Powers Medalist a ‘nomadic personality’

Weber: Geologist, Engineer, Artist

Weber, the artist: His experiences often were recalled in detailed drawings.
Weber, the artist: His experiences often were recalled in detailed drawings.

No phone call, no email.

Nothing that usually defines how modern journalistic interviews are conducted, especially when the interviewer and subject are an ocean apart.

Instead, inside the FedEx package were eight carefully hand-written pages of responses on legal-sized European lined paper – graphs, too, as well as speeches, abstracts and illustrations, one, haunting, of a lone geologist at the base of an outcrop.

Koenraad Johan Weber
Koenraad Johan Weber

“I can’t type,” Koenraad Johan Weber, this year’s winner of the Sidney Powers Memorial Award, writes on page one, adding, “I always had a very competent typist at my disposal, a luxury that is no longer provided.”

Retired geologists lose their staffs – not their memories, not their attention to detail.

And certainly not their reputations.

The eight pages are reflective, combative, melancholy.

Now 77, Weber has been a mining engineer; studied ancient analogs of the Rotliegendes desert deposits in the United States; traipsed around Nigeria, studying potential energy resources – and along the way, saved lives; worked for Royal Dutch/Shell’s Exploration and Production Laboratory in Rijswijk; lectured through the world for AAPG and EAGE; co-authored the “Petroleum Geology-Production” chapter in the Encyclopedia of Geology; and studied environmental impacts in North Africa and the Middle East.

But before Weber talks about any of that, he has something else on his mind.

“My youth was very much influenced by the war,” he says, referring to World War II and its devastating impact on everyday life throughout Europe – and, here, he remembers the worst day:

“ … May 10, with bombardments and parachutist landings on and around the Hague. My father, being a Jew, had intended to flee in our car to the south. Exit from the Hague was impossible.”

During a pause in the shooting, his family did leave – but at an intersection right outside their apartment they were side-swiped, causing Weber to be thrown from the car and through a shop window.

“My right leg was almost cut off.”

Because of the wounded soldiers crowding the hospital, his leg was, he says, “roughly thrown together and I was taken home.”

His early goals, then – before education, before geology, before any discovery of soft science or outcrops or determining the potential of oil fields in the Niger Delta – were more immediate.

“My youthful ambitions were to learn to walk again.”

And then there was the matter, he says, of food and firewood and death.

“My mother was not Jewish and thus we survived. The rest of my father’s family in Holland didn’t.”

Geology would have to wait.

It did. Patiently.

‘They Offered Everything’

“My maternal grandmother, who looked like Barbra Streisand, was a retired Shell engineer,” Weber writes, “and my mother was actually born on an oilfield in Sumatra.”

But it was his father, who survived the war, and introduced Weber to the profession and stoked his curiosity.

“My father was a Delft mechanical engineer, dealing in roller bearings and driving chains. I’d often accompany him on inspections to quarries and shipyards. I was allowed to roam around in the Cretaceous Chalk quarries and I collected a large collection of shells, echinoids, shark teeth, and even a Mosasaurus tooth.

“I was expected to go to Delft (University of Technology) as well.”

He did.

And while he leaned toward biology or physics, Weber said it was the mining faculty that won him over.

“They offered everything: Geology, paleontology, physics and adventure.”

After graduation, he was on the Delft faculty and was also hired by Shell.

“Two days later I was working in the E&P laboratory.” Manned entirely by physicists, chemists and engineers, Weber says, “I was the only one with any geological knowledge.”

Even now, he says, he remembers one of the greatest lessons of that time.

“I learned the hard way how to write a report that can be understood by a non-geologist.

“It was also pointed out that I had too much imagination, I talked too much and that I shouldn’t sing Yiddish love songs when sitting behind my telescope.”

There was something else, he says, that always seemed to motivate him – what he calls his “nomadic” personality.

“I don’t like to stay too long in one place, and I hate routine jobs.”

Which may explain the work he did in the iron mines in Spain, as well as the work in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, England and the place that made the strongest indelible mark, Nigeria.

But more on that in a moment.

A ‘Slightly Devious Technique’

You ask Koenraad Johan Weber about what’s changed and what hasn’t in the profession that now claims him as a superstar, he starts with the most fundamental difference – getting there.

Literally.

“Can you imagine traveling from London to Delhi by bus?”

He tells a story about sitting at a bar in a guesthouse at Masjid-i-Suleiman, Iran, when a bus full of passengers stopped to use the restroom.

“They had traveled through the Balkans, Turkey and Iran, and were on the way to Kabul and the Khyber Pass, Lahore and New Delhi.

“Today, I don’t think you would get farther than Turkey (or perhaps make a tour through Syria and Iraq and end up taken hostage by Al Qaeda).”

But what hasn’t changed is “the value of the well-trained specialist.”

This, he says, has not been taken over by computers: “The approach to field appraisal with respect to data analysis, risk evaluation and economics is much the same … and still often done poorly.”

He says the past 55 years or so has been an exciting time, with spectacular progress in subjects such as continental drift, sedimentology, diagenesis, faulting, trap types, migration, source rock, maturation and paleontology.

Still, Weber believes a boardroom can be just as maddening as an outcrop.

“I was always confronted by colleagues and supervisors who had little or no knowledge of geology. For this reason one has to develop a special, often slightly devious technique to convince the audience.”

He points to a study with which he was once involved, concerning rubber-sleeve cores in Venezuela’s Tia Juana field.

“These were the first cores ever taken in the reservoirs of the Bolivar coast,” he said.

Weber’s take, unlike others – including the chief geologist who described the reservoir as stacked point bars, extending over a large area – was that the reservoir was probably of limited width and meandering.

Expecting criticism, Weber prepared a model consisting of a slotted platform in which a number of perspex sections could be inserted showing the channel sands and crevasses in color.

“When indeed the head of production blew his top, I unveiled my model,” he said. “No further debate was necessary.”

He looks back now on that and the rest of the stories, challenges and disappointments, and far from regret, far from regaling one with tales of a wild ride, he seems calm.

“I have led a regular type of life,” he said, “in which everything went fairly smooth.”

His Brilliant Career

Even his time in Nigeria, he says – a place he worked for six years and visited an additional 10 times.

“I was in charge of the Shell study teams that did much of the work on Nigerian fields.”

There, he says, his training as a Boy Scout helped him save two little girls who were drowning.

“The training to take care of yourself in the woods and to cook your own meals is a splendid prelude to a geologist’s life,” he said.

And of his work at Shell and his belief – well documented – on the importance of sharing information, he says, “I think I saved both Shell and other companies much money in preventing wild goose chases and supporting wrong concepts.”

Of it all, he says, “My work was my hobby.”

Another hobby was his artwork, of which he says, “I am both an engineer and a geologist.”

Most of the drawings are of landscapes and ships.

And of a man and an outcrop.

Still feisty, Weber says he is positive on the future of energy, adding, “I am not a follower of Al Gore and I don’t think burning oil and gas makes much difference.”

Now retired, he still reads geology magazines – for fun.

He still keeps up, though, if at a slower pace. Just last year, he published a paper titled “Meteors and Mining.”

“I have never had great ambitions but rather a general urge to do interesting scientific work of an innovative nature.”

His leg – yes, that same leg nearly lost as the Nazis attacked – still hurts, but now he has time to put it up on the desk on top of all those geology magazines, take out a pad, draw ships and landscapes, write letters in longhand, lean back in his chair …

And sing Yiddish love songs.

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