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Digging Deeper with Michael Hudec

AAPG Energy Insights Podcast Episode 4

AAPG Energy Insights Podcast Episode 4

Summary

Digging Deeper with Michael Hudec, Senior Research Scientist, Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas. AAPG Energy Insights Podcast Episode 4.

Full Transcript

VERN STEFANIC: Hi, and welcome to this edition of Energy Insights, the AAPG podcast featuring people who are defining, influencing, and leading today's world of geosciences. I'm Vern Stefanic. And this installment, once again, is digging deeper by having a conversation with one of the speakers for the AAPG Foundation's Distinguished Lecture series.

Our guest today is Dr. Michael Hudec, a senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology in Austin, Texas and Director of the Applied Geodynamics Laboratory, or AGL, an industry-sponsored research consortium studying salt tectonics, of which we're going to talk a lot about.

He also has a pretty high profile in AAPG science circles, having won multiple awards for his work, including the Jules Braunstein award for presenting the best poster and the George Matson award for presenting the best paper, both at AAPG annual conventions.

Add to those honors two A.I. Levorsen awards for presenting the Best Papers at the Gulf Coast Section meeting, an AAPG Certificate of Merit in 2015, and his role as co-author with Martin Jackson of the award winning AAPG Memoir 99, The Salt Mine-- A Digital Atlas of Salt Tectonics.

And then there are the literally hundreds of talks and presentations and lectures he's given around the country. In other words, one of the best in his field.

We'll talk more about his successful and exciting career in a moment, as well as a lot more about his distinguished lecture. But first, we get to know a little bit more about Michael himself and the experiences that have brought him to this moment in his career. Mike, welcome to Digging Deeper.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Thank you, Vern.

VERN STEFANIC: Hey, we're glad to have you here. And yes, you are a bit of AAPG royalty with your experiences--

MICHAEL HUDEC: All right.

VERN STEFANIC: You've been at it for a while, one of the leaders in salt tectonics and study of salt.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, thank you.

VERN STEFANIC: But getting to that spot, as the expert in the field, was probably a little bit of an interesting story. I mean, you get your bachelor's degree, I believe, at Amherst College.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Amherst College.

VERN STEFANIC: Amherst-- not exactly in the middle of the oil patch.

MICHAEL HUDEC: No, not at all.

VERN STEFANIC: Can you tell us a little bit about that?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, so I had what you'd call a very traditional structural geology background. I did a bachelor's thesis in the Berkshire Mountains, which is all, sort of, metamorphic rocks. I did a master's thesis working along the Lewis thrust fault in Montana, and a PhD working in metamorphic rocks in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada.

So I think, in all my years of undergraduate and graduate education, I think in one course I had one lecture on salt tectonics. And in retrospect, most of what that lecture had to say was wrong.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh, dear.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Back in the 1980s, it wasn't a field. It wasn't something that was taught. There really weren't any academic programs that dealt with it, so no professors knew anything about salt.

So I came out of my academic career completely uneducated in salt tectonics. And I hired on at Exxon Research in the Structural Geology Group.

And about the time I was coming in, the person who had been the salt tectonics expert within the structure group before me, a guy named Lee Fairchild, decided he wanted to do fault seal. And I was the next new hire to come in the door.

And so I came in and sat down, and they said, you're our expert in salt tectonics. And I said, excuse me? And they said, well, you'd better start reading up. And that was close to 30 years ago, now.

And so I started reading up, and I was fortunate enough to arrive in the field of salt tectonics at about the time there was just an explosion of both interest and data that could finally start to help us build our understanding a little bit. So I was kind of around during the revolution. So it was just good timing, really.

VERN STEFANIC: Some of your peers know all about the importance of salt. Some of our listeners may not. And I want to get into that in a little bit. But before we even do that, I'm curious-- you started with the Berkshire Mountains. That was what you were saying. Are you from Massachusetts?

