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In Episode 14 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Troy Tittlemier, CEO of the MagmaChem Research Institute, on serpentinization and the need for disruption and innovation in how we look at the current earth model. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Troy about his early life in motocross, his transitioning into geoscience and research with MagmaChem, the founding of the Permian Basin Experience Podcast, and his latest venture—actually operating his own small oil and gas company.
“There’s an earth science revolution happening,” declares Troy Tittlemier, “much like the plate tectonics revolution of the 1970s.” This is a completely new way of thinking about the natural processes of our planet, he says—a shift in how we look at the origin of life and oil, how we build renewable energy that’s truly sustainable, and how we approach climate change. What is it about carbon that we’re all so worried about? How is it interacting with the planet? Why are we measuring it? “We’re reevaluating the fundamentals of our understanding of the natural world,” he exclaims, “and that’s fascinating.”
Troy’s journey into the world of geology was one that took quite a winding path. From an early age, Troy experienced a natural disconnect from formal education, as he felt that sitting in a class with 30 other students and being taught how to think wasn’t the right way of doing things. The idea that life followed a set process, an arbitrary set of points down a linear path, caused additional friction.
“So, I became the class clown,” he admits, “and I felt like classes were ultimately in the way of my enjoyment.”
Making it through high school, Troy went straight into the motocross industry, as he’d had friends that he’d grown up with who’d turned pro.
Initially enamored with the life of a motocross racer, Troy barely scraped by for a time, bouncing from couch to couch as the bank account remained dry. It was fun, a fitting path for a rebellious youth with limitless energy and drive who wanted to escape the confines of the system. Several people, however, attempted to direct his attention elsewhere. His father, a lifelong mechanic, insisted that Troy do something else instead of following what he called a “dead-end job,” begging him not to take the same path. An early mentor, motocross icon and mechanic Mike Gosselaar, later asked Troy a question that stopped him in his tracks: “Why would you want to do this for the rest of your life?” These two key figures in his life coming to him with this advice caused Troy to deeply reflect on what he wanted out of life—was motocross his dream, or a passing hobby?
“I wanted to use my brain for money, not my body,” he explains, “and do something that wouldn’t physically wear me out for a career.” Deciding to go back to school, Troy started a journey of what he calls “re-learning,” which was based in questioning the assumptions and assumed truths of classic education and, more broadly, the world around him. Then, a devastating accident near the end of his motocross career provided any clarity Troy still needed at that point. His jaw cracked in two places, an elbow broken and ligament damage to a knee, and even a blood clot that passed through his heart and to his lung—which a cardiologist told him 11 years later had caused a heart attack that night—Troy was a mess for a while, but the trauma of the incident truly gave him a new sense of purpose. He likens it to experiencing an adrenaline rush, but this rush didn’t end after the accident, or after he left the hospital.
“I was lucky,” he says, “and after the accident, man, it was like I was reborn.” Reinvigorated, the advice of his father and mentor also on his mind, Troy knew he had to make a change.
He was drawn to medicine, thinking about becoming a doctor of osteopathy so that he could practice spinal manipulation while also prescribing medicine. With the cost and time making that path virtually impossible, Troy looked for something else, settling on geology due to his fascination with the inner workings of the world. Crossing paths with a biology professor by the name of Barbara Collins—who wrote one of Troy’s favorite books, You Lead a Mean Trail—Troy became friends with her husband, a geologist. He gave Troy what seemed an odd bit of advice at the time, but one that ultimately inspired him: “Pay attention to the hydrocarbon generation model.”
What did it mean? The geologist argued that the idea of how oil was made on the planet was shaky, that people should really focus on where oil and gas is coming from. How do we truly identify the pathways of migration from the source rock? Can we even do such a thing? All the assumptions about reservoir location and how oil moves within formations and source rock have made understanding the true nature of hydrocarbons fraught with error and mystery—and in the world of business, money and truth don’t always align. “You have many scientists more concerned with developing a business instead of advancing a truthful model,” he notes. “A model is just an approximation of reality, and a good model should be built on hard truths, be predictable, and be repeatable. The approximation of reality based on the existing model for figuring out why oil is there, and exactly how much you’re going to get out of the ground once you spend the money to do so…well, it isn’t very good.”
Creativity and truth, argues Troy, have fallen by the wayside as business has necessitated a working earth model—not a great one, he says, not the best one, but one that works. Due to implementation of more and more technology, processes and models are becoming more automatic, more machine- and algorithm-driven, but at what cost?
“There aren’t a lot of creative, smart truth-seekers who are working on these problems,” he exclaims, and, laughing, “because they’ve been beaten down. The textbooks have beaten it out of them!”
Fortunately, Troy found the sort of creative-minded visionaries he needed in Stan Keith and Monte Swan, who had degrees in philosophy, engineering, and geology. Stan had started his career as an economics geologist at the Arizona Geological Survey, later doing research that led to the co-founding of MagmaChem and its branches into exploration and research.
