Tom Podivinsky is currently Chief Geophysicist at Athabasca Oil Corporation (AOC). Open and honest, and one of the CSEG’s more popular and well known members, Tom has led an interesting career, starting at PanCanadian and including stops at several small and mid-sized oil & gas companies. Tom recently sat down with Satinder Chopra and Oliver Kuhn to share some very interesting career highlights and perspectives on the technical, business and human side of the industry.
[Satinder]: Tom, let’s begin by asking you about your educational background and work experience.
Thanks Satinder, my University education was in Edmonton at the University of Alberta. I spent a lot of time ski racing between High School and University, so when I started at the University of Alberta in 1984 it was in a general science program. I had showed a bit of an aptitude for physics and math in High School (and I enjoyed them), and was fairly certain I wanted to live and work in Alberta and thought I would enroll in petroleum engineering eventually, so I was just taking a year to feel university out. After my first year of general science I was talking with a Petroleum Engineer I knew from ski racing days and I asked him what his experience was in Petroleum Engineering and working in the field and he said, “Well if I was going to start over again, I would do geophysics, those guys make all the money.”
[Satinder]: So you got into geophysics to “make the money”?
Exactly, and I’m still trying to figure out what he was talking about! At any rate my interest was piqued, so I went to see Dr. Hron; he is a Professor of Geophysics at U of A, and a friend of my parents I knew of through the Czech community, and so he graciously gave me some of his time and told me a bit about what geophysics was and the type of data sets they use and the type of work and problems that they try to solve and I thought – this is great, I think this is something I could enjoy. I went to see the Dean as well, and it sounded very interesting, so I applied for a transfer and then proceeded to work towards a B.Sc. in Geophysics.
I was still finding my way, post ski racing, enjoying all of the extracurricular activities, taking lots of arts options. Eventually I took a year off to work and travel in South East Asia, came back to do another year in geophysics, then went back to South East Asia to work a summer job there monitoring volcanoes through the I.A.E.S.T.E program, and then did my final year and graduated in 1990. So I took six years to complete a four year undergrad program, but in hindsight had some of the most memorable times of my life. Some of my travel stories must have stuck with some of the recruiters, as I had no oil company experience or contacts, but was fortunate to start at PanCanadian as a new grad.
[Oliver]: I’d forgotten about your time in South East Asia. Was it in Indonesia you were monitoring volcanoes?
No – it was in the Philippines. I was part of a local crew of volcanologists, which was mobilized to volcanoes which had increased activity. It was pretty mild volcanic activity that I saw, nothing too exciting. Beautiful volcanoes, in the evenings you could soak in natural hot springs in the jungle and watch mild eruptions, very memorable, and awesome people, a really wonderful experience. Everyone will probably remember the Pinatubo eruption which occurred the following summer – I was unlucky or lucky to have missed it depending on your point of view.
[Oliver]: It’s got nothing to do with geophysics, but I’d be really interested to hear about your ski racing career – could you share some highlights with us? Related to that, I’ve always been curious if there was a sibling rivalry between you and your brother that drove both of you to be better.
The highlight of my ski racing career is undoubtedly winning my age group in the CSEG Ski Spree! It’s a competitive group. My family loves the event and we are keen to return this season after a 2 year hiatus. But going back to prehistoric times, as an amateur racer I was part of the Alberta ski team for several seasons and raced and travelled across North America and Europe in the early 80’s. This was the tail end of the Crazy Canuck era, where annually I got to compete against the likes of Read, Podborski and Brooker at our national championships and other races. It’s a pretty small community, my vintage of peers and friends included Rob Boyd and Brian Stemmle, who went on to international success.
If I had any highlights in my career, it would be all the friendships that I carry to this day. Skiers tend to be outgoing and social people and I fit in with that group comfortably. I was probably better at the Après Ski than the on snow portion of the competition! I competed relatively injury free, and still enjoy the sport immensely. My brother Edi is five years younger than I, and we never raced on the same circuit. I wisely went to school before he had the chance to beat me! We still compete once a year on the golf course – I seem to have the edge but he’s very focused and a gritty competitor. We grew up skiing with our parents in the Rockies who are very active on the hills in their late 70’s. The love of skiing seems to have been passed on as both my kids are active racers, and Edi’s four kids all compete at his club in Ontario. We are really looking forward to the Sochi Olympics as Edi is still the last male Canadian to medal in Alpine, at Lillehammer in 1994, and we are pretty well connected to the current men’s team. If he gets knocked off his pedestal it will be bittersweet.
[Oliver]: He got the bronze in the downhill at Lillehammer, correct?
Yes – just barely over a tenth of a second behind the gold medal winner.