MICHAEL HUDEC: No, I actually grew up in Minnesota.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh, which is even further from the oil patch.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Yes, it has absolutely nothing to do with oil. My interest in the outdoors and geology, generally, started because every summer I would go canoeing and multiple week-long trips up in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, and then up in Quetico and Canada.

And so that's all glacial terrain, so it has nothing much to do with oil or salt at all, but I grew to enjoy the outdoors. And then the last month of my senior year in high school, our high school had a project where you could go out and do internships for the month. So you didn't have to go to any classes. You went and did an internship.

And the school collected various internships that they could offer as possibilities for the students. And one of them was working as a field assistant to a PhD in structural geology, actually sedimentary geology, who was working out on a river. And I signed up for that one.

So I spent a month looking at current velocities and ages of point bars and things like this out on a river and said this is pretty cool. You get to be outdoors and do some sciencey stuff.

So then, when I got to college, I started taking geology right away freshman year because I'd had a great time doing that project. And you do that for a couple years, and you're a major.

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah.

MICHAEL HUDEC: So that was, kind of, my entry into the geologic realm.

VERN STEFANIC: Well, that's pretty great. And I know that you got a master's at USC, and then University of Wyoming, as I recall, was that in your journey.

Let me jump a little bit, then, to salt because, as you said, the timing was great. Salt was just starting to become a factor, a dynamic in the industry, which some people may say, well, how come it took-- The industry had been around for 70 years at that point or so-- 70, 75 years. All of a sudden, you discover that salt is a dynamic. How did that happen?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, salt has always been important to the industry. I mean, Spindletop is in caprock of a salt dome. So from the very beginning of the US oil industries, people knew salt domes were going to be important.

The problem is telling what's going on around them. And there was a lot of early exploration, both in the caprocks of salt domes and along the flanks of salt domes, mostly by just drilling and hoping you hit something and doing mapping well to well.

But we didn't really have seismic data that was capable of imaging around salt. Salt offers a lot of challenges in a seismic imaging perspective. So even in the early days of seismic imaging, you couldn't tell much around salt.

So the revolution that started in the late 80s and early 90s started when we really began to get better seismic data. The intro of 3D data and depth migration processes allowed us to see things that were much more than we'd ever seen before, but, yet, not quite enough to do what we wanted to do.

You always want a little bit better seismic data than you have. So there was a need that started to be felt at that time that, well, what we need is an ability to take what we can see on the seismic and, kind of, extrapolate it into the areas where we can't.

And that was what Martin Jackson, who founded the AGL consortium, that was his insight, that people really want to try to understand what the processes are that go on in salt tectonics to give them some kind of a basis to build models and to take their data a little bit beyond what they can comfortably map and have some way of forecasting what might be in the areas that they can't see.

So he began the AGL back in 1989. At that time, I was working for Exxon Research, and I was actually Exxon's representative to the consortium because they told me that--

VERN STEFANIC: That's the connection. Oh, OK.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, they told me salt was my thing when I arrived at Exxon, that I was the salt expert. You know, there you go, you're the salt expert. And so I started coming to the consortium meetings. That was one of the major things that I did to learn about salt tectonics.

And then after about eight years of doing that, I moved from Exxon to Baylor University. And while I was at Baylor, I started working with Martin Jackson as, kind of, an adjunct to the consortium. And after about three years of doing that he says, well, why don't you move on down to Austin and actually join.

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah.

MICHAEL HUDEC: And so it was, sort of, a long and winding road to end up at AGL. But I've been at AGL since, what, around 2000?

VERN STEFANIC: The learning curve about salt had to be pretty steep. I think you've mentioned that before. So what are you feeling? It's, like, oh my gosh. How do you even start to do that?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, the learning curve, when I got into it, wasn't so steep because there wasn't that much that was there. I mean, somebody starting now, the learning curve would be a lot steeper because we've accumulated a whole lot more information.

But it was an interesting thing because almost all of classical structural geology assumes that your rocks are not squirting around, which salt does in the subsurface. It flows.

And so when you start working in salt tectonics, it's almost like you have to unlearn everything that you thought you knew in structural geology. So you, kind of, have to set that all aside and say, OK, I'm entering a new world where everything's flowing around.

And it's not so much the learning curve of I have to learn this whole series of facts. It's more of a mindset about making sure that you're not assuming things that are from classical structural geology and remember that you're in a different world.

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah. Yeah, so how often were you surprised by what--

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, I'm still surprised by stuff.

VERN STEFANIC: OK.

MICHAEL HUDEC: We still are learning stuff, but it turns out Martin had a lot of insight in building AGL. And in a couple of respects, he started off with physical modeling as a key component, and that was a guy named Bruno Vendeville, who was very central in the early days of AGL.

But also that, because salt is a fluid, it obeys fluid mechanics laws. And really understanding salt tectonics, you have to know a lot about mechanics and just principles of flow.

And actually, like most structural geologists, I took rock mechanics in school and immediately tried to forget almost all of it because it was numbers, and it was messy, and there were equations, and it was horrible. But getting back into salt tectonics, all of a sudden there's an application for all of that stuff.

So I ended up having to dredge out a lot of branches of structural geology that I really had, kind of, dropped by the wayside because I didn't think they'd ever be important. I was wrong.

VERN STEFANIC: (LAUGHING)

MICHAEL HUDEC: They're important.

VERN STEFANIC: They're important. I'm sure that technology has played a big part in helping us to understand better what's going on. And I want to talk about some of the technological developments that may be better. Some have to be more valuable than others.

But I'm also wondering what's the driver? People who are developing technology, do they just have fun, and then you look at what's developed and figure out how to use it? Or is the consortium going to them with research saying, here's what we need to find out about. Now, what can you do to help us?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, it works both ways.

VERN STEFANIC: OK.

MICHAEL HUDEC: I would say on the seismic side, the drive for better seismic data has been coming, mostly, from industry. So that has happened, kind of, regardless of our participation in any research.

And in truth, I mean, we think we're better geologists than those who came before us. We just have better data, for the most part. They were just as smart. They just didn't have the data that we have.

So an awful lot of the new concepts that have come out have come out because there's better, in particular, seismic data. But there are some areas in which it's been more of a two-way street, and one of those is finite element modeling.

We do a lot of computer modeling of salt structures. We have a couple of people in our research group who do that full-time. And the problem has always been that finite element software really was built, again, for, kind of, classical problems and not so much for salt.

When you've got something flowing like crazy in the middle of your model, it's different math. And so we've been working interactively with a company called Rockfield which has developed a software program called Elfen, which is what we use.

And so we go to their meetings. They come to our meetings. We give suggestions for future developments because they see the oil industry as, kind of, a growth area for themselves. And so that we've been very much in a partnership with the company.

So with seismic data, that would've happened anyway because there's just a huge economic driver coming from the oil side. But in some of the other areas, like, for example, finite element modeling, that's been coming more as a partnership.

VERN STEFANIC: You, personally, how adept do you have to be at understanding the technology that's being used?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, again, it depends on the technology. In seismic data, you actually have to know quite a lot about seismic to work in salt tectonics because the data around salt is very subject to artifacts-- coherent noise, incoherent noise.

And you have to be able to tell what's real and what's not on your seismic sections, which means you have to really understand quite a bit about how it was acquired and how it was processed to be able to tell what's real from what's not. And that's something that mostly comes with experience.

I mean, when I was in Exxon, I had a series of courses on acquisition and processing. But I've actually spent a lot of time since I've worked at AGL visiting the offices of seismic data vendors who are all members of our consortium and spending a lot of time QCing depth migrations in intermediate phases.

I've probably spent months of my life sitting in dark rooms with people looking at seismic data and working with them to try to improve the data and say what's real and what's not. And that was the real training because the people in the vendor companies are very good and I learned a lot from them.

So yeah, you really, on seismic, you can't work in salt if you trust everything you see on the seismic section. You have to have some kind of discrimination between what's real and what's not.

