From Growing Up in Connecticut to Covering Commodities: The Story of Jack Betz, Aluminum Reporter by Day, Musician by Night

In Episode 135 of the Oil and Gas Onshore Podcast, host Justin Gauthier interviewed John Betz, Senior Metals Reporter at Argus Media. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester spoke more with John about growing up in Connecticut, early writing jobs in oil and gas, his current role covering aluminum markets as a commodities reporter, and a lifelong love of making music.

John Betz—or Jack, as close friends call him—spent the first couple years in Queens, New York, but the family quickly moved to Fairfield, Connecticut due to crime in the neighborhood and the need for a better schooling system. Eventually, they landed a bit further up the coast in Madison. Jack remembers those years best, though he admits that things weren’t always easy for someone who was a bit different from everyone else. “I was a weird kid, and I still wonder if the ‘gifted program’ they said I was in was actually special education,” he says with a laugh. “I had a lot of learning disabilities, and I was on Ritalin. I didn’t fit in that well, and I had kind of a bad time in school. I was good at English, and bad at everything else.”

In middle school, Jack joined the cross-country team as an intramural activity, though it was less for love of running and more because he needed something to do. “I didn’t have a lot of friends, and my mom was a cross-country runner,” he explains. “So, since I didn’t know people who were doing extracurricular activities, I got into running after dabbling in a few other things. I was never great at it, but it was good exercise and good for my self-esteem.” Unfortunately, Jack’s connection to the sport was broken by a life-altering accident in which a speeding car came blowing down the road and clipped him with its mirror. While it might not seem too bad given the size of the object hitting him, the damage was catastrophic.

“I was training for cross country early that morning, and when I got hit by the mirror, it flipped me in front of the car,” he recalls. “I got hit so hard it blew me out of my shoes. I was on the side of the road for a while, but thankfully, my mom was there with me. The crazy thing was that she’d been hit on the same day several decades earlier. So, we kind of thought it was fate that she happened to be with me that day.” Bleeding profusely, one of Jack’s ribs had punctured a lung, and he had a compound fracture on his ankle, the bone jutting out in a grisly scene that looked like it was from a horror movie. He had landed on his arm, as well, which was crushed by the impact. After his mom flagged down a car to borrow a phone—with neither mother nor son carrying one of the clunky devices back then while they ran—and call an ambulance, Jack was on his way to the hospital, set up for multiple surgeries and months of recovery between the hospital and extensive rehab.

“I had to get a lot of plates and screws and pins and all that,” he continues. “So, even after I recovered, that dashed any hopes of cross country for me. Not that I had been particularly great at it—and I could still run—but it wasn’t the same.” When one door closed, however, another opened, and Jack was able to revisit his passion for music. While he’d had a guitar before and he’d always liked music, the extensive time laid up in bed provided ample opportunity for him to explore that creative energy. As sometimes happens with fickle teenagers, many of Jack’s so-called friends also abandoned him during this time, the inability to hang out proving too burdensome for the relationship to handle. As a result, Jack was possessor of an enormous amount of free time.

“All of a sudden, I had a lot of time to myself,” he says. “Since I’d got some money from the accident, I used part of it to buy a MacBook Pro, and then I started tinkering with GarageBand. I was almost entirely self-taught, but what people thought of what I made wasn’t important to me. I just loved to make music.” By the end of the year, the largely recuperated Jack was up and about again, though not without challenges due to limited mobility in one knee after a large rod was placed in his leg. Music at this time was also a form of therapy, because the activities in which he could participate were limited. In another interesting twist of fate, the man who’d let Jack’s mom borrow his phone when they needed to call an ambulance turned out to be employed in the music industry. He’d checked up on Jack through his recovery, and at the end of it all, he gifted Jack several guitar pedals. Even when the rod was removed a year and a half later in a second surgery, making music had become such a core part of his life that Jack knew he’d never live without it again.

Jack poses with his signature Offset Fender Mustang.

High school was largely uneventful after Jack’s brush with death, and then, after 2 years at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, a small, private, Catholic university in Merrimack, New Hampshire, he moved to Houston, Texas for romance—a relationship, he’s quick to clarify, that’s long since ended. Fortunately for those of us in Houston, Jack ended up staying here, going to St. Thomas University and switching his major from Humanities to Communications, with a concentration in Print Journalism. While at St. Thomas, he started writing for the now-defunct local publication Free Press Houston, which was a monthly magazine focused on arts, entertainment, culture, and politics. Despite the magazine not having the pedigree of daily newspapers, it was a fixture in local establishments, with a circulation of 30,000 issues per month. Jack admits that though the role didn’t bolster his writing ability very much, it did provide stability and visibility, as well as access to things in the art and music communities he might have otherwise missed.

After graduating, Jack continued to moonlight at Free Press Houston while transitioning into writing at one of the oil and gas industry’s longest-running publications: World Oil. It was a major change for Jack, as the review and editing process was incredibly rigorous versus his work at Free Press Houston, which was less formal. The mentorship, though, was also on another level, with Jack briefly working for two established and well-respected industry veterans. “I had some great mentors there, including Kurt Abraham, who taught me a lot about writing and editing,” Jack says. “He was always very patient with me. Pramod Kulkarni, who’s now an executive director at the Clean Oil & Gas Foundation, was another great one.” The job was mostly editing and rewriting articles to adhere to style and word count requirements, and Jack not only improved as a writer during this time but learned an incredible amount about the energy industry. “They forced me to step up my game,” he says. “It was my first truly professional writing job, and I’m very grateful I had that opportunity.”

Jack admits that this first job ended up in them parting ways after Kurt realized that he needed someone with a little more experience, but he had become part of the oil and gas industry, opening doors he wouldn’t have had a year prior. His next job, which he started almost immediately after World Oil, was with a newly formed division of Lloyd’s Register (LR), an historical organization based out of London that was primarily known as a marine classification society. Due to the acquisition of two companies that were well-known for their inspection and certification of blowout preventers (BOPs), the Lloyd’s Register Energy division (now Vysus Group) needed a team of technical editors to review the comprehensive reports produced by offshore surveyors before those reports were submitted to operators and major governmental agencies, like BSEE and BOEM. That’s where Jack came in.

“The job at LR required a lot of editing,” Jack recalls. “The writing was kind of menial, but I was able to learn so much about the oil and gas industry, especially offshore.” The final reports, which the team would prepare and send to customers worldwide in giant binders, could be more than 1,000 pages, much of it taken up by what was called the Acceptance Test Procedure, or ATP, for the BOP. This one Excel document was frequently more than 300 pages by itself, an exercise in endurance to edit the often-jumbled text, cell by cell, until the end was reached. What the technical editors were receiving was typically the notes of the surveyor offshore, typed in haste at odd hours in between inspections and sleeping.

The contents of the final report didn’t read like Shakespeare when they came through, which wasn’t a surprise—the surveyors had more important tasks to carry out, like making sure that the report accurately indicated any problems with the BOP and its related systems and controls. Fortunately for Jack, the workload kept him employed and busy, even though what he was doing wasn’t especially fulfilling. After a year and a half, enough was enough, and Jack felt like he had the experience to look for a more fitting editorial job. “I had some great colleagues at LR, and I had a really good time overall,” he says. “I’m grateful for my time there, but after a while—and I think this happened to a lot of people—I got bored, and I knew it was time to move on.”

Jack’s next gig was writing for the Journal of Petroleum Technology, or JPT, the flagship publication of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. Continuing the trend started at while writing for World Oil, Jack was gifted with a mentor early on, this time the magazine’s publisher, John Donnelly. “Me and John hit it off really well, and he was another person, like Kurt, who was a good professional mentor,” Jack explains. “He wasn’t just a friend and someone I could talk to, but someone who looked at my writing very critically and help me develop it. He helped me learn to self-edit so I could anticipate the things that editors would want from me. He was just fantastic, and he reminded me of my dad, in the best possible way—quiet, patient, intelligent.”

While much of JPT—at the time still a print magazine, with distribution to more than 70,000 people—was dedicated to technical content focused on published SPE papers, the magazine also had sections covering E&P news and trends, as well as information around commodity pricing, general oilfield economics, professional development, and so on. The more experienced editors were often tasked with taking the SPE papers, which were sometimes 25 pages or longer in length, and condensing them down to a few pages that clearly articulated what was explained in the paper. Perhaps more fortunately for Jack, he covered the opposite end, writing and editing more journalistic stories in line with his experience and education. While he was only there for a year and a half, the time was formative, and the gold star on the résumé helped him get a job at Argus Media, a mid-sized company based in London responsible for commodity pricing and reporting where, interestingly enough, John Donnelly had once worked.

After interviewing for what he thought would be a position covering crude oil pricing, Jack found himself in an entirely different industry: metals. “I didn’t quite realize the breadth of commodities Argus covered,” he says. “So, I ended up talking to the metals guy during the interview process, which involved speaking with editors from various different markets. We got along really well. I brought issues of World Oil and JPT where I was bylined and handed them out like party favors, and he was really impressed. I was told afterwards that more than one editor wanted to hire me—though I still don’t know if they were saying that to make me feel better—but I went with aluminum.” Though energy and metals overlap in some instances, they’re still relatively separated market niches, and aluminum is a niche within a niche. It’s a very specialized subsection of the metals market, with coverage focused in the hands of a select few. 

Jack at the Southern Core Recycling (SCR) facility in Houston

“I’d say that in North America, there are 12 people or fewer who cover aluminum,” Jack says. “I’m glad that I wasn’t scared away by the fact that it was a niche, though now, I’m finding out more and more that aluminum is in everything. We’re in a time where aluminum is seeing record investment in things like automotive body sheets, new canning plants, and other applications that are seeing new money. It’s exciting to report on all that.”

Jack makes an appearance on the Recycled Idaho Podcast on Metal Monday Episode 11, with hosts Brett Ekart and Nick Snyder of United Metals Recycling.

While at its core Jack’s job requires him to report on the commodity, it’s not quite that simple. “I’ve had to do a lot of cold-calling and source-building,” he says. “I did have some skills from when I was at World Oil, because I was interviewing people in that role, and the same thing for JPT, but I wasn’t totally prepared for it. Calling people about prices and figuring out what different commodities are trading at is very different. It’s high-pressure. Some of these people aren’t even supposed to be talking to you, so you have to really build that relationship. It’s not scheduled or a one-and-done thing. You’re calling them frequently.” Whether it’s talking to someone every day or two or once a month, being the person in need of something puts Jack in a position where he has to justify the exchange and make it worth his contacts’ time and effort while obtaining what he needs to do his job. Getting to the level where he can do so fairly easily took time, but it paid off with a network of contacts willing to regularly provide insight into their companies and the broader market, which Jack then transforms into reports that Argus Media provides its subscribers. Sometimes, those reports are even picked up by publications focused on stock market analysis like Seeking Alpha and used as a sort of second-hand review. Seeing his work distributed in this way has been incredibly fulfilling.

September 2021 makes 6 years Jack will have been covering this market for Argus, but he’s never felt bored or stifled by the position. “It’s a big growth market, and there’s more and more news to cover as I’ve followed this beat,” he explains. “It’s getting busier and busier, and it’s a perfect niche for my skill set. What I love about Argus is that because we do a combination of news and price reporting, I’m able to write about both. The news stories are very distilled versions of key information in the market, and the need for them to be quickly read and understood really helped me tighten up my writing. In the past, I’d had a lot of time to get everything perfect. With daily news reporting, you’re trying to get scoops, so it’s very fast-paced and competitive.” Though initially daunting to switch from the types of monthly publications where deadlines were further out and editors were given substantial exposure to subject-matter experts and sources, Jack credits overcoming his fear of the challenge and the great mentorship he’s received through the years as being the catalysts for him to thrive in the position.

Of course, it isn’t all aluminum, all the time for Jack, as his passion for music is alive and well. “I’m still making music, and I love it,” he says. “Even though I bounce between periods of activity, it’s a big part of my life. I put out an album earlier this year on Spotify, for example, and some of my work is on Instagram under the name ‘Running Out of Reasons Band.’ I’m taking a break right now, though, to play some videogames and read more books.” He’s also marrying his fiancée, Chelsea Hunt, in December this year, staying busy with the myriad logistics of planning a wedding. Something of a horror movie buff, you might also find him searching through the most obscure and worst movies on any given Friday or Saturday night, scrolling through recommendations as he sinks deeper and deeper into the Shudder or Amazon black hole. This is actually something of a weekly tradition, with Jack and I meeting at his house for a watch session into the wee hours of the morning.

 Jack and his fiancée Chelsea.

You rarely see me speak in my own voice in these articles, but I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Jack for being one of my best friends. You’re a hell of a guy, and I appreciate you. I, and the whole OGGN team—check out his podcast with dashing, bearded Canadian Justin Gauthier here—wish you nothing but good fortune and happiness as you move forward in your career and personal life.

Building an Empire: Bricklaying, Hydraulic Fracturing, and the Wilks’ Family Legacy

In a special bonus article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to Matt Wilks, President and Chief Financial Officer at ProFrac, about working for his family’s masonry business, their tumultuous journey into the world of hydraulic fracturing, and how he and the team at ProFrac are aiming to solve some of the oil and gas industry’s biggest ESG challenges.

“There are two types of people. People who have accomplished things and people who have claimed to accomplish things. The first group is less crowded.” ―Mark Twain

Right from the start, Matt Wilks knew he would be one who would accomplish things.  

“The concept of working hard to achieve success stretches back generations,” says Matt. “Growth and drive must start somewhere, and for us, it was handed down from watching our grandfather, Voy Wilks, put in an honest day’s work, all to build a foundation for our family.” Following in his father’s footsteps, Dan Wilks started Central Masonry and Central Oil & Gas. Dan ran and managed those from 1977 to 1995, finding a love for the oil industry through Central Oil and Gas. During the ‘80s economic downturn in the oil and gas industry, Dan returned to the masonry business, where he and his brother Farris founded Wilks Masonry in 1995. It was built on a solid reputation for providing clients with quality craftsmanship while adhering to the highest standards of professionalism and safety. 

“We’re a family of bricklayers, and I thought I would be a bricklayer my whole life,” Matt explains. Matt was inspired by the work ethic inherent in brick laying, noting “The chance to build something tangible and create a legacy brick by brick made it worth all the long days.” This hard work helped naturally foster the skills necessary to run a successful business. “Most of the things we know about operating a lucrative business, we learned while managing the family masonry business—managing people and supply chains, how to bid work, how to manage financials, and how your operations communicate and flow through.”

Starting in the family business at the age of 12 years old, he agreed to work for free during his vacations to see if he could learn what bricklaying was about. If he could learn quick enough, he could continue as a bricklayer. 

Matt established a reputation in Wilks Masonry long before he became an executive, and it’s that ability to understand people, he says, that helped him succeed. “You learn to identify goals that everyone can get behind.” Matt continued to advance in his career based on his influential leadership skills, ability to negotiate and close deals, and talent for quickly analyzing and understanding financials. During Matt’s time at Wilks Masonry, he helped drive sales and profitability to record highs.

During this period, Dan and Farris began to venture into the oil and gas industry.  After acquiring land in the Barnett Shale, the two began a drilling campaign ahead of the play becoming a prolific activity hotspot. Matt remembers a particular well, as he says, “came on screaming” before production quickly declined. “I remember being a kid when they drilled this well and I thought, this is it, we’ve made it! Then, 3 or 4 days later, it fizzled out.” 

With demand for services high and fracking rapidly eclipsing drilling in a well’s AFE, Dan and Farris saw an opportunity to enter this burgeoning part of the industry. Due to the high cost of entry into the hydraulic fracturing space, they found a supplier, Warren-Cat, and built the first four units, and then began purchasing parts from a variety of providers. When the assembler they’d hired suddenly quit, they turned their attention to an unusual candidate: Larry Gerhart, a warranty supervisor for the company’s forklifts with a brilliant mechanical mind. He was a farmer who was a self-taught in building and repairing equipment.  With no knowledge of hydraulic fracturing pumps, Larry built four fully functional frac pumps in 90 days.  

A few years later, Matt began his foray into the Frac Tech business, holding senior positions in finance, operations, and logistics. In these years, Matt continued to differentiate himself with his leadership skills and keen business acumen. Matt admits, “It was a grind because this business is incredibly capital-intensive. It was tough, but we knew everything was on the line.”

A turning point for the business occurred in 2006, when Chesapeake bought roughly 20% of the company for $250 million, which allowed them to dramatically scale the business. As Matt explains, “We started cranking fleets out like there was no tomorrow. We ran into supply chain bottlenecks everywhere—we couldn’t get pumps or the power ends for them.” Matt remembers Dan driving down the highway and seeing the OEM’s power ends on trucks, yet mysteriously, Frac Tech couldn’t seem to get their shipments. So, he would track the trucks and go back to the OEM, asking them directly where the shipments were headed when Frac Tech had POs opened for months with no delivery. After finding out that the OEM was selling Frac Tech’s power ends to other customers at elevated prices due to part scarcity, Dan showed up on their doorstep to demand his product. The sheer tenacity and force of will it took to make this happen stuck with Matt to this day.

The same problem occurred with fluid ends, sand, and chemicals, so Frac Tech took a different approach—they started their own manufacturing, mining, and chemical engineering operations. “We started machining our own fluid ends,” Matt says. “We couldn’t get any sand, anywhere, so we opened up a sand mine. We couldn’t get chemicals, so we started up a chemical division.” 

Building a company this way wasn’t the usual way of doing things, but Matt believes that being a part of the deals and working with his family significantly impacted the way he’s approached his career. “Being a part of the Wilks family, you quickly realize that we are determined to get things accomplished,” he says. “We were just able to get things done. There’s this perception that you need to get a business plan together, go pitch it to enough people, and if they believe in you, you might get some funding. We’ve always taken the approach that we’ll just get something started and go with it and compound those results.”

During Matt’s time at Frac Tech, logistics costs and infrastructure constraints became an issue, so Matt transitioned to oversee the supply chain side. The directive was simple: just make it happen. Matt went to railroad companies and negotiated better rates, and Frac Tech built many of its own trans load facilities. “We went from a couple hundred trucks to 600 trucks, which only represented about 60% of the loads we were running,” Matt explains. “We had to manage outside vendors, get really close with the underbelly of the business. This was a supply chain-driven business. It’s like in war; if you can’t keep the supply chain going, you can’t win the war. If you don’t have sand, you can’t frac. If you can’t get to the location, you can’t frac. We had to work out all these issues right as the industry was dramatically changing, and it was pretty wild.”

Much of what Matt learned through the Frac Tech years was related to the power of networking and building meaningful connections. This was a time—one where handshake-driven sales and personal relationships could have more weight than anything else—that has in many ways passed the oilfield by, with contracts and pricing now coordinated via procurement departments and often buried in organizational hierarchies and red tape. 

When Frac Tech brought 24-hour operations to the market, it was a new concept, investment analysts not even fully understanding the calculations. “They’d see our forecasts and say, ‘This can’t be right,’” Matt recalls. “‘With this level of fleet utilization, you should be at 180%. That’s impossible.’ And the thing was, they didn’t understand that this included both the day and night operations.” Matt is proud of these early years with Frac Tech, not only because of the innovations the company brought to the market, but because the company changed the way the industry looked at supply chain. 

In 2011, Dan and Farris successfully sold Frac Tech, receiving $3.5 billion of the $5.5 billion sale. After the sale, Matt found himself back in the heart of the family business at Wilks Brothers, LLC as Portfolio Manager focusing on managing public and private market investments stretching across various other sectors like real estate, construction, agriculture, energy lifecycle, and land development.

In 2016, ProFrac, the Wilks Brothers’ current hydraulic fracturing company, was formed. Matt says that they had to once again rapidly and aggressively scale up, but his years at Frac Tech and with the Wilks Brothers family office had prepared him. “At that point, I had a lot of relationships,” he explains. “I knew bankers, and I was presenting at a lot of different investment and energy conferences. I made sure I told everyone, ‘We’re back! We’ve put the band back together!’” The plan was to build up an incredible amount of horsepower, revive the junk equipment they could, and flood the market with new product.

There were some ups and downs, but the strategy paid off, and in 2018, Matt became the President and CFO of ProFrac. “I was plugged into the pulse of this business from very early on,” Matt says. For Matt, it was always about developing—and at times, acquiring—the assets that were necessary for ProFrac to keep a leg up on the competition. When the market sank and the prolonged downturn began, Matt was ready. When some of the largest competitors attempted to stamp them out, Matt was ready. When they couldn’t get the pricing they were looking for, Matt was ready.  During his time with ProFrac, Matt has continued to showcase his role as a leader and inspire others.

Today, the company is thriving as one of the largest hydraulic fracturing providers in the world, but what ProFrac is doing stretches beyond just providing more horsepower. Matt and the management team are investing in operating the company in a way that reduces environmental impact and improves sustainability, both financially and operationally. Recently, ProFrac invested in a new dual-fuel frac pump system that draws natural gas from existing pipeline infrastructure—the perfect partnership between service provider and operating company. This approach not only impacts each company’s bottom line but allows them to produce the resources that power the world in a safer and more environmentally conscious manner. These units aren’t the least expensive option, nor are they as easy to make—but they prove that ProFrac is invested in making the world a better place.

ProFrac invested in EKU Power Drives, which develops engine standby controllers for oil and gas operations, in 2020. By retrofitting the EKU unit to existing pressure pumping equipment, ProFrac now has equipment that will automatically turn off during non-operating time, shutting down the powertrain when it is not pumping and immediately restarting it to full load upon request. This is akin to some modern automobiles that have a system that briefly powers off the car’s engine when at a stoplight. With the frac pumps automatically turned off and on between stages, ProFrac reduces the wear and tear on the equipment and eliminates the emissions and fuel consumption.

Through the years, one thing Matt has always wanted to do is remain humble. It has never been about money or recognition, but rather getting up every day and doing something he loves. In that pursuit, Matt has been very blessed.

Dodging Bullets and Conquering Mountains: The Story of Alan Garza Becoming a Spectral Analysis Wunderkind

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

In a special bonus article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to Alan Garza, Product Marketing Manager for Advanced Analysis at Endress+Hauser, about his childhood growing up in Houston, his winding path through education and a variety of interesting jobs, and how he ended up moving to Bloomington, Indiana with his now-wife to pursue a career in one of Endress+Hauser’s most specialized product lines.

Climbing a 13,000-ft mountain in Idaho Springs, Colorado in 2018.

Alan Garza was born in Monterrey, the capital and largest city of the northeastern state of Nuevo León, Mexico. Monterrey, as it were—which loosely translates to “king of the mountain”—informed a lifelong love of climbing. “I have this weird fascination with climbing mountains and getting to the top of them,” Alan says. “I love challenges, so anything that involves a challenge, I really get into.” Reaching for the top, both in his personal and professional life, has been his motto since those early years in Mexico, the sweltering heat doing little to stifle Alan’s desire to seek adventure.

