Timothy T. Schowalter, who just received this year’s AAPG Pioneer Award in Long Beach, Calif., has a confession to make about two of his most important and celebrated published works.
“I knew nothing about the problem when I started.”
The papers, “The Mechanics of Secondary Hydrocarbon Migration and Entrapment” (1979) and “Interpretation of Subsurface Hydrocarbon Shows” (1982), were revolutionary when they were presented and are still being discussed at conferences, cited in industry journals, studied in universities and, most importantly, used by explorationists to find more oil.
“I think the reports are still used,” he says now, more than 30 years later, “because they are an interdisciplinary bridge between engineering and geology.”
Not that he knew that when he began work on them at Shell Development in Houston in the early 1970s.
“I had to learn as much as possible about two phase fluid flow,” he said, “and then develop a model on how to use that knowledge in exploration and production.”
His lack of knowledge, he concluded, would be fortuitous. He told his supervisor, fellow AAPG member (and eventual AAPG Grover Murray Distinguished Educator Award winner) Larry Meckel, that since he had no preconceived notions about the results, the research might be groundbreaking.
But first he had to get them published.
“Before computers it was very slow to do a paper,” Schowalter said. “Each paper took two and a half years working one night a week after work. I even did my own drafting for the paper and paid a neighbor high school girl to type up the final copy.”
“After writing the first paper I was so uncertain as to what to do with it that I sent it to the Wyoming Geological Association for publication in their Earth Science Bulletin,” he recalled. “After the paper was well received, friends encouraged me to send in to the AAPG, who then published it.”
The “migration” paper eventually won Schowalter the 1980 AAPG Cam Sproule Award; the “shows” work was the basis for his AAPG Distinguished Lecture tour.
Both Sides Now
Schowalter’s career took him to Casper, Wyo., where he worked as a geologist with Kirkwood Oil, and to Denver, where he was first an exploration manager Mosbacher and Pruet and then an explorationist for both BWAB and D.C. Dudley and Associates.
“The oil and gas business is one of the most open and uninhibited businesses in the country,” he said. “You can’t build a car by yourself, but you can get going in the oil business with an idea or a key lease on a successful well.”
An independent contractor since 2004, Schowalter has seen the industry from more than two sides.
“I think the big difference between the big companies and the independents is that in small companies or working for yourself, you have to be involved in the entire process and get to see how the whole system works,” he said. “Like most independents, I have been involved in land, seismic, permitting, drilling completion, geology, selling deals, etc.”
And that “etc.” is huge – from his work in the office to what he does when he leaves.
Schowalter has not only climbed all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, is not only a world cross-country skier, but has traveled across America – on a bicycle.
“I still have vivid memories of each day.”
In undertaking the excursion, he says his motivation was to see, mostly, if he could do it – the unfolding geology along the way was going to be a bonus.
“One of the great pleasures of being a geologist is to be able to explain the landscape, so it was fun to put the trip in a geologic perspective as we traveled along.”
He traveled with a dozen men from all over the world.
Work was never too far away.
“I would usually give a brief geology lecture at dinner about the day’s ride.”
The trip, from Seattle to the eastern coast of New Jersey, took seven weeks and averaged about 80 miles a day.
“I went through two sets of tires on the trip,” he says of the 3,500 miles, “and I ate like a horse to keep going.”
He says one of the best parts of the trip was the luxury of escaping the day-to-day.
“Each day was eat, ride and sleep and do it all over again,” he said. “It was like a train you couldn’t get off.”
The One That Got Away
As it turns out, Schowalter likes all the trains he rides.
“I don’t have a clue what I would be doing if I hadn’t been in the oil business, but whatever it was, I am sure it wouldn’t be as interesting or as much fun,” says a man who has been an AAPG member since 1968.
“The biggest change in the industry over four decades is the change from exploring for conventional traps to exploring for resource plays,” he said.
Also, he adds the advent of modern hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has allowed the industry to make a profit producing from really bad reservoirs.
“In fact the ‘waste zones’ I wrote about are now the target for most exploration in the United States,” he said.
Like any pioneer, Schowalter knows that success and failure are often within sight of each other.
“The best achievement is that I have been involved in finding enough oil that I can work for myself, he said. “I am proud that I took the leap to risk my own money on leases, drilling and completion with enough success to be a small one man oil company.”
Like a fisherman, though, there was one that got away.
Along with Steve Kirkwood, Schowalter mapped out a Red River waste zone in North Dakota.
“Our companies at the time had the play leased and sold for a horizontal Red River well, but the company never drilled the well,” he recalled. “The leases were then picked up after ours expired by BN and Continental and became the 200-million-barrel Cedar Hills oil field.”
And maybe that’s why Schowalter – like any good geologist, like any good fisherman, is still out there, still enjoying it.
“I am,” he says, “still looking for the big one.”