And the same is really true-- I talked about the finite element modeling. In almost any field of scientific research, you get artifacts, things that are coming out of the software, things that are coming out of the real world, things that aren't real.

And in order to distinguish the real from the not real, you have to understand what's going on in the black box because if you trust everything that comes out blindly, you're just going to go down a hole. And it's going to be a mess.

VERN STEFANIC: So let me ask you, again, on a personal deal. Well, first, two things-- You're a senior research scientist with the Bureau, you're also with AGL. How does that relationship work, time-wise?

MICHAEL HUDEC: So the Bureau is the parent organization. So there are, within the University of Texas, there are three geologic organizations that, together, make the Jackson School. There's the UT Institute for Geophysics, there's the Geology Department, and then there's the Bureau of Economic Geology.

And the Bureau of Economic Geology is, primarily, a soft money institution. I think we get 20% or less of our salaries come from the state government, and the rest we have to raise ourselves. So it's a very entrepreneurial organization.

And so senior research scientists-- the more senior you get, the more you are encouraged, less required, to find ways of funding your research. And so researchers are encouraged to find some kind of a research project, see if you can get corporate interests to fund it, and then build a program out of that.

So the Bureau houses a whole bunch of different industry consortia of different types, and the AGL is one of those. So the AGL is, in a sense, an independent kingdom.

I mean, we make our own decisions about what we do research on, what we want to do this year, who we want to hire, to a certain extent. But we are under the umbrella of the Bureau of Economic Geology, so all our administration and contracts and all of that go through the Bureau of Economic Geology.

VERN STEFANIC: How many people are working there, at AGL?

MICHAEL HUDEC: We have about-- well, we have, full-time, six or seven. And then we have collaborative relationships with a dozen more. So some of our work gets done by people who work there full time, and quite a lot actually gets done by people that we collaborate with outside.

VERN STEFANIC: OK. OK. Well, that actually is a nice lead in. So your Distinguished Lecture that you're giving for AAPG is the evolution of the Salina del Bravo, Mexico, the Bravo trough, Sigsbee Canopy, and the Perdido fold belt.

So of course, we want people to watch the lecture because that's what it's all about, but could you tell us a little bit about how all of this came to be? Whose idea was it? What triggered what? And what's the timeline on all this?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, so this was a target of opportunity that came up. We've had, for the last decade or more, very good relationships with CGG, which is a seismic data vendor. So they acquire a lot of the data in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are several big seismic data vendors in the Gulf of Mexico. They're one. And they inquired and processed a new seismic survey that was in this area of the Salina Del Bravo, and I got a chance to look at it. And they let me spend some time looking at it and scrolling around and taking screenshots of various things.

VERN STEFANIC: And when was this again?

MICHAEL HUDEC: This was about, probably, four years ago.

VERN STEFANIC: OK. Four years.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Three, maybe, years ago.

VERN STEFANIC: OK.

MICHAEL HUDEC: It's all part of Mexico opening up to exploration outside of Mexican oil companies. So US data vendors were able to go in and shoot spec data that they could, then, sell to anybody, rather than just Mexican oil companies.

And so about three years ago, we spent some time looking at it, and I was fascinated by the geology that I saw in there. It's a very big survey. It covers a lot of real estate in an area that's pretty much unknown in the Gulf of Mexico.

VERN STEFANIC: Right. I don't want to interrupt you, but I remember I was editor of the Explorer, AAPG Explorer, at that time, and we did some stories on how you, geoscientists, were expecting to find a lot of surprises because we never had a chance to look at this before. Right?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Right. It was pretty much a mystery--

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah.

MICHAEL HUDEC: --outside of Pemex. Now, various companies had had projects with Pemex, so it wasn't a complete blank slate, but it was close. And so now, there was newer wide-azimuth seismic data being shot.

And we were seeing things that even the Mexicans had never seen before because they didn't have access to this quality of data in a lot of places. And so it was brand-spanking-new geology in one of the most heavily studied basins in the world.

I mean, there have been incredible amount of research that's gone on in the Gulf of Mexico, but almost all of it on the US side. Now, Pemex and IMP had done quite a lot on the Mexican side, but nobody knew anything about anything they'd done.

So it was, kind of, like Christmas comes early because right next door to Texas, geology that, really, nobody knew anything about. So it was mostly by spending time at CGG that we were able to build this up.

And then, after spending time at CGG-- well, TGS had some data just up-dip from that. So I talked to them and went into their offices and spent some time looking at that.

And it was mostly due to some of the data access-- I acknowledge both TGS and CGG in the talk-- but it was really the data access that made it all possible. So that was the start of the chain.

And so once we had the data access and we started putting it together, then within, I'd say, a year, I was presenting this at our consortium annual meeting. And it's going from there. Now there's a Distinguished Lecture talk on it, I'm in the process of writing it up for publication, and so forth.

VERN STEFANIC: OK. So were you surprised by what you were seeing? Or were there like, well, I sort of expected that.

MICHAEL HUDEC: No. It was a surprise. And for part of the reason I talk about in the presentation itself, the Western Gulf of Mexico is just different. The salt basin, which has gone from the very deep water all the way up into Louisiana, Texas-- very, very wide, hundreds of miles wide-- narrows down to a point when you get into the Western Gulf of Mexico.

Also, you're getting into the strike-slip margin, the transform margin of the Gulf of Mexico, so the margin is much steeper. And plus, you're getting close to the Pacific Ocean, which means you're starting to have interactions with Pacific Plate tectonics.

The Cordilleran orogen runs just to the west of the area we're looking at, so I had no idea what to expect. You know, some of these trends go north of the border. I mean, there's not a big border fault.

The trends do go north of the border, but it had always been a little bit awkward north of the border to try to figure out what they were and how they got there because most of the information to let you sort that out is actually down in Mexico, which we couldn't look, at least in the off-shore. So yeah, it was new. I didn't really expect any of it.

VERN STEFANIC: And perhaps more complex, the geology, than you thought it would be?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, it's actually pretty complex north of the border. In some ways, it was simpler, which is what helped us figure it out because north of the border almost all of the deep structure is obscured by the Sigsbee salt canopy, which is an imaging challenge for the seismic data.

The Sigsbee still exists south of the border, but it's not as big, and it doesn't cover everything up. It covers a few things up. So actually, it's, kind of, working in the reverse. Now that we can see what's going on down in Mexico, that's actually going to help us project things back north into the United States and figure out some stuff that had been mysterious beforehand.

VERN STEFANIC: OK. And the information that you're now going to be-- you're in the process of writing up some of these--

MICHAEL HUDEC: Yes.

VERN STEFANIC: --results and everything, which will be shared, which will have an impact in exploration in the Gulf, I'm thinking.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, that is the hope.

VERN STEFANIC: That's the hope.

MICHAEL HUDEC: I can easily say sure, but that's really for the oil companies to decide. But I think it's certainly relevant for what they're doing to understand how they formed and when they formed and what the processes were. So in general, people do better when they understand the geology that they're looking at. And that's what we're really trying to supply.

VERN STEFANIC: So tell me, was there a moment in the discovery process when your jaw just dropped; it's, like, oh my gosh?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, there was the moment when everything clicked into place. As it says in the title of the presentation, there are a couple of major structural trends that exist in the Salina del Bravo area.

There's the Perdido fold belt, which we actually already knew about somewhat north of the border. There's the Sigsbee salt canopy, which we certainly knew about from up at the border.

But then there were a couple of new structures which haven't really been described in the literature before. There's a structure we call the Bravo trough, which is this immense 400 kilometer long depocenter.

And at the outboard end of the system, there is a high in the base of salt, or in the basement, called the BAHA high. And nobody-- well, that I've seen-- nobody had ever mapped any of these.

And the moment when it all, kind of, clicked-- What they all had to do with each other, and that they actually were all expressions of the same process that was going on, actually triggered by Cordilleran tectonics off on the west end of the basin, that was kind of the big aha moment when that all, kind of, fell into place.

