Susan Eaton has had a very interesting and varied career. She has worked for large oil companies, small start-ups and independently as a consultant. Her expertise and primary professional interest is in managing the entire exploration process, including the business and financial aspects and developing small start-ups into successful E&P companies. Susan is a P.Geol. and P.Geoph. and also has a degree in Journalism. She has a wealth of experience as her career has taken her through a broad spectrum of the oil and gas industry. Susan is outspoken (she used to wear army boots) and is well read so she was an ideal candidate for a RECORDER interview. Satinder and Helen enjoyed talking and listening to her and are pleased to share these excerpts from their interview.
Let’s begin by asking you about your educational background and your work experience.
I moved from Halifax to Calgary in May 1980, to join Esso Resources Canada Ltd., just days after graduating from Dalhousie University with a B.Sc. Honours degree in Geology and Biology. I spent three great years at Esso, working as both a geologist and a geophysicist. When I joined Esso, there were about 175 geologists and 30 geophysicists. The geophysicists were fewer in number, they worked on really interesting offshore seismic interpretation projects and they got paid more…!!?? Early in my career at Esso, I decided that geophysics was more exciting than geology, and asked to become a geophysicist. At that time, Esso had extensive in-house training, and could cross-train individuals. I became an interpretation geophysicist, focusing on exploration in the East Coast offshore, the Labrador Shelf and the Davis Strait near Baffin Island.
I left Esso in 1983 – actually quit – to join the federal government in Ottawa. At that time, COGLA, the Canada Oil and Gas Lands Administration, was the federal agency which regulated oil and gas exploration and production offshore Newfoundland, Labrador and Nova Scotia, and North of 60, including the Northwest Territories, the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Islands.
I left Esso and Calgary for a couple of reasons:
One, I didn’t particularly enjoy Calgary during the construction boom in the early 1980s. Coming from Nova Scotia, I grew up beside the ocean. While the Rocky Mountains were spectacular, I missed the ocean and the sound of foghorns, believe it or not! Maritimers have strong homing instincts – and it’s not just the ocean that draws them back, but a sense of community which is based, in my case, on a 15-generation family history. My father’s ancestors arrived in Nova Scotia fro m Massachusetts in 1760, and my mother’s family emigrated from Ireland to Prince Edward Island in 1780.
Two, I wanted to move back to Halifax, and thought the most direct route was to work for the federal government, focusing on the East Coast offshore. Also, I reasoned that, as a geophysicist, I would probably be more diversified with a combination of regulatory government and oil industry experience. I spent three interesting years in Ottawa, at COGLA as a regulatory geophysicist, interpreting seismic offshore Labrador, the South Whale Basin and the Jeanne d’Arc Basin, during the height of the largest exploration boom in the history of the East Coast offshore.
At COGLA, I got to interpret every seismic line acquired offshore, and to evaluate the results of every well drilled. So, unlike my industry counterparts who worked small geographical areas and whose interpretations were impaired by years of industry data confidentiality, I got to participate in the evolution of the geological understanding of these basins… in real time. In the Jeanne d’Arc Basin, where the seismic lines were several hundred kilometers long – at a time when the government didn’t have geophysical work-stations – I needed to tape these 10-footlong seismic sections on the board room walls, interpreting them by hand. As a geophysicist at COGLA, I was intimately involved in nominating and configuring lands for industry bids. I also worked on resource assessments with the Geological Survey of Canada and the Atlantic Geoscience Centre in Halifax.
I spent three great, learning years in Ottawa, but never did get that ‘plum’ posting to Halifax. In the end, my outlook on life had changed and I decided that I didn’t really want to return to Halifax, after all. Three years was sufficient to learn the regulatory side of the business and to gain key insights into how the government regulated the oil and gas industry. In the frontier environment, the federal government is fairly prescriptive in terms of how exploration and production proceeds. A couple of years later, COGLA disbanded and its regulatory powers transferred to the Canada Nova-Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board and the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board.
I returned to Calgary at the end of 1985 to work for Husky Oil Operations. I was hired to work the East Coast offshore but, initially, Husky put me in Northern Alberta exploration group because, in those days, companies were concerned about conflict of interest. Shortly after I joined Husky, the price of oil crashed to $9 US per barrel and I became a casualty – after only 12 weeks of employment – when the company terminated close to 30 percent of its exploration staff. After the layoff in the spring of 1986, I returned to Ottawa, where I enrolled in a post-graduate B.J. (Journalism) Honours degree at Carleton University.
Was the journalism degree something that was always in the back of your mind?
No, journalism was never on the radar screen for me. But during the spring of 1986, when I was looking for employment in Calgary, job prospects for geophysicists went from bad to worse. I considered my options, including another degree in earth sciences, but with so many unemployed G&G professionals in Calgary, that didn’t make a lot of sense. An MBA sounded interesting, but it was a two-year-long degree. And, a law degree was very appealing – in fact, I had been accepted to law school three years earlier, but hadn’t gone. However, I didn’t want to go back to university for a three-year law degree. Then, I discovered a one-year, post-graduate degree in Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, and decided that I would become a science and technology reporter. This decision was really out of the box for me, because I hadn’t even studied English during my undergraduate science degree. But I had always liked creative writing.
My father had been a reporter with the Halifax Chronicle Herald, and in 1986, one of my sisters was a TV anchor with NBC-TV in Jacksonville, Florida. So you could say that journalism was a family business. When I was interviewed for a position at the Carleton School of Journalism, I said, “I don’t think you’re going to have many applicants with a science and technology background, and I want to be a science and technology writer.” Out of the 45 students in my Bachelor of Journalism degree, only five had science backgrounds.
My honours journalism thesis consisted of a series of magazine articles about terrorism in Canada – during the 1980s, t h e re were several terrorist incidents in Ottawa which involved live media reporting, including an incident when Armenian terrorists attacked the Turkish Embassy. During the hostage taking at the Turkish Embassy, there was live TV reporting, enabling the terrorists to watch the SWAT teams assembling on the roof of the embassy. The media were widely criticized for live reporting, which could have endangered the hostages. The themes that I explored in my thesis were: Should the media have access to terrorists because, in the process, they risk becoming the mouthpiece of the terrorists? Should the media be allowed to report, in real time, possibly endangering the hostages? Should the media work with the police forces, or should they be completely at arms length? My thesis also discussed the two Air India bombings that were fairly topical in 1987.
When I graduated with my journalism degree in the spring of 1987, I accepted a contract position with CBC-TV in St. John’s, Newfoundland. When CBC-TV came recruiting to Ottawa, I pitched them: “I know the oil and gas industry in Newfoundland, the oil companies and the government regulators. I’ve also worked as a summer geology student for Chevron Minerals in Newfoundland, so I know the mining beat. Let me be your Energy Reporter. I’m also a Maritimer, so I understand the isolation that people in the Atlantic Coast feel, on a regular basis.” That’s how I ended up in St. John’s, where I spent about six months reporting on Here and Now, the provincial evening news show. It was exciting when some of my stories played on CBC-TV National News.
Why did you leave journalism and go back into geophysics?
My position at CBC-TV was as a contract – not full-time – reporter, and my salary was less than 50% of what it had been the year before at Husky Oil. The pay scale for journalism is poor, despite the fact that professional journalists are very well educated and work long hours. Prior to joining CBC-TV, I had been accepted to the Master’s program in petroleum geology (geophysics specialization) at Imperial College in London, England. I thought, well I’m 29, it will take me five really hard years to get to CBC-TV’s The National. TV reporting in Canada was very competitive, there were no full-time jobs, so I thought, why not go to England for a year. Besides, I actually liked geophysics...
I spent a frenetic year in London completing a 12-month, “short snapper” M.Sc. degree. Much to my chagrin, I was doing differential calculus –again, at the age of 30. My dissertation was completed with the assistance of Bow Valley U.K., the British subsidiary of Bow Valley Resources Canada, and involved the interpretation of a large 2-D seismic survey in the East Brae Field of the Norwegian Sector of the North Sea. I approached every Canadian E&P company based in London, and said, “I’m a Canadian student who needs a seismic data set for my M.Sc. dissertation – can you help me?” Before I left London to return to Calgary, I had received three full-time job offers in the U.K., including one from Bow Valley. But London, at 12 million people, was too big for me, and I was facing a daily two-hour commute, round trip, by train and subway. I just couldn’t live in London… the big skies, mountains and prairies of Alberta beckoned to me.
The year I spent at Imperial College was amazing – it’s a university steeped in history, and the home of the Royal School of Mines…that’s the original School of Mines. I had a great time in London, and benefited immensely from the experience of studying in a different country. The two years at Carleton University and Imperial College were truly a sabbatical from my previous six years of working in the oil patch. I made new friends, many of whom have become senior journalists in Canada and successful oil and gas professionals in Europe. If the price of oil hadn’t collapsed in 1986, I most likely never would have returned to university as a mature student, and I expect that my life would have been very different today.
When I finished my M.Sc. degree in October of 1988, the price of oil was $13 US per barrel. If you’re employed in the oil and gas industry, you always remember the price of oil, in a given year…
How did you get dual status with APEGGA, both P.Geol. and P.Geoph.?
I became a P.Geol. while I was at Esso. However, in order to add the P.Geoph. designation, APEGGA told me that I needed to complete three or four additional geophysics courses. In fact, based upon my six years of primarily geophysical work experience, I could have actually traded my P.Geol. for a P.Geoph. designation – but I didn’t want to give up my P.Geol. status. In the end, after I completed the requisite geophysics courses at Imperial College, I had to work for two years post- M.Sc. before obtaining the P.Geoph. designation. In all, it took two university degrees and nine years of corresponding with APEGGA to get the dual status.
What did you do after your M.Sc. degree from Imperial College?
