Oil is where you find it - but first you have to find it
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To be one of the good ones, he says, it takes a strong knowledge of the earth and how to interpret it, an unusual power of deduction and imagination, and the courage -- ''the intestinal fortitude'' -- to back up your theories.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Halbouty got his start as the only geologist at an independent firm in the 1930s. He had a doctorate in geology but no previous experience. He was at the site of a well that was about to be abandoned when he picked up a core sample and noticed rock in it that told him the drill bit was past the salt dome that had discouraged the drillers. He persuaded the company president to call off the abandonment and drill a little farther. The field they found, Halbouty says, has produced 150 million barrels of oil. It helped to make him one of the storied names in the business.
It is usually a team, and not an individual explorationist, that makes the big oil and gas finds. But according to Harry Jamison, now president of the Arco Exploration Company, the same spark that lights the imagination of an independent oil-finder ''sets off the synergism in an exploration team to look for oil'' in a major company.
The key to this imaginative, intuitive side of exploration, Mr. Jamison says, is ''an innate curiosity about the anomaly that doesn't quite fit.'' The oil-finder thrills to the significant quirk, the exception, rather than trying to ''force-fit'' all the data into a pattern.
Jamison himself was head of an Arco exploration team in Alaska a few years ago when a pair of anomalies aroused his curiosity. A well-known geological structure there, the Colville High, was logically the most propitious place to find oil in the area. Union Oil had drilled a well there with disappointing results, and had moved on. But in the northeast side of the lower (and therefore less promising) structure to the east of Colville, the Arco team noticed geologic subtleties that, taken together, would imply an oil trap.
That was Prudhoe Bay. Now, of course, it is well known as a major part of the nation's oil reserves and Jamison is president of Arco Exploration.
The talent exploration demands is a hard one to identify in people, Jamison says, and a hard one to nurture in a corporate environment - to give it the freedom it needs to survive.
''People that have it tend not to fit the mold,'' he explains, and a company needs to take special care not to lose them.
The big companies, generally speaking, are losing them. Bob Haynes, manager of recruiting for Shell in Houston, notes that he has no problem drawing entry-level geologists. These are usually bearers of master's degrees without experience. But turnover is high. Once geologists get their training and a few years of experience, they leave for smaller companies, where they may participate both in the profits of the oil and gas they find and help make decisions. Bud Reid puts it simply: ''Geologists will go where their prospects are drilled.'' That is, where the company will follow through on their exploration work by sinking wells.
They are enticed with ads like this one in a recent trade magazine for a geologist with four years' experience: ''You will see your prospects drilled,'' it promises -- along with a car, a $50,000 base salary, and a ''unique incentive plan.''Bob Haynes can't tell when he hires a first-time geologist whether or not he has a nose for oil. He can only look for a well-rounded person. What he hopes for is someone inventive, ''sort of a free spirit kind of person -- not just going by the rules.'
'The geologist will be trying to picture a reservoir thousands of feet down that he will never see. ''Even if you find oil, you'll never see it.'' He can only piece clues together from seismic tests and from the newest theories of the earth's structure, and try to re-create the way the earth looked several thousand years ago. He will work behind a blind made up of miles of earth and must not discourage easily -- since only 1 wildcat well in 8 finds any oil at all.
Occidental once found a reef off the Louisiana coast similar to one in Libya that contained oil, Reid recalls. They drilled. It was a mud plug.
''We decided the San Joaquin Valley was one of the best prospects we'd seen, '' he says of another Occidental disappointment. ''It just wasn't there.'' There had been velocity errors in the seismic tests.
All explorationists have such histories. But the intuitive talent that makes the good ones good comes down to optimism, Mr. Reid says. In this business, nothing is a sure thing: ''I never knew a prospect that didn't have something wrong with it.''