More than 300 enthusiastic attendees turned out for the recent Geo-Legends dinner and panel discussion hosted by the Houston Geological Society -- including 15 past presidents of HGS.
All were there to glean knowledge and insight from four “legendary” honorees who were assembled to present their perspectives on geology and oil exploration -- past, present and future -- and also talk about what can only be described as über-fascinating lives and careers.
This year’s confab, spearheaded and moderated by HGS vice president Linda Sternbach, was the third event in the HGS Legends series, which kicked off in 2001. This year’s honorees and their defining area of expertise were:
- Albert Bally (seismic interpretation of complex structure).
- Arnold Bouma (deepwater sands and depositional processes).
- Peter Rose (prospect and risk analysis).
- Peter Vail (sequence stratigraphy).
The common ground they share -- other than geology itself -- is that all worked for major oil companies during the 1960s and 1970s and later established new career paths as teachers and communicators.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be included in this group,” said current AAPG President Rose. “I see this as a form of mentoring, which has sort of gone by the wayside as we’ve become more mobile and people no longer stay with companies for a long time. At most companies, there aren’t a lot of the older geoscientists on board.
“One of the things local societies can do is provide some of that framework that used to be found in the company for people to share their experiences,” Rose said.
While attendees at such an event might have a predetermined notion of what they expect to hear, that’s not always the case.
“When you start asking older people about lessons learned,” he said, “you can get some real surprises.
“Once at dinner, I asked someone ‘Do you have any fundamental wisdom to pass along?’” Rose said. “He said ‘Yes, it’s awful easy to borrow more money than you ought to.’
“This was totally unexpected, but what we learn from each other in these kind of things is often not geological,” Rose noted. “Much of the time it has to do with life or nothing geotechnical.”
Just Do It
A profound sense of humor appears to be a shared trait among seasoned experts who successfully negotiate the minefields that dot life and career.
Geologist Peter Vail recalled a time somewhat early on in his illustrious 30-year career at Exxon when he requested a transfer to the geophysical research group. To his chagrin he discovered after the fact the group was comprised of theoretical mathematicians and theoretical geophysicists.
“After about a month, the group leader called me into his office,” Vail said, “He told me I had no future at Exxon.”
The Geo-Legends audience likely was inspired to learn Vail has not been one to fritter away his days after assuming the role of Emeritus Professor at Rice University following a 15-year stint there.
“I retired but didn’t have anything to do,” he said. “I figured if I had to live as long as the IRA actuarial table said I would, I should get busy. So I formed my own company with one of the goals to find oil and gas for my own account.”
Looking to the future, Vail thinks there are still a lot of good oil and gas prospects available for drilling. He predicts if prices stay high, exploration will continue for quite some time.
When it comes to deciding on a geology career or not, Vail noted:
“Find out all you can about what you’re interested in, and you’ll know what to do. Then do it, and stick with it.”
‘A Heroic Activity’
Rose offered some career lessons learned that those new to the profession might want to keep on file to re-visit on a regular basis:
- Don’t limit yourself; every opportunity offers you something.
- The geological perspective is essential to consideration and decisions as to long-range questions about mineral resources, environmental considerations and ground water supply. Geologists are best able to address the important elements of these questions and must step up to do so.
- Because of substantial and economically irreducible uncertainty, the geologist must first dream, imagine, intuit and approximate, applying an inexact science to the earth.
This personalizes plays and prospects, he said, and, when combined with ambition, makes most geoscientists optimistic.
“Prospecting is a heroic activity,” he said.
What’s In a Name?
Geo-Legends honoree Arnold Bouma, who now serves as adjunct professor at Texas A&M university, elicited hardy laughter from the audience when he mentioned the now well-known “namesake” sequence he identified dividing deepwater turbidites into intervals -- a groundbreaking event in the annals of geology.
“I have no idea who called it the Bouma sequence,” he said. “Everyone I met said ‘Oh, you must be the son of Bouma,’ because if something was named for you, you had to be six feet under.”
Of all the speakers, Bouma, who was born and educated in the Netherlands, perhaps had the most unusual encounter with rocks that sparked an interest in geology.
“I got to know the most fantastic person with two years of schooling,” Bouma said. “He was a grave digger, and I helped him, and what beautiful rocks filled with fossils -- all Oligocene.”
Like Bouma, Bally was born in the Netherlands, but he grew up in Italy during the time of Mussolini’s regime.
While there’s considerable angst today about all the easy finds having been made, Bally offered insight into just how long this mantra has been around. It dates at least as far back as the early days of his career in Italy.
“They said at that time the easy oil had been found,” Bally said. “It’s just that it wasn’t easy for me, the guy doing the work during those hot summer months in Italy.”
He noted in earlier times in the industry, new geologists were given substantial responsibility and the opportunity to perform and meet substantial challenges. They took responsibility for dry holes and learned from this.
“Management was simple and direct,” Bally said. “The techniques of diffusing responsibility were yet to be discovered.”
Bally, who is a Rice University Professor Emeritus, lamented that today’s younger geoscientists spend most of their time looking at a computer screen and minimal time in the field studying the actual rocks. This is, in fact, an issue beginning to concern many in the industry.
“They live so much in the virtual world,” Bally said. “This may be the way of the future and may lead to progress, but it will attract a different breed of people to geoscience.”
Bally cited results of a recent survey regarding skills expected by industry. Computer skills and workstations ranked at the top, leadership was at the lowest level of “soft skills,” and international living was even considered to be a soft “skill.”
“I believe the survey is correct,” Bally said, “and I wonder if the industry has lost its understanding of the role of the geoscientist.”
Wanted: More Geoscientists
During the Q&A session following the presentations, Bouma was blunt about where the new big ideas in geological research will originate.
“We know a lot, but there’s still a lot we don’t understand,” he noted. “One thing to make progress is not forget geophysics and geochemistry but go back also to the rock and find what we can do with it, what does it mean,” Bouma said. “It won’t be that the computer tells us what it means -- that’s bull. It just goes fast, and management likes it.”
Anyone contemplating a career in geology will be encouraged by Bouma’s upbeat take on the future.
“I’m convinced geology will be a very good direction for the next 10 and very likely the next 20 years,” he said. “There’s very likely more oil and gas than we realize, but it becomes more difficult and we need people: geologists, geophysicists.”