Alan’s father and the family’s mule, which they used to pull a cart holding the young Garzas, in Monterrey.

When he was in the third grade, Alan recalls that the teacher asked the students who intended to go to college—an interesting choice of question, perhaps, for an educator to ask a group of children who had just learned reading, writing, and math, but something he remembers to this day. “I grew up in the inner city, and we had drive-by shootings weekly on the street by my house,” he says. “There was one gang on one corner, and another gang on the other corner. Long story short—school was never a really big thing in my neighborhood.” His mother and father, who had a ninth- and sixth-grade education, respectively, had brought the family to the United States in pursuit of a better life, wanting their children to have opportunities they never did. His father held a steady job his entire life, but he wanted more for his son and made sure Alan knew that.

“So, I raised my hand in that classroom and said I was going to go to college,” Alan recalls. “I knew, even then, that I had to do something to move forward. As an immigrant, that’s what we’re always trying to do—enable that progress for the next generation. That’s who we are.” Alan’s parents, he said, wanted the same thing for his sisters, and so the whole family grew up with this desire for them to lead successful, fulfilled lives. Raising his hand that fateful day in class—one of the proud few to do so—may very well have been the first step on Alan’s journey, but as with most things, it wasn’t necessarily easy.

The Garza family, with a young Alan at top.

As a person more driven by emotion and a desire to act, Alan says that even though he was passionate about learning, traditional schooling never really clicked for him. “I was never really the best student,” he admits. “I would get incredibly bored in class. I could study afterward and learn the information then, but during class, it just didn’t keep my attention.” The one subject he was excited for was physical education, with Alan getting involved in sports throughout high school. “I was an All-District football player at Reagan High School, playing as a defensive end/linebacker,” he says. “I also played basketball every day. I was really into athletics, and that helped motivate me to come to school every day and get the grades I needed to get to pass.” When he tore a ligament in his left wrist, a less-than-stellar doctor wrapped his hand up, had him skip a game, and let him back on the field for the rest of the season. Thankfully not his dominant hand, the injury—and subsequent recurring pain—nonetheless ended any thought Alan might have had about sports being more than a hobby.

Alan on the Reagan High School football team.

Growing up, Alan didn’t really know that his life in the high-crime neighborhood was different than what most people usually experience. “I realized that I didn’t know that gunshots weren’t normal,” he says. “For me, it was normal to hear gunshots every day.” He describes a harrowing moment where a brush with death was a little too close for comfort: “I was playing basketball one time with my neighbors, half of whom happened to be Crips, and as I was laying up a shot, I looked to my right and saw a Chevy Impala coming around the corner. When they pulled up and stopped, we knew something was going to happen, so we scattered. I ran as fast as I could, and as soon as I took off running, I heard gunshots behind me. I mean, I was running so fast I tripped over my own feet and basically did a front roll. My mom had a pretty low fence around the house, so I hopped over it and hid behind the house and prayed that I wouldn’t get hit.” Where did this happen? “The North Side of Houston,” Alan laughs. “Yeah, I know.” It should be no wonder that the teenage Alan, who grew up watching Power Rangers and practicing high kicks, took up martial arts to learn to defend himself.

After high school, Alan’s college dream seemed oddly distant, as those years in secondary education showed him that he wasn’t a typical learner. After working a few dead-end jobs and making enough money to get by, however, Alan says that he knew he had to take control and do something with his life. Briefly considering joining the military, Alan instead opted to stay home and help his father through some health issues he was going through at the time, remembering how important family was to him. He then decided to give community college a chance, but a placement exam for his starting coursework revealed the problem with skating by in his earlier years.

“You know how they say some people started at the bottom?” he asks. “Well, I started from hell.”

Making his way through the slog of remedial coursework, Alan took it one class at a time—and lo and behold, after starting three classes behind in mathematics, he found that he actually did like math, his analytical mind and quick thinking a good combo with putting the intricacies of calculations and equations into practice. “I started doing really well, and I surprised myself,” he says. Working at what he says was a “sketchy” check cashing business—located smack-dab in the middle of a crime-riddled neighborhood—Alan was approached by a friend who worked at a gym to come work with him. Thankful to be free of checking the ATM machine by himself and wondering if he was going to be held at gunpoint, Alan found himself working at Kicks Indoor Soccer.

Alan and the team at Kicks Indoor Soccer.

Interestingly, his colleagues were very much like him. “Everyone there was either an engineering student, computer scientist, or philosophy major,” Alan explains. “It was odd, but it actually motivated me to transfer to the University of Houston.” Starting in computer science, he quickly realized the program wasn’t for him. The difference in ability between Alan’s community college coursework and that of his peers was readily apparent, and the learning curve was significant, with Alan behind from the get-go. Sealing the deal was the fact that sitting at a computer and coding for 12 hours at a time wasn’t the kind of fulfilling work Alan had been looking for.

But what was the magic ticket? Alan didn’t really know, so he took a year to take a bunch of unrelated classes in the hopes of finding something that inspired him. “I went to business school, I took geology courses…I just took a bunch of weird classes,” he says. “I also took weight-lifting classes and worked out with trainers from the football team. I was really just trying to keep myself in school and figure out what I wanted to do.” When he reconnected with his best friend, whose family was doing missionary work in Central America, Alan decided to look upward instead of inward. “I asked God, ‘what should I do?’” Alan remembers. “I just didn’t know what to do with my life at this point. And you know what He said? He said that I should be an engineer.”

Transferring first into the Cullen College of Engineering and then to the College of Technology, Alan immersed himself in the degree, which he admits was more about physics and less about math than he’d been led to realize. Regardless, at that point there was no turning back, as time was flying by and student loans were looming in the distance. Working nights at Kicks and going to school during the day, Alan was stretched a bit thin. When Kicks was sold, Alan feared the worst, as he’d been putting his earnings towards his education. A lucky break with a soccer player at the facility found Alan’s financial stability saved, at least temporarily. “This guy, he wanted to start an importing company,” Alan says. “He was going to import cars from Japan, like Nissan Skylines and Toyota Supras, and sell them in Houston. I’d been playing video games my whole life, and I loved the ‘Need for Speed’ series. I was all about it, even though I didn’t know much about cars other than how they looked.”

Alan and his team at UH developed a prototype electric vehicle for their capstone project.

When the importing business failed, the owner decided to turn the facility into a shop for performance cars. Given the opportunity to stay on despite the change, Alan decided to take the offer. As it turned out, the time at the performance shop was a blessing in disguise. “I learned to sharpen my engineering skills while I was at the shop,” Alan notes. “Figuring out how to upgrade normal cars to have 1,000 horsepower and how to order the parts and project manage each vehicle, it helped me develop in a professional way that I never thought such a job would. I was working on $60,000 projects and helping people who had the money build these crazy cars.”

Alan in one of the owner’s imported cars.

Things took a turn when Alan was honest with the owner and told him that he intended to get an engineering job after college. “I told him I wanted to put my engineering degree to work, and he said, ‘OK, cool. You’ve got two months to find another job. Appreciate the time you’ve been here,’” Alan says. “It was quite a shock because I’d helped start that business from the ground up twice. I’d done the marketing for it, the social media, everything. So, I was kind of hurt, but being a believer, I knew God was going to bring me something better.”

When his girlfriend, who’d just finished her master’s degree, had an opportunity to get her doctorate at Indiana University—basically a full ride—Alan decided to try and go with her, hoping to find a job in the new state. Alan applied to multiple jobs in Indiana and Houston, but with competing offers from Honda, Endress+Hauser, and a drafting company in Indiana, the path forward was clear. With the payments from a new car coming in and a savings account that was rapidly approaching $0, Alan had to make a choice between the options. When he met Don Cummings at Endress+Hauser, who was then managing the rotational engineering program, the path was made clear. “He was just awesome,” Alan says. “We saw eye-to-eye even though he was a much higher level than me. He inspired me to truly be an engineer, when I’d mainly done it because I thought that was what God wanted me to do. He looked at me and said, ‘This is the best decision you’ll ever make.’ So, I kind of figured I was going to get the job at that point.”

The Endress+Hauser facility in Greenwood, Indiana. Image courtesy of Endress+Hauser.

Fast-forwarding a couple months, Alan did indeed get the job, a Houston transplant to Indiana working in Endress+Hauser’s rotational engineering program at the US headquarters in Greenwood. For those that aren’t familiar with the company, Endress+Hauser might be one of the largest companies you’ve never heard of. A global leader in measurement instrumentation and services for industrial process engineering, the company provides process solutions for flow, level, pressure, analytics, temperature, recording, and digital communications. A global enterprise with sales exceeding $3 billion, Endress+Hauser operates across a broad range of industries, including chemical, food and beverage, life sciences, power and energy, mining, minerals and metals, oil and gas, and water and wastewater.

Alan remembers that at the time, he would hear murmurings about not working on anything marked with an “SS,” which stood for SpectraSensors, one of the company’s recent acquisitions. Due to the newness of the business and relative lack of information on its advanced systems and processes, most of Endress+Hauser’s people were still mastering the specialized skills and knowledge necessary to operate the technology. Alan, however, was curious from the start, and when he emerged from the rotational engineering program after 6 months and was brought to inside sales engineering, a chance encounter with a SpectraSensors employee brought him one step closer to the mysterious systems. “It was my first week in the new job, and I went to get coffee, and I was talking to this guy there,” Alan remembers. “And as we were talking and I was telling him about wanting to know more about spectral analyzers, it turned out it was John Schnake, who was the general manager for SpectraSensors. He laughed and told me that you never know what could happen, that I might have a chance to work with them sooner than I thought.”

No sooner than Alan had went back to his cubicle did his manager stop by and let him know about a product champion position opening in gas analysis—with SpectraSensors—that he thought Alan should apply for. “He said it would be a challenge, because the product line was still being integrated and the knowledge just wasn’t there yet,” Alan explains. “Then he asked me if I’d be interested in taking on that challenge. I thought it was destiny, so I said, of course I’ll do it. Then I began to learn about the product line from the ground up.” With how new the acquisition was, Alan had to do a lot of digging to get up to speed, as there were limited resources available. Pressing forward, he flourished in the role for 2 years, covering the Midwest in applications engineering and passing along knowledge to inside sales engineers across the company. “I wanted to help create a network of people in the US who knew what was going on with this technology,” he says. “I wanted us to rely less on the engineers in the factory and be able to work on the products ourselves.”

Alan at the SpectraSensors office in California while working as an inside sales engineer.

Spectral analysis, and spectroscopy when it comes to Alan’s work, is an advanced form of chemistry and physics that studies the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation as a function of the wavelength or frequency of the radiation. If that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, don’t worry, as the field of study is incredibly specialized.

SpectraSensors is considered the industry pioneer for their advanced spectroscopy, which is called tunable diode laser absorption spectroscopy, or TDLAS. “The SpectraSensors’ TDLAS technology was actually developed by NASA at the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” Alan explains. “It was originally designed to measure moisture on Mars, and when I heard that, I nerded out a lot on that aspect. We were the innovator in bringing laser technology to gas measurement.” After pipeline accidents caused issues with moisture and corrosion to come into greater focus, the need for advanced solutions like those that SpectraSensors offers was made apparent. “Our analyzers are working at the molecular level of the volume of gas,” Alan continues. “The near-infrared laser’s wavelength is specifically tuned to look for the H20 molecules. When the light source hits the molecule, the H20 molecule will absorb some of the light intensity. Whenever the laser is reflected back through a mirror into the detector, there will be a subtraction of that intensity, showing a direct relation between the amount of moisture molecules and the measurement.”

In high-risk applications, even a single molecule of H20 could be a major problem. Of course, SpectraSensors’ TDLAS technology isn’t just looking for one thing. The company, which operates as a business within Endress+Hauser, describes its offerings as follows:

Utilizing proprietary extractive tunable diode laser absorption spectroscopy and other spectroscopic technologies, SpectraSensors delivers accurate and robust measurements with extremely fast response times. [Our] gas analyzers measure moisture (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), ammonia (NH3), acetylene (C2H2), oxygen (O2), and more.

Though these systems are often used with natural gas pipelines, there are quite a few areas where spectral analysis makes a lot of sense. “They can also be used in biogas, as there are contaminants that must be removed before the biomethane gets transferred to the natural gas pipeline and to the electrical grid,” Alan says. “Really, anything that has to do with natural gas with the proper sample condition, we can measure specific contaminants in. We also use the technology in hydrogen recycling systems in refineries and can also work with the recent addition of hydrogen in select natural gas pipelines.”

All in all, life has turned out pretty well for Alan after immigrating from Mexico and learning English when he was 3 years old from cartoons; and certainly, after his close encounters with inner city violence and his meandering path through traditional education. Once he settled down in Bloomington, Indiana, he ended up marrying his girlfriend, who’s still in the doctorate program for music theory, and gets to watch with a bit of wonder as she plays six instruments and plans her path to being a professor in the not-too-distant future. He gets to help manage one of Endress+Hauser’s most interesting and differentiated product lines and spread knowledge of what the group does and why it matters. He works with incredible people day-in and day-out and considers every new adventure a blessing. And, when he has some free time, you may just catch him playing a game of Apex Legends, which he’s gotten pretty good at through what he admits are way too many hours of playtime. It seems it would be better to meet the optimistic Alan, with bright eyes and a big grin, outside of the game—if you want to protect your own record, at least. 

Alan and his wife.

Louisiana Summers with his Grandparents, Upstream E&P and Midstream Pipelines, and Water Management Innovation: The Incredible Life of John Durand, Part Two

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

In Episode 22 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed John Durand, President and Chief Sustainability Officer at XRI. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with John about his life and career. In Part II, John discusses his years with Crosstex Energy, his transition to Pioneer Water Management as he helped negotiate landmark deals with Midland and Odessa, and now, his role leading one of the industry’s most innovative water management and produced water midstream companies, XRI.

In the wake of the collapse of the energy industry post-Enron in the early 2000s, John became a principal in a large, international engineering and architecture firm, running private and public sector business development and serving as the national program manager for the company’s wind energy development services portfolio. “We were basically a full-service engineering firm for hire, assisting in the design and build-out of multi-fuel generation facilities from coast to coast,” John says. “I didn’t necessarily have the technical expertise for that job, either, but I also am not one to shy away from a challenge. My role and responsibilities were more about effectively communicating and developing processes with the engineering and technical personnel and then focusing on working together as a cohesive team to manage those processes to bring as many projects to fruition as possible.” 

As the energy industry began to recover in 2004, John embarked on the next journey of his career. It was during this time that what is now known as the conventional midstream business became a true sector unto itself in the oil and gas industry. Assets formerly known as “gathering and processing” or “producer services”, which had previously been built, owned, and operated in-house by E&P operators, were now finding new ownership and asset development opportunities in the form of private equity-backed midstream companies. Operating oil and gas companies began monetizing their midstream assets and outsourcing the transportation, gathering, and processing of crude oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids (NGLs) to the evolving midstream sector.

Joining Crosstex Energy (now known as EnLink Midstream) in the mid-2000s was what John refers to as a pivotal moment in his career in several ways. “Crosstex had recently become a public company, and the opportunity for personal and professional leadership growth was there for the taking,” he remembers. “Crosstex was the first company I had ever worked for that emphasized such things as the importance of building a healthy corporate culture, with an emphasis on very stringent and disciplined hiring practices and focused professional development of our people resources. We worked extremely hard because initially Crosstex didn’t have a large number of employees, but as we built the company that practice of disciplined hiring paid off, with a company culture and group of professionals that, I believe, was second to none in the industry at that point in time. We established ourselves as a company and had great success, particularly when the shale resource play began to boom, which initially occurred in the Barnett Shale in north Texas.”

As a matter of fact, Crosstex developed and built the first dedicated midstream natural gas pipeline and processing complex dedicated exclusively to Barnett Shale production. Given that shale play horizontal drilling required considerably more water than conventional vertical drilling, it was during this time that John would become aware of an upstart water treatment and recycling company known as Fountain Quail doing work for oil and gas operators in the Barnett Shale. Little did John or anyone else realize at the time, but Fountain Quail would become a significant factor in John’s career some 15 years later.

Crosstex’s growth and reputation for hiring talented and strong leaders became common knowledge within the midstream sector and, as it’s said, success breeds success. As the shale boom expanded in the Barnett, the Marcellus Shale play located in Pennsylvania and West Virginia began development a few years later, and many of Crosstex Energy’s most talented managers ended up leading or becoming a part of management teams at many of Crosstex’s growing list of midstream competitors. As it would turn out, John was recruited to another Dallas-based midstream company to become a member of its management team in 2013. “Leaving Crosstex was an extremely difficult decision given the relationships developed there with so many people throughout the organization, but the opportunity to join PVR Partners was too good to pass up,” he says. “Fortunately, I remain very close with many of the people with whom I developed long-lasting friendships with at Crosstex; again, a testament to the professionalism and the quality of people who helped build the company.”

As there had been and continued to be a considerable amount of industry consolidation among midstream companies, however, another dramatic change happened within just a few months of John joining PVR. “I found myself overseeing the sale of PVR to another Dallas-based midstream company,” John explains. It was, at first, a shocking and surreal development, but the assets of PVR, spread among multiple basins, were too valuable. In the end, the sale of the company would lead to yet another fascinating career path opportunity for John.

Just about the time that PVR was closing its sale of the company, John was approached by a former co-worker at Crosstex, who was now building a management team for a wholly owned subsidiary of Pioneer Natural Resources, the leading E&P company in the Midland basin. The subsidiary company was called Pioneer Water Management (PWM), and John was hired on to round out PWM’s management team and lead the commercial, supply, and logistics functions for the newly formed entity. In a career filled with seminal moments and opportunities for growth into new or developing sectors of the energy industry, John is effusive in his praise for the foresight Pioneer displayed in creating PWM.

“One of the greatest things that has ever occurred in my career was having the opportunity to work for Pioneer,” he says. “I give Pioneer tremendous credit for being such a visionary company when it comes to water management. From an E&P operator’s perspective, Pioneer’s decision to form PWM and declare back in 2014 that they were going to cease using fresh water for hydraulic fracturing within a 5-year time horizon, speaks to the remarkable environmental and corporate stewardship of the company.”  

In his designated role at PWM, John was the commercial lead in negotiating agreements with the cities of Midland and Odessa to purchase their effluent, or secondarily treated wastewater, for the company’s long-term water supply requirements. “Those public private partnerships have and will have, for decades into the future, an incredibly beneficial economic impact for those cities and their citizens,” John explains. “And now, Pioneer has the rights to use that water and not use fresh water anymore in their operations. Working with the cities of Odessa and Midland is truly a highlight of my career for which I will forever be grateful. To be involved with so many different stakeholders and working with municipalities and the entire PWM team in building out the necessary infrastructure to connect literally hundreds of thousands of barrels of ‘drought-proof’ wastewater for resource development is a win-win for both municipalities and Pioneer. The unique experience of working with Pioneer and being part of the company’s plan to fund and construct a wastewater treatment plant in Midland was a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

While at Pioneer, John became familiar with a company called XRI, a full-cycle water management and produced water midstream company that was helping kick-start Pioneer’s efforts to move away from the use of fresh water. At this point, XRI was establishing its presence as a singularly unique provider of non-potable water supply, with Pioneer and PWM becoming one of XRI’s first major customers. It was through this collaboration that John met Matt Gabriel, the co-founder and CEO of XRI, and the two worked together as XRI became a trusted partner of Pioneer for its water management needs.

When John eventually left Pioneer to go to a water management startup, Matt was the first person outside of his own family that John called. “Matt and I had developed a strong relationship over the years, so I owed him the courtesy to let him know directly about my leaving Pioneer,” John says.  A couple of years later, John would once again reach out to his old friend. “Matt was, again, the first person I called, just to let him know I was contemplating another move,” John remembers. “The rest is history. I came on board at XRI in 2019 as President and Chief Sustainability Officer, with Matt challenging me to help lead the company—which was already very successful—in what was an evolving and dynamic market. In the new role, I wanted to assist in doing something that would be transformational and quickly grow the influence and capabilities of XRI.”

To accomplish this, John turned his eyes towards expanding the company. “Going back to those Barnett Shale days while with Crosstex, I recalled the company that had pioneered water treatment and recycling called Fountain Quail Water Management, and I’d kept in touch with them over the years and worked with them while at Pioneer,” John says. “I made the introduction between Fountain Quail and XRI’s respective leadership teams and, within a few months, Fountain Quail became the first acquisition XRI ever made. Prior to the acquisition, we had grown entirely organically. We didn’t know then just how transformational the transaction would be, but now, within 2 years, we’ve become the leader in water reuse and recycling in the Permian Basin.”

The transformation of a company – XRI’s acquisition of Fountain Quail

With the push for greater environmental, social and governance (ESG) accountability growing ever stronger, John is confident that demand for produced water reuse and recycling services will continue to thrive, and currently XRI is on pace in 2021 to recycle and reuse approximately 200 million barrels of produced water throughout its considerable footprint in the Midland and Delaware sub-basins of the Permian. By the fourth quarter of 2021, XRI’s recycling volume should expand from its current 500,000 barrels per day to more than 700,000 barrels per day. “Produced water is the preferred source water for completions among our operator customers in the Permian, and I am proud to be a part of a company like XRI, which has had a focus on sustainability, resource conservation, and environmental stewardship from our origins in 2013,” John says.

“XRI’s commitment to sustainability and ESG initiatives and those of our customers will always be our team’s overarching mission.”

While XRI currently operates in the North American market, John says XRI has its sights set on potential international expansion in the future, given the growing need for the kind of technology and service the company offers, and not every project that XRI takes on will necessarily be energy industry related. “Some of these projects will be for the treatment of water in other industries,” John explains. “It’s very gratifying to see that what we’re doing with produced water in the Permian Basin can translate to new opportunities both at home and abroad. With a couple of projects, we could become a multinational company, which is very exciting—especially as it lends itself to working outside of your comfort zone, to begin working in new focus areas outside of energy.”

With the power of making meaningful connections manifesting in John’s life in such huge ways, he wants to ensure that his own children have experiences like he had growing up. “Without a doubt, the best connection I ever made in my life was meeting and marrying my wife, who is not only the mother of our children, but truly the finest and most genuine human being I have ever known,” John says. “She has done such an incredible job raising our daughters, particularly given all the time I have spent away from home during my career. I tell our daughters all the time—one who’s graduated from college and is successfully off on her career, the other who’s a junior in college—you have to network, build relationships, and most importantly take on as many opportunities and challenges as you can, because you never know where the steppingstones and the building blocks of your life and career may be.  Finally, there is no substitute for pushing yourself to do your absolute best at whatever you are doing, because ultimately it will be noticed.”

John continues: “Hopefully, much like I was able to learn so much from my parents and grandparents, they’ll pick up on that and realize that the quality of the relationships you develop is what matters. It may look like there was a master plan for my career, but there really wasn’t. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful life and career, and I really appreciate all the key and incredible people that have educated me and kept me humble along the way.”

Any success I may have had is due to my strong belief in doing things the right way the first time, treating people well, and recognizing that true success comes from working together with a cohesive, dedicated team all working together toward a common goal and set of objectives.

We at OGGN wish John and the entire XRI team continued success, and we deeply appreciate the work he does to make the world a better place.

Louisiana Summers with his Grandparents, Upstream E&P and Midstream Pipelines, and Water Management Innovation: The Incredible Life of John Durand, Part One

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

In Episode 22 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed John Durand, President and Chief Sustainability Officer at XRI. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with John about his life and career. In Part I, John talks about the influence of his parents and grandparents growing up in Louisiana, his work with Union Pacific Resources and helping develop pipeline restructuring regulation, and time with Williams Energy siting natural gas-fired power generation project

Growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana, John Durand understood the work ethic it took to be successful from an early age. “Other than his military service as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force, my dad was a petroleum geologist for his entire working life, and my mom was involved in real estate for almost three decades,” he explains. “So, entrepreneurial, hard-working parents were just a part of my upbringing. I give my mom credit for providing me an acute understanding at a fairly early age the skills and nuances of negotiation and relationship-building, having observed and listened to her work deals over the phone for many years.” After the Air Force, John’s dad started his career with an energy major but branched out shortly thereafter, starting what would end up as a lifelong consultancy. Because of the nature of his dad’s work, John found himself surrounded by the oil and gas industry, and it fascinated him.

“It’s all I ever knew,” he says. “I was an only child for the first 8½ years of my life until my brother was born; so, hanging around my mom, dad, grandparents, and their contemporaries was a key part of my upbringing, with each influencing me in different ways. Being able to sit there and watch my dad create countless subsurface and contour maps—long before the advent of 3-D and 4-D seismic—always determinedly looking to find energy resources in the onshore and shallow offshore of southern Louisiana gave me a chance to learn a lot early in my life. Remember, that was the era when only one of 11 wells drilled was considered commercially successful; much different than the manufacturing business of today’s shale resource play development.”

John Durand

John says that even then, much of the country didn’t understand the importance of hydrocarbon exploration and development, but his proximity to it provided clarity that many others never find. It wasn’t just his dad’s work or his parents’ entrepreneurial bent that shaped John, however. “Two people who were just as instrumental in my life were my maternal grandparents,” he says. “My grandmother was a gifted artist and musician who taught piano most of her adult life and served as the pianist and organist at their church for more than 50 years. Her kindness, compassion, talents, and commitment to serving and helping others made her a pillar in the community.”

John’s grandfather was an equally important figure. “My grandfather chose education and coaching as his vocation, and for 38 of his 42 years in education, he was principal of a school in the small town of Lake Arthur, Louisiana, which had a population of about 1,800 people,” John says. “During his tenure, he wore multiple hats, serving at any given time as the head football, basketball, and track coach. I cannot even begin to count the life lessons learned from him, both directly and indirectly. He was a larger-than-life figure to me both from the standpoint of his physical 6’4” stature, as well as my observations of him as a long-serving and respected community leader. Seeing the positive influence he had on people really stuck with me. The way he carried himself and the responsibility he bore in his role—everything about him spoke to ethics, integrity, professionalism, and most importantly, the idea of always giving back, which was just second nature to him.”

John’s grandparents, Bob & Nona Doland
John’s grandparents, Bob and Nona Doland

Spending many of his childhood summers with his grandparents, who lived near the lake and across from a ballpark, John got involved in sports, with his grandfather acting as his personal coach. What his grandfather gave him, however, was more than just tips on how to hit a baseball, throw a football, or shoot a jump shot—it was life coaching, moments of profound insight offered here and there, small wisdoms about how to live better, be better. “He showed me how to treat people with respect,” John says. “He showed me how to be a mentor to others, sometimes without even having to say it.” On a daily basis, it was commonplace for people from all walks of life to stop by his grandparent’s home and come upon John and his grandfather sitting on the front porch in the balmy Louisiana heat. Most of those who stopped to visit were former students who just wanted to come up and say hello, sharing stories of their interactions and experiences growing up with John’s grandfather as a major influence and role model in each of their lives. John recalls that, even as a young boy, he could see and hear the reverence and gratitude of those who would reminisce with his grandfather. In a small, close-knit community like theirs, the opportunity was real for a passionate person to make a tangible impact, and John’s grandfather did that with everyone who crossed his path. “He was a true disciplinarian but cared about each and every one of his students,” John recalls. “Moreover, he just loved and cared about people, and that made a real impact on me. Those memories still stick with and influence me to this day.”

“Sometimes, you don’t realize the life lessons you’re being taught growing up and the impact they’ll have on you until much later.”

At that point in time, Louisiana was a boom-or-bust state much in the same vein of Texas, its fate and that of its inhabitants inextricably bound to the oil and gas market and the agriculture industry. John recognized the value of people like his grandfather, those who were able to contribute meaningfully to enrich others’ lives and wanted to become like him. Though John was interested in oil and gas due to his dad’s work, proximity didn’t get him involved initially. Instead, the athletic young John thought there might be a future for himself in the sports world. “I played every sport imaginable, and some of my fondest memories are of playing tennis with my dad,” John recalls. “My dad, who was an excellent golfer, decided to give up golf in his late 30s and learn to start playing tennis. My dad explained his reason for the switch was two-fold. One, he believed that the health benefits of tennis over golf were greater and, secondly, he predicted that tennis was the sport he would enjoy playing more as he got older.”

His dad was right, as he ended up playing competitively until he was 70 years old. John continues the story: “Sometimes, we would play doubles tournaments together—I’d be the youngest person on the court, and he’d be the oldest. He had these cat-like reflexes at the net and could chase down just about anything from the backcourt. I remember being so astounded at his athleticism despite his age, and we shared great camaraderie as both playing partners and father and son. Even setting the example he did from a physical fitness standpoint was something I took with me. Sometimes, you don’t realize the life lessons you’re being taught growing up and the impact they’ll have on you until much later.”

Though he loved playing, professional sports weren’t John’s path. Going to college at the University of Louisiana and getting a Bachelor of Science degree in petroleum land management with a minor in geology, John knew that he’d somehow find his way following in his dad’s footsteps to the energy industry. “I told my dad that though I was fascinated by geology, I just didn’t think I was cut out to see in three dimensions like he did,” John says. “My dad understood; he knew I had a more commercial bent, that I liked working with people, building relationships, and doing business.” Moving to Dallas in 1986, John worked his way through night school and received his MBA and then started a career with Union Pacific Resources.

During the 9 years John spent with Union Pacific, it was one of the largest independent oil and gas companies in the United States and the nation’s leading driller. In 1995, a prolific horizontal drilling program saw the company drilling its one-thousandth well in the Austin Chalk, an arching strip across Texas and Louisiana known for its excellent porosity and being naturally fractured. In the early days of the Austin Chalk and Union Pacific Resources’ campaigns in Fayette County, the wells became a proving ground for new solutions in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. John remembers this time in the upstream sector with fondness, remarking that it was this period that solidified for him the value and importance of the E&P sector. “The industry was seeing some of the first large-scale horizontal development, and it was done primarily by Union Pacific,” he says. “We were a leader in the Austin Chalk, and I can remember each of our milestone events in terms of number of wells drilled and new technologies being applied; it felt like and was a trailblazing time for the company and the  industry as a whole.” During his career at Union Pacific, John was involved with the corporate development team working on mergers and acquisitions, which gave him the opportunity to put his MBA in corporate finance to good use and broaden his experience. Most of his career there, however, John was working with Union Pacific’s wholly owned affiliate, Union Pacific Fuels, where he was involved in transportation and regulatory affairs, natural gas processing and gathering, and natural gas marketing to end-use customers across the country.

“We were seeing such advancements in seismic interpretation at that time—first 3-D, and then 4-D—as well as vertical wells into high-angle horizontal kickouts. I’ve always shared that same sense of wonderment my dad had regarding how far the industry has come and the incredible benefits the industry provides society, both domestically and internationally.”

What made John’s experience that much more meaningful and impactful was a sweeping regulatory change that took place in 1992: the deregulation of the natural gas industry. FERC Order 636 came into effect in early 1992 and completely transformed the way natural gas was purchased and sold across the country. The Order created and fostered unparalleled competition in the natural gas industry by separating the merchant function from the transportation function of interstate natural gas pipelines across the United States. The change allowed consumers of natural gas to negotiate directly with multiple natural gas suppliers, including operators like Union Pacific and other marketers of natural gas, whether they were affiliated with E&P operators or not. The net result was increased competition and more efficient pricing from the wellhead to the consumer’s burner tip.

“It was an extraordinarily exciting time for the industry, which created thousands of new jobs in the energy sector, and most importantly, created transparent pricing for all consumers that exists to this day, Looking back, the changes brought about through the deregulation and unbundling of pipeline services was a watershed moment in my career. It was truly a ground-floor opportunity to be a part of and experience the creation of a fundamentally new segment of the industry, and the opportunity to see how proper regulation of an industry can benefit all stakeholders.”

The time at Union Pacific Resources also filled John with appreciation for the work that this part of the oil and gas industry does, as well the passion and innovation coming from those who work or have worked in the industry. This runs in the family: “I remember vividly talking with my dad, who spent his career looking for stratigraphic traps adjacent to underground salt domes and faulted areas in onshore Louisiana, and he was so fascinated by the technological developments we’d made as an industry,” John explains. “We were seeing such advancements in seismic interpretation at that time—first 3-D, and then 4-D—as well as vertical wells into high-angle horizontal kickouts. I’ve always shared that same sense of wonderment my dad had regarding how far the industry has come and the incredible benefits the industry provides society, both domestically and internationally. I’ve never taken for granted being a part of this incredible industry, and I’ve always believed that we really don’t give enough credit to the E&P segment of this industry for what it has done to advance our standard of living and continues to accomplish through innovation, necessity, and technological advancement.”

The Durands Vacationing in Kauai
The Durands vacationing in Kauai

When Union Pacific Resources announced in late 1998 it was planning a sale of the company, John found his way to Williams Energy, which current Houston residents will know because of the giant Williams Tower overlooking the Galleria area, the light from the rotating beacon on the top of the building cutting through the sky on clear nights. This period, John says, is when the conversion of coal plants to natural gas for independent power generation was really picking up. “Those conversions from coal to gas for electric generation was a direct result of amendments to the Clean Air Act in the 1990s, and I focused a lot at that time on power and gas,” John explains. “One of the more fascinating opportunities I had was to work in the desert southwest United States, as well as in the Midwest, on projects where we were looking to site natural gas-fired power generation projects, which we would then develop, permit, and subsequently market to independent power developers. In one case, to prove that we were finding suitable and desirable sites, we ended up building a 90-megawatt natural gas-fired electric generation peaking plant up in Indiana, and I had the good fortune to be the commercial manager over that project development and build-out.”

Though he admittedly didn’t have the technical expertise of the inner workings of building a power generation facility, John’s skill with managing people and processes helped make the project a success financially and functionally, as it came in under budget and was completed in 9 rather than the anticipated 12 months. When the plant was completed in the early 2000s, Williams started looking at other areas where the company had natural gas pipelines. Though these new sites weren’t going to result in future power plants to be developed and built by Williams itself, John and his team continued looking for opportunities to get sites packaged, permitted, and ultimately built and operated by new companies at several locations in Nevada, Arizona, and southern Utah. Following these undertakings, John turned his eyes towards renewable wind energy, doing the same thing he did with managing, permitting, and packaging development sites for sale to natural gas power developers; but this time, his customers were independent power developers looking to build large-scale wind farms. 

Be sure to check out Part II of the article, where John discusses his years with Crosstex Energy as it developed and built the first dedicated midstream natural gas pipeline and processing complex dedicated exclusively to Barnett Shale production; his transition to Pioneer Water Management as he helped negotiate landmark deals with Midland and Odessa; and now, his role leading one of the industry’s most innovative water management and produced water midstream companies, XRI.

A Journey of Many Roads: Sales Engineering, the Energy Industry, and Texas Country Music

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

In a special bonus article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to Brad Chatham, Director of Sales Engineering, US at Appian, about his childhood growing up in Midland, getting into the sales engineering profession and ending up at Appian, and how a passion for country music led him to manage an artist out of Amarillo, Texas.

Brad Chatham was born in Oklahoma but found himself in Midland, Texas when he was 11 years old. Despite those early years across the state line, Brad admits that he really considers Midland his hometown. Growing up in the heart of the Permian Basin and a bustling oil town, Brad has been surrounded by the industry and its people for as long as he can remember. “It’s kind of by dumb luck and osmosis that I have any connection to the oil business at all,” he says. Brad notes that due to how present the oil and gas industry is in Texas, we can’t help but find it seeping into our everyday lives, a pervasive influence that affects everything around us. When the industry flourishes, so too does the state, as people have more resources to live meaningful, fulfilled lives. This made Brad interested in and proud of the industry long before he had anything to do with it professionally.

The connection to oil and gas wasn’t entirely out of left field, though, as Brad’s father had been a safety and environmental engineer in the industry since Brad was born. In remarking on Brady Neal’s story of a completions consultant on a KLX Energy site who held his friend in his arms as he died, Brad notes that his father was part of something that didn’t end as tragically but was equally transformational.

When his dad was in Yemen in November of 2002, a helicopter carrying Hunt Oil Company employees taking off from Sana’a heading to an offshore platform in the Gulf of Aden was attacked by Al-Qaeda. As Brad recalls, things quickly went south.

“His helicopter was actually shot down by the same terrorist cell that bombed the USS Cole,” he says. “They opened up with automatic weapons fire and RPGs trying to down the chopper, and they were able to hit it enough times that it had to emergency land. There were a lot of people injured; my dad even had shrapnel in his scalp. Fortunately, they were rescued by corporate security forces before anyone was killed.”

When Brad was a kid in Midland in the 1980s, the city wasn’t exactly what it was now. “There were probably 80,000 people back then; now, it’s probably 150,000,” he explains. “So, it’s much larger now, and it’s flourished.” When the downturn of the 80s caused a massive falloff in commodity prices and oilfield work, people in the city suffered—and in such a tightly knit community, everyone was affected in some way. The struggles, however, bound people closer together, creating relationships that were fuller and more meaningful. “Your friends, family, acquaintances—really, your whole life was tied to the oil and gas industry,” Brad says. “So, I take a vested interest in it, working here at Appian in the Energy practice, and try to understand what we can do to help that cause.”

After living out his younger years in Midland, Brad returned to Oklahoma to get a degree at The University of Oklahoma in Norman. After briefly pursuing a chemical engineering degree and realizing it wasn’t for him, Brad started attending the Price College of Business, working on a Bachelor of Business Administration degree with a focus on management information systems and international business. While in school, he started working for the State of Oklahoma as an application developer. At that point, the idea of a pre-sales engineer was a totally foreign concept to him. “I had no idea what pre-sales engineering was, even though it was a widespread profession throughout technology,” he says.

After graduating, Brad got a call from a friend and former colleague who was starting a new venture.

“He called me up and told me he had a spot on his team,” Brad says. “And even though I didn’t know about pre-sales engineering, I trusted the guy—he was really smart and very likeable, and I’d done some homework on the company. So, I made the move.”

The company was Information Builders, which focused on using data and analytics to help organizations build, embed, and automate intelligence. After leaving and taking a brief stint with Cognos (now IBM) as a solutions architect, Brad ended up with a little company called Metastorm in 2006, providing customers with business process management solutions. When Metastorm was acquired by OpenText, a much larger information management company, Brad was brought on as a business process consultant for pre-sales engineering.

With existing knowledge of the oil and gas vertical and a desire to help grow that business, Brad regularly interfaced with various other teams, like sales support and account management, as a technical expert. His in-depth knowledge of the technical side of the business was invaluable in helping draw up requirements and helping customers select the solution that met their needs. Brad was a perfect fit for the oil and gas practice, as he understood what made people tick and the value of relationships, trust, and integrity. In 2014, he made the jump to Appian to help them start an oil and gas division, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“Coming to Appian a little over 7 years ago,” he says, “we didn’t really have an oil and gas practice. We barely had any energy practice at all.”

Now, working hand in hand with sales leadership and a fantastic group of account executives, Brad is leading a team of solutions engineers in the Southwest Region of the US. Over the past 7 years, they’ve made incredible inroads into the oil and gas market, adopted by some of the industry’s biggest names and trusted with their most critical lines of business and core competencies. It’s been a remarkable journey, one founded on not only the power of the technology itself but on Brad’s ability to gather talent and ensure the companies they deal with understand what Appian brings to the table.

Brad and the team at the 2020 Appian Sales Kick-Off.

But what exactly is it that Appian does? “When it comes to Appian, it can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Brad admits. The company prides itself on being a leader in several key areas: low-code automation, digital process automation, intelligent business process management systems, and dynamic case management. With a legacy in business process management, the company is able to develop low-code automation through process modeling and execution.

When oil and gas companies grow through mergers and acquisitions over the years, there tend to be many business units and subsections within them that all operate with disparate systems and processes. In addition, many of the legacy businesses retain the same systems they had prior to being acquired, making integration a challenge and cross-business collaboration virtually impossible. All of this, combined with the nature of each business, its profitability, and how it’s managed, creates a challenge when it comes to aligning goals at a higher level.

Where Appian comes in is bringing together all the moving parts into one usable system.

“Think of Appian in the oil and gas space as an engine that orchestrates an entire ecosystem of disparate systems,” Brad says. “For example, a large oilfield service company we work with has a lot of different service lines, so when they’re executing a job for an operator, there can be an immense number of components associated with that job across service lines. None of them actually communicate with each other and interface appropriately, creating a lot of inefficiencies and problems when it comes to successfully carrying out the operation, managing vendors and partners, and so on.”

Appian, Brad says, is the single point of entry for all those systems. So, when a service company executes a project for an operator, they can now have full-circle, closed-gap visibility when exiting a product or service line and moving to the next. The service lines are no longer working in a vacuum, and the operator gets a holistic, deep systems perspective of the solution and the product and service they’re providing for the operator, from end to end. As a result, they’re able to radically influence the quality of outcomes.

Brad has faced quite a few challenges due to the oil and gas industry’s aversion to change. “When you’re talking about oil and gas, they’re often technology laggards,” he explains. “Companies just throw money at their problems, overspending and overextending themselves. They’ll invest in assets, but then you’ll see cycles of layoffs and reorgs. This makes it much more challenging organizationally to get things done.” Fortunately, he says, Appian has evolved as a company to address these difficulties, focusing more on sales and value to the customer. With a technical company like Appian, the level of knowledge and intelligence of the employees makes developing great solutions simple; by helping to more effectively get those solutions out in the real world for customers, everyone wins.

Brad also admits that due to the nature of the company, it takes a black-and-white approach to sales.

“We’ll be the first ones to tell you that the idea that you have to use our software isn’t a great one, and you should probably look somewhere else,” he says. “We’re all about outcomes, and competing like we do, sometimes we need to start small and expand our footprint. We’re driven by the success of the customers, and in an industry where quantitative ROI can be more easily measured, we’re a great fit.”

Brad is also proud of how agile the company is, as it allows customers to pivot and change rapidly in response to obstacles. Where many larger vendors might take 6 months or a year to develop a project, Appian could take around 16 weeks. It’s a culture of innovation and hard work that’s kept Brad inspired for his entire career at the company.

Brad also has a passion for music, and though not a practitioner himself, he’s been involved by managing a Texas Country artist out of Amarillo for the past few years. “It’s given me the chance to meet a lot of incredible people,” he says. “In an art form like country music, people tend to express things about their daily lives, and how their lives are affected by the things going on around them. There are parallels even there with regards to the energy economy.” Growing up in Midland, Brad had known talented musicians for most of his life, some of whom had wound up in Nashville as studio musicians or been in bands that were commercially successful. One close friend is a drummer and professional sound engineer who’s worked with everyone from the likes of Merle Haggard to Poison over the last 40 years; his second cousin had road managed Josh Abbott, a commercially successful artist in the Texas Country music scene, for a stint. All this to say, Brad had made connections he didn’t even know he’d ever use.

Casey Berry and Joe Nichols.

Looking back, it might have been clear to some people that Brad would be interested in the music industry. “As a kid, when my folks brought home an album in the vinyl days, I’d bust it open and read the liner notes—who wrote the songs, where it was produced, and what musicians played on it. Useless information, really, outside of music industry conversations,” he explains. So, when a friend reached out and Brad got offered an opportunity to visit with a struggling musician named Casey Berry who was dissatisfied with his existing management, he took it. Going to a show, Brad got to see him before they spoke, and he was blown away. “He could write, really sing, and play,” he says. “He was incredibly authentic as a Texas Country artist, and even though he didn’t have a lot of success on the charts, he was very well-respected by his peers, which is probably the single most important credential an artist can possess in this genre. When I listened to him, I immediately knew he had a chance to be special.”

Inspired, Brad offered to be Casey’s new manager for free for 90 days. The following 3 months, and everything that came after it, got Brad involved in a whole new world, learning how to work with booking agents, how to have conversations with record labels, and how to deal with venues. As it turned out, Brad’s intuition was correct—Casey has been successful. He’s regularly charted over the years and has made a real impact on the Texas music scene. One of his songs, “Stupid Angel,” was even showcased in an episode of ABC’s “Nashville.” Brad and Casey still work together to this day, and although Brad doesn’t manage other artists, he does work with representation out of Nashville to introduce artists to the Texas market.

Brad and Charlie Robison.

He’s met some really talented professionals as he’s walked this path, including people working with Tim DuBois, the legendary Nashville-based songwriter responsible for Alabama’s “Love in the First Degree” and discoverer of now-famous country acts such as Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and Brad Paisley. Humble, Brad laughs off any brush with fame as little more than being in the right place at the right time. “I just kind of weaseled my way into this, but I’ll take it over almost anything else every day,” he says. “I don’t need to write the songs. For me, it’s about the creative presence, and being exposed to artists before anyone else is. How cool is it to see someone when they’ve first written a song, and then a couple years later see them find real commercial success? Seeing the joy in the journey they’ve had and knowing you had the opportunity to share in that is incredible.”

Casey Berry and Stony Larue.

Brad is currently working on an MBA at SMU, his commitment to continuous improvement taking shape outside of his day job. “It monopolizes my time,” he admits. “But the good news is, the networking at a place like SMU lends itself to making professional connections and unlocking new synergies.” With a strong academic background and the business acumen to make things happen, Brad was a perfect fit for the program—and at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he wasn’t traveling to meet customers, so he had a bit of extra free time.

“I figured it was the perfect time to go back to school,” he says, and then, laughing, “but sometimes nowadays, when I’m working on those projects late at night, I just ask myself, ‘Man, what were you thinking?’”

