VERN STEFANIC: Hello, and welcome to this edition of AAPG'S Energy Insights
podcast. I'm Vern Stefanic, and today we're doing something a little bit
different. Rather than having a conversation with an influential person from
today's geoscience and energy industry, as is our usual approach, instead we're
going to hear from a man who has been influential for decades. Yes, decades
right up to this moment. And give you a clue who we're talking about. All I
really need to do is say these words. Where oil is first found is, in the final
analysis, in the minds of men.
Yeah, that's right. A lot of you already know that those are the words of
Wallace E. Pratt, the legendary exploration is who is called the geologist's
geologist. And thanks to his quote about using your mind to add creativity to
the hunt for oil and gas, as well as many other insights that he had, Wallace
is perhaps the most revered petroleum geologist in the profession's history.
Pratt did many great things. And as we'll discover in a moment, he said many
great things, some of which were presented to an AAPG Division of Professional
Affairs audience by a Broadway actor. Yeah, that's right. That actor was Erick
Devine, and the words he presented, in character as Pratt himself were based on
Pratt's remarkable 1951 paper, Toward A Philosophy of Oil Finding.
Some of you already know all about Wallace Pratt, but some of you may not.
So for you, a little bit of background information. Wallace Pratt was born in
1885. So he was with the profession from its earliest days. In 1918, after
having already worked in the Philippines, he was named Humble Oil's first
geologist. However, petroleum geologists weren't very respected when he started
work. As Cindy Yeilding famously recounted in the AAPG documentary, Rock Stars:
Women and Petroleum Geologists.
CINDY YEILDING: And our own hero, Wallace Pratt, listen to what his managers
said to him when he first started working. Mr. Pratt, we don't think much of
geologists around here. Your office is at the end of the hall, the last door.
When I want to see you, I'll send for you.
VERN STEFANIC: Clearly geologists were considered something less than
scientific in those days. But Humble's attitude didn't stop Pratt, of course,
and within two years he had proved that geology was not only a good tool, but
also an important factor in finding oil. Among the notable early contributions
made by Pratt and his staff were geological studies that led to the correct
interpretation of the structure of the huge Mexia field discovered in October
1920 in East Texas.
On the basis of these studies, Humble bought leases on the structure and
developed substantial reserves and production. This work and leasing of large
amounts of land that proved productive in Powell, Texas, in 1923 firmly established
Humble as an oil producer and Pratt as a hero.
Still with Humble, Pratt pioneered the use of micropaleontology in oil
exploration. He maximized the use of oil scouts, and he began an ambitious
leasing program. As Humble came under the wing of Standard Oil, itself
eventually morphing into Exxon, Pratt was instrumental in implementing policies
that improved reservoir discovery, eliminated natural gas flaring, and allowed
wide spacing for wells. With Standard Oil, Pratt served as director, executive
committee member, and finally, vice president before retiring in 1945 and
beginning a long career as a consulting geologist who would write more than 100
Pratt's success as a petroleum geologist owed much to his skillful fusion of
talents and interest. He was a businessman, a philosopher, and last but not
least, a man with an uncanny knack for predicting future events. For example,
he saw the potential for reducing synthetic fuels from coal as early as 1927
and was discussing the need for conservation, energy independence, and even
solar energy some 60 years before these concepts entered the cultural
Of course, he was a much honored geologist, including being named the first
recipient of the coveted Sidney Powers medal, AAPG's highest honor, for
achievement in petroleum, the James Forman Kemp medal, which was presented by
Dwight David Eisenhower, and being named among the 100 most influential people
of the petroleum century. And if you come to Tulsa, you can see his name at AAPG
headquarters, proudly near the top of the structure, the Pratt Tower.
So that's the man who was the special guest of the DPA, and what a talk he
presented, here portrayed by actor Erick Devine. Enjoy the words, hear the
wisdom, and heed the advice of Wallace Pratt.
ERICK DEVINE: Thanks for having me. Anyone here remember David White? Now be
careful how you answer. I'm sure almost everyone in the room knows someone
named David White. But it may be wrong to assume that the David White you know
is the geologist David White, who made history in 1920. Now David White wasn't
famous in 1920. He was a very highly respected chief geologist of the US
And I remember him because I was president of AAPG at that time. And I
remember him saying something that not only challenged all of us geologists to
work with a renewed sense of purpose, but it also made a lot of sense at the
time. It was May 1920, and the total past production of our country amounted to
only five billion barrels of oil. And that's when David White made this
prediction. "The production of natural petroleum in the United States must
pass its peak at an early date, probably within five years and possibly within
three years, due to the exhaustion of our reserves."
He wasn't finished. "Our domestic production is not likely ever to
exceed 450 million barrels annually. s we didn't produce so much, we would
exhaust the estimated seven billion barrels of oil remaining in the ground in
the United States in 18 years." He probably would like to revisit that
prediction, I suspect.
I don't think I'm picking on Mr. White. As I mentioned, he was a
well-respected geologist. It's only in retrospect that we wise geologists of
today know this prediction was absurdly pessimistic. Within 30 years, we were
producing nearly five times the rate David said we could ever attain. And since
then we have produced five times as much as the seven billion barrel total he
said remained to be discovered. That in 1920, he was firmly convinced of this
based on his knowledge of what geologists then knew to be true.
And most of us agreed with him. As a matter of fact, the AAPG he officially
joined him a year later in an equally pessimistic prediction made for our
peers, our industry, and government leaders.
One more example where we carried out our elaborate and detailed studies,
and then our knowledge kept us from seeing possibilities. Our knowledge blocked
us from discovering a new approach to known data. I'm here today to recreate a
moment for you, some words I spoke long ago, as a way to remind each of us
about the tremendous opportunity we have to do something great for our science
and for our world, and about the amazing privilege it is to be a petroleum
As a geologist long engaged in the search for oil, I have witnessed the
development of the amazingly effective art of prospecting based on the science
of geology. You know, when we first founded this great association 100 years
ago, the science of geology applied to the search for oil and gas was in its infancy,
and not everyone welcomed us into the industry. I remember my first day on my
first job in Wichita Falls, Texas. First day I was greeted by the manager in
the office, and he said, Mr. Pratt, we don't think much of geologists around
here. Your office is at the end of the hall, the last door. And if I want to
see you, I'll send for you.
But our aim in founding the association was to advance the science of
petroleum geology and to promote the application of the science for exploring
for oil and gas. I share the satisfaction of the geological profession in this
splendid achievement. We have gone far beyond the utmost that seemed possible
to me at the beginning of my career in petroleum geology.
Still, my experience has forced me to the conclusion that even the most
finished art of prospecting by itself is not adequate to the task of finding
the earth's oil and gas. There are other factors, other barriers to success
that no perfection of methods and techniques or advances in technology can
overcome. These factors are fundamental, and they are innate in our very habits
And they can be illustrated with two points, David White's laughable
predictions, one. The other is a case in point about one of the largest oil
fields ever to be discovered, 1937, in Kuwait. Now for 15 years prior to that,
the concession in Kuwait was offered for a nominal consideration to the largest
oil companies in the world. As a matter of fact, the three largest oil
companies were offered the concession, and they all said no.
In other words, at the end of 90 years of vigorous search for oil all over
the earth, out of intensive study of the occurrence of oil in the earth, the
best minds in the oil finding industry failed to recognize what would be the
earth's largest oilfield to that date. Worse, they were convinced that there
was no oilfield in that part of Kuwait at all.
Why do we so completely misjudge the potential of oil-bearing rocks? It's
not like this incredible error was due to unfamiliarity with the region. The
Middle East have been famous for its oil and gas seeps for hundreds of years,
and Kuwait was known for its prodigious oil seeps. In adjacent Iran, great oil
fields had already been producing for more than 20 years. In fact, those fields
were developed and operated by one of the companies that turned down Kuwait.
And the other two companies had for years been participants in large oil fields
in Iraq, right next door on the other side of Kuwait.
These companies commanded the services of the best geologists in the world,
and they knew more than anybody else about oil in the Middle East. They'd
carried out long and painstaking geological research on oil in the Middle East.
They weren't deterred by any feeling that they knew too little about the
region. On the contrary, they were deterred by their conviction. They knew
there was no chance of success in Kuwait because they believed the common
knowledge at the time, there is no oil in Arabia. They said no.
But another company, a smaller company, much less familiar with the
occurrence of oil in the Middle East, actually took the initiative in acquiring
the Kuwait concession and exploring it. This smaller company was willing to
drill for oil in Kuwait because it did not know that there was no oil in
Arabia. Incidentally, the company that finally had the courage to take up this
concession was Gulf Oil Corporation. And Gulf Oil simultaneously acquired a
concession in the neighboring island of Bahrain, which it later sold to
Standard Oil of California. In 1932, the California company discovered a major
oil oilfield in Bahrain, the discovery that finally made it abundantly clear to
everyone that there is oil in Arabia.
Now it would be consoling to we geologists and oil finders if the Kuwait
story was merely an isolated, mistaken judgment out of keeping with our general
and normal performance. But the solace is denied us. Kuwait is only one more
instance in a long series of similar misjudgments. Now speaking as one who
drove cars when tires were five inches wide, I'm amazed at the dazzling array
of tools and technologies that you and the new information age use to find oil
and gas. But these tools have not changed the fact that the fundamental
challenge for the explorer is the ability to distinguish between what is known
and what is unknown, and to envisage a petroleum accumulation before it is
The challenge is overcoming the natural conservatism of the trained
scientific mind when it comes to envisioning future hydrocarbon resources. The
enormous growth of unconventional natural gas is probably the best recent
example of this. I quote statistics. During the 1990s, a large number of
different expert agencies such as the USGS, the Potential Gas Committee, the
National Petroleum Council, and the Gas Research Institute-- good heavens-- all
developed models to forecast the natural gas endowment of the United States.
The methodologies and data differed, but they all came up with about the same
number, 1,000 TCF of remaining gas resources.
In other words, the gas endowment eventually would be overtaken by demand.
We'll have to import resources from overseas. Now we now know that those
estimates joined the David Whites of the world. The United States now
produces-- now produces-- more natural gas than we ever have in the previous
history of our country, and mostly from plays that were not even envisaged in
the 1990s when that report was written. It's price rather than resource
availability that challenges our industry. And this dramatic change in
perception has occurred within the careers of the very distinguished people in
Just consider Pennsylvania, where the drink well ushered in a new era that
seemed to be played out and gone. But the Marcellus and Utica plays have become
the most dramatic resource development story anywhere on the planet. They have
grown gas production more than 20-fold in eight years and now comprise 30% of
the North American market. The Marcellus play alone now produces more gas than
any other country in the world outside of Russia, making Pennsylvania arguably
the largest gas field on the planet.
And the startling fact is that perhaps the largest oil and gas fields ever
discovered in this country have been brought to market within the past decade
by geoscientists, some of whom are in this room, working in areas long thought
to have been played out. How? Well, new technology helped, but not as much as
new ideas. They did it by thinking creatively for opportunities to reinterpret
old paradigms, and recognizing and separating what is known from what is
Thinking. Mental attitudes can be a formidable barrier to oil finding. The
natural conservatism of the trained scientific mind, a trait that has
grievously impeded the search for truth everywhere, has impeded the search for
oil and gas. David White was conservative. He dealt with facts, so far as they
were known to him. And neither he, nor most of us, would venture beyond the
Because so much was unknown to him, and therefore ignored by him, David
White misjudged, and we all misjudged with him. The agencies that grossly
miscalculated, that underestimated the natural gas resource endowment in the
1990s, were among the most highly trained and experienced professionals in our
industry. But this did not prevent them from failing to foresee the magnitude
of increase in natural gas resource availability brought about by horizontal
wells and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing.
From the birth of the industry to today, the scientific community has
grossly underestimated the world's petroleum resources. And this conviction of
our best minds, that little or no oil or gas remained to be found, has
continuously handicap the search for new resources. Unless oil finders believe
there is oil to be found, they will not drill for oil.
The qualities that mark the individual oil finder are faith, persistence,
the venture spirit, and vision. If their knowledge makes them over
conservative, or overreliant on technology, or obscures from them the fact that
much remains always unknown, this will serve as an inevitable barrier to
finding new resources. Vision. As my good AI a Levinson said, until a discovery
well has been drilled, the undiscovered oil or gas field exists at best only as
an idea in the mind of the geologist.
You may remember a famous quote by me inspired by that line of thinking.
"Where oil is first found is in the minds of men." Sorry, ladies. It
was a different time.
If it is in the mind of the geologist or the oil finder, that new fields
first take form, the discovery must wait on our mental visualization and our
imagination. Where oil and gas are first found, in the final analysis, is in
the minds of explorers. When no one any longer believes more oil and gas is
left to be found, no more fields will be discovered. But so long as a single
oil finder remains with a mental vision of a new oil field to cherish, and so
long as our social, political, and economic environment allows that oil finder
the freedom and incentive to explore, new oil fields may continue to be
Today we honor our heritage and the enormous contributions made by our
profession over the past 100 years to the well-being of the people of this
world. Experts say the population will increase, of course, some say up to 10
billion, and the rough estimate by the end of the century is that energy needs
will double. There's a lot of work for all of us because most of this has yet
to be discovered.
It will be found by future generations of explorers, some of whom are at
this convention, perhaps sitting in this room. The enormity of this task will
challenge the best and brightest among us. And so I urge all of you, young and
old, to find within yourself the faith in our science and in your ability to
find oil and gas, the persistence you will need to fully evaluate the data, to
define your prospect, and to convince others of its potential, the venture
spirit you will need to get in your prospect leased and drilled, and most
importantly, vision, the ability to see and understand the ideas and
interpretations that can make your prospect a success.
Look around you. This room is filled with like-minded colleagues, colleagues
who share our passion and the belief that our profession serves a vital public
interest. Anyone here remember David White? Remember, and see the
possibilities. Do you know what's possible right now? Anything. You know what's
possible right now? Everything. The best days are yet to come. And when they
arrive, I hope that all of you are there, too. Thank you.
VERN STEFANIC: Now it was so obvious in that speech that you just
experienced, central to all of Pratt's success was his infectious optimism. He
felt that mental inflexibility was the greatest hurdle to overcome in the
finding of oil, and that geologists should assume a given area to be productive
until determined otherwise.
This refusal to accept any unfavorable situation as a given helped him in
many other scenarios. And it was that characteristic that the late Erick Devine
wanted to capture in his portrayal.
For that, thank you, Erick, and thank you, Mr. Pratt.
Energy Insights is a production of the American Association of Petroleum
Geologists. And today we want to give special thanks to the AAPG Foundation for
providing the historical information that was used as reference for Wallace
We hope you come back often to the AAPG website and check out our other
podcasts. We have a lot of them now. Or go to any of your favorite podcast
platform. We're all over the place. You can find us. For now, thanks for