin, Northern, and International & Frontier. In addition, Husky has several core asset groups, for example Heavy Oil in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

[Jason]: Why did you never opt into a full managerial type position rather than sticking more with the pure exploration end of the business.

This is a good question. In fact I have been fairly exposed to the managerial responsibilities. When I was in Algeria, I worked as a Regional Geophysicist at Sonatrach, the National Oil Company. One and a half years later I was promoted to Chief Geophysicist. The department consisted of 22 Geophysicists of nine nationalities and had been operating 15 seismic crews with one up-hole survey crew. Initially I had some concerns about my ability to perform in that job, but had the support of the Director of the company. The amount of work was much more than I had expected. I spent a significant portion of my time simply raising 40 to 45 AFEs and approving over 250 invoices per year. The burden was so heavy and my stress level was too high. It was a much more demanding position than a managerial position here. I found my job function was largely involved in paper work, and it became increasingly difficult for me to do technical work. Somewhat similar situations occurred at Conoco as an assistant to the Chief Geophysicist, and at Dome Petroleum as District Geophysicist.

Currently, I am holding a position at Husky that is equivalent to managerial level on the technical side. Over the years I have retreated myself gradually from the non-technical work. In fact, in the last ten years I have retreated completely and no longer even like attending meetings. I am now 68 years old, and for the last eight years I have been doing only geophysical work. I have now become, what you may call a geophysical professional recluse. (laughter)

[Satinder]: You have been quite modest, maybe you could tell us a couple of your professional success stories as well.

There are in fact quite a few. (laughter) In 1974, when I went to England through Conoco, there had already been quite a few prolific discoveries in the UK sector of North Sea, but no production. Forties Field started producing in 1974 from the Tertiary formation. The first new field I was involved in was Hutton Field in Viking Graben. The field tested about 8000 Bopd, if I remember correctly. That was actually 189 million barrels recoverable field, barely past the commercial rating. In those days, any field with recoverable reserves less than 187 million barrels was considered non-commercial. Can you believe it? The reason being not having then any established infrastructure in place, all those giant fields could not be produced. Forties Field was the first commercial production. The interesting part was, when I was sent to UK from Ponca City, shortly after that Hutton Field was discovered, which was a God-sent event for me. I am not trying to be modest. The Viking Graben was fully charged with oil and gas. You did not have to be a genius, whoever drilled a well made a discovery at that time.

[Satinder]: The right man at the right place at the right time.

At the Conoco office corridor we used to talk like “hey Mike, how is your well doing?” Response - “it tested about 12,000 Bopd”. We seldom talked about dry holes. Almost every company was successful in the UK North Sea. It was a very exciting time for me.

Another exciting discovery for me was in Indonesia. In 1979, I had been frequently shuttling between Calgary and Indonesia because of Hudbay (a subsidiary of HBOG) interest in Indonesia. I moved to Indonesia with my family from 1980 to 1983. Hudbay had a four well commitment. We drilled three wells on three separate structures, which were young and apparently hydrocarbon had migrated before the formation of the structure. Therefore, all the wells were unsuccessful. For the fourth well, we acquired the rig with only one month remaining. We drilled the well in a rush, with two vintage seismic lines on the structure. We got only a very faint idea regarding the structural setting of the prospect. An Australian Geologist was working for Hudbay at that time. We decided to drill a shallower target based on the temperature gradient. In many places in Indonesia the temperature gradient is very high, induced by volcanic activity underneath. With the weak seismic and high temperature gradient led us to drill a shallow target, which became our most exciting discovery (Lalang Oil Field in Malacca Strait). A detailed seismic was shot later, and it was found that the well was actually drilled on the down thrown side of the wrench fault. Both sides of the wrench fault were oil fields with different oil water contact. The Lalang Field was producing 48,000 Bopd. Our capital costs from the exploration to development phase was 170 million US dollars. We recovered the entire cost in eight months. Subsequently, two more oil fields (Mengkapan and Mallibur) were discovered. That was the most exciting discovery in my life.

[Satinder]: What is the toughest problem you have worked on?

An impact structure at Steen River area in Northern Alberta when I worked for Mobil. Due to meteorite impact, ripple structures around the impacted area were formed like sine waves. They appeared like concentric highs and lows around the periphery of the impacted area. Avery small non-commercial oil fields were found at the periphery. Our objective was to find prospect underneath the impacted area. We ran gravity, which showed low density (some drill logs indicated evidence of Pumice stone). Seismic indicated practically no reflection event. One individual pointed out that there was vegetation all around, but none over the impacted area. The Mobil Field Research Laboratory suggested we should fly an infrared survey. The infrared survey indicated a high temperature gradient only over the impacted area. All these tools were utilized – gravity, seismic and infrared, to drill this well. It was not a successful well. I had predicted 1200 m, it came with considerable error of 400 m low, almost 1600 m.

The second difficult area I came across was in the Alberta Foothills. In this area post Brazeau Thrust Mississippian Carbonate outcrops. The prospects lies beneath the Brazeau thrust. We spent a lot of money in order to acquire very tight 3D seismic survey. On the entire 3D volume Prestack Depth Migration (PSDM) with Anisotropy was run, which involved a considerable amount of modeling and interaction with processor. After continued effort in reprocessing, ultimately an acceptable quality of data was retrieved under the Brazeau Thrust. Nearby fields are so prolific that one section produces nearly 30 bcf. The risk is high in this area, but the reward is equally high. A well is expected to be drilled shortly.

[Satinder]: What are your other interests, apart from work?

Seismic interpretation is my favorite hobby. Walking is my primary exercise, which I do everyday during lunch hour for almost 45 minutes along the riverside downtown. I do not compromise my walking for anything - I do not go for lunches, I do not attend meetings or seminars, etc. By the blessings of God, I am still in good health. I used to do a lot of rope skipping, but it started to hurt my back and my doctor advised me not to do it, so I started walking instead. I have started golfing in the last three years, with my two sons-in-law and one of their fathers. My score is very poor, but I am learning the game, and enjoying it very much. With my daughter I play squash once a week. It is a very good game, however it is strenuous for my age, so I take it with ease.

[Jason]: Do you do any internal mentoring or training within Husky?

I have provided mentoring at certain times in my career. At Conoco, Sonatrach, Hudbay and Dome, part of my job function was to provide mentoring. Over the last eight years I have completely retreated from that, but I still help out young Geophysicists whenever they come and ask questions.

[Satinder]: What is your message for young entrants in the industry?

One of the strongest things I see in recent graduates is that they are very smart. What they lack is hands-on experience in the field. Mobil and HBOG used to have their own seismic crew and every new Geophysicist had to go into the field crew for one to two years. Most companies lack their own seismic crew. My advice to young Geophysicists would be when you join a company, spend some time in the field and learn about the various aspects of the seismic operation. What it is like in the recorder, jug hustling, surveying, drilling, etc. This hands-on experience becomes an asset in the later stages of your career.

Secondly, try to get involved in the diversified disciplines - geophysics, geology, engineering and drilling.

Thirdly, it is almost a question of survival to have discipline, perseverance and tolerance. Usually young people are ambitious and sometimes not tolerant. When you are sitting in the meeting with people of different disciplines or working with people in your group, sometimes differences of opinion do occur, which leads to commotion and disagreements. Be tolerant. In our country there is a saying “He who tolerates, he survives”.

Lastly, after a few years of experience in the industry, try to get an MBA. This is just another dimension of the integration of disciplines. Along with geology, geophysics, engineering and drilling, the economic aspect has now become an increasingly important factor in the oil industry.

[Satinder]: Santosh, thank you very much for your time.

It has been a pleasure.


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