Marlan Downey: geologist, executive, thinker, leader

Blend of Talents Bedrock for Medalist

Downey: “A peculiar blend of quantitative talents and visualization talents.”
Downey: “A peculiar blend of quantitative talents and visualization talents.”

Imagine you are about to accept the Sidney Powers Memorial Award, the highest honor AAPG can bestow. The award goes only to those individuals who have made “the most distinguished and outstanding contributions to petroleum geology.”

Would you be:

(a) Reflecting on a successful career, or…

(b) Thinking about urban electricity and the sewers in San Antonio?

There’s no suspense.

Everyone is going to choose (a) except Marlan W. Downey.

Maybe that helps explain why Downey will receive the Sidney Powers Medal in June at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Denver.

Or, consider the way he began his studies in geology.

Downey had already earned a degree in chemistry before he joined the Army, where he served in the Philippines and Korea.

“When I came back from the service in Korea, I was actually categorized as a ‘disabled veteran,’” after a bout with malaria and a serious ear infection, he said.

He entered the University of Nebraska on the GI Bill, but felt uncomfortable working in the confined area of the school’s chemistry lab, after U.S. Army service in outdoor conditions.

Aptitude testing by the Veterans’ Administration showed that Downey possessed “a peculiar blend of quantitative talents and visualization talents,” he recalled.

The VA recommended that he choose a professional field where he could make full use of his strengths – something like architecture or geology.

“So I gave geology a trial,” Downey said. “The chairman of the department let me transfer from chemistry to geology ‘with deficiencies’ – the main one being that I had never taken a course in geology. But he let me violate the rules.”

A Higher Calling?

After earning a master’s degree in 1957, he needed to land a job as quickly as possible.

“I had married and we were expecting a child. And the GI bill money was running out,” he explained.

Shell was hiring and Downey signed on, even though he knew little about Shell “other than they were considered a ‘class’ sort of company.”

“Shell was one of the few companies that liked to hire really smart people,” he said. “They didn’t care if you were an engineer or a chemist or a mathematician. They figured they could get you in and train you.”

Downey found a spot in Shell’s leading operating area at the time. Later on, “I liked to tell people that I started at the top and worked my way down,” he said.

By 1967, he had become Shell’s youngest chief geologist. In Downey’s estimation, he never had it better.

“The best job I ever had was when I became chief geologist for Shell,” he recalled. “It was the top technical position in geology there.

“I loved being a chief geologist,” he said, “but they kept pushing me into being a manager.”

The Lion Roars

In the late 1960s, Downey worked on promoting and applying Shell’s bright-spot seismic technology, a unique edge for the company at the time.

Then he began a rapid climb through the management ranks, starting as an exploration manager and becoming a Shell vice president, then serving as president for a newly formed Shell international subsidiary – Pecten.

Downey retired from Shell in 1987 and founded Roxanna Oil, a company that held nearly three million acres in Syria and the Philippines, and today has an interest in more than 500,000 acres in unconventional resource plays in the United States.

Three years later, Arco asked him to become senior vice president of exploration for Arco International.

He was named president of that company and a senior vice president and executive adviser for Arco a year later, going on to build a first-class international exploration team.

And that’s less than half of the Marlan Downey story.

Because, just as his abilities joined analytics with visualization, his interests have included both the business and the science side of petroleum geology.

“I remember going to the first conference on geopressure given by AAPG,” Downey said. “Then I became interested in geochemistry and I participated in the famous Gordon Conferences.”

In 1982 he organized and chaired the first Hedberg conference on seals for hydrocarbons. With AAPG members Pete Rose and Ed Capen, he convened the first Hedberg conference on understanding risk in 1990.

He was instrumental in developing the Pratt Conference on Future Petroleum Provinces and the AAPG’s first conference on a national energy policy. Along the way, he wrote numerous papers and articles and several books.

An AAPG member for more than 50 years, Downey served as president of the Association in 2000-01, has been a member of AAPG’s executive and advisory councils and is an AAPG Foundation Trustee.

Still Going…

In his written response to the Powers Award announcement, Downey credited his success to his family, friends and associates.

His family remembered many of Downey’s highlight moments through the years.

For instance, the time he drove straight through the family’s garage door.

In fact, they recalled, he did that twice.

Or the time he was trying to start a campfire on a family outing, decided to use a cup of gasoline – and set himself on fire.

Yes, memories. And they also recounted how he treated employees at Shell and Arco fairly on their abilities, putting the first female geologist in charge of a Shell helicopter field crew and the first female geophysicist on a Shell seismic boat, and promoting female managers to positions of leadership in international operations.

Today, Downey has turned his thoughts to long-range, sustainable energy for municipalities.

“There I’m looking at the peculiar, local circumstances in each municipality,” he said. “For instance, San Antonio is putting in a system to capture methane from their sewers. That methane is being used to power electric generators.”

The new challenges of energy will require scores of well-trained and capable geologists, in addition to engineers and physicists and other scientists, Downey believes.

As a long-time participant in and observer of the energy industry, he’s amazed that so many people seem to have forgotten the cyclical and progressive nature of the business.

”Getting old has kind of snuck up on me,” Downey said. “I find now that I’m one of the few active people born in the Depression.

“You’ve got to manage for the long-term,” he continued. “And the long-term says, ‘Tomorrow will be different.’”

All in all, he’s optimistic about the future of the industry.

“I never bet against the technical, innovative ability of first-class minds – I think there are all sorts of problems we can solve if they involve technical innovations,” he said.

And he’s solidly behind the continuing importance of geology.

Downey noted that two of his older children both became geoscientists and his youngest son is now a senior studying geology at Southern Methodist University.

“You can tell we think geology is the future,” he said.

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Notable Achievements

There are dozens – maybe dozens of dozens – of reasons why Marlan Downey is receiving AAPG’s top award this year. Here are a few of those reasons.

A member since 1957, Downey has served on several AAPG committees and has chaired the Corporate Liaison, OTC Technical, Corporate Advisory and Budget committees. He also has chaired the Advisory Council and since 2007 has chaired the Global Corporate Stucture Ad Hoc Committee.

He is an AAPG Foundation Trustee Associate; organized three Hedberg Research Conferences; was a two-time AAPG Distinguished Lecturer; wrote the EXPLORER’s Business Side of Geology column; won the Robert H. Dott Award; is an Honorary Member; and in 2000-01 was president of AAPG.

Emphasis: International Conference