"Geophysics is a great opportunity for curious people..."

An interview with Tooney Fink

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Tyler MacFarlane
Tooney Fink

Tooney Fink is a well-respected name in the Canadian oil patch and a geophysicist with a broad range of experience from seismic data acquisition, processing, interpretation, to economic analysis, business planning, international projects, embracing new technologies and mentoring.

Having joined Gulf Canada in 1974, Tooney stayed on with the same company in a variety of roles till the company was taken over and became ConocoPhillips in 2001. Thereafter, again Tooney continued at ConocoPhillips as Chief Geophysicist and presently works as Supervisor, Geophysical Services.

In the last 38 years, Tooney has spanned a wide expanse of ventures within Canada at MacKenzie Delta, NE BC and NWT, Alberta Foothills and Plains, Deep Plains, Peace River Arch, Labrador, Bay of Fundy, Grand Banks, as well as foreign lands comprising Gabon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Russia and Algeria. Armed with all of this experience, Tooney remains enthusiastic and looks forward to acquiring and championing the introduction of new technologies for ConocoPhillips, the latest one being microseismic monitoring.

Tooney was responsive to our request for an interview which led to an engaging conversation. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Tooney, please tell us about your educational background and your work experience?

I grew up on my family's ranch/farm near Merritt, B.C., and then attended University at UBC, graduating with a B.Sc. in combined honours Geology and Geophysics in 1974. I was so green that it still embarrasses me when I think about showing up in Calgary for my first day with Gulf Canada!

After graduation you started working for Gulf Canada in 1974 and remained with that company even when it became ConocoPhillips. What is the main advantage of remaining with one company all your professional life?

I would dispute that this was 'one company'... like most oilpatch companies, Gulf Canada constantly 're-invented' itself; first (in my career) as a partly owned, integrated affiliate of one of the Seven Sisters, then as an independent upstream company controlled by the Reichman family which morphed Gulf Canada into a global conglomerate including Abitibi-Price and Hiram Walker; then 'spun off' as an independent upstream oil & gas entity (with cash flow problems); then as an aggressive upstream O&G acquirer under the influence of Torch Energy (JP Bryan); then a more humble Canadian-based global independent upstream corporation; then as a piece of the Conoco O&G global integrated company, then as a piece of the larger global integrated entity of ConocoPhillips; and finally as a piece of the newly formed global upstream company of ConocoPhillips.

During these years 'my employer' also created new entities such as Beaudril (the Arctic drilling company), and KomiArcticOil (the Russian production company) for some 'spice'. Now add to this all the acquisitions along the way (some 120 companies under our corporate 'umbrella' at last count, I believe) including more notable companies such as Asamera, Mannville O&G, Archer, Clyde Petroleum, Stampeder, Pennzoil Canada, Crestar, and Burlington. Talk about ways to change the make-up and culture in 'one company', and, I certainly got some experience going into 'data rooms' of companies in play!

One constant, for me, was staying in Gulf Canada Square since 1979 when we moved into the 'new' building, and for most of those years having the same phone number 233-4135 – unbelievable! From a professional viewpoint, staying with 'one company' gave me the opportunity to experience the life cycles of some of our 'megaprojects' (e.g. Parsons Lake, Amauligak, Surmont, etc.), and to understand from a 'survivor' perspective, the massive shifts that our industry experienced. Staying at Gulf Canada, then ConocoPhillips, has also given me the enjoyment of forming and nurturing some long lasting friendships with my colleagues.

Some people think to move up the ladder it is important to switch companies at shorter intervals. Your comment?

I don't believe that 'switching companies' is a requirement, as long as one has passion for what they are doing and where they are going, and are willing to work with many different personalities. Many times, professional growth at 'one company' seems too slow for personal expectations; other times, inter-personal conflict precipitates a move. I believe that if one is a positive beacon of energy in our business, people will always be attracted to you, and there will always be stimulating positions to work in, inside or outside of one's current company. Matter of fact, I tell people that I'd have to be brain dead if I couldn't find a challenging project to work on in our business. Given all that, if you start at ConocoPhillips Canada, but your heart's desire is to run a start-up oil and gas company, I think you'll be moving around a bit.

So you started off by basically doing seismic interpretation. Please tell us about your early experiences – what type of seismic data you were interpreting at the time and about the interpretation aspects as well.

I started at Gulf Canada on a team doing interpretation in the Mackenzie Delta around Parsons Lake, a 'new' discovery at that time (1974). This was challenging 2D seismic data with permafrost statics, ice breaks, lots of lakes, short offsets (24 and 48 channel shot records) and limited bandwidth. I wasted some time arguing with a geologist who had identified a fault in a well-bore, trying to convince him that there was no fault on seismic... it turned out that there was a fault, and the throw on the fault was exactly one cycle in vertical displacement, oops. I also interpreted projects in the Anderson Plains/Horton River area to the east of the Delta. After some stints in some service groups I joined another interpretation team focused on the East Coast, where I mapped the Hibernia structure prior to Chevron drilling the discovery well in 1979 (Gulf Canada was a 25% participant)... this was marine 2D data with bad sea floor multiples, but our early 'seis-strat' analysis proved to be insightful. I also evaluated an early proposal for a salt storage proposal in Canso Straits, where I speculated a lot about how much anhydrite might flow (and in what geometry), along with the salt, into a diapir. This was important in the 'dissolution' design for the storage cavern to be created. I also interpreted some shallow marine data in Gabon, where Gulf had an interest in an offshore permit.

By this time I had been promoted to an "area supervisor", with my vast 5-6 years of experience, and from that point on had to live seismic interpretation vicariously through other geophysicists on the teams. As a 'working' supervisor in subsequent teams, I also interpreted data in the Bay of Fundy and then the Alberta Foothills. I remember that we always lamented how much time it took us to 'prepare' our data for interpretation... by the time we got proper shot point maps, the right wells with the right synthetics, the right processed version of the seismic profiles, the right land picture, and the right geological framework, we groused that we were left with only 20% of our time to actually 'interpret' the data. Ironically, I hear that same lament today, but the 80% of the data 'preparation' time is focused on digital data bases, data sources, gathers, attribute generation, copious amounts of well tops & curves and software; leaving only 20% of the time for actual 'interpretation'... the big difference is that today's interpretation projects have several orders of magnitude more data.

You have done seismic data acquisition, processing and interpretation in your career, maybe not in that order. While all three are required for doing exploration and development, which area has interested you the most?

All of these components interested me, and contributed to my competency in my career, I believe. I was blessed at Gulf Canada to have the opportunity to get solid experience in these various areas, and to receive this training from fantastic mentors. My acquisition experience was under the tutelage of Ray Prudholme, Carl Nyberg (Gulf's Chief Geophysicist) and Bill Elder (in all 3 western provinces and the NWT); my processing was learned (at our in-house processing centre) at the feet of people like Gordon Hollingshead, Phil Greenaway, Tom Balaski, Dean Provins and Dave Cooper. My early interpetations were influenced by the likes of Dave Baer, Dave Richert, Phil Pelletier, Carl Nyberg, and T. Gordon Houston, among many others… My early geology 'lessons' were gleaned from folks like Dick Cote, Roger Rector, Walter Wegmuller, Gerry Macey and Gene Van Dyck. Many of my 'mentors' were explorationists with 3-4 years experience, which made them 'experts' for that place and time! Many of my mentors were also very experienced.

I had innumerable mentors for land & regulatory rules, drilling practices, completion practices, production engineering, economics, etc. I still have mentors in every aspect of my career (most of them younger than me, now). So, it's not really one area or another that I found the most interesting, but the integration of all the various facets (have you heard that before?)! If I had to pick one area, it would be interpretation, 'cause the feeling I get when looking at a new seismic volume for the first time is something like the world's best author (the 'Great One') has just written a awesome book, and I'm the first person who gets to open the cover and read it!

Besides these three facets of seismic, you have been involved in special projects, onshore/offshore, the foothills, frontier areas, the business aspects of exploration, international projects, etc. How do you look back on your life and career? Is it with a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, or something else?

I've kind of been like a kid in a candy store. I describe our energy business as "the game of 100,000 rules"…

  • The first rule is, “The more rules you know, the better you play the game”…
  • The second rule is, “No matter how smart you are, you can never learn more than 25,000 to 40,000 rules in your career; but that’s why we have teams, because collectively we can get closer”…
  • The third rule is, “The rules are always changing”…

I have always found my life and career to be immensely challenging, fulfilling and rewarding. Think about it… where else in this universe could you possibly find a similar situation, where you get to work with well-educated people who are usually compassionate and ethical; working in progressive companies with really great compensation (comparatively speaking); utilizing the newest, most recent technology: on projects and mega-projects that cost more than most countries' annual budgets; and occasional failure is even accepted as a valuable learning experience? I mean, really! It can't be much better, at least for a farm boy from Merritt, B.C.

There have been hard times as well (at least they felt hard in the moment), particularly associated with organizational down-sizing. I know that this is because my personal relationships mean everything to me, and the stress related to down-sizing feels awful. Having said that, I've come to realize that there is 'life after' any one job for people in our profession, and many times change is quite positive.

At this stage in your life, what are you looking forward to?

More of the same… constantly learning, getting more mentoring and giving more mentoring, playing the game of 100,000 rules. Retirement can wait for a while.

When you look back on your illustrious career, what were some of the successful landmarks?

My proudest 'landmark' would be my family: my wife Sylvia, son Alex and daughter Leah. They inspire me constantly with their view on life and their unique insights. At work, the 'Frontier Exploration' era (~1974-1986) at Gulf Canada was heady, with a string of discoveries both in eastern Canada (Hibernia et al), and the Arctic (Amauligak and Beaufort discoveries, and Sverdrup Basin discoveries). In WCSB the activity surrounding the W. Pembina Nisku madness (Nisku pinnacles) and Leduc madness (Rumsey pinnacle et al) was very educational and entertaining… I coined it the "Reefer Madness" stage of my career. Gulf Canada had a very successful run in the Alberta foothills as well. I was involved peripherally with many of these discoveries. The 'transition years' at Gulf were interesting to experience with constant corporate reorganizations, ownership changes and down-sizings. My recollections are of continuing fiscal crisis (at least that's what it felt like), laser-like focus on operations, and an imperative to deliver production. We had to divest or surrender many large assets in order to survive; fortunately we were able to hang on to a few gems like Surmont and Amauligak which, when Conoco came into the picture, went from 'desperate states' to 'happy states' with a new mandate on mega-projects such as these. Another highlight occurred in 2008 with the very successful execution of the "Back To Exploration" C3GEO Convention, where I was honoured to serve as a general co-chair. The organizing committee was on pins and needles for at least 18 months, not knowing if the convention was going to be a success or a monumental bust; fortunately (and with huge personal relief) it went great!

Tooney Fink and Satinder Chopra

Tell us about three qualities that would describe Tooney, the person. Also, tell us about one personal trait that no one else is aware of.

Curiousity, Compassion, Service. I'm anal about being on time (but I think I hide it well).

With more than 38 years of experience under your belt, please tell us how you viewed the changes in our industry, like digital processing, interactive interpretation workstations, 3D seismic, and the power of the Internet. We would like to hear some stories that you may have treasured.

Even though I've mentioned previously that the 80/20 rule hasn't changed (80% of one's time to prepare a project, 20% to interpret) what has changed is the massive volume of data that one geophysicist can work through on his/her workstation (once it's 'all good' to go). And speaking of his/her, one change over time has been the proportion of females in our geophysical graduating classes to the extent that in the last few years ConocoPhillips Canada has reached about a 50/50 split in new hire gender. It wasn't always like that.

The increase in computing power has created a ground shift in processing QC capability over the years; now we can 'spontaneously' create processing displays with different parameters to assess the impact of various velocities, say, on gather move-out, stack or migrations; or the impact of different weathering solutions, for example. Along with the increased hardware speed has come an incredible suite of software programs, which for the first time, can actually discriminate signal from noise as efficiently (or even better) than the human eye-brain. I saw a recent example of a microseismic event on a surface seismic array where I would have to say that no 'event' was visible; but wave the wand of model matching and stacking, and voila, an event is wrung out of the noise.