I came back to Calgary during the fall of 1988, and couldn’t get a job with an E&P company because they weren’t hiring. Instead, I joined Teknica Resources Ltd., the geophysical company who pioneered seismic inversion. As a seismic interpreter at Teknica, I worked with foreign nationals from state oil companies from all over the world – they came to Calgary for training, from China, Columbia, Ecuador, Russia and the Philippines.
In 1990, I left Teknica to join Suncor where I spent six years as a senior geophysicist. It was a really good six years, and I evaluated high risk/high reward exploration plays in the Northwest Territories and in the Foothills of NE British Columbia, Southern Alberta and Montana. I also spent two years as a geophysicist in Suncor’s Development and Acquisitions and Divestments Groups, evaluating the purchase of E&P companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 1996, I wanted to develop more of a business focus in my career – moving beyond my job as a seismic interpreter – so I resigned from Suncor to work for a small exploration company. I left Suncor to become number two in a two-person, private oil company focusing on international exploration – it was a real career jump, a shock actually. But it was what I wanted to do. I spoke Spanish, French and German, and I wanted to use my language skills.
At Suncor, it seemed that only the engineers got exposure to the various departments – gas marketing, operations, communications and environment – preparing them to become managers due to their varied experience in the industry. The career paths of the geologists and geophysicists, however, seemed constrained within a technical box.
I joined this small company as an exploration geophysicist, obtaining a broad-based business experience. Within two years, I was promoted to the Vice- President of Exploration, and had built a really dynamic exploration team of about 10 people.
You worked in Cuba?
Yes, I spent two years in Cuba with this small company, and gained “on-the-ground” operating experience in the developing world. We had properties onshore and offshore Cuba, as well as offshore Poland. I evaluated farm-in deals in Malaysia, Latin America, Russia and Europe. And I discovered, firsthand, the competitive advantage of speaking the language of the country you’re working in – perfecting my traveller’s Spanish in Cuba, I was able to negotiate production sharing contracts with the state oil company and to make technical presentations.
Cuba was a country that hadn’t seen oil and gas exploration since 1958, and there were no geological maps available. In 1996 my exploration team applied all the basic geological and geophysical tools in the tool kit to unravel a basin. We flew state-of-the-art magnetics programs, and acquired ground-based gravity and 2-D seismic data as well.
Try ordering dynamite from Calgary or Venezuela, to be shipped to Havana for seismic programs – it’s not an easy task. Or reconnaissance flights for 2-D seismic surveys at 500 feet above the ground in old, Russian built bi-planes. It was simply an amazing experience.
The Cubans were very hospitable but very firm – I think their negotiators were trained by the KGB, however, because they didn’t budge an inch during negotiations for oil and gas concessions.
I spent a couple of years with this small international oil company, and then joined K2 Energy Ltd as the Vice- President of Exploration. K2 was a small, publicly traded company listed on the TSX.
One of the things that I like about small companies is the ability to build a company from scratch, to assemble the technical teams, and to develop and execute the business plan. I did that at K2 Energy as Vice President of Exploration while we were exploring on the Blackfeet Indian Reserve in Montana. We basically started our technical evaluation from ground zero in an area that spanned 32 contiguous townships of land – my exploration team defined the new plays in area that had been overlooked for 30 years. I find it quite challenging – and equally rewarding – pulling the exploration process together, from beginning to end. I spent a couple of years at K2 adding value for shareholders, creating the exploration team and drilling K2’s discovery wells on the Blackfeet Indian Reserve.
I enjoy creating the vision for a small company, and making it happen. And this is what I’m doing today at Darian Resources Ltd., a privately held, start-up oil and gas company with daily production of about 100 barrels. In November 2005, I quit my consulting practice that I had developed over six years, to assume the full-time position of Vice-How many people are there at Darian?President of Exploration at Darian.
How many people are there at Darian?
There’s just four of us. The President, Dr. Grant Bartlett, is a geologist and a successful oilman – he focuses his efforts at Darian on financial matters. I’m the only full-time technical person, although geology, geophysics, land and engineering consultants work with me on a project-by-project basis. Darian also has a full-time Chief Financial Officer and an office manager who has a marketing background.
Darian was created less than one year ago, with an excellent endowment of capital. The company has deep financial pockets – we’re both looking for deals and are organically generating our own exploration plays.
How was your geophysical experience with big companies?
During my early career with larger E&P companies, I focused primarily on Foothills exploration. While I really like the technical challenge of Foothills exploration, it’s not a viable option in the small company domain because three- to 15-milliondollar wells (and the inherent risk associated with Foothills exploration) simply don’t work when you only have 10 or 15 million dollars of initial capital. Rather, in the small company environment, you focus on whatever type of play is profitable, and generally on plays with quick turn-around times, as most small companies have a two- to three-year life cycle, no more. Small companies in Calgary tend to sell their reserves or merge with other companies after just two to three years of operation. This quick turn-around strategy is the value-add that the shareholders are looking for or an exit strategy.
Tell us about your independent consulting practice which preceded your new position at Darian
From 1999 to 2005, I worked as a technical consultant on many interesting and diverse projects. My consulting practice focused on providing technical evaluations to investment banking firms in Calgary, the United States and the United Kingdom – I assisted equity financiers in the evaluation of oil and gas investments, primarily natural gas and oilsands plays in Western Canada. Working with engineers, I quantified the technical (G&G) into a risk-adjusted business model, into a language that financiers understand.
Additionally, I worked as a technical consultant with both small and large Canadian E&P firms and drilling funds, doing both geology and geophysics, from shooting and interpreting seismic to managing the drilling of wells.
As an independent consultant, I also decided to focus on my personal interest in science and technology writing. Ever since my journalism degree, I had dabbled as a freelance writer – for example, I would sell articles on ecotourism vacations to the Calgary Herald. However, in 1999, I started writing, in earnest, for several energy and business magazines, and my byline has appeared in Explorer Magazine, the Nickles Energy Group’s New Technology Magazine, Business Edge, a Calgary-based weekly news magazine, and in Environline, the business magazine for the environment industry in Western Canada. Eventually, people started contacting me and saying: “Well, you’re a geologist and a geophysicist – are you available to consult on this project?” In the end, about a third of my client base actually originated through writing contacts which, in hindsight, was fascinating: I had no idea that freelance writing – a labour of love because it’s not particularly lucrative – would actually reap financial rewards, introducing me to a new group of clients.
As the Canadian Correspondent for Explorer Magazine, the monthly publication of the American Society of Petroleum Geologists, I report on exciting exploration trends and plays in Canada. Several years ago, I contacted the editor of Tulsa based Explorer Magazine, and said, “You know, I don’t find the Explorer Magazine that relevant because I’ve been an AAPG member for 20 years, and there are never any articles on Canada; I think you need a Canadian Correspondent.” The rest, as they say, is history.
During the process of researching and writing my freelance articles, I stay current with many of the leading edge technologies used in geology, geophysics, drilling, and environmental remediation technology. As well, I’m current with many of the exploration trends in Canada.
You had a brief stint in the Military Service also, so tell us something about that and how you got out.
I was looking for a summer job between Grade 12 and the first year of university, so applied to the Naval Reserve. I grew up in Halifax, the headquarters of the East Coast Naval Fleet. However, what I didn’t realize was that the overflow of applicants for the Naval Reserve was being channeled into the Reserve Army or the Militia. The first day I reported for duty – not at the Naval Dock Yard but at the Armory – I received my helmet, army boots, back pack, and was told: “Memorize the serial number of this rifle, Private Eaton, you’re going to have it for the entire summer.” Suitably confused, I said, “Excuse me, Sir, but when do we get to go out on the destroyers? I joined the Navy...” That’s the long and short of how I ended up in the Reserve Army…
I didn’t come from a military family, but quickly discovered that the army was very interesting, especially for a young woman – few men or women get to experience shooting rifles, pistols and machine guns, throwing hand grenades , rappelling out of helicopters or driving armoured personnel carriers. I later became an army truck driver, driving the two-and-a-half-ton troop carrier trucks.
I went through basic training or “boot camp” for infantry soldiers, and then joined officer training program designed for university students. In 1977, I attended regular force officer training school at CFB Valcartier, Quebec, graduating as a Second Lieutenant from the Combat Arms School of the Royal 22nd Regiment. And, I did my Officer Training Course in French. In the late 1970s, women officers in the Canadian military – despite their equal rank and equal training – didn’t assume command roles in the combat field, so when I became a commissioned officer, I was relegated to support positions like the press officer and the quarter master. Today, women assume leadership roles in the field – hence the premature death at age 26 of Captain Nicola Goddard, who died in Afghanistan several months ago. Captain Goddard has the sad distinction of being Canada’s first female soldier killed in combat. So things have changed from the late 1970s, and when you join the army, it’s the real deal and men and women die serving their country.
In 1980, the military was accepting female helicopter pilots for the first time. I was torn between accepting a job with Esso and becoming a military helicopter pilot. I chose to work as a geologist in Calgary and believe, in hindsight, that I made the right choice. The skills I acquired in the army were directly applicable to my work in mining and oil and gas exploration – I learned how to use topographic maps and a compass, and how to survive in the bush. And I learned how to work under stressful conditions and time constraints.
I notice that during your 24-year career, you have worked for many companies. Obviously, you would have good reasons for doing so. Some people think that to move up the ladder, changing jobs is a must. There are others who opine that staying with one company allows you to identify with that company, you grow with the company, there is a sense of belonging that develops in you, and so on. What is your take on this and why?
In my experience, people often have to move jobs to achieve career progression. In certain companies, there may not be room at the top if professionals aspire to become team leaders, managers or vice-presidents. However, I believe that even a lateral move to another company may position professionals for later vertical moves. Some oil and gas companies simply lack career planning, mentoring and growth potential for their employees.
In some cases, a corporate switch is healthy, providing a new outlook on life. After a long period of time with one company, employees may become too comfortable. A job change also provides the challenge of working with a new team of people and the possibility of working in a new geographical/geological area.
During my oil and gas career, there have been several waves of layoffs, “down sizings” or “right sizings”, despite the fact that companies publicly assert that their employees are their most valuable assets. So, today, there’s not a great sense of belonging amongst corporate employees; consequently, I believe that employee loyalty is a thing of the past. Rather, professionals today, in this industry, are saying: “How much are you going to pay me, and if you don’t give me more, I’ll go elsewhere.” On the flip side, however, when you start your own junior oil and gas company – as one of the founders – you essentially create your own corporate environment and your own sense of belonging.
Calgary-based E&P companies were laying people off as recently as 2002 and 2003, so I think that everyone realizes that it’s every man for himself. As a professional, you have to manage your career development, often in the absence of mentorship and training offered by employers.
Let’s talk about the differences in work cultures that you may have perceived when you moved from one company to the other, something important that you would like to highlight for us?
I believe that you need to be a generalist to excel in a small company environment. You have to perform more than one job function, as you’re no longer simply a geologist or a geophysicist. In a small company environment, you have to know a little bit about everything – if the CFO is away on a two-week vacation, you may have to handle his job. Some geologists and geophysicists, during their first job in a small company, can be overwhelmed by the types of things they are asked to do without all the requisite skill sets – but they learn on the job, on the fly.
Explorationists really need to develop an understanding of economics because that’s what drives a company’s business model and often defines its corporate culture – and, economics of certain plays deliver the best rate of return for your shareholders. Accordingly, G&G professionals need to create exploration programs that deliver top value for the company’s investors.
I think small companies foster the culture of empowerment, challenging people to diversify their skills, to grow as individuals and to be successful. In a big company environment, based upon my experience, employees have fairly rigid job descriptions. Large E&P firms employ multidisciplinary teams, partitioning the work according to technical domains.
The corporate culture in the consulting world is different altogether. As a technical consultant, you deal with very different issues, focusing on providing expert advice to clients, in a cost effective and timely manner. Turn- around on tasks for clients – essentially in a service environment – is of the utmost importance.
Do you get stressed out at work or outside work and what would be your biggest “turn-it-off” approach?
Sometimes I get overwhelmed because there is a lot of work to do and my “To-do” list at work never gets any shorter. But I’m also pragmatic about the fact that a person can only achieve so much in a given day, and that working 12 hours a day, day after day, is not sustainable. So I try not to get stressed out – I focus, instead, on tasks that I can accomplish and on tasks within my sphere of influence; if I can’t get something done because I have little influence over the outcome, then I find the person who does and lobby them – or hire them – to get the job done. And, if I don’t have the right skill set, I’ll find the right person to assist me.
Journalism has taught me to deal with daily and hourly deadlines. I believe that the best approach is to work through deadlines as they occur, accomplishing as much as is humanly possible, while being as professional as possible. Stress – and peoples’ reactions to it – can cause physical illness and conflict in the office environment.
I think that different personalities deal with stress differently – some people are energized by stress while others fall apart under stress. I try to manage the stress.
I often think that some people are the architects of their own stress – maybe it’s because they are perfectionists, and haven’t developed good coping mechanisms or delegation skills.
What do you do for relaxation?
I exercise… rollerblade, hike, ski, horseback ride, sea kayak, paddle, yoga, pilates, weight training… the combination varies with the season.
In my opinion, exercise is fundamental to reducing stress. I work out in a small gym with a personal trainer (one-on-one) twice a week. And I’ve taken up Yoga to meditate – I’m trying to find that Zen state which continues to eludes me...
I relax by spending time in nature. I like to hike in the Rockies during the summer and fall. And I enjoy sea kayaking off Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. I like being near water… all my life I have either paddled, kayaked or rowed.
I also relax by reading novels and biographies. I’m a writer and aspire to write a novel someday. My father keeps saying, “You can’t be a great writer if you don’t read.” And he’s right!
What do you see yourself doing in the near future?
Working with Darian’s management team, during the next couple of years, and building the Company into a very successful E&P firm – our exit strategy contemplates selling the company’s assets in two to three years.
On the personal side, I want to continue with science and technology writing. Eventually, I’ll write my novel. But the creative writing will constitute a separate project altogether, requiring some quiet time and space without the competing pressures of managing an oil and gas company.
You spent 24 years in the oil and gas industry and you have worked at different places, so it would be interesting for the members to know, what has been the defining moment of your career till now, I mean when you will have said for yourself, “this is it, I belong here”? Maybe you could tell us something about that?
I’m not certain that there was one defining moment in my career but, rather, a series of events that has led me to where I am today. During the past 26 years – and including my two post-graduate degrees – I’ve woven together my technical and business acumen with my creative interests and communications skills, creating a personal and professional identity where I’m equally comfortable working in multi-national oil and gas company, a start-up oil and gas company, an investment banking firm, or as a reporter, interviewing the Federal Minister of Energy for a business magazine.
I’ve followed my personal interests and my passions, and have chosen several parallel paths during my career. During the past ten years, all of these paths have merged. For the past 16 years, I’ve also pursued another path: volunteer work in the not-for-profit environmental sector. I’m currently a member of the board of directors of the Calgary/Banff Chapter of CPAWS, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, a national environmental organization. My commitment to protecting the environment is linked to my work in the oil and gas industry, and guides how I conduct Darian’s field operations.
People often ask me: “How can you be an environmentalist and work in the oil and gas industry?” And, I always reply, “How can you not be an environmentalist, especially if you work in the oil and gas industry…” As an industry, if we don’t understand stakeholders and address their environmental concerns, in a very respectful, factual way, then oil and gas activities could be shut out of large areas.
What career accomplishments are you most proud of?
Starting a junior oil and gas company from scratch, as the Vice- President of Exploration, and pulling together a technically adept, multi-disciplinary team to build a successful enterprise. And finding oil and gas!
I enjoy working with talented management teams and technical experts, creating a corporate vision and putting it into action – this involves “selling” the vision to all the stakeholders in the company, and then leading the team to execute that vision.
Let’s talk a little bit about the technical side now. Tell us something about your most challenging project?
Logistically, it was probably my project in Cuba in the late 1990s, exploring an area untouched since 1958, a basin where the basic dip and strike were unknown. Oh, and did I mention – from start to finish – shooting seismic and drilling the first exploratory well within 18 months of acquiring the land block.
This project was technically challenging because we started at square one, going back to the basics – acquiring aeromagnetic, ground-based gravity, 2-D seismic and geochemistry data – to technically unravel the basin. We applied all of the technical firepower available to dissect this sedimentary basin.
In Western Canada, the most technically challenging projects that I’ve worked on involved Foothills exploration in Northern Montana and Southern Alberta. Foothills geophysics is challenging because pre-stack time and prestack depth migration is a pain-staking, iterative process – and when converting from time to depth, the geophysicist needs to intimately understand the geology. The drilling of Foothills wells involves being able to re- direct the trajectory of the wellbore, on the fly, if the geological information conflicts with the original seismic interpretation. In the Foothills environment, geophysicists acquire VSPs and dipmeters, in order to whipstock boreholes. Foothills geophysicists are involved in making critical, million-dollar decisions.
Good. I was reading about an article, by Peter Gretener, in which he says “we no longer have geophysicists or seismologists but we have migrators, inverters, acquisitioners, anisotropists,” etc., so do you think there is merit in having such a scenario or we should have something like a generalist pattern we had some years ago, and as you mentioned, I mean in small companies you need to have generalists.
Clearly, I think it would depend on what type of company you’re working for. However, I think most geophysicists in Calgary have historically been educated as generalists – and, it takes many years of additional industry experience to become an expert in the design of 3-D seismic surveys or the processing of seismic attributes for LMR and AVO. Further, specialty processing like LMR and AVO must be groundtruthed by the drill bit, to determine whether this actually works in a given play in a given area.
In my experience, the processing houses contain experts in various processing techniques, while the oil companies contain the interpreters or the generalists who determine the pragmatic application of specialty processing techniques. If I were acquiring a $200,000 walk-away VSP in a Foothills well (something I’ve only done twice in my career), not only would I want a specialist to design the VSP, but I would want him to assist me in its interpretation.
As geophysicists, we need to honestly assess our skills sets, and determine when it’s value-added to hire specialists. However, I suspect that 75% of the work conducted in the geophysical industry can be handled by geophysicists who are generalists.
I think that the majority of geophysicists succeed as generalists. Further, I think the best generalist is also a pragmatist: “I can take it to this point but now need the input of a specialist.” In the small company environment, I hire specialists to ensure that I don’t make technical errors, because if I drill a dry well on a questionable AVO anomaly then who suffers? My shareholders.
Do you think the new geophysical technologies that are coming up hold the promise of extraction of more information for characterizing hydrocarbon reservoirs, and do you use them in your interpretation for lowering risks?
Well, a lot of small companies in Calgary don’t even use seismic to drill wells because it’s not the panacea for every play type in Western Canada. And, seismic is often expensive. I think these new reservoir characterization technologies are more suitable for larger producing fields owned by multinational companies. For example, if a geophysicist wanted to perform a reservoir evaluation of the Buzzard Field in the North Sea – a field with more than billion barrels in place – then he could afford to acquire time-lapse multi-component seismic to monitor reservoir changes during the production life of the field.
Obviously, certain niche technologies are successfully used to unlock specific plays – reservoir characterization using seismic inversion or AVO – and there’s no question that small and large companies alike embrace technology if it’s deemed to be value-added.
You were in charge of the CSEG Superfund and I don’t know what happened to that.
When I was the treasurer of the CSEG in 1994, I determined that there was a significant amount of money in low interest bearing bank accounts that wasn’t really working for the Society. The money was viewed as a cushion for the Society, but it wasn’t making the Society more viable or more relevant to our stakeholders – so I put forward the idea of the CSEG Superfund, recommending that the CSEG invest a certain percentage of its assets, every year, into dynamic projects which show-cased geophysics to the general public and which increased the CSEG’s sphere of influence. The Superfund sponsored projects including a video of the old-timer geophysicists in the industry, a network of seismometers in 10 high schools in southern Ontario, a book on mining geophysics, and the development of the Oil Game which was distributed to universities and schools across Alberta, teaching students about geology, geophysics and land deals.