And it wasn't just four different big structures. It was four related structures, and that we could tie it with regional tectonics. That was kind of the big, OK, now we've got something moment.

VERN STEFANIC: (LAUGHING) And I would imagine that, for a researcher, that's, like, one of the great joys.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Oh, yeah. Well, it's always hard to find something that nobody else has done before. I mean, if somebody else has already been in there, then you're looking at progressively smaller and smaller things to find something new. And we felt like this was-- you don't get a lot of chances in your research career to find something big that's brand new.

VERN STEFANIC: Right, right.

MICHAEL HUDEC: And this was big and brand new. And sort of, like, if we're even close to right in the models that we've come up with for this area, this is going to be a foundational piece of research for everything that comes afterwards.

There is also the possibility that we're totally wrong and that we're going to be referenced for the next 50 years as an example of, well, so-and-so got it real wrong at the beginning, but now we know the truth. But that's a risk you take in research. That's always possible. You work in salt tectonics, you're wrong a lot.

VERN STEFANIC: Congratulations on that feeling, I guess. And we'll wait to see what the results are and how everybody goes with that.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, that's research. You never really know if you're right or not.

VERN STEFANIC: So tell me about the whole research thing. And this is on a personal note with you. Did you aspire, at one point, that, yes, I want to be a person who researches? Or how did all that come about?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, I mean, coming out of school, what I wanted to be was a university professor. And in part, that's because it's the only world I knew.

VERN STEFANIC: Was that--

MICHAEL HUDEC: I'd never worked in an oil company.

VERN STEFANIC: Were there people in your family who'd been teachers or professors before?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, my mother was a schoolteacher. My father was a law professor. So I grew up in an academic environment. And then all my training was in an academic environment. And then I, sort of, said, well, I mean, that looks like a fun life, so I want to be a professor.

It turned out that none of the universities were particularly interested in me, so as a follow up, as, basically, a second option, I got a job at Exxon working in their research lab. And it opened up this whole new world of geology that I really knew nothing about.

I never really looked at a seismic line, hardly, before I hired in with Exxon. And so that was, kind of, jumping into research, but industry-related research, which is something I hadn't really ever thought about and hadn't really known anything about.

And from there it grew. So I was at Exxon Research for eight years. And then, actually, made the jump into a university. I went and taught at Baylor University for three years. I had an opportunity to go there, so I left Exxon, went and taught at Baylor. And so that was going from 100% industry to 100% academia.

And while I was in academia, I was dealing with the frustrations of being in committees and things like this and was missing industry just a little bit. And after a couple of years at Baylor, I got the opportunity to go to the University of Texas to work with Martin as part of AGL-- Martin Jackson.

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah.

MICHAEL HUDEC: And that's a real nice mix because we're working on industry problems using industry data but on an academic time-frame. So the lease sale does not rule our lives, or the rig monster does not rule our lives. It's not we have to get something mapped by Tuesday because they need it for X.

So it's really the best of both worlds because I'm seeing great industry data. Really, the best data in the world is the seismic data that industry is paying for.

So I'm learning stuff that I could never have learned if I'd stayed academic, but there's just enough of the academic flavor to it where I avoid some of the frustrations of working in industry. So for me, it's the perfect job. I mean, I love it.

VERN STEFANIC: Are researchers competitive?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Yeah.

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Yeah. Sure.

VERN STEFANIC: Well, we out here don't know that. How are you competitive?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, I mean, we're not competitive in the sense that we try to sabotage each other's projects, but, certainly there are other people working--

VERN STEFANIC: Nor did I imply that. I didn't want to imply that.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Yeah. But there's certainly other people in the field who-- we read each other's papers, and you read it and it's like, man, I wish I'd thought of that.

VERN STEFANIC: OK.

MICHAEL HUDEC: So sure, you want to be good. You want to be the best. They want to be good. They want to be the best. So I would call it a friendly competition.

I mean, when we meet each other at meetings, we're genuinely glad to see each other, and we chat and shoot the breeze and all that. But yeah, we want to be respected by our peers. And we want to be the one who comes up with the next big idea, if we can.

VERN STEFANIC: Well, see, so I want to ask you, what is your next big idea? But I don't know if you want to divulge that to everybody.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, I don't know what the idea is yet. But the fact that the southern half of the Gulf of Mexico is just opening up to outside research is a pretty big deal.

And there's a lot that is still not known or, at least, not published about the salt basins in the Mexican half of the Gulf of Mexico. So I'm certainly hoping to focus a good degree of my effort there.

But then there are opportunities. The Atlas Mountains-- huge salt province, which has certainly been mapped by the Spaniards, by the Moroccans, by the French, by a number of people, but, a lot of times, mapped without a full appreciation of salt tectonics. So there is just getting started a, kind of, re-evaluation of the geology of North Africa.

Also of the Spanish Pyrenees. So there's some possibility to get involved with some of the geologists from Spanish universities, for example and doing some of those projects. So all sorts of possibilities involved in that.

It's a relatively young field, salt tectonics. As a formal discipline, Martin Jackson, more or less, invented-- Martin and Bruno Vendeville and Dan Schultz-Ela; they're working together-- more or less invented it as a discipline about 25 years ago.

So there is a whole lot that we don't know yet. And there are very few people working in it, so there's a lot of running room that you have.

VERN STEFANIC: I was going to ask you if the work that you have just completed was going to be analogous to other parts of the world.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, yes and no-- certainly, the basic principles that govern this. Most salt tectonics is eventually caused by either gravity-driven deformation, tectonic extension, tectonic compression. It covers an awful lot of that.

And those processes are going on all over the world. But the ways in which the salt is actually expressed and the way the salt tectonics happens depends, also, on 20 other factors, all of which are local.

What was the slope? Where was the shortening coming from? What was the orientation of the pre-existing salt structures? How thick was the salt? How thick was the cover? What was the cover made of?

All of those things come into play, which means there is never a carbon copy of one basin to another basin. There's always enough different going on that each basin is unique.

But if you learn the basic principles that govern this, you can apply those in more than one place. And every time you do a study in one place, you learn a little bit more about the principles, and that's going to help you in the next place.

But they're all going to be unique in some aspects. So if you go in and say, well, I'm going to interpret this just like it's deep water offshore Florida, you're going to run into some trouble doing that.

VERN STEFANIC: In your work, how often does the team get together to do research jointly, as opposed to you're by yourself?

MICHAEL HUDEC: AGL has three main, sort of, subgroups in it. We have a bunch of geologists who look at the geology of salt structures that are actually there, mostly on seismic data, sometimes in the field.

Then we have a couple of people who are actually civil engineers, by background-- geotechnical engineers, actually-- who do the finite element modeling, studying the physics of what goes on in salt tectonics using computer models.

And then we have Tim Dooley, who is our physical modeler who plays around in a sandbox, essentially, with sand and silicon and trying various different things. So we don't work in the sense that I go in with Tim's lab and I work with sand and silicon, or I try to do computer modeling. But we all talk.

And the problems that the computer modelers, the finite element modelers, are doing are based on things that the geologists have seen. You know, I've got this kind of structure here and I don't understand how it formed.

Or I'm curious to see what impact that would have on the fluid pressures around the salt structure. Or what would happen if there were carbonates in the wall rocks instead of shales in the wall rocks?

And so we don't work together in the sense that we're all, kind of, sitting over the same workstation. But we collaborate continuously. We're all trying to work on similar problems.

And so when the system is working perfectly, the geologists figure out the geometry of a salt structure, Tim Dooley and the physical models understand the evolutionary sequence that makes it, and then the finite element modelers figure out the physics, the stresses, and the pressures, and the fluid pressures that are going on around it.

So we come at the same problem from a variety of different orientations. The analogy is always it's a three-legged stool, and with only two legs, it falls over. It doesn't always work perfectly like that, but it works often enough that I think we're able to do some pretty good work on understanding things.

VERN STEFANIC: Do you ever feel pressure to have a conclusion, pressure to keep moving the ball forward?

MICHAEL HUDEC: I wouldn't say-- well, because we're a soft money organization, the companies that support us vote every year with their money. So we just had our annual meeting last year-- sorry, last week. I'm obviously still a little tired from it.

And we had 200-plus people from 30 different member companies come there, and they watch what we did in the last year with their money. And if there comes a point where they're not impressed by it or not finding use from it, they're going to stop funding us because they're businesses, and their job is to spend money in ways that will be useful to them.

So in that sense, we're under, sort of, continual pressure to continue innovating and continue finding the next big thing or something that's going to be useful to our member companies. So in that sense, there's pressure.

In a sense of being nervous about it, not really because we've got a lot of very bright people, and we've never run dry of ideas yet. Now, if we ever sit down in a meeting and say, well, what are we going to do next year, and everybody goes, I don't know, I think we've figured it all out, then that's going to be pressure because then we can't sort it out.

But we have ideas for years coming up. So yeah, we have to continually innovate. And I guess there's some pressure in that, that at the annual meeting they'd better be impressed to fund us for another year. But we've been in existence for almost 30 years now and haven't run out of ideas yet. So it's pressure, but it's not a killer pressure at this point.

VERN STEFANIC: I just want to ask you one last thing. I think it would be fair and safe to say that, through your lectures, through your teaching, through your research, that you have probably inspired a lot of people. You may have actually inspired, now, a generation of people, which, by the way, congratulations on that because I think it's pretty--

MICHAEL HUDEC: I'm going to dispute your assumption, but--

VERN STEFANIC: No, no no. No, no.

MICHAEL HUDEC: --go ahead

VERN STEFANIC: But actually, that's not the point of what I'm going for.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Good.

VERN STEFANIC: The point of what I'm going for, though, is where do you get the inspiration? Where do you keep going? And it's sort of like talking about your aspirations that you have.

You never planned on being a researcher, but now you are. And now you're contributing to the great body of geosciences forever. You never planned on doing that. Where do you get the inspiration now, and where are you going?

MICHAEL HUDEC: Well, so the reason I found geology attractive from the beginning, back in high school when I did the project on the river, was because it was a puzzle. OK? There's this series of rocks that are sitting out there, and they formed somehow.

And so you've got a bunch of clues, and your job is to try to figure out what happened here. And that's fun. I mean, it's almost like a game. And so that's why I enjoy it. That's why I keep doing it, is because there's always some new puzzle that I haven't had a chance to look at yet.

You know, going south and looking in Mexico or going over to the Atlas Mountains, or going over to the Pyrenees or the Baetic Cordillera, or wherever it happens to be, there are always more puzzles out there. So when I get tired of solving puzzles, I guess that's when I'll call it a day and sit down and lie in the sun on my beach chair.

But until then, I do it because it's fun, really. And I don't really do it because I feel that, oh, I must solve problem X. I mean, I'm just going and looking for fun stuff to do and keep at it until I come up with an answer that I like, and then look for another problem.

VERN STEFANIC: That's great. And thank you for sharing that.

MICHAEL HUDEC: Oh, you're very welcome.

VERN STEFANIC: And thank you for talking with--

MICHAEL HUDEC: It's been a pleasure

VERN STEFANIC: --us today. We've been talking today with Michael Hudec, senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology in Austin, Texas and Director of the Applied Geodynamics Laboratory. Be sure to check out his lecture-- I'm telling you, it's a good one-- at AAPG.org.

And then watch this space for more AAPG podcasts that will continue to cover a variety of important subjects, innovative ideas, and intriguing people, including the ongoing Digging Deeper look at the AAPG Distinguished Lecturers. The Distinguished Lecture Program is operated by AAPG and the AAPG Foundation. We thank you for that.

We hope you'll take a moment soon to check out the AAPG Foundation website to learn how you can be part of ensuring the future of geosciences. But for now, thanks for listening.

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