[Satinder]: So getting back on track, you did answer the question on how you got into geophysics. I notice you have since worked for eight different companies: PanCanadian, Crestar, Pinnacle, New Cache, Grey Wolf, Seeker, Seneca and now Athabasca. Would you like to share with us some of the reasons for doing so?
I can try; to begin with I would like to point out that none of those companies, except for Athabasca, exist anymore (at least in their original form). So I don’t know if I am bad luck or everywhere I go it seems to be so successful that we get taken out! But takeovers and mergers are just a facet of the industry that we’ve all endured.
Starting at PanCanadian, which was a very big company at the time, taught me a lot and I really enjoyed that experience. My start there put me on really solid footing for the rest of my career. Lee Hunt and I were in the same graduating class, and we worked for Bill Goodway there for a year and a half in the QC processing group, so very, very, good training and a fantastic work environment. There wasn’t a structured training program in those days, but you had a lot of leeway to do things – I spent part of one summer mapping outcrop in the foothills, while supervising a heliportable seismic crew near Coleman, although my family is sick of hearing about it every time we drive through to Fernie.
I moved on to the Provost Asset at a time when 3D was just becoming popularized. This was really a strong team within the company and I had great mentoring and very supportive management. We started with small postage stamp 3D’s in Eastern Alberta and gradually made them bigger and bigger. We drilled lots of successful wells on those 3Ds, and partnered and competed with many small nimble companies like Morrison, Pinnacle Resources, Renaissance and Ranchman’s; there was a whole slew of small companies which were successful and the guys at those companies seemed to be making a lot of money – there is that money thing again – some had options, some had overrides, and at the time none of that was available to us at PanCanadian, so I made up my mind then that I wanted to work my career and experience towards a smaller company and hopefully, eventually start something myself, to try to get a bigger reward.
So that was really always my goal. I did make a stop in Libya at PanCanadian which was a desert adventure, but then from PanCan I went to Crestar where the opportunity was drilling horizontal wells in Eastern Alberta. Horizontal well drilling technology was relatively new then and it was something I really wanted to learn and go after. We were drilling horizontals on seismic inversions which is basically the same operation my group is performing today at Athabasca, 20 years later on with sharper tools.
[Oliver]: Do you feel that we’ve lost something in terms of companies like PanCanadian acting as proper training grounds for interpreters?
I don’t think so Oliver, the younger crowd I see at conferences and meetings seems very well trained and very capable. The training grounds may have moved around a bit, but there are still bigger companies with more organized programs that are putting new grads through the paces. I wasn’t there during the “centre of excellence” era, so I can’t comment on whether that will be missed but it does put more of an onus on the individual to manage their training, which is a positive. Through the CSEG mentorship program there is opportunity to get a second opinion on various courses and training programs. I think there are more industry focused consortia now, CREWES, CSM, SRP etc., and the connection to industry through these groups also creates training opportunities.
[Oliver]: Back to the career question, where did you go after Crestar?
From there I went to Pinnacle which was a group that I got to know working in Eastern Alberta, again trying to get into that smaller company. We were about three geophysicists at Pinnacle when I joined. Within a year and a half oil prices took a dip to close to $10 and we had just recently made some acquisitions and were extended and eventually were forced to sell to Renaissance. That merger downsized some of the staff at Pinnacle, and I was happy to take a package. I spent the summer in Europe with my girlfriend (now wife) and came back and started at New Cache Petroleum. New Cache was a very small team and morphed into Grey Wolf through a management change, so there I was the sole geophysicist and doing anything and everything to contribute to the bottom line. We had a real diverse set of assets and I stayed for almost five years working one end of the basin to the other.
I left Grey Wolf to start a company – Seeker Petroleum – on the ground floor, so I got to where I planned to be in about ten years. Initially we had some good success through the drill bit, drilling on 3D’s we had acquired, plus we had a good land base through farmins, so it looked like we were going to take off. However there were other issues in the company that made it impossible for me to stay, and I found myself leaving after 2 years.
From that startup experience I went to work for Seneca which was a subsidiary of a huge American utility company. The attraction was they had deep pockets and exposure to some emerging plays in the lower 48 including the Barnett. We were also involved with some of the biggest wells ever drilled onshore North America, as partners with Talisman in the Permian at Monkman, very exciting stuff. That eventually got sold to NAL and I took some time off, Europe again, this time with kids. The Athabasca opportunity came out of left field, I was at a party and ran into the Exploration manager, a former partner at a previous company and the founder was a previous colleague, so it wasn’t totally blind. The SAGD oilsands was really picking up so I was very fortunate to end up there. It was about a year old when I joined, basically still a startup, and very active, and now we are over 500 people. I have been there for six years and things are still ramping up.
