Interview with Jon Blickwede, Innovator in Geoscience Technologies

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Geologists are using many new technologies to combine surface, subsurface, and geochemical and thereby improve subsurface modeling, potentially leading to new understanding and dramatic new discoveries. Welcome to an interview with Jon Blickwede, who is currently combining in-depth field and subsurface knowledge with new 3D digital surface mapping. Jon also serves on the technical committee for AAPG’s Hedberg Research Conference on the Geology and Hydrocarbon Potential of the Circum Gulf of Mexico Pre-Salt Section, 4 – 6 of February in Mexico City.

What is your name and your current position?
Jon Blickwede
Jon Blickwede

I’m Jon Blickwede (Sr.—my youngest son Jon Jr., Jack, is a petroleum engineer with SilverBow Resources). I retired from full-time employment in 2017, and formed a consultancy, Teyra GeoConsulting LLC, that’s focused on geological studies in Mexico. One of my current projects at Teyra is to create a series of 3D “virtual outcrops,” using drone-based photogrammetry, of classic outcrops around the Gulf of Mexico-- especially those in the Sierra Madre Oriental of Mexico. I obtained my FAA commercial drone pilot’s license last year and have been enjoying improving my quadcopter flying skills around the Houston area where I live. Among many other outcroppings of the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) sedimentary succession where I plan to fly my drone to acquire high-resolution photos is a quarry near Galeana, Nuevo León State, that has a beautiful exposure of the contact between the pre-salt section (El Alamar and La Joya Formations) with the overlying Jurassic evaporites (Minas Viejas Formation) that marks the first major incursion of marine waters into the embryonic Gulf of Mexico (see photo below). By the way, it was my visit to this GoM pre-salt outcrop during 2018 with my friend and Hedberg Research Conference co-convener Samuel Eguiluz that inspired the idea of organizing the conference. That same evening, over dinner in Linares, Samuel and I decided to approach the AAPG about the idea of a Hedberg with a GoM pre-salt theme.

I plan to start my drone project on the Sierra Madre Oriental outcrops during 2020. I’m also the current president of the Houston Geological Society, so all-in-all I’m as busy, in a good way, as I’ve ever been!

What is your background? How did you first become interested in geology?

I became interested in geology during the early 1970’s when I spent a “gap year” in Spain between high school and college. I worked as a translator for a mineral exploration company, but from time to time the professional geologists would take me to the field to assist them with topographic and geologic mapping (holding the stadia rod etc.). I initially fell in love with the lifestyle of the geologist (international travel opportunities, working in the field), and only later fell in love with the science.

After graduating from Tufts University with a B.S. in Geology in 1977, I went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver before going back to school (University of New Orleans) to obtain my M.S. in Earth Sciences. I started my career as a petroleum explorationist in 1981 with Amoco Corporation (now BP), and remained with them for 16 years, working projects in the circum-Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean region as well as the Far East. During my time at Amoco, I had the good fortune to have a fantastic expat position, as Exploration Coordinator for Amoco Venezuela in Caracas during the mid-1990’s. Subsequently, I worked with Petroconsultants (now IHS Markit) in Geneva, Switzerland, Unocal (now Chevron) in Sugarland, Texas, and Statoil (now Equinor) in Houston.

Where have you worked as a geologist? Which geological locations? (fields, basins, etc.)?

I “cut my teeth” as a junior field geologist in Mexico, where I had a summer job in the silver mining area around Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosí State during my undergrad years, and later performed field work for my M.S. thesis on the pre-salt continental redbeds and volcanics of the Nazas Formation in the Sierra de San Julián of Zacatecas State. In fact, the name of my company, Teyra GeoConsulting LLC, is named after the main mountain peak in my thesis area, Pico de Teyra.

For most of my professional career, I have mostly worked exploration projects in the circum-Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean, especially the deepwater GoM, Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, and Venezuela.

Please describe a memorable experience for you in your profession as a geologist.

One memorable experience related to the circum-GoM pre-salt section, during the course of my M.S. project field work, provided a good, though somewhat painful, lesson to me as a novice geologist. The area of Mexico where I worked on the pre-salt Nazas Formation was (and still is) fairly remote and few geologists had worked the area before I arrived to do my field work in 1980. The Nazas had been described as comprising mostly sedimentary rocks, specifically alluvial fan and braided stream facies, which were of particular interest to me at the time. Indeed, I had little interest in non-sedimentary rocks in general. After having spent the first month measuring & describing my first of three sections of the Nazas, which contained a significant portion of fine-grained units that I described as siltstones, I was visited by two of the University of New Orleans professors on my thesis committee, Drs. Bill Ward and Lou Fernandez. I spent a good part of the day walking the section with my profs, describing many of the units as siltstones and mudstones, probably deposited in a distal alluvial fan, or fluvial overbank environment. Afterward, while giving me their feedback and advice, volcanologist Fernandez told me, “Jon, I suspect those units you were describing as siltstones could be tuffs… you might take a closer look, with some thin sections or SEM samples.” Sure enough, both the thin sections and scanning electron microscope samples revealed they were chock-full of altered volcanic glass shards and as such were more properly classified as ash-fall tuffs partially reworked by water. Eventually, it turned out that around 80% of the Nazas Formation in this area is composed of explosive volcanics, with a thin veneer of sediments on the top. When I first realized this, I was quite disappointed, but as my project evolved I discovered that I actually found the geology of volcanic rocks to be fascinating. So, the lesson for me was to keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to dive into any and all sub-fields of geology. They are all interrelated and part of the beauty of Earth’s anatomy and history.

What do you think about the future of oil and gas exploration in the pre-salt play of the greater Gulf of Mexico?

The pre-salt play is one of the last remaining frontier exploration plays of the GoM region. What little is currently understood about the geology of the pre-salt (pre-Upper Jurassic) section comes from previous studies of outcrops in Mexico and Cuba, and from a few deep wells that have been drilled below the autochthonous Louann/Campeche Salt and equivalents around the updip rim of the GoM basin, where the predominant lithofacies is continental redbeds. Continental redbeds are notoriously poor reservoirs, typically poorly-sorted sandstones & conglomerates. There are notable exceptions, however, such as the Daqing Field Complex, the largest field complex in China which is reported to have produced a cumulative 2.39 billion tonnes (about 17 billion barrels) of crude oil as of 2019. But continental terrigenous clastics may not be the only possible reservoir target. Some speculate that the rift basins toward the center of the GoM may contain marine facies with reservoir potential, either siliciclastics or carbonates. One of the few wells to have targeted the pre-salt, syn-rift section was recently drilled by Pemex in the Bay of Campeche: Yaaxtaab-1 is likely the most basinward penetration of the pre-salt section, but to my knowledge Pemex has not revealed any of the results of the well. I’m hoping that they may present some of the Yaxtaab-1 results during the AAPG Hedberg Conference in February 2020.

Of course, no hydrocarbon play will be viable without the presence of organic-rich, thermally mature hydrocarbon source rocks. To date, none have been proven to exist below the Middle Jurassic Louann/Campeche Salt, but continental (lacustrine) mudrocks can be very high TOC and oil-prone in many basins of the world.

Perhaps it’s unlikely that such a risky, frontier play such as the greater GoM pre-salt will become active during the ongoing petroleum industry downturn, but downturns are good times for visionary companies to prepare for the next potential big exploration plays when oil prices recover.

What are some of the tools and techniques that will be necessary in the future?

Thinking of the GoM pre-salt play, one of the key tools (as it is for most plays) will be reflection seismic data. In general, and especially in the offshore GoM where much of the pre-salt play is likely to be pursued, the reservoir targets are quite deep and in many areas located beneath autochthonous salt (and perhaps even an overlying, second tier of allochthonous salt) with rugose top(s) and possibly high-velocity carapaces—making it very difficult in some areas to image below the deepest salt layer.

What are some of your personal opinions about the science of petroleum geology today? What will future geoscientists need in order to succeed?

Even though I recognize AI/machine learning technologies will play an ever-increasing role in petroleum geoscience, I’m concerned about the risk of overemphasis on these fashionable tech tools to the detriment of continuing to develop fundamental geological concepts. In my view, future geoscientists must continue to focus on the science, and not so much on the tools to use in the analytical processes. And speaking of processes, through much of my career there has been an ever-increasing tendency, especially in the bigger companies, to force upon geoscientists a cookie-cutter, standardized approach to performing analysis of basins, plays, and prospects. This stifles creativity and discourages people from pursuing ideas that are based on valuable intuition and “gut” hunches.

Can you please recommend a good book?

There are many, but I’ll recommend an old favorite that applies a poetic description of geology, though the author was not a geologist. It’s The Immense Journey, by anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eisley, originally published in 1946. As I mentioned before, there is an ineffable beauty in the subject of our science that can deeply inspire us if allowed.

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