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Erick Devine is Wallace Pratt

AAPG Energy Insights Podcast Episode 8

AAPG Energy Insights Podcast Episode 8


Wallace Pratt, portrayed by Broadway actor Erick Devine, addresses the DPA Luncheon at 2017 Annual Convention and Exhibition in Houston. AAPG Energy Insights Podcast Episode 8.

Full Transcript

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 geological papers.

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 mainstream.

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 Geological Survey.

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 geologist.

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 of thought.

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 drilled.

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 this room.

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 unknown.

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 known.

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 discovered.

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 Pratt's biography.

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 listening.

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