Sometimes I see 5D interpolation results that are so good, I almost believe in magic. The question today should not be, "Should we do 5D interpolation?", but, "Why aren't we doing 5D interpolation?" And for those people who don't like 5D regularized seismic data, we now have a school campaigning for 'irregular', pseudorandom geometry, utilizing point sources, point receivers and dithering source timing.

Another huge change has been the number of seismic attributes available for the interpreter, both post-stack and pre-stack, but I'm preaching to the choir here! The challenge is for the interpreter to decide which attributes (and why) are most valuable for the interpretation.

Let's not even get started on microseismic data, except to acknowledge that it's a new world out there.

Seismic land acquisition has seen much change as well, with the introduction of large channel counts, wide arrays, digital phones, and more recently, cableless systems. Marine seismic has undergone a sea change (pardon the pun) as well, with wide towed arrays, long streamers, deghosting technology, coil shooting, etc. Land 3D seismic has evolved from a patchwork quilt of tiny (1.5 square miles) proprietary surveys over each section we wanted to drill, to large portions of the basin being covered by a quilt of large (multitownship) surveys. In WCSB this has been greatly facilitated by speculative 3D seismic surveys, where the business model brought down the costs sufficiently that 'regional' 3D seismic coverage can be obtained by an E&P company; the benefits are fantastic, particularly for interpreting regional depositional or structural trends that define one's play fairway.

New challenges in seismic acquisition have sprung up on the regulatory, social and environmental side however. Although many of the new regulations and processes are based in good intentions, they sometimes combine to appear impractical. My (somewhat absurd) vision of the future is flying over your project in an aircraft, opening the door and kicking out thousands of point receivers (GPSenabled, and biodegradable) which fall randomly down and jam into the surface. Leave them for a few weeks (no sources required… sourceless seismic, don't you know), then fly back over with your plane to remotely upload the data, and leave the detectors to decompose!

In my opinion, the Internet has revolutionized our geophysical workflows as well. When I think about how humans solve problems, access to the internet for both data and communication has released many of our shackles. Consider: whether problem solving using trial and error (using intuition); repetition (until patterns become apparent); brainstorming (individually or collectively); using decomposition (or decimation); using analogs (bing–bing–bing, big one for the Internet); approximating; or using serendipity… all are greatly enhanced using the power of the web. You begin to understand why people like Matt Hall are so ardent about open source information. I have a very chaotic looking messy desk with thousands of papers in various piles… and I tell people (when they finish scolding me for my messiness) that this enhances the probability of 'random association' to create new solutions… e.g., when pile A tips over onto pile C, and I'm picking them up, all of a sudden I see one idea randomly juxtaposed against another completely different idea, and a 'new solution' is born… and I'm only half kidding!

I notice that your (published?) technical communication has remained rather limited. Is that correct? I would like to hear your take on this please.

It bothers me too. And I can't tell you why specifically, other than it feels like a combination of factors such as being a supervisor most of my career, so not really 'owning' a project; working for a company that in many time periods did not support publication; business commitments that took precedent; personal commitments that took precedent; and, whatever the excuse, just not making it a high enough priority. Matt Hall finally coaxed me to write a contribution for his recent "52 things You should Know About Geophysics".

Please permit me to ask you this. What differences did you notice when you turned 30 years, 40 years and 50 years old? As an example, some people think the 30s allowed them to experiment with options, the 40s gave them time for self-introspection, and some get naughty at forty. Your comments?

I noticed they're each ten years apart! I started in the business when I was 20, and when I look back every decade feels like maybe 3 years of elapsed time at the most… it all just goes so fast! If I had to identify any tendencies, they would be 'learned wisdom' around things such as "nothing is ever as good, or as bad, as it first seems"; or "don't take it personally"; or "ask yourself, do you really think that person got up this morning and thought, "What can I do to piss off Tooney today?"" To me aging has been a continuum, not discrete 'stages'. I love the energy of youth and I value the cynicism of experience. Now that I'm more 'mature' it tickles me that when I misbehave socially, people just think "it's cute" (or at least I think so)!

Complete the following with one line answers:

  • a. If not a geophysicist, you would be… a prospector with a pack-mule!
  • b. If you could go back in time, I'd actually like to go forward in time, to the first time we migrate from our solar system, then when we migrate from our galaxy.
  • c. In your scheme of joy, service to others is the exercise, gratitude is the meal, and joy is the dessert.
  • d. In your opinion, a retirement dream would be, being a prospector with a packmule (or with unlimited funds for a helicopter).
  • e. You have faith in, first, human ingenuity… we may be the source of many of the world's problems, but sure as heck we're the only source for solutions… (then I have faith in our inherent compassion).
  • f. The best technical paper (that I've read) is – Bally, A.W., Gordy, P.L., and Stewart, G.A. 1966. Structure, seismic data and orogenic evolution of the southern Canadian Rockies. Bulletin of Canadian Petroleum Geology, v. 14, p. 337-381; combined with C.D.A. DAHLSTROM. Chevron "Balanced Cross Sections" Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 6, 743 (1969); to create the 'bible' of Canadian foothills structural geology/geophysics.

You have been instrumental in bringing new technology to Gulf/ConocoPhillips. Tell us about all you have done over the years and why you think that was a significant contribution.

I don't think I really did anything, except support other people who seemed to have good ideas. I certainly don't think I've been a 'leading edge' technology type, hardly even a 'fast follower'. Calgary is blessed to be a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurial endeavour (particularly in the service industries); so sitting in Gulf Canada Square, one could basically pick and choose the most effective technology of the moment. Having said that every project is unique and there are incremental technologies that we can employ to improve the operation (be it geophysical, geological, drilling, completion or production).

I think it's important to keep a line of sight between the technology we want to employ and getting our wells drilled and completed in the optimal place, in the optimal time. I tell explorationists that any time we get over all the hurdles to finally drill a new well, "the angels sing".

Seismic acquisition over the years at Gulf Canada and ConocoPhillips Canada benefited from innovative leaders in our acquisition group (such as Ray Prudholme and Rick Edwards), who were intimate with the challenges in the field but not afraid to 'try' different technology when required (e.g. mini-marine equipment for shooting in Parsons Lake, small custom augers for shallow hole patterns when it wasn't possible to drill deep shot-holes; sonic drills for drilling in gravel, LIDAR for program planning and survey, very low environmental footprint 3D utilizing slashers and mulchers).

One 'step change' in our business unit came when we obtained and aggregated a continuous 'quilt' of 3D seismic coverage over the Deep Basin (at least the northern portion spanning AB & BC – thank you Frank Van Humbeck), then re-processed the data in 'mega-merges' of AVO compliant datasets (thank you, Pat Kong and Larry Matthews), allowing the generation, on a regional basis, of consistent seismic attributes, correlated to large numbers of wells, with more predictive power than ever before possible. Not high tech or leading edge, but massively effective.

Another one of the most under-appreciated technologies is that of communication technology. Communication disasters have a negative value that far outweighs the positive value of many applied incremental 'technical' innovations… "keep people in the loop, they may keep you from falling off that approaching cliff." Conversely, the positive value of good communication technology (dare I say collaboration) can be huge… e.g. at ConocoPhillips we have a global, internal, web-based "Ask and Discuss" tool (named an NOE – Network of Excellence) segregated by various disciplines. Our geophysical NOE brings the power of ~330 ConocoPhillips geophysicists to bear on any issue 'asked' on the NOE… response is fast and numerous… and it works because it's a grassroots tool that the geophysicists want to work. To boot, any of the 800+ members of the geology NOEs can weigh in on the discussion as well!

Is ConocoPhillips involved in the pursuit of unconventional resources? Please elaborate.

ConocoPhillips Canada is deeply involved with unconventional resources. With the acquisition of Burlington, we gained an incredible ownership position in large parts of the Deep Basin, and with the advent of horizontal drilling mixed with multifrac completions, many of the formerly sub-economic Triassic-Mesozoic tight clastic reservoirs in the Deep Basin became ideal horizontal targets… but the gas price hurts. Fortunately, quite a few of these reservoirs have rich gas liquids associated with them. On the more classic 'shale' front we seem to like the Devonian, be it Muskwa, Duvernay, or Canol; I can't say much more or I'd have to shoot you. The grand-daddy of the unconventional resource plays is the oil sands where we have incredible exposure through our ownership in Surmont, Foster Creek, Christina Lake, Thornbury, Clyden and Saleski SAGD properties. These oil sands projects are massive, requiring billions of dollars of capital investment, and utilizing constantly evolving new technologies. Our time lapse seismic data from Surmont is a textbook example of the effective application of 4D.

Do you think geophysics has an effective role to play in shale gas exploration?

Any time someone starts the mantra about resource plays being a uniform carpet bombing range ("why do we need seismic?"), I just push the map over to them and say, "Okay, you go ahead and pick the target for our next well," then, "and don't forget, it's a horizontal well, so you'll not only need a target where we want to land the heel, but we also need a good azimuth and horizontal elevation for that," then, "and by the way, try to avoid any drilling hazards on the way down, would you!" And that's before we try to position the development pads (or pilots) in the 'best quality' reservoir rock (be it the optimally predicted brittleness, TOC, or facies in the reservoir). Yes, I believe geophysics has an effective role to play.

Tooney, you have been associated with the CSEG for quite some time, having been on various committees including the DoodleSpiel, the convention committees, etc. The CSEG has conferred the Meritorious Service Award on you in recognition of your services to the Society and the industry, and to the discipline as such. Please tell us why you do this and how does it feel on receiving the recognition that you have got?

I feel humbled and almost humiliated by the recognition I've received from the CSEG, because I've done nothing compared to geo-warriors like you, Satinder! I believe the CSEG is what differentiates our geophysical community from most other 'societies'. This is because we have an incredibly strong technical sharing program; an unbelievable social program; and we remain inclusive to all facets of our industry. There is no similar experience, anywhere, like going to the Doodlespiel and being surrounded by cat-skinners, camp caterers, surveyors, slashers, dynamite salesmen, shot-hole drillers, acquisition folks, regulatory people, processing people, seismic brokers, interpreters and geologists; rookies and seniors. It's a comedic love-in on ice (well, most games, anyways)!

You have played a significant role as mentor for the younger geoscientists at your company. Please tell us about this.

I was treated so well by the people at Gulf Canada when I entered the oil patch (I felt like part of a family), and I want to return the favour to our current new employees; as I've mentioned previously, I love the energy that they bring into the organization. How do I achieve this? By being involved in the recruiting process; by being available for a discussion (at Tim Hortons!) at any time for any issue; and by being a cheerleader for the efforts of all my fellow geos, who put themselves 'out there' on a daily basis.

Apart from the science that you practice, what other interests do you have?

I love collecting rocks, minerals and some fossils. For instance I've got examples of copper ores from around the Guichon Batholith, the heart of copper country near my home town of Merritt; I've got a collection of black minerals which I administer as the "black rock test" for any unfortunate earth scientist who happens to show interest (based on an infamous "black rock" mineralogy final test at UBC); I've got a bit of an opal collection, amber collection, etc.; I have some great Ammonite fragments; and I'm also proud of the Buzzard Coulee meteorite fragments that I personally collected (with encouragement from Don Hladiuk and Alan Hildebrand) then went back and purchased from the farmer who owned the strewn field. I like spending time at our cabin, west of Cochrane, where there is always stuff to tinker on; but feels like it is a thousand kilometers away, not 70 kilometers away.

What would be your message for young entrants to geophysics? What are most rewarding aspects of taking up a career in geophysics?

Geophysics is a great opportunity for curious people, particularly those who have both a love of math/physics as well as earth sciences and who want to pursue both in their career. In my view it can be one of the most rewarding careers, from a professional and economic aspect, on the planet. And you get a chance to participate in the CSEG!

One last question. Did I miss out on any aspect of your professional life that you expected me ask a question about and I didn't?

Not that I can think of.

Tooney, thank you very much for giving this opportunity of sitting down with you and chatting.

It has been a pleasure.


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