[Satinder]: Are you able to stay put for some time?
I certainly hope so, the diversity of the assets and the technical challenges keep it very interesting, and the company is also very dynamic, but looking at my history six years has been a long stretch, but pretty much flown by.
[Satinder]: All right, could you tell us about the differences in the work culture of these different companies because you went from a bigger company to all these smaller companies?
In a gross overgeneralization, you could say the larger companies tend to have a more process oriented culture, by necessity, and smaller companies tend to be more spontaneous. It’s primarily driven by the individuals and the team that you are involved with more than a conscious decision by management to say, “We’re going to have an open communication culture,” or whatever the buzzword of the day happens to be. The Calgary culture as a whole tends to be pretty similar from shop to shop – entrepreneurial, can do, competitive – but at the same time very social between peers. Most people have had several stops in their careers, so everybody has a good feeling for what works and what doesn’t. I found it to be a big shock moving for the first time, or after a long stretch, and discovering how differently things can operate. It can be similar to brainwashing staying in one place or one system too long and being insulated from other schools of thought.
[Satinder]: Sounds good. Okay, you also worked in Libya for a year. How was that experience?
Well that was… well it was both fantastic and frustrating.
[Satinder]: Okay, let’s hear about that!
The opportunity came through PanCanadian Petroleum and basically they wanted a team of people to go there on the ground and do some mapping and intelligence gathering. This was before the days of the Internet, and for most of Libya before phones. We had a couple of concessions in play that we were evaluating and they wanted a team to go there and map it up technically and make some recommendations back to the Head Office here in Calgary. There were no flights to and from Libya, because this was the embargo era when we had to either drive in by car from Tunisia or come over by boat from Malta. Even getting a visa was an ordeal – just to get into the country was quite painful at times. At one point I was stuck in Malta for a week without a visa and passport, scuba diving daily, enjoying beaches and nice weather, quite a hardship!
The other team member in Libya was my best friend, the late James Dobson. He was a structural geologist and I was the geophysicist, two buddies out there mapping up all this uncharted territory. The volume of work that we did was quite impressive, mapping 15,000 km of 2D seismic interpretation all by hand with timing rulers and posting to maps, hand contouring. We got to be great friends with our technical partners from Edison Gas which is an Italian Company, so they joined us over there and we all worked together and lived in a camp together and it was all very collegial. We got to know a lot of people from various parts of the world within that expat community; we learned to scuba dive and played lots of tennis. It was just very enjoyable. There are Roman ruins there preserved far better than anything I’ve seen in Italy, fantastic mosaics, just as if they were freshly installed.
The expat circuit was quite amusing; there were various weekly or monthly embassy or consular parties and there was a bridge league, and of course all the service companies had open houses, just like in Calgary. Alcohol was illegal, but there was always a supply if you knew where to look. The frustration was that there weren’t a lot of single women, and those that were there, were chaperoned pretty closely. There was no crime in those days – it was an extremely safe country, all of this under Col. Gadhafi’s rule prior to 9-11. I remember thinking this would be a great place to come back to with a young family, 1000 miles of beach on the Mediterranean and nobody using it. Of course that’s now changed forever.
The work was technically challenging and we had to be resourceful, for example building synthetics in Excel, as we didn’t have any PC-based geophysics tools. Every day we’d go to the NOC, the National Oil Company, to try and beg, borrow and steal seismic and well data from the Government; that was always interesting. We’d have coffee with a few key people there, hoping to get some data, or some intel, to take back to our office and map up. It was a lot of fun and quite different than the style we are used to here where you click something on your screen to download all your seismic and projects, and before lunch you have a map. So it was very rewarding, because I felt like I had really accomplished something when I made a map or completed an evaluation, knowing how tenuous the hold on the data that went in to that evaluation was.
I had the opportunity to stay and work internationally from that point on, but the time lines for a young geophysicist were just too drawn out for me. I had come from the Provost Group where I’d drilled a couple of hundred wells in a year and a half, so while it was totally different data and a great experience in Libya, it was going to be three, four, five years to be able to drill wells on these prospects we had mapped out and it was just too long. So I came back to Canada, moved to Crestar shortly after and continued to be very active with the drill bit.
[Oliver]: You mentioned James Dobson. He passed away about 10 years ago, and I remember you delivered some very moving words at his funeral. Was that a turning point in your life, losing someone who you had shared some formational life experiences with?
We were very similar in a lot of ways, including our upbringing and family backgrounds. We talked often of our goals and both of us embodied a “work hard, play hard” attitude. I look back and don’t see any change in direction in my life related to his passing, more of an affirmation from a kindred spirit. He’s certainly been missed. He had the highest integrity as a person and in professional life and I try to live up to that.
