Spotlight On

‘Barrel’ Founder Integrates Academe, Training

Howard D. Johnson
Howard D. Johnson

It says something that after spending 15 successful years as a geologist for a major oil company, Howard D. Johnson finally got a chance to fulfill one of his goals: To leave the company.

Why? Because he wanted to teach.

It’s that kind of commitment that makes a teacher a great educator; it’s the kind of commitment that gets one an AAPG Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award.

“Teaching geology at whatever level,” says Johnson, now the Shell Professor of Petroleum Geology at Imperial College in London, “must be one of the best jobs ever!”

For a man who has been around both the business (longtime at Shell Oil) and academic worlds of petroleum, it’s noteworthy that the excitement – including the exclamation point – is still there.

For Johnson, according to his colleagues, his success is that he never viewed academic and professional geology as being in competition with one another.

In fact, he thinks they’re seamless.

“I had the good fortune to have been taught, and profoundly influenced by, some of the best geological teachers in the world, most notably my Ph.D. supervisor, Harold Reading at Oxford University.”

He added that Reading, “a superlative Ph.D. supervisor and all around geological educator, is legendary.”

(Incidentally, Reading won the Grover Murray Award in 1997, a fact Johnson knows, as he acted as his mentor’s biographer.)

But Johnson believes great geology educators are not just found in the classroom – sometimes they’re in the office down the hall.

“When I joined Shell in the late 1970s, I found that it was full of brilliant geologists, who were also extremely gifted teachers,” he said, naming colleagues Koen Weber and the late Bob Sneider, both winners of the AAPG Sidney Powers Award, as two examples.

It seemed, though, that no matter how rewarding his Shell experience, the pull of the classroom kept calling him.

“I received an opportunity to join the staff at Imperial College London,” which, he says, allowed him to embark, albeit belatedly, on a university career.

His goal then and his goal now are the same: “To share with students the joy and enthusiasm for pursuing geology and its many applications.”

Birth of the IBA

Joy and enthusiasm – those are words not often associated with the teaching of development geology, reservoir characterizations and appraisals, and sedimentology. But Johnson’s a unique kind of teacher, and a unique kind of educator and leader.

To that end, he was instrumental in two changes at Imperial College that changed the department’s dynamics – and, to his mind, made it a one-of-a-kind institution:

  • The integration of three master’s-level courses – petroleum geoscience, petroleum geophysics and petroleum engineering.
  • The merging of the earth science and engineering departments into a single entity.

And while calling that second step “a rare combination,” especially in the United Kingdom, Johnson says what made it work was the mindset of the professors.

“A vital key to this success,” he said, “was that the whole teaching faculty embraced the new possibilities.”

Johnson is perhaps most noted, though, for building a program that would come to exemplify that bridge between academia and professional geology – the Imperial Barrel Award competition, which has grown to become an AAPG global sensation involving hundreds of geoscience students each year.

Johnson said the IBA was actually an upgrade from a program already in existence at Imperial – one in which he’s equally as proud.

“In (Imperial’s) Field Development Project, we created around 20 integrated teams of geoscientists, geophysicists and petroleum engineers (six-seven students per team),” he said. “Each team is then given a subsurface dataset from an oil field, comprising 3-D seismic and five wells (with well logs, cores, well tests, fluid samples, pressures, etc.), which is used to mimic the appraisal/early development stage.”

The teams then have three weeks to evaluate the data and present an initial field development plan, including STOIIP and UR.

“This,” says Johnson, “is extremely realistic, hard work and intellectually demanding.”

The Barrel Award, which evolved about three years later, is similar – except in its case the data set is more regional in extent and the aim is to evaluate basin evolution, petroleum systems and hydrocarbon analysis.

“The teams are comprised of four-five geoscience students, who have five weeks to complete their evaluations,” he said. “They present their results to an expert panel of senior oil industry professionals, who select the winning team (without any faculty influence).”

And for a number of years, Imperial’s “profound manifestation of science and engineering teaching integration,” as Johnson calls it, was for Imperial alone.

Going Viral

But then, in 2006, a time when Johnson worked to help initiate AAPG’s first international office in London, the Barrel Awards went viral.

“We invited (AAPG Honorary Member and London office director) Steve Veal to join the Barrel Award panel,” Johnson said. “Steve saw the wider potential in a flash and we shared his enthusiasm; and so the AAPG’s ‘Imperial Barrel Award’ was conceived there and then!”

Following “a fair degree of persuasion (by Steve),” Johnson said, the first AAPG IBA event took place at the following year’s annual convention in Long Beach.

Looking back, it was a no-brainer.

Giving Veal much of the credit, Johnson said “the success of the IBA was built on a simple concept, which fires the imagination equally of both the students involved and the industry panel assessors. Both are vital ingredients, and hence this beautifully bridges academia and industry.”

What separates the IBA from other awards, Johnson believes, is that it is endorsed by the senior petroleum industry professionals, who have a different worldview than academics – and thus, assign tougher tasks than normal university work assignments.

Having feet planted in both academia and the profession, he is and was comfortable in the territory.

“In some ways I’m not surprised by the success of the IBA,” Johnson said, “because the concept is so elegant and effective in challenging young geologists to be creative in a petroleum exploration sense.”

Still Exciting!

Many in the profession maintain that Johnson’s contribution to the industry, as well as to students, cannot be understated.

AAPG Honorary Member John Brooks, past president of AAPG’s Europe Region who also was made Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) says, “Johnson’s advocacy of the Barrel Award alone sets him apart from others in his field, since this has led to the introduction of the IBA in the Association.”

As with most things in Johnson’s career, though, it isn’t just IBA that makes Johnson a deserving recipient of the Grover Murray award – it’s his whole body of work.

In fact, according to Brooks, the only issue he has with Johnson receiving the award is that it didn’t come soon enough.

“I find it hard to understand why he has not been put forward before, so significant are his achievements with students at Imperial College,” Brooks said.

For Johnson, the bridge between academia and the profession is still palpable, still exciting – and while admitting it will take constant and careful nurturing, he says:

“But what a great challenge to have!”

There he goes again with those exclamation points.

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