The Superfund was highly successful, and continued for four years, when the CSEG Executive determined the Society didn’t have a lot of spare cash due to demographic shifts in the organization’s membership.
The fact that the demographics of the CSEG continue to change and, I believe, more than ever, the Society must strive to be relevant to all of its stakeholders across Canada.
And now the CSEG is talking about having a foundation…
So what type of environment work do you carry out?
I started doing environmental volunteer work in the spring of 1990, on the 20th anniversary of International Earth Day. I’d always been passionate about conservation issues, financially supporting many environmental organizations. But I had never had volunteered my time. I approached the Calgary Rainforest Action Group, saying: “Let me tell your story; I can do the media work for you.” In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges environmental groups face is telling their stories in a factual and professional way. I started writing newsletters and press releases, and developing communication materials that not only explained the issues but presented business solutions to the issues.
My environmental volunteer work has always gone hand-in-hand with my oil and gas career. While working as a geophysicist at Suncor, I proposed that the Company join the Alberta Ecotrust Fund, an organization funded by corporations that has invested millions of dollars in small, not-for- profit environmental groups. In fact, for three years, I represented Suncor on the Ecotrust’s board of directors. Suncor later went on to create its own corporate green funding organization, and is one of the leading environmental corporations in Canada’s oil and gas industry today.
Green issues are attracting attention and are likely to become more important in the future. A rise of 2 to 3 degrees in temperature could have severe consequences for wind, air currents, glacier retreat, melting of ice caps, and so on. Tell us briefly about some of the environmental issues facing Canada, and what planning is being done to address them?
Yes, I believe that climate change is happening and, further, that it has been induced by man. Oil and gas companies including BP, Petro-Canada and Suncor Energy – even the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency and NASA– share the same opinion. We need to work together on proactive solutions.
We have all seen carbon dioxide cycles repeat themselves, predictably, throughout the past million years – but there are some compelling and disturbing data which show that carbon dioxide levels have taken off at an unprecedented rate since the industrial revolution.
We’re talking about a catastrophic failure – in our lifetime – of the world’s climate, and the destruction of the standard of living that we currently enjoy today. Climate change will negatively impact our children, and future generations to come. The scientific predictions are dire – flooding along the coastal portions of North America and in the tropics, resulting in hundreds of millions of displaced people.
I believe that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is extremely important, and I’m anxious to see the new federal government’s plan to deal with our Kyoto commitments. In parallel, I also believe that we need to clean up our atmosphere, reducing emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
Alberta has a unique blend of geology, geography and technical know-how to deal with reducing carbon dioxide emissions – in other words, the oil and gas industry can easily sequester carbon dioxide in subsurface geological reservoirs, using this greenhouse gas to enhance ultimate recoveries from old fields.
As one of the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitters, Canada needs to do its part in greenhouse gas reductions. But, China and India, with rapidly growing populations, also need to be part of the solution. These two countries were not included in the Kyoto Protocol, but will be part of Kyoto “2” which will start discussions in 2012. As China and India become mechanized and industrialized, the capability that they have for pollution and greenhouse gas emissions will far outstrip ours in the developed world.
Any news that you could give us whether seismic exploration will be opened up on the West Coast?
Did you know that I have published a couple of magazine articles on this subject?
Yes, I know.
I’ve following this issue for quite some time, and believe that oil and gas exploration on the West Coast will take a very long time in coming for several reasons:
- There is no regulatory accord between the federal government and the government of British Columbia. What needs to be established, perhaps, is a Canada-British Columbia Offshore Petroleum Board, similar to those regulatory agencies that control the industry in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia;
- There are numerous, historical offshore leases rimming Vancouver Island and northwards, towards the Queen Charlotte Islands. However, these leases have been in force majeure for the past twenty years, due to both federal and provincial moratoria on offshore oil and gas activities.
The oil and gas companies who hold these historical offshore leases are looking for certainty from both the federal and provincial governments. Obviously, the moratoria have to be lifted as well. Industry wants to know what the regulatory regime will look like – royalties; environmental regulations; and local benefits and employment; etc.
In parallel, the province of Quebec is looking for some type of federal- provincial regulatory accord for oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Offshore jurisdiction of the oceans rests with the federal government, but the B.C. government is hoping for royalties from offshore exploration, so there is a bit of a push and pull going on.
However, there’s now a third government involved in this discussion – the Haida First Nation has laid claim to the continental shelf on the West Coast of British Columbia. The Haida assert that they used to have hunting camps one mile offshore from the Queen Charlotte Islands, when sea level was much lower. The Canadian Bathymetric Survey has actually dredged up artifacts offshore, supporting the Haida’s claim. If the minerals on the continental shelf belong to the Haida – and not the federal and provincial governments – then it’s a whole new ballgame…
Environmentally, there is one distinct difference between the proposed oil and gas activity on the West Coast, and the current oil and gas exploration and production on the continental shelves of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia – on the East Coast, the activity occurs on the very edge of the continental shelf, several hundred kilometers offshore, in fairly deep water. In comparison, the waters of Hecate Strait, between the B.C. mainland and the Queen Charlotte Archipelago, are very shallow (60 feet deep). Finally, the intercoastal network of islands, bays and tidal inlets is very intricate on the West Coast. In the unfortunate event of an oil spill, the oil would travel quickly along this tidally influenced, irregular coast line – onto the beaches and the islands – potentially destroying tourism and the fishing industry.
You are a registered member of APEGGA, a P.Geol. and a P.Geoph. Tell us from your experience – how does becoming a member of APEGGA help, because there are not very many geophysicists who are members of APEGGA.
I just checked the other day – APEGGA has 925 P.Geoph. registrants.
I think it’s extremely important to be a P.Geoph., especially if you’re working in the industry as a geophysicist, because it’s a level of scrutiny that APEGGA has undertaken to determine you’re qualified to practise the science of geophysics in Alberta. We need to keep in mind that the CSEG is an industry association, while APEGGA legally licenses geophysicists to practice in the province of Alberta. APEGGA’s designation is also portable across Canada, as many other provinces accept this province’s professional designations.
In my experience, geophysicists come from many diverse backgrounds – math, pure physics, geology, geophysics, astrophysics, electrical engineering and computer science. As such, not all of them can legally call themselves professional geophysicists because they don’t have the educational pre- requisites APEGGA deems appropriate. However, it doesn’t mean to say that they can’t interpret or process seismic data. Based upon the appropriate type and length of work experience, I believe that most of these individuals could successfully apply to APEGGA to become P.Geophs.
In 1980, when I started working at Esso, the Chief Geophysicist was responsible for the technical work of all the geophysicists in the company. However, this type of big company system doesn’t exist today, and most companies don’t have a Chief Geophysicist. Certainly, in junior oil and gas companies, there is no one individual who takes responsibility for the seismic interpretations being done by the staff in those companies.
In order to protect the general public – all stakeholders, including company shareholders – from any type of fraud or abuse, then I think it’s advisable to be a P.Geoph. When you work as a geophysical consultant, I think it’s equally important to be registered as a P.Geoph. because, again, the designation affirms your credentials. When I was working as a consultant, not only did I have my P.Geoph. designation but my consulting company was also registered with APEGGA to practise both geophysics and geology.
Some geophysicists who have qualifications from other countries, have to have those scrutinized, so that could create a problem.
When I meet immigrants from other countries who come to Canada, looking for jobs as geologists, geophysicists or engineers, the first thing I recommend is the APEGGA designation. I encourage them to take the time, to get the paperwork going and write the exams. Regardless if whether you’re from Halifax, Calgary, Pakistan or Somalia, if you have a P.Geoph. designation from APEGGA, then people can relate to your educational background and your career experience to date.
What I was trying to say is that it takes a long time. Here you ring up a University for your transcripts, and it is done in no time. Getting the same thing from other countries would take several months, because they are not computerized. This is particularly true for countries in Asia and the Far East.
What would be your message for young entrants in our industry?
Start your career with a large E&P company where you can benefit from mentorship and leadership. I recommend that young entrants learn as much as they can about all facets of the oil and gas industry, and not just their particular technical niche; this can be accomplished by taking courses in all types of disciplines. In my opinion, young entrants need to broaden their horizons, learning as much as they can about the industry, including technical, financial, social, land and stakeholder issues. After ten years of experience, I believe they’ll be ready to make the first transition from a large multi-national to a midsize company. And, by the time they’ve got 15 to 20 years of experience, they’ll be ready to go to a small company environment where they might be one of three employees.
However, after several years of working, some new entrants might discover that their interests lie in business and not in seismic interpretation or processing. Bottom line, if you’re not passionate about what you do for a living, then maybe it’s time to go back to university, enrolling in a law degree or an MBA, and re-entering the industry in a slightly different capacity.
Sometimes peoples’ early careers are stepping-stones to something else down the road. Having a three to five year technical background as a geophysicist is a wonderful entree to understanding how to evaluate oil and gas companies, or to study law or journalism.
One last question – in all the questions that we asked, do you think we have covered everything that you intended for us to be covered or have we missed out on anything?
Yes, and I think your questions have been thought provoking. Thank you for the invitation to chat.
Thank you very much for giving up this time and for the opportunity to sit and talk with you and get to know your views on some of these issues.
You have certainly had a fascinating career.
Thank you. Yes, it’s certainly been an interesting personal and career journey. Along the way, I’ve met some amazing people who have inspired me to tackle greater challenges. I can honestly say, that when I moved to Calgary in 1980, to start my career in the oil and gas industry, I had absolutely no idea where it would lead 26 years later. I guess that’s what makes life an adventure!