[Satinder]: All right, very good, let’s move on. Seeker Petroleum is the company you co-founded but then you decided to go to another company.
Yes. The partner I had was impossible to work with, and even though succeeding with a startup was something that I had dreamed of for some time, it wasn’t to be. I had done my homework and there were some red flags going in, but I was pretty sure that I was up to it as I had made the most of some challenging situations before and come out with a win-win. In the end I had to walk away, and I think that to this day there is still only one person that I would never work with again.
[Satinder]: All right let’s ask you this – what career accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of the team I’ve assembled at Athabasca. The work that they continually produce is always impressing and surprising me, I think it’s world class, and they force me to raise my game. It’s a really dynamic team and everyone brings their own unique skills to the group. We’re drilling our first horizontal project currently on our 3D inversions and the accuracy that we’ve seen in our predictions so far is staggering (knock on wood). There was a subtle lithology change encountered in our early horizontal wells that matched our inversions to the metre, I was so amazed, I carried around the graphic in my pocket and would stop people on the street to show them! Now I can do the same thing on my smart phone without the wrinkled paper. We’re exceeding our expectations, I think you’ll see some presentations from us shortly and you can judge for yourself.
As far as technical work I’ve done, I’m not sure if proud is the right word, I feel very connected to most of the projects I’ve been involved with, which can sometimes be a failing, but if I had to choose something from recent memory I would have to say that the Dover West Leduc Project that I am working on currently springs to mind as unique and very technically challenging. Satinder, you’re familiar with our presentation from your Doodletrain course, it’s the biggest discovery globally since Kashagan in 1990 in terms of volume – our evaluators give us north of 17 billion barrels of oil in place! Just to be involved with a project like that is really special. It’s going be a challenge to produce those barrels but we think we’ve got a good scheme and some very clever engineers, who have developed the TAGD (thermal assist gravity drainage) technology to bring that oil to market.
[Satinder]: Could you give us more detail on that because it is a novel technique, not everybody has heard about it.
Sure, I love talking about that! The reef is just an updip extension of the Rimbey-Meadowbrook-Leduc trend in Central Alberta, the same reefs that really started the Alberta oil boom in 1956. We are drilling the very northeastern extension of the reef, beyond which it is eroded by the Cretaceous unconformity. The whole northern wedge of that reef is full of bitumen – it’s very porous and very fractured, much more porous than the reefs in Central Alberta because it’s only 250 meters down to the top of the reservoir. It was sub-aerially exposed so weathering also played a part in enhancing porosity, and there are karsts and caves and fractures. We feel that a scheme to inject steam might be unpredictable, and wouldn’t be the most efficient recovery method. Our TAGD methodology involves gentle heating of the entire reservoir via conduction heating.
We are drilling horizontal wells which will have electrical heaters in them and will gently heat the reservoir to about 120 – 140 degrees C. At that temperature the bitumen viscosity will be reduced so much that gravity will drain that bitumen down to horizontal producer wells which lie below. We feel that we are going to get a very good return because the energy balance from the electrical heating will be comparable to the best SAGD projects currently in play in the sand reservoirs and furthermore we don’t need any water handling facilities on the surface or any steam generation facilities, so the capex in the early stages of the project is going to be greatly reduced as well. It’s a novel technique, it’s pretty exciting and we’ve got a functioning field test in the field right now that is producing results that we are very, very happy with. We’ll be scaling that up in short order and doing a commercial development.
[Oliver]: Going back to the team you’ve assembled, when you’re hiring, do you primarily look for specific technical skills, or is finding people who fit the culture more important?
It has to be a combination of both. Because of my experience I’m sensitive to incompatibility in the workplace. The current team has a very diverse background and complimentary range of experience, most of which is fit for purpose. I’m also wary of hiring people similar to myself, so I tend to look for people who are smart and good looking.
[Satinder]: Could you give us more detail on that because it is a novel technique, not everybody has heard about it. Tom, what has been your most challenging project? What you just spoke about is unique and successful, but it’s not always like that. Tell us about a project where it was really hard to come up with something very meaningful or useful.
Challenging, and can’t find ways to really come up with something meaningful or useful? Sounds like you’re describing marriage! You would probably agree that is a very challenging and rewarding project, and one that I’m fortunate to have a really understanding boss!
[Oliver]: Good answer!
[Satinder]: Could you give us more detail on that because it is a novel technique, not everybody has heard about it. Well, you hold that thought and we will come back to it before Oliver leads you into trouble… when did you realise that your calling was geophysics; when was it that you said to yourself, “No other field is good for me except this?”
Well, the first thing that pops into my mind is when I got my very first 3Ds in the processing QC group at PanCanadian. Some of the 3Ds that were coming across my desk were just amazing. This is stuff that I had seen pictures of in school but never really imagined that I would be working on right away in my first year. In those days we had work stations, but they were very primitive and slow by today’s standards and I didn’t get a chance to work on the work station in the processing QC group; I would be looking at the folded paper, and just the things that you could glean from it, just the structural picture, it was amazing. I remember clearly looking at fault blocks in the Peace River Arch at Tangent, and just flipping through it quickly was incredible to me.
I was always looking over the shoulders of the interpreters that were actually doing the interpretation; some were very patient mentors and had plenty of time for me, thankfully! Everybody had yellow pencils for anomalies at PanCanadian – I don’t know colour they used at other shops but they would flip through the pre-fold paper, and colour this yellow, colour that yellow, and explain what all these formations were and how we were drilling a well based on how this wiggle looks like that wiggle. It was very exciting and then I would always be following up with them after – “Did we drill this well? Did we drill that well?” – because they didn’t close the loop back to me and tell me what had happened, I had to go and bug them and that’s probably still the case, in a lot of companies. That was very exciting to me, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
[Satinder]: You have been in the industry for over two decades now. You have developed different prospects, and drilled several hundred wells. In your opinion, what is required for doing good and effective exploration and/or development?
Well there are a number of things I would say. To do good exploration is just like any career, diligence and perseverance are critical to success. Secondly you have to have a good model in mind. From a geological point of view you need to understand the rocks and the scale of what your exploration target is. I’m a big fan of geological training in modern day and ancient environments, as there is no substitute for standing on an outcrop or reef for driving home the scale of depositional settings. At this point, forward modeling is required to get a prediction of the type of seismic response you might expect from your concept. And finally you have to be realistic about your data – in my mind there are three types of seismic. There is the seismic that positively, deterministically, will tell you whether there is a good or bad chance of success. Then there is the second type which is a bit more grey and maybe doesn’t tell you the right answer. You need more or higher frequencies or repro to increase your confidence level. Finally I have seen plays where the seismic actually tells you the wrong thing all the time, your play is unresolvable or due to various reasons you will be repeatedly fooled, and you have to be prepared to not push it to the point where you keep making the same mistakes over and over; you have to be prepared to say, “Okay, well there is an issue here.” Maybe we don’t weigh the seismic with so much confidence. So I think you have to be diligent, you have to be focused but you also have to have your eyes open and be prepared to say – this is as good as we can do with the data we have at hand, we don’t know all the answers but we are prepared to take a risk.
One thing I learned is – no matter how good you are or how good you think you know the play, in this basin you are going to have a horrific run of luck occasionally and you have to be prepared for that and be prepared to react to it. You could be the smartest geologist, the smartest geophysicist, but you know at a certain point it’s still luck and you still have to take chances and some days it just doesn’t go your way. So you have to be strong enough and you have to have staying power and be prepared to learn from that, have a Plan B, and be prepared to react.
[Satinder]: All right, do you think this approach would be different with development programs, including oil sands development?
Well the fundamental techniques aren’t any different but the tools and the science have gotten to the point where we are trying to quantify everything – Quantitative Interpretation (QI) is a big buzzword these days. Everybody is talking about QI and geo-modeling and simulations. We run so many simulations and so many models on some of our Oil Sands plays now we think we know everything and every possible outcome, and with what level of certainty, but one thing for certain is that Mother Nature is not a model, she is going to fool you. Models are useful but we have to be careful about how much you take them for gospel. The underlying principle of all models is that they are all wrong, yet people often confuse models for the actual subsurface picture. We still need a fundamental grounding in the rocks, a good understanding of the local geology and a strong grasp on the quality of the seismic and what it can provide. In thermal assets we are spoiled with data quantity, so we can usually start with petrophysical and core analysis and try to marry that to our dipole logs, and come up with some sort of discriminatory crossplot relationship – basically following the work flow from your famous poster of several years ago?
[Satinder]: You’re part of a dynamic team which has grown AOC from inception to the present. Tell us about what the Chief Geophysicist role involves in day to day responsibilities.
My role is partially technical. I’m responsible for the seismic on the Leduc TAGD and our other carbonate asset the Grosmont, and I also stay involved with operations. I have a group of four geophysicists in thermal oil and there are four geophysicists in light oil and so together that is the geophysical talent in our company. I am more focused on the thermal oil side. I have a counterpart in the light oil side, Marc Houle, and he handles the technical stewardship of that asset. I am more concerned with bringing technology to bear on the thermal oil side, and leveraging knowledge, and efficiencies across the whole company. As Marc and I talk we push our learnings back and forth across the groups and try to get everyone together occasionally for some brainstorming and best practices type sessions. It’s interesting how addicting the technical work is – I thought that at this point in my career I’d be doing more management, and I was at a previous stops, but with the advance of 3C seismic and the visualization tools the appeal of technical work is a constant.
[Satinder]: Let me ask you this, another technical question. For generating prospects what has been your strategy?
That’s a good one. For generating prospects, fundamentally we look at whatever everyone else is doing and then copy them.
[Satinder]: I’m not sure I’ve ever hear anyone be so honest on that point before!
Sure – most ideas have been tried before, the key is recognizing why and where others have failed, or succeeded, and bringing that knowledge to a new formation or area. I would qualify the previous statement and say “someone” not “everyone” as it’s pointless to follow the herd, you need to get out in front with your concept and get the land tied up. Land is King.
[Satinder]: So do you start by looking at core samples?
Well I like to, but I’m not an expert in the rocks. I do like to see what the core would show me on geophysical logs. It’s good to glean something from the dipole sonic or density and see if it can be related to anything in the core. Sometimes there are things invisible to the eye, typically in bitumen saturated core or in a shale, and perhaps there is an expression on the geophysical logs that could be significant. There has to be a good, sound geological model in mind, usually coming from a wizened old geologist, and from that you can extend it to seismic and it kind of goes back to what I said before, we should always look at the logs. And by logs look at all the logs, strip logs, old e-logs, everything and anything you can get your hands on.
In the oil sands and shale plays, the dipole logs are very critical now in getting to your outputs, your rock physics volumes, and lots of templates and models are available but the geological model has to hold up, it has to make sense. Start by trying to crossplot some of your geophysical logs – see if there is any hint of discrimination, and think it through, as a geophysicist – “What would this look like on seismic?” Do some forward modeling, some zero offset modeling in any forward modeling package. Now you can do some quick offset modeling, see if it actually even shows up at the scale you are trying to see, be it a wedge or channel or some type of fluid change, see if you can picture that on a forward model. Remember what Lee Hunt said: “Does the physics support this play?” If you can’t confirm that it should tell you that mapping an amplitude or some other sort of indicator is not going to work for you. If there is no response in your forward model, what you are actually mapping on the seismic is kind of pointless, so you have to understand the geology very well in order to be able to take it to the next level.
I have always been a big fan of the geological courses, the modern day analogs. Some of our peers might think it’s just a boondoggle to go and stand on the beach somewhere and look at sand and point bars in the channel upstream, but really as geophysicists we didn’t have that schooling back in university. You really need to understand the scale. In order to pick these things out with seismic you have to understand the scale of things in the modern day analogs and what they look like in the subsurface. So I am a big fan of modeling things and then trying to put things into perspective in terms of either how big is it, will it have seismic response and then can we see it? So I don’t know if that is really prospect generation in the sense you are asking me about, but to me a key step in prospect generation from a seismic perspective is doing that make or break analysis, and that can be done very efficiently with forward seismic modeling using logs.
[Satinder]: Do you see a promise of any geophysical technologies helping us characterize hydrocarbon reservoirs better? Are there any methods you are currently using in your interpretations to lower risk in this direction?
Well as I’ve mentioned a few times, I think the technology that we are using now it’s really incredible. When I was in school just having a desk top work station was a dream. Now we have 3D visualization right at our fingertips and technology to bring rock physics into play, and to push the engineering component with a rock physics solution from seismic is an incredible lift. We have the whole resource play resurgence and frac’ing to thank for that. Some of the wells that the Duvernay players are drilling now with a completion are ten to fifteen million dollar undertakings. To shoot a 3C-3D over that prospect costs maybe a hundred to two hundred thousand dollars per square mile, it’s pennies per barrel when you add it into the equation. For unconventional plays, efficient 3C recording comes along and the whole rock physics world of tying these 3C data together with the rock mechanics has really caused a huge upsurge in geophysics again, and quite frankly it was needed. We needed this kind of renaissance of geophysics because it was kind of waning, so I am very happy to see that and really happy to be involved.
Our company is very technology driven and we acquire dipole data in all our wells and try to calibrate to our cores and produce rock physics products – primarily density volumes from all our 3D’s. We have seen a huge lift in using the 3C data to constrain some of our inversions. We like to invert for density in the oilsands, and we’ve seen a big lift in the quality of the inversions that we are getting, when using the converted wave in that inversion. We are very pleased with those results and will continue to push the technology.
In the deep basin we see similar advances; areas where there is 3D coverage will be re-shot with 3C data for anisotropy and stress and other attributes. It has provided a huge lift into the value equation. And probably the biggest impact stemming from the technology lift is the greater communication within the various disciplines. We can now talk to completion engineers about Poisson ratio cubes, shale rigidities and cap rock integrity, to geomodellers about density cubes, and drillers about shale plugs and fractures and they will now take notice because we can speak the language, and we can walk the walk.
[Satinder]: All right – you are a firm believer in technology. Over the years, what new technologies have you assimilated into your interpretation?
Oh, new ideas, I don’t know… I have always been a fundamentalist when it comes to geology, trying to honour the logs and use them in the interpretations. Even from the very first days of having a work station on my desk I tried to digitally add the well logs into my seismic interpretation and I was an early adopter of putting digital logs in with my seismic. I recall one shop where I was on my own in this regard as it was quite a tortuous workflow to be able to integrate the logs and seismic on our existing platform, and finally a colleague came to sit with me and took notice. I spent a couple days with the guy showing him how to do what I did, and I thought to myself this is great, maybe this will catch on, and the next day he quit and took my workflow with him to his new shop! So, I have always pushed to get as much in digital info integrated with my seismic in terms of well logs and well data and I don’t know if that’s leading, per se, but I have always tried to be at least on the curve if not ahead in terms of integrating that info.
[Satinder]: Going by what you have just mentioned, you have been a successful seismic interpreter. What would you say is required to become one?
I think you have to have an open mind. Successful seismic interpretation includes being able to also explain your story and your model to the rest of your team and ultimately to your management and beyond your management, to your partner’s management. So you have to be able to sell your story. The interpretation part – what’s necessary for that is just being able to assimilate as much info as you can and look around you, see what models you can use and apply, and then take that to the next step and put it all together.
There is always the trap – I have been guilty of it – where you get twisted off on one technical detail, which may not have been critical to the play; it may be important because it may help you down the road in other things, but really in terms of drilling your next well or the success or failure to the whole play it may not be as critical. The importance is to deal with the simple information, separate the wheat from the chaff and get to a point where you can test your concept and either step away from it at that point if you are unsuccessful or be prepared to develop your discovery.
[Satinder]: You mentioned before that you had a goal to start your own company, but to get there requires professional growth. What has been your philosophy towards professional growth?
Well, philosophically I always wanted to get more and more involved with the business end of exploration. I was always trying to go to smaller and smaller companies where I thought I would have a greater influence or be more involved in the decision making, not unlike a person trying to go up the ladder at a big company. I thought if I went to smaller companies then the rewards could be greater potentially in a financial sense. So my motivation was somewhat driven by that, just trying to get into the opportunities where I thought I would have a bigger piece of both, the decision making and a bigger piece of the rewards. Now that I am back at a mid-sized company again and it’s very technically focused, I am far more motivated by just the technological aspects, and I am getting back into more of the science. I am doing far more technical type work than I ever imagined myself doing at this stage in my career. I really enjoy it, but it’s always a frustration I have trying to juggle the time.
I end up in meetings and leave something running on my work station and when I get back to it, I forget what I’d been actually doing there. I try to split it 50/50, but I have to say I am probably failing at that. I tend to do more mentoring and meetings than technical work, but I am driven and motivated more by the technical side of things now. The most enjoyable part of my days is just sitting with some of the geophysicists while they are showing me issues they are struggling with, and I get involved in that. For professional growth I try to take technical courses when I have time, and I’m a big fan of the Doodletrain – great value and something for anyone. I stay involved with the CGF and CAPP committees – at those forums there are always issues to discuss that all the peer companies have to deal with.
[Oliver]: One thing I’ve always appreciated about you Tom is that you are always happy to get involved in the CSEG. I wish more oil company geophysicists would do that – a lot of these committees it’s mostly service company people. You and I were both Doodlebug Chairs; being appointed to that role is something I am very proud of, and the experiences and memories are something I value. Can you share some of your Doodlebug experiences with us?
Thanks Oliver, I’m proud of being Chair too, and grateful for all the friends and contacts that serving on the committee brought me, not to mention all the good times. I’ve always considered it a benefit to be asked to go on some of these committees. The venues that we’ve been fortunate to have played in Banff, Jasper, Kananaskis and now Kimberly are out of this world, and very conducive to the kind of camaraderie that the Doodlebug is famous for. I’d rather not share too many stories in order to protect the guilty, but I do remember how I was recruited to join the committee in the first place. James Dobson and I were enjoying some late night scotch in the Chairman’s suite and the bar was ably managed by Bill Mooney whom I didn’t know very well then. He wanted everyone to wind it down (unlike him), I think the hotel guests were complaining about the noise, and he said he would keep the bar open if we would volunteer for the committee next year and that was a no brainer for us at the time. I was as surprised as anyone when Bill followed up a couple months later with a formal invite.
In 2002 Dobson, Sinclair-Smith, Ross and I won the Chucks in Jasper when James was already very sick and it would be his last year attending, I remember vividly how excited we all were to have won with James that year. Not to get too melancholy but some other memories I have are of Doodlebuggers who aren’t with us anymore. I played with Bob Won in what must have been one of his final years if not his last year, he took me to 5 extra holes in a match that was finally decided on the famous Cauldron. Bob’s ashes now rest under a tree on #14 in Jasper. Rob Shugg was always a fixture at the bug too and is sorely missed.
Something memorable and not related to the golf was the CSEG executive’s initiative to attempt to reign in the social committees and get into their finances. It all started with the Doodlespiel and expanded to the Doodlebug and Ski Spree. I remember some very acrimonious meetings at the CSEG office and debating who owns the word “Doodlebug” and other such inane topics. Ultimately cooler heads prevailed and CSEG members still have access to all these fantastic volunteer run charity events.
[Satinder]: Tom, you are a registered member of APEGA. Tell us from your experience, how does becoming a member of APEGA help? The reason I ask is there are many geophysicists who are not members of APEGA, and I find that surprising.
Interesting question Satinder. The way I view it is APEGA is a self-governing body that is better than any alternative that could be imposed upon us. If the Government were to take over registering and administration of the Act, the alternative could be far more painful in terms of fees and far more red tape in terms of compliance. I just view it as a necessary evil, I pay my $290.00 a year and APEGA does a good job in maintaining standards, protecting the public and reaching out to attract young people into engineering and geoscience. Through the CGF we liaise directly with APEGA so some of the practice standards and guidelines we had some input and direction on and hopefully will continue to do so. I did enjoy the debate in the PEGG a couple of years ago on the CO2 / Anthropogenic Global Warming topic – there were letters on both sides of the argument, that went on for many issues, I’m firmly in the “science is not settled” camp, but was happy see a forum for debate on this topic.
[Oliver]: Tom, you were an elite athlete, competing at the highest levels of ski racing. Do you feel that involvement in competitive sports when young is something that helps in a person’s career later in life?
Oliver I was far from elite, but I do know some people who are / were. I think that my claim to fame would be having coached young racers one of whom went on to be world champion and one went on to be Olympic champion. As any coach will tell you sports builds discipline, character, instills teamwork, teaches goal setting and all the other clichés. For me personally I think it just provided an outlet for energy and creativity. What I know for sure is that my parents always insisted on school first and sports second; if my grades dropped I wouldn’t be attending races and camps. I think that provided a good foundation for efficient and motivated studying which helped later. I am heavily involved in sports, my children are of that age where we are always ferrying them to one sporting event or another, so I hope that there is some benefit for them in later careers. I know it makes me work harder as I will never be able to retire soon. I think that the confidence one can gain through competitive sports is a transferrable skill and some benefit can flow into other life pursuits.
[Oliver]: Do you think your children will follow in your footsteps?
I hope they surpass me in every avenue – I’ve set the bar low enough, are you talking in sports or science?
[Oliver]: I’d hardly say you’ve set a low bar Tom! But either sports or science.
Skiing – tough to say they are fairly young, but both seem pretty determined. In golf they both appear to have a good aptitude. Science – there is some genuine interest from both, but I wouldn’t want to appear too keen, that might be a deterrent. I’m still hoping for a doctor.
[Satinder]: Okay, one last question. What would be your message for young entrants to our industry?
Dress nicely; keep your eyes and ears open, people smarter than you are usually willing to share their secrets to success if you are willing to listen. Try and stay technical and keep updating your skills. Don’t get discouraged if your first opportunity or your first job seems hard to come by – everybody has been there. I think there is plenty of work in the future for young graduates and if you are really interested in an exciting career in science and the oil business, you can’t pick a better one than geophysics. It has its ups and downs and you have to be prepared for those. You can take it on the chin the first couple of wells you drill, but you can never give up. I think the benefits of our industry are, you can work anywhere on Earth really, Calgary has a great lifestyle and standard of living if you choose to stay here, and you will always be in demand. It’s a fantastic career to take on.
[Satinder]: Tom thank you very much for accepting to get interviewed for the Recorder, we really appreciate that so thank you for coming here and giving us this opportunity.
Thank you Satinder, Oliver, it has been my pleasure. It’s always great to talk with you.