The idea behind MagmaChem was that it would be built to achieve results—not for academia, not simply to get rich, but to provide the industry with a truthful way of thinking about geology and the natural world. Troy admits that part of the company’s success, as well as what drew him to it, was their ability to explore their curiosity. While not every bit of research that the company did was adopted or endorsed by the industry, much of it was, with operators like Exxon paying for information on plate tectonics and layered earth models. Through the years, the company built a solution to identify and address anomalies in how the industry looked at established geological concepts. The MagmaChem magma-metal series approach to magmatism and related mineral and energy resource deposits, for example, is an empirically based, rock-resource classification system that has predictive power for discovering and understanding mineral and energy deposits. By understanding magmatism, the industry can overcome the limitations of a traditional model that has erroneously classified many mineral deposits, building a model that integrates every data point available in the universe to make the best decision.
Troy heads up the MagmaChem Research Institute, the non-profit arm of MagmaChem that provides free education and access to the latest and most accurate earth model the company has. The goal of the institute, Troy explains, is to disseminate knowledge.
“When they asked me to come on to help share this information,” he says, “it was about giving back. We wanted to make sure the industry knew about the earth model and its potential. So, with my experience with podcasting and communication technology, they knew I could have engaging conversations about these topics and try and keep them at the front of peoples’ minds.”
Taking a leap of faith, Troy left his job and poured 6 years of savings into the MagmaChem Research Institute to help build it to what it is now, allowing the research institute to be talked about, explained, and best understood by the public. With its visibility significantly increased, interest in the institute’s research is growing, Troy says, and so far, the feedback on what they’re doing has been overwhelmingly positive, with everyone from scientists and geologists to entrepreneurs and tech companies getting involved. “They’re all just going, ‘Whoa, this is amazing,’” he says, proudly. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Apart from the MagmaChem Research Institute, Troy also started a podcast, which he calls the “Permian Basin Experience Podcast,” or PBE Podcast. A passion project turned into a legitimate business venture, the podcast unites the typical audio format with recorded videos and interviews. “MagmaChem is the message,” Troy explains, “and the PBE Podcast is the media. PBE allows us to drink some whiskey with some colleagues and friends and have candid discussions; it helps educate people on what energy is at its core, how we build a sustainable future.” The PBE Podcast also provides a platform for exploring things going on at MagmaChem, with the message that there’s a new way of thinking about old problems. “As we’re going through this earth science revolution, we can ask, what is serpentinization?” Troy says. “What is this process that’s happening at the boundary of the mantle and the crust on our planet? How does that process influence the way we live our lives; the way we understand medicine; the way we understand agriculture and science? It’s all right there, and that’s how our questions come up.” It’s also a learning process for Troy as he works closely with the founders of MagmaChem, and it’s being documented every step of the way. He envisions a PBE hybrid virtual/in-person conference in Midland, where they’ll be able to show a complete reevaluation of a Permian formation using the MagmaChem science. He wants to get involved in events, with other companies, and with experts at the forefront of geology and earth science. “We’re excited for 2021,” he says. “It’s going to be a great year for us.”
Troy’s latest venture is his very own oil and gas company, a dream finally given form.
“I started a small oil and gas company,” he notes. “I’m going to focus on enhanced oil recovery (EOR) technology, how you take what’s happening on the lease and make it significantly more profitable, decrease the carbon footprint, and increase/stabilize production.”
The project brings Troy back to the advice he received so many years ago on the hydrocarbon generation model, as it will allow him to focus on how the oil is made. “It’s going to allow me to mess with the interface between the brine, the oil, and the rock,” he explains. “My approach might be controversial, in the sense that I’m not thinking about why oil is in the reservoir the same as everyone else; I’m thinking that the oil was made there, that it wasn’t migrated from some mystical place far, far, away that took millions of years to happen. I think something is going on chemically in the rock between the rock, the brine, and the oil.” Troy intends to use the project to study a pocket of rock, the elemental makeup of it, everything he can possibly get in the reservoir, so that he’ll know exactly what it’s out made of—gases, chemicals, elements, fluid, rock, physical state—and make sense of how it’s changing under certain circumstances.
Despite being so busy with three jobs, Troy has seemingly limitless ideas, his optimism and passion infectious.
“What we’re doing at MagmaChem isn’t a fix, it isn’t a tweak,” he says at the end of our conversation. “It’s a complete rebuild of our understanding and motivation to figure things out. We have to question everything we knew. We have to rebuild this from the ground up, and I’m excited to be at the front of it.”
Sometimes, you have to break something to truly move forward. From Troy’s discussion of MagmaChem science, it seems like the industry might be in for some major changes in the future. We at OGGN are excited to see Troy’s continued progress and additional earth science innovation by MagmaChem; to find out more about what they’re doing, listen in to some of their previous webinars here: