Norman H. Foster Outstanding Explorer Award 2014

Different Puzzles, Same Pieces, Great Results

Orion Skinner
Orion Skinner

Each year, a uniquely talented and successful explorationist is selected to receive the Norman H. Foster Outstanding Explorer Award from AAPG.

The award is presented to an AAPG member “ … in recognition of distinguished and outstanding achievement in exploration for petroleum or mineral resources, by members who have shown a consistent pattern of exploratory success, and with an intended emphasis on recent discovery.”

That’s a perfect description of this year’s winner, Orion Skinner, senior explorationist at Whiting Petroleum Corp. since 2004.

If his name sounds familiar, it should.

Skinner has been a major force in a number of successful discoveries during his 31-year stint as a petroleum geologist.

The crown jewel among these finds is the notable Pronghorn Field in North Dakota, where Whiting drilled the discovery well in 2010.

“I probably would say that Pronghorn is a career high point because of all the disciplines, all the subtle hints that had to be teased out of the data that lead to that,” Skinner said. “It really was a culmination of using all the skills, all the tool boxes to find that area.

“So I think out of all the discovery areas I’ve been in, if there was one that I felt was probably one of the neater ones as far as just from concept to how it was found, this was it,” he said. “Definitely.”

The highly productive Pronghorn zone lies beneath the lower Bakken shale and overlies the Three Forks Formation in the Williston Basin. The main Pronghorn pay facies is burrowed detrital dolomitic siltstone with finer-grained rippled interbeds.

“The play is not at all a look-alike of any other Bakken systems accumulations, so to some extent it’s a first principles discovery, other than we’re operating within the petroleum system of the Bakken shales,” Skinner emphasized.

He is quick to credit the influence and contributions of his co-workers relative to Whiting’s Williston Basin successes as well as the backing of the company’s management team.

A ‘Natural Curiosity’

This super talented explorationist hails from Pinedale, Wyo., where his family ran an outdoor wilderness school for kids, so the outdoor life has long been intriguing to Skinner and his entire family.

“As kids, we would all go out in the middle of nowhere looking for rocks and things,” he said. “I got into the intrigue of picking up cool rocks, wondering what this is.

“I was in the outdoors a lot, seeing a lot of neat stuff and trying to understand how it came about.”

Now joined by his wife and children, this early family tradition of exploring the great outdoors continues today.

Rock climbing was another of Skinner’s early interests, and he was a member of the Wyoming Centennial Everest Expedition aka “Cowboys on Everest” in 1998. In a challenge of man versus altitude, the latter ruled, and he was forced to retreat after reaching an elevation of 26,000 feet.

Skinner earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology at the University of Wyoming.

He almost lost his way, he likes to joke, initially venturing into petroleum engineering. It wasn’t until his junior year in college that he enrolled in his first geology class.

“I thought petroleum handled the rock side but found out otherwise,” he noted. “I tell my engineering folks that I saw the light and shifted from the dark side.”

His take on the process of hydrocarbon exploration is enlightening.

“This whole business of exploration is like a 1,000-piece puzzle with 15 pieces, and you don’t know what the picture is,” he said. “The challenge always is you use the same tools, but it’s never the same.

“Different plays and different areas, you still have the same basic toolbox, but it’s always fresh and new because no areas are exactly the same.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m always looking beyond my project area,” he noted, trying to map the next county, state, whatever, because of my natural curiosity about what’s going on.”

Home Sweet Home

Skinner is one of those exceptional oil and gas industry individuals who has spent his entire career at one base camp, so to speak.

“It’s rare that anyone stays in one place this long, but I’ve been in Denver since 1982 except for one summer stint down in Lafayette, Louisiana,” he said. “I keep saying I’ve had enough Gulf Coast experience now, so I don’t have to go south.

“Being a Wyoming boy,” he said, “I need winters – I need seasons.”

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