No matter where you go in petroleum geology, you are likely to find the footprints of Hollis Hedberg.
Hedberg strode through life as a visionary who sharpened the science of geology and extended the reach of exploration.
Today his work is helping to guide the debate over access to Arctic resources.
By the time of his death in 1988, Hedberg was a near-legend in the industry, a Gulf Oil Corp. executive and consultant who became a professor at Princeton University…
Who had been instrumental in opening exploration in South America and offshore Africa…
Who had done more than any other single person on the planet to define stratigraphy and stratigraphic nomenclature…
Who had been both a pioneer and proponent of deep offshore exploration…
Who had received the AAPG Sidney Powers Medal, the Geological Society of London’s Wollaston Medal, the Geological Society of America’s Penrose Medal and many other honors…
And who had contributed basic concepts that helped form the international Law of the Sea.
AAPG member Georges Pardo was a colleague of Hedberg who became a friend and biographer. He traced Hedberg’s interest in offshore exploration back at least to the 1940s.
“As chief geologist for Gulf Oil (international exploration), Hedberg said ‘There’s a whole continent we know nothing about,’” recalled Pardo, who is now retired and living in Naples, Fla.
“He said, ‘Goodbye, I’m going to be out of the office for three months’ and he took off alone on a trip to Africa.”
Hedberg found oil seeps and favorable outcrops in several locales near the African coast. Out of that trip, Pardo said, came a Gulf Oil program that acquired a number of coastal concessions.
When limits were considered on offshore resource rights, Hedberg analyzed the likely effects on the oil industry, according to Pardo.
“He realized that the United States was going to give away a vast amount of territorial area that was prospective for oil and gas. He was very indignant,” he said.
As a result, Hedberg became almost a solitary voice pushing for extended rights based on the extent of offshore sedimentation, and testified before Congress.
One objection at the time was that continental extension would be difficult to define.
“I remember, he had maps all over the place and he’d say, ‘It’s no problem at all!’” Pardo said.
When introducing Hedberg at AAPG’s first Hedberg Research Conference, Pardo gave the following background:
“Hollis Dow Hedberg was born May 29, 1903, in a Swedish farming community in Kansas on the second floor of a small stone house during one of the worst floods in the region,” Pardo recounted.
“It happened while nearly everything that the Hedberg family owned – furnishings, cattle, crops – floated away,” he said.
Pardo recalled his first field trip with Hedberg and humorously called himself a long-time “victim” of Hedberg’s penchant for lengthy jaunts and long paces.
“He proceeded to walk with enormous strides. His legs appeared to open up from somewhere in the middle of his chest, and without ever stopping he would describe the outcrops, knock samples, bag them, write notes, etc.,” Pardo recalled.
“Little I knew at the time how well I was going to become acquainted with and, in many ways, become a victim of that relentless walking machine,” he added.
When Hedburg entered the debate on offshore exploitation rights, he joined a discussion long in progress.
The first definition of national offshore limits was proposed by Cornelius van Bynkershoek, a Dutch legal theorist. He suggested a territorial limit of three nautical miles from shore, purportedly based on the fact that a large cannon could fire that distance.
The simple concept was, you controlled what you could defend.
Offshore extent then became a question of coastal security, control of shipping and action against smuggling and pirates. Later, attempts to protect commercial fishing began to push the claimed boundaries outward.
Hedberg’s genius allowed him to see that exploration for subsurface resources would become a key part of this question in the future.
By the middle of the 20th century, most nations recognized a 12-mile offshore extent of national rights, and some countries wanted even more area. In a series of conferences, the United Nations attempted to standardize an international Law of the Sea.
The current offshore limits in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are based on principles drawn up during the third UNCLOS conference, held 1973-82.
In general, nations have a 12-nautical-mile zone of territorial waters plus a 12-nautical-mile contiguous zone, and a 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone with exclusive rights for exploiting natural resources.
However – and mostly thanks to Hedberg – those rights can be extended under UNCLOS Article 76.
The U.S. Arctic Research Commission explained it this way in its annual report for fiscal year 2004:
“There are three systems for determining the extent of the continental shelf beyond the 200 nautical mile limit.
“The first requires the determination of the base of the continental slope. The boundary is then placed 60 nautical miles seaward of this line.
“This is known as the Hedberg Formula after Hollis Hedberg who was a petroleum geologist.
“He looked at all the margins of the world and calculated that most oil and gas was within 60 miles of the base of the slope where the thickest sediments lay.
“Ireland submitted a proposal for an even broader margin and developed the Irish Formula.
“The Irish Formula starts at the baseline and proceeds to a point where the thickness of the sediments is less than one percent of the distance from the baseline.
“It is a relationship between the distance seaward and the thickness of the sediments and is designed to pick up most of the potential oil and gas in sediments.
“The third formula draws the limit 100 nautical miles seaward from the 2,500 meter isobath on the continental slope. The isobath is a depth contour.
“The absolute limitation is 350 nautical miles from the baseline.”
Deborah Hutchinson, a research geologist for the U.S. Geological Service in Woods Hole, Mass., said the United States is actively working to define its offshore rights areas in the Arctic and other margins.
“Right now there is an interagency task force chaired by the State Department,” Hutchinson said. “They have started to set up priorities for mapping to determine where our continental shelf limits are, based on Article 76.
“We have developed a collaboration in which the Canadians are collecting multichannel seismic and we are collaboratively collecting multibeam bathymetry data” on the northern margins, she added.
Additional, two icebreaker programs are planned in that effort for this and next year’s summers, Hutchinson said.
The Chukchi Plateau is among the areas where data will be used to define and support U.S. rights under Article 76 in the future. Establishing sediment extent is often essential.
“For most of the U.S. margins the 350 nautical miles is the constraint line, but in the Arctic the constraint is the 2,500-meter isobath plus 100 nautical miles, Hutchinson said.
The importance of Hedberg’s concepts for extending resource exploitation rights now is widely recognized.
“That has certainly moved in the direction Hedberg envisioned,” Hutchinson noted.
And much of the credit goes to his foresight, as well as his famous persistence.
Pardo told this story:
Hedberg was alone on a field trip collecting samples in the Misoa River area east of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. As he filled his sample bags he tied them to his belt.
Making his return, he slipped and fell into deep running water. The immediate choice was either to get rid of the samples and as much else as possible, or to face the likelihood of drowning.
For him, it was an easy decision.
He crawled along the riverbed underwater until he found the boulders that marked the bank.
Hedberg walked out of the river, his samples intact, victorious.