As he says that he’s much more of a spontaneous person than a meticulous planner, Brad has actually come to appreciate the structure and rigidity inherent in the degree program. “It’s made me a bit more organized,” he says. “As someone who often intentionally takes life as it comes, it’s been a bit challenging to adjust. It’s required me to be a lot more disciplined.” At the end of it all, however, Brad is confident that the program has the potential to be transformational.

With his soon to be son-in-law going into professional fishing, you may very well find Brad out on a boat in the future, enjoying those spontaneous moments of joy. It’s something he just has to take advantage of, he says with a big smile. We at OGGN wish Brad well in his journey, and we thank both him and Appian for believing in the power of stories to reveal how human the oil and gas industry truly is.

Protecting Our Oceans: The Importance of Underwater Photography and Artificial Reefs

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

In Episode 17 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed energy expert and underwater photographer James Wiseman on why he supports ongoing efforts to promote Rigs-to-Reefs programs. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with James about his years growing up in California, how he came to be involved with Rigs-to-Reefs, and his passion for underwater photography and chronicling the wonders of the ocean.

Growing up in San Diego, James Wiseman was always drawn to the ocean and water in general, a natural affinity that grew and blossomed into something profound in his adult life. “My dad used to drop me off at the pond when I was a kid,” he says, “at like 9 in the morning—and I was 10 years old—and come back and pick me up at 5 p.m. So, I’d fish at the pond all day when I was little.”

James started going out on boats when he was around 15 years old, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that there was a way he could do this without it costing anything. Getting a job and working on the boat, he said, allowed him to go out for free and still have time to fish after he’d completed whatever tasks he was assigned. “That’s actually a thing,” he says.

“Every fishing fleet has something like that. There’s a little kid—and there’s a name for them, they call them pinheads, don’t ask me why!—and you go out, you help clean the fish, you help clean the boat, and then you get to go fishing.”

This summer job was perfect for the adventurous James, as it provided ample time for his hobby while also generating a bit of income.

Even during the week and on the weekends, James would go snorkeling and catch lobsters—which, he says, you can only do with your bare hands in San Diego—going up and down the coast, from La Jolla to Point Loma, riding his bike around and finding a good diving point before exploring with his friends. It was the perfect environment for the water-loving James to grow up in, which led to a fascination with what goes on under the water.

“Most people have absolutely no idea what’s under the water,” he says. “You might be able to see a little about it on the TV, but in general, I just think people really have no idea.”

Scuba diving, an expensive hobby for a teenager, didn’t really become feasible for James until he graduated college and got his first real job, which coincided nicely with the advent of digital photography in the early 2000s. “Everything just came together,” he explains. “I learned how to dive, I got my first digital camera—and the first or second underwater housings were starting to come out—and it was the ultimate learning experience.” Underwater digital photography presented James with infinite possibilities, as the field was just starting to take off and there were no copyright laws to govern what he could and couldn’t photograph. The only limitation, as it were, was the size of your memory card.

Going on a dive-spot-hopping journey, James made his way from the Gulf of Mexico over to the Florida Keys and back down to the coast of Belize with his digital camera, learning as he went. He ended up joining a group with a website called Wetpixel, which was the premiere site for underwater digital photography. “I got to go on teaching trips with them,” he says, “since I was one of the editors. I got some free trips to Fiji, which was pretty cool!” The rewarding aspect for James was that he could show people how to do underwater photography while having the website as a place where he could share his knowledge and work.

The thing about digital underwater photography, James explains, isn’t necessarily that the quality is better, but rather that the nature of the format allows for creativity and spontaneity. “There were some really amazing film cameras back then,” he says, “and you could shoot some incredible pictures underwater, but you really have to set up your f-stop, your shutter speed, your lighting, your lens selection—everything for a certain condition. And if that changes on a dive—well, sometimes, you’re just out of luck.” A perfectly choreographed shot could be ruined in an instant, making many dives an exercise in hoping that everything went perfectly. Photography, however, especially of the natural world, should allow for those sudden, sublime moments of beauty. It’s all about finding that balance.

The intersection of the oil and gas industry and James’ passion for underwater photography can be found in what has been dubbed the “Rigs-to-Reefs” program. As of late 2020, 558 platforms previously installed on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf have been decommissioned and transformed into artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, creating habitats for tens of thousands of fish and hundreds of marine species.[1]

Though many may be unfamiliar with this program, James says that for the fishing and diving communities, such knowledge is commonplace.

“There really isn’t a process, especially in the Gulf of Mexico,” he admits. “Fishermen and shrimp boats have been tying up to the smaller platforms for 50 years; it’s just a culture that’s developed. If you want to go spear fishing, you just go out there, tie your boat to the platform, jump in, and go back to your boat; same with scuba diving.”

Though not every platform-turned-reef is suitable for diving, James says that there are still many in the Gulf. One method of “reefing” involves severing the top of a retired structure at a permitted navigational depth and placing it on the sea floor next to the base of the remaining structure, creating what James refers to as “secret spots.” Though the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department keeps a map of where the reefs are—marked by buoys after a platform is decommissioned and turned into a reef—the map isn’t totally accurate due to vessels illegally tying up to the buoys and dragging them off into the sunset. So, there are these areas that simply aren’t on any map, and can’t be recognized without sophisticated equipment, that in-the-know divers can go to—hidden vestiges of the past made secret by time and circumstance.

These underwater environments, James says, are the opposite of what people think of with oil and gas platforms, mazes of pipes and metal and equipment positioned above murky brown water. “There are all these different structures you can dive from, and people love diving from non-oil related ones,” James explains. “What they don’t realize is that the oil-related ones look amazing underwater. It’s like it’s taken over by nature.” When you scuba dive to around 130 feet deep, which is about as far as you can safely go with standard equipment, you see a literal swirl of marine life as you glance downward; an eerie feeling, James says, the contrast between beauty and the glimpse into a dark abyss. “If you drop your camera there,” he laughs, “yeah, you’re not getting it back.”

Another cool thing about turning old platforms into reefs—and, for James, subsequently being able to photograph them—is that it provides for diversity in the diving experience itself. “If you’re in Houston,” James says, “and you want to go scuba diving in the ocean, and if there were no rigs or platforms in the Gulf, you’d have three or four places within 100 miles of Galveston or Freeport where you could go.” If that was the case, those few places would be congested with fishermen and divers at every hour of the day, robbing people of the chance to have a unique experience. The challenge, James says, is that if you go 50 miles out into the Gulf and dive to 120 feet deep, you won’t really see anything except mud and debris. There’s an art and a science to finding the right spot.

For example, the hidden artificial reefs make for one-of-a-kind diving and photography trips, places where life has flourished in new and sometimes unexpected ways. In the same vein, areas like the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary provide for a curated, maintained marine environment where every photo is briefly your best shot ever. What you’ll see on a dive in these areas, James says, are manta rays, whale sharks in the summer, and giant schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks in the winter, offering many people the chance of a lifetime to get up close and personal with these sea creatures. There are also red snapper and a myriad of colorful reef fish living there. “You wouldn’t have any of that without the platforms,” James says. “You’d just have a few of these concentrated spots where some rocks kind of stick out of the bottom. Otherwise, nothing.”

James’ focus with underwater photography is called “macro photography,” which refers to things that are smaller than 36 millimeters across. For James, night dives are especially interesting and rewarding. “There are these little shrimp that are pretty amazing,” he says, “and slipper lobster, arrow crabs…and also, from time to time, you’ll get these Caribbean fish that settle in the Gulf of Mexico called frog fish that have a little lure on the front of their mouth that they can attract prey with.” The cool thing, we agree, is the contrast between the public perception of sea life—which broadly focuses on large animals, like whales, sharks, squids, and dolphins—and the many, many tiny creatures that often remain unphotographed due to the difficulty of capturing them in their natural environment.

James also remarks on what’s called a “blackwater night dive,” where you float under the boat in the deep ocean and simply wait to see what passes by in the gulf stream.

“You wouldn’t believe what you can photograph out there,” he says. “There are these little plankton flounder that look like this incredible fan dance of fins, and there are all sorts of things like that.” There’s also a “muck dive” in the Pacific Ocean, where there’s a black volcanic sand area filled with fascinating creatures. That’s where the bobbit worm can be found, as well as mantis shrimp—which has, according to James, “the fastest claws in the west”—and mimic octopi. “You don’t really know about this stuff,” James notes, “until you get into underwater photography.”

Going back in time, the 17-year-old James was deciding what major he wanted to choose at the University of California, Berkeley. Already interested in engineering, he saw on his sheet a choice that clearly brought together his personal and professional passions—offshore engineering and naval architecture. “And I knew, that was perfect,” he says. “I just bubbled in that box!” When he did his first internship, coming to Houston from San Diego, he was overjoyed to be offshore, admitting that “it was like going to summer camp and getting paid.” The company he worked for primarily did decommissioning projects for platforms that would later become reefs, which aligned with James’ burgeoning interest in the Rigs-to-Reefs program. It was fairly straightforward: James and his supervisor flew out on a helicopter and carried out inspections, with the company trying to determine the state the platform and if it was suitable for lifting ahead of being decommissioned and turned into a reef.

“Naval architecture” wasn’t just a fancy degree, either, as James was involved in design and engineering for vessels from his college years. As part of a nationwide project while a senior, James and his team designed a “concrete canoe” that was around 0.6 inches thick. At the end of the design and construction phase, two people even had to race the canoe to win the competition. Reminiscing on this experience, James says it was one of the most fun things he ever designed despite its small size—just 12 feet long—versus future projects at much larger scale.

Moving forward in his career, James got involved in bigger, more complicated design projects for offshore structures—mostly the pieces that were underwater.

“I designed the steel structure of a platform, and I did a lot of the subsea pipelines and wells that were remote controlled,” he explains. “We would have to safely get natural gas or oil from one of these deepwater wells at 12,000 psi and 200°F through the pipes and all the way back to the platform. And everything would have to last for 20 years or more.”

The hydraulics were also part of the equation, as well as designing risers that could account for bending during vessel heave, and pipelines that could navigate the rugged terrain of the seabed and last in the harsh deepwater environment while consistently allowing safe transmission of the end product.

If you’ve listened to the podcast episode where James is a guest, you also heard Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks discuss Blue Latitudes, their marine environmental consulting firm that is trying, among other things, to drive the success of a rigs-to-reefs program offshore California. Through shared interest in diving and with Emily and Amber eager to learn more about the Rigs-to-Reefs program in the Gulf of Mexico, the three connected.

James also introduced the Emily and Amber to a scuba trip where half of the boat was paid for by an oil and gas company, and the other half was paid for by the government and regulatory bodies. Everyone that goes on that trip had to give a presentation on board, says James, so Emily and Amber gave a presentation on what they were doing with Blue Latitudes in California. “We just really hit it off after that,” James continues. “I was really into underwater photography, and they were into underwater videography, and photography, too. So, we would go around and find stuff to shoot. It was great.” Following their careers thereafter even as he went through changes in his own career, James always stayed in touch, keeping the relationship alive.

Image credit: Dennis Fanning

At the end of the conversation, James provides a bit of perspective and advice for anyone who also wants to follow the path of diving and underwater photography—firstly, to consider this something you love to do, not your career.

“If you want to dive, you have to find something to pay the bills,” he says. “Better yet, find a job that you love that also has a flexible vacation policy.” What if, he asks, you could be an offshore engineer and work on a platform in the Red Sea, then go diving when you finish the project? It won’t necessarily be easy, but if you can find something that allows greater intersection between your personal and professional passion, go for it.

Places where you can dive from the shore—like in California and Florida, for example—are the most cost-effective, especially for a young person with limited resources trying to get started. Ultimately, what’s important is that people interested in preserving what they see underwater act. “The more you see the things underwater,” he says, “the more you love them, and the more you want to protect them. And that’s the key right there.”

This ties into something of a double meaning when it comes to what people like James are doing with their underwater photography and, broadly, their activism with marine conservation. On one hand, working on something like the Rigs-to-Reefs program drives tangible change in the world; on the other, with photography, you’re also cataloging underwater life, a digital legacy of these things that so often remain unseen allowing them to last forever. Photography connects the abstract ideas, and James poignantly encapsulates exactly why he does what he does: “People won’t protect what they don’t see or don’t know about.”


Part Two: New Life for Old Platforms – Transforming Rigs to Reefs with Blue Latitudes

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

In Episode 17 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks, cofounders of Blue Latitudes, on transforming decommissioned oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Emily and Amber about their lives and careers. In Part II of the article, Emily and Amber discuss being inducted into the Forbes 30 under 30 program, their vision for the future of Blue Latitudes, and how their quest to showcase the marine environments and life around reefed platforms is driving a rethinking of Rigs-to-Reefs programs in different waters around the world.

Copyright Blue Latitudes

What exactly does it mean when discussing turning rigs into artificial reefs, though? In a document jointly developed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), and the California State Lands Commission, the three agencies lay out what they call “A Citizen’s Guide to Offshore Oil and Gas Decommissioning in Federal Waters Off California.” In the report, the agencies provide an overview of decommissioning of oil and gas facilities in the Pacific and potential use cases for the platforms once decommissioning is completed. The report provides an excellent definition of the rigs-to-reefs program, as well as the methods whereby a platform can be transformed into an artificial reef:

“Rigs-to-Reefs is a process where operators choose to donate – rather than scrap – decommissioned oil and gas platforms to coastal states to serve as artificial reefs under the National Artificial Reef Plan.

Decommissioned structures are typically toppled in place, partially removed near the surface, or towed to existing reef sites or reef planning areas. Decommissioning platforms attract various encrusting organisms such as barnacles and bivalves, which colonize on them and produce fish and other marine life as found on natural reefs. Studies conducted in California and elsewhere suggest a positive relationship between fishing, fish, and oil and gas structures in the marine environment.”[1]

Though the projects Amber and Emily pursue are varied in scope and purpose, helping accelerate the development and adoption of the rigs-to-reefs program offshore California is their passion—and their greatest challenge. “There have been other efforts in the past in California,” Emily says, “to make rigs-to-reefs a reality, but they went about it in a way that was not transparent at all. But people are smart; they do their homework.” For these reasons, Amber and Emily have a section on their website that is dedicated to some of the arguments against the very thing that they’re trying to do. They feel, however, that the science will speak for itself, and that intelligent people will be able to make a clear, rational decision based on the facts.

Early success saw Amber and Emily gaining more and more traction, with people reaching out for media appearances and promotional marketing. As the positive press piled up—from the likes of The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and NPR, among others—and the two entrepreneurs felt that the issues their company was combatting were coming into sharper focus, they decided to apply for the well-known Forbes 30 Under 30 program in the “Energy” category. The rest, as they say, is history, with Blue Latitudes being a winner and Amber and Emily inducted into the growing list of visionaries and changemakers who had also won the award. The accolades from winning go way beyond a virtual gold star, with Amber saying,

“It’s been a great way to connect with other young, like-minded leaders and entrepreneurs in the energy space.”

Emily emphasizes that this wasn’t your average networking, like growing a followership on LinkedIn or going to a happy hour event to hand out business cards; rather, this was a golden opportunity to make inroads with some of the best and brightest minds in the world.

In the United States, oil companies are responsible for all decommissioning costs. When a structure is reefed, there are often significant cost savings associated with the partial removal of the platform jacket.

“Through the reefing program, a portion of any cost savings an oil company reaps from reefing is shared with the state,” Amber explains. “This encourages industry and government participation.”

In actively working on the rigs-to-reefs program, oil companies can reaffirm their commitment to the often lofty, but equally as often unquantified, environmental and social goals outlined in their sustainability reports and investor relations decks. It’s about making a tangible impact on the world, using an old asset to provide a place where life will flourish and grow—an oil company’s legacy, you might say, rising from the remains, the cycle beginning anew. You can’t really put a price on that.

There’s some pretty amazing stuff going on out there in the ocean, Amber says, things that most people never get the chance to see or learn about. For her, the most fascinating marine life is found not on traditional fixed-platform jackets being repurposed but in the deep sea, on subsea equipment and on the seafloor, for example.

“I’m interested in seeing how marine life can colonize and grow in these really intense environments that you find in the super deep sea,” Amber says. “No light, extreme pressure, extremely cold, yet we see marine life colonizing and growing down there; not the kind you see above on the platforms, something entirely different. We’ve seen some crazy creatures down there, and even made some new discoveries.”

By working with the oil companies to deploy an ROV to these deepwater subsea installations, Amber and Emily also gain access to sites that many researchers only dream of being able to study, locations too deep and too unknown to be reached by anyone without the most cutting-edge equipment. By bringing these environments to life with 4K photography and video taken by the ROV, they say, they can open a world for people so that they can better understand why Blue Latitudes does the work it does.

Copyright Joe Platko

Amber and Emily are not only doing meaningful work via their technical projects with Blue Latitudes but also through the charity arm of their company, the Blue Latitudes Foundation. The future of ocean conservation, Amber and Emily agree, is no longer an us-versus-them scenario; rather, what needs to be done is to align and find opportunities to work together to conserve oceans and marine life. The foundation enjoys granting relationships with several organizations, one of them Patagonia, who many in the oil industry know for its fervently anti-oil stance and refusing to put logos of oil and finance companies on their clothing. It’s an interesting departure, and one that Emily attributes to the nature of the work that they do. “Amber and I weren’t going around and preaching, ‘keep drilling for offshore oil,’ because don’t worry, you can reef them!” Emily says. “We’re trying to walk an even path by saying, we’re dealing with the end of life for these structures. What’s the best option for them?”

Amber and Emily have seen major successes so far through their work, including preserving more than 24 acres of habitat on repurposed oil rigs and saving more than 56,000 fish. They’re doing their part in the fight to advance a rigs-to-reefs program in California by petitioning the State Senate to make the program an option, as it is in the Gulf of Mexico. Education and outreach are also critical components of the foundation’s mission, with the two women giving dozens of speeches and presentations across more than 10 countries to improve knowledge and understanding of marine science and biology, the opportunities and constraints of reefing, and how such a program can be developed for oceans around the world. Donations and grants to the charity arm of the business fund these important initiatives and help tell the story of what Amber and Emily do.

Of course, the water-loving duo don’t just talk the talk when it comes to diving—they also walk the walk. Amber is an advanced diver, while Emily is a dive master, and both are scientific divers, as well. Significant experience diving for both business and pleasure has seen them in locations dotted from one side of the planet to the other, sometimes well-known, sometimes exotic. The two will sometimes dive with small, handheld ROVs, which are attached to a tether, to allow them to see further down than their equipment will take them yet still get the diving experience of themselves being underwater. And, as you’d expect, they most certainly dive in the artificial reefs born of decommissioned platforms. When passion and purpose align, the possibilities truly are limitless.

Copyright Neal Andrea and ScubaPro


New Life for Old Platforms – Transforming Rigs to Reefs with Blue Latitudes

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

In Episode 17 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks, cofounders of Blue Latitudes, on transforming decommissioned oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Emily and Amber about their lives and careers. In Part I, they explore their passion for the marine world, their meeting and the genesis of Blue Latitudes, and what the company is doing to change how we look at offshore platforms at the end of their life.

Blue Latitudes is a federally certified women-owned small business and marine environmental consulting firm. Recognized as leaders in the energy sector by Forbes and Entrepreneur magazine, cofounders Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks develop sustainable, creative, and cost-effective solutions for the environmental issues that surround the offshore energy industry. As marine scientists working in the offshore energy space, fueled by a passion for marine conservation, these women have aimed to disrupt the way the industry views decommissioning by reimagining Rigs as Reefs.

Emily comes from New Castle Island, a small island connected to the mainland of New Hampshire via a bridge. Growing up in a family of divers—her father was a dive master—Emily and her brother were certified as soon as they were of age.

Copyright Caine Delacy

“I was very fortunate in that we would go diving in all these really beautiful places,” Emily says, “especially in South America and Central America, when I was growing up. It really fostered that love of the ocean for me, and exploration, curiosity, and understanding our oceans.”

At Connecticut College, Emily studied environmental sciences, as the university didn’t have a marine science major, but she says that through this time, she maintained her passion and curiosity for the underwater world.

Between her junior and senior year, Emily made her way to the Marine Biological Laboratory, an international center for research and education in biological and environmental science in Woods Hole, Massachusetts affiliated with the University of Chicago. “That was a great opportunity because it exposed me to so many interesting and fascinating scientists.” One scientist, Dr. Stephen Highstein, she says, was working on a project with NASA involving toadfish to help astronauts fight space sickness —they [toadfish] have a similar inner ear structure as humans, so understanding how their balance was affected could help understand how humans would be affected in the same environment.

Emily’s first job was as a field technician working on the Deepwater Horizon/Mississippi Canyon 252 oil spill about one year after the blowout.

Copyright Kyle McBurnie

“At that point,” she explains, “bp was trying to understand what the full extent of the spill was, and what they were going to have to pay in damages. So, we were doing biota sampling, sediment sampling, water sampling, and it was a crazy schedule.”

Working a hectic rotational schedule and living out of hotels, Emily feels that despite the challenges, the exposure to the industry and its busy lifestyle was very beneficial. She reminisces about the fisherman who drove their sampling boats—most of them unable to commercially fish due to the oil spill, and hence employed by bp in various capacities in the meantime—and how they would talk about how much they enjoyed fishing from decommissioned platforms on the weekends. “It was so strange,” Emily continues, “because here we are, working on this oil spill, caused by one of these platforms, yet they’re saying that they’re unbelievable hotspots for life—and not only are they hotspots for life, but they like to eat the fish that come from these platforms.”

Exposed to the rigs-to-reefs program directly by people who fished from the platforms, Emily quickly came to understand the cultural significance of the program, as well as just how ingrained oil and gas was in the identity and lifeblood of the Gulf Coast region. She continued to work in contaminated site management and environmental consulting for another year before applying to Scripps, where she met Amber. Emily learned from Amber that offshore California, there was a rigs-to-reefs law that was never acted on—a stark contrast to the Gulf of Mexico’s program, which was embraced by the general populace in the area. “That sparked our mutual interest,” she says, “coming from these two different backgrounds, but this collision of two different areas of the country where these programs that are so different; and, expanding that out even further, realizing that there are oil platforms on every single ocean of the planet. What’s going to happen to those platforms?” It was this mutual interest in rigs-to-reefs programs that was not only the seed of their master’s thesis but of their company, Blue Latitudes.

The mission of Blue Latitudes is “to find silver linings in our oceans at the intersection of industry and the environment,” with the company striving to “unite science, policy, and communications to create innovative solutions for the complex ecological challenges associated with offshore industry.”[1]

Amber and Emily work on projects around the world, like designing, developing, and executing ROV-based marine life surveys on PETRONAS’s platforms in the South China Sea to validate platform suitability for reefing; providing Anadarko (now part of Occidental Petroleum) with technical studies to support the designation of a reefing location for a spar hull facility in the Gulf of Mexico; developing a biological assessment to ensure that the Catalina Underwater Pavilions, an offshore installation by artist Doug Aitken, would not interfere with the habitat and marine life in the area; and providing environmental and permitting support to Malibu Oyster Company as they pