Speaker: Michel T. Halbouty
The Past is a Beacon for the Future
By MICHEL T. HALBOUTY
am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this group today.
I will try to portray to you some of the meaning of our profession
and some of its effect on society.
The theme of AAPG's 2002 meeting is "Our Heritage:
Key to Global Discovery," and it is most appropriate and timely
that this topic is selected and presented at the beginning of this
It is a subject that will have a profound effect on
our profession in the future.
We -- as petroleum geologists -- have built an incomparable
heritage of knowledge that is readily available for our endeavors
of the future.
When I became a member of our profession 72 years
ago I picked up the petroleum geological heritage that was available.
There wasn't much -- petroleum geology was still in its infancy,
and those of us who were in the profession had to crawl and strive
for any type of information or available data.
Our correlating mediums were micropaleontology and
driller's logs. Because of the scarcity of information, we worked
hard and our findings were made available to each other.
Therefore, those who later entered the profession
were able to step into petroleum geology with the knowledge accumulated
up to the time of their entrance into the profession.
Gee -- I look back at what I knew at the time I entered
the profession to what I know now and it seems I have gone through
countless hours and days of just keeping up with the advances.
There was very little heritage to lean on, but what
was available was absorbed with relish.
Now, the science of geology, in which our petroleum
geology is just a segment, is the most intriguing of all science.
The story of this earth, the evolution and destruction
of continents, the processions of life, which since the beginning
of time has passed over its surface, are the basics of the science
It really became a science during the Middle Ages,
when the philosophers of nature undoubtedly were influenced by the
Aristotelian elements of "fire, air, earth and water."
They sedulously examined the objects of nature in
their natural state and traversed the fields, the mountains, the
woods and the waters, checked the oceans and the shores and by these
efforts they became proficient in natural knowledge -- thus they
established the beginning of the heritage of geology.
Geology has grown and advanced on the balance-scale
of probability rather than the rigid, less flexible framework of
mathematics; thus geology always has been an inexact, speculative
Commonly suffering from speculation beyond the limits
of observation and experience, geological hypotheses and theories
have been promulgated and dissipated, but not without some benefit
to each succeeding generation of earth scientists.
It is precisely this inexactness of our science that
makes it such a great challenge to practice it.
I firmly believe that there is no factor vital to
the human race that the science of geology does not explore or participate
in to some extent, however remote.
From time to time, I reflect on conditions that exist
in the world and I conclude, over and over again, that the world's
people could not meet their many human needs without geologists,
who discover the supply of natural resources vital to their welfare
Geologists and geophysicists, together, are imperative
to the future petroleum energy stability of this nation and the
We are needed to find the oil and gas that remains
to be found, both onshore and offshore.
Without us no oil and gas would be discovered.
In this regard, our profession cannot survive without
exploration -- and neither can the basic energy security of this
nation. We are tied together; if one falters, so does the other.
This is why I refer to our profession as the indispensable
segment of the science of geology. We are fortunate to be involved
in this extraordinary effort.
* * *
Our profession of petroleum geology indeed had a unique
Petroleum geology's first item of legacy began in
1842, when Sir William Logan, the Montreal geologist who was director
of the Geological Survey of Canada, studied the petroleum springs
at Gaspe in his native Province of Quebec and stated that they were
located and associated with anticlinal folding.
Logan's comments on these seeps were the first expression
of the anticlinal theory with relation to oil accumulation.
Many geologists of that time could not agree with
the theory -- and it became one of the most controversial of
subjects, particularly on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
For about 40 years the controversy continued between
In 1880, one of the more accomplished geoscientists
of the time, J. P. Lesley, referred to the theory as a "deservedly
Now, this is 21 years after Drake discovered oil at
Titusville, Pa., in 1859. Still, the top geologists of the world
argued about a concept that Sir Logan proposed in 1842.
In 1883, John Galey, the wildcatter, and William A.
Erseman, a Pennsylvania oil operator, each independently
informed their friend, Dr. Israel C. White, a professor of geology
at West Virginia University, that their land and drilling observations
indicated there definitely was some relation between existing oil
and gas fields and anticlines.
White immediately became interested. He diligently
studied the concept. He went into the field, studied the rocks and
finally concluded that the theory was sound. He believed in it so
strongly that he took leave of his position at West Virginia University
to form a company and drill a well, using the anticlinal theory
as its basis.
The result was the discovery of the first significant
production in West Virginia. White then returned to the university
a much wiser, wealthier and more respected professor of geology.
Later, White announced his rediscovery of the anticlinal
theory, but in doing so he acknowledged freely the priority of others.
This he made clear in his 1885 paper on "Geology of
Natural Gas." That paper was followed by the publication in April
1892 of another on the anticlinal theory in the Bulletin of the
Geological Society of America.
Undoubtedly, these two papers by White gave petroleum
geology its first status and the permanency of the anticlinal theory.
Thus, Dr. Israel C. White is credited by historians as the founder
of our petroleum geology profession.
Incidentally, White was the third president of AAPG.
Now, the most important segment of this story is the
fact that as celebrated geoscientists were arguing among themselves
as to the validity of a concept, wildcatters who were not formally
trained in the science of geology extolled the virtues of the concept,
which turned out to be accurate.
Even after Dr. White's intervention, petroleum geology
had numerous difficulties remaining a respected profession.
Many errors and misconceptions by geologists -- and
condemnations by geologists of areas that turned out to be productive
by random wildcatters -- caused the managers in the oil industry
to be not only reluctant but also most hesitant to openly recognize
Although the early practitioners of our branch of
geology were beset by great problems, they were true investigators
-- and in a scientific manner tried to form concepts on a subject
that was new to them.
They stuck their necks out, and some were "chopped
However, through the efforts of these stubborn scientific
pioneers, the fundamental pieces of petroleum geology gradually
were put into proper place.
The fact that these early petroleum geologists were
wrong at times did not discourage their search for the truth.
For the past 110 years, their discoveries, mistakes,
confusions and solutions have given us the total results of their
efforts -- a remarkable heritage.
The heritage of geological fundamentals that was handed
down to us was accompanied by another kind of inheritance: the application
of common sense, courage, stubbornness and intestinal fortitude
in the search for oil from the non-professional, the wildcatters.
They drilled thousands of wells, leaving us volumes
of critical geologic information.
These daring wildcatters gave petroleum geology new
concepts, new ideas and different viewpoints; they gave greater
strength to the profession that they generally regarded as inadequate
Their accomplishments and input to our profession
further proves that scientists are occasionally helped by the bold,
imaginative, creative thinking and exploration of those who are
not formally educated or even trained in a scientific discipline.
* * *
Now, let's talk about the "suppressor" -- the know
There are some in our profession that are prone to
suppress unusual ideas of their co-workers -- putting them down
for even thinking differently than they.
It is the know-it-all who stifles brilliant ideas
with he overbearing arrogant born of ignorance, because it is from
these unyielding, onerous, omnipotent thinkers that we learn that
all is not as it seems, and that often brilliant minds are forced
to veer from the truth.
Those "suppressors" generate apprehension and fear
that prevents free and creative thought.
There is no question that fear stifles boldness in
the explorationist: A fear of not be willing to express an unusual
exploration idea or concept for fear of losing a job -- or being
shuttled into an inferior position.
As a result, creativity and boldness in the exploratory
effort are discouraged by rebuke and fear that prevents new exploratory
thinking; instead, mediocrity, "going along with the boys" and "implied
assent by silence" are, unfortunately, the credos of many that are
engaged in petroleum exploration.
As hunters for petroleum we should not ever be afraid
to experiment with an unusual idea or concept -- and once you believe
that you are correct of your analyses, stick with it and go for
It may be a failure, but at least you gave your conviction
a chance. I remember the often-quoted phrase: "The greatest risk
is not taking one!"
* * *
As part of this presentation, I will go back many
decades and relate to you three incidents I remember vividly that
portray the optimism, pessimism and emotions of explorationists
incident - Optimism.
I happened to be in the same elevator with Roy Cullen,
who was one of the pillars of Houston and -- at the time -- one
of the most successful independents in the petroleum business.
Now, I am referring to the year 1935 -- 67 years
He looked at me and said, "Aren't you the geologist
associated with Glenn McCarthy?"
I said, "Yes sir!" and he invited me to get off the
elevator on his floor, as he wanted to show me something.
He took me to a large cabinet where many gadgets were
"I don't believe in geology -- it hasn't found me
anything -- but you see this one?" he said, pointing to one of the
items in the case. "I found the O'Conner Field with that," and he
pointed to one after the other, naming the fields the gadget had
I stood in awe of what Mr. Cullen was telling and
showing me. As far as he was concerned, he had absolute proof that
those gadgets found him the tremendous wealth he made from oil.
His belief in those ingenious articles was unquestionable
Although we neither believed in the other's method
in searching for petroleum, we became good friends -- a youngster
in his 20s and a wildcatter in his 70s.
I learned something very important from that episode:
THAT THE POWER OF CONVICTION IS ABSOLUTE, IN WHICHEVER
DIRECTION IT IS SUBJECTED.
incident -- Pessimism.
I was attending an American Petroleum Institute meeting
in Chicago and ran into a friend who was an independent I had not
seen in a couple of years.
We visited over a drink, and a bellman to whom I had
previously indicated I was expecting a call advised me the call
As I got up to leave I told my friend I hoped this
would be good news of a wildcat I was drilling.
When I came back my friend asked if I had good news
and I told him, "No, it's a dry hole."
He said, "does that surprise you?"
I replied that it certainly did as I expected a discovery.
He said he expected every wildcat he ever had anything
to do with to be a dry hole.
I WAS STARTLED!!
I said, that's total pessimism!
I also told him I expected my every wildcat to produce
-- and if any were a dry hole, I just looked around the corner for
the next wildcat.
He didn't stay wildcatting very long. Pessimism is
not for the hunter of oil and gas.
As I have stated over the years, I firmly believe
that positive thoughts generate positive results and pessimistic
thoughts generate negative results.
Last incident -- Emotions!
I have always said that wildcatting brings euphoria
and heartaches -- but some heartaches linger!
I've drilled thousands of wells, but the greatest
anguish of all was my first well in Alaska.
I studied Alaska's geology -- I made several trips
studying the rocks on foot with a rifle and a pack on my back, and
I traveled by truck and bush planes, and I was convinced that oil
would be found in that cold and foreboding area known as a territory
of the United States.
All of my field work was done in the late 1940s and
early 1950s, over 50 years ago, and to my knowledge -- no one, large
or small -- was even thinking of exploring in Alaska.
I leased thousands of acres from the Territory and
I was stuck with the provision that if it became a state all of
my leases would be null and void except those upon which actual
production of oil or gas existed.
Here I was -- the first independent to go into and
explore in Alaska, and I might say that it took not only intestinal
fortitude, but to put it in the proper vernacular -- unmitigated
I was a small, but very adventuresome independent
-- and Alaska attracted me like a moth to light.
I moved a brand new rig from Bakersfield to Long Beach,
Calif., and then to Seward, Alaska, and spudded my first well 16
days after I signed the rig contract.
Even though I had geologists and petroleum engineers
in my company who could have been involved with moving the rig and
drilling the well, I was so captivated with the possibilities of
a discovery in that remote area that I chose to supervise and have
fun doing it all myself.
Twelve wildcats were drilled with the rig -- and I
found one small gas field. After 15 years, Alaska overrwhelmed me
and I got out!
I had met bitter disappointment after disappointment
in a giant area that I had extolled -- an area where I had marched
in alone to lease and drill my most significant career wildcat.
In later years, I was visiting with several young
geologists at an AAPG annual meeting, and one asked me, "Mr. H.
I understand you lost many millions in Alaska."
"I said, 'Yes, that's true -- but I still consider
my Alaskan venture a success."
He asked, "How can you possibly consider it a success
losing that much money?"
I hesitated, then looked him in the eye and said "It
was a success to me, because I had the desire to do it -- AND I
So, the question arises: Why did I do it?
I did it because it was the greatest challenge I had
ever faced and I confronted the challenge head on!
I challenged the challenge!
I was prepared to accept the outcome, whatever it
was -- but more importantly, as a wildcatter, I had a firm belief
and a strong conviction that I would discover oil, lots of it, in
Alaska, and I set out to prove my conviction.
Success is measured in many ways other than by money.
The Alaska venture was a tremendous display of effort for someone
as small as I was -- of meeting obstacles and challenges in a very
hostile environment, with virtually no support or ready availability
The venture in Alaska is my proudest effort -- and
yet, after all these years, my first Alaskan wildcat remains the
most bitter disappointment of my career.
That well was a "killer." When I was on the derrick
floor around midnight -- in bitter cold, 25 below zero -- and the
last objective was cored and found dry, it affected every fiber
of my body and left me limp and full of depressive emotions.
I was totally crushed!!
I had personally put so much of myself in that one
well that the unexpected dry hole devastated me.
The disappointment was so severe (that) I literally
I remember many of my wildcats -- some of the good
ones and some of the bad ones -- but that Alaskan wildcat I drilled
45 years ago gnaws at me to this very day.
It proves that in the throes of success, there are
unexpected and sometimes bitter disappointments that are beyond
comprehension or acceptance.
In three months, God willing, I will be 93 years old.
I am definitely in my twilight's twilight zone.
Whatever I have done or didn't do, whatever were my
successes or failures, above all, I was always exceedingly proud
to be a geoscientist -- a student and disciple of the earth.
I would be well rewarded if any of my efforts contribute
to the heritage that is ours to pass to those who follow us.
I have enjoyed visiting with you today, and I extend
my heartiest wish for all of you to enjoy good searching for the
oil and gas that the world will be needing for the future.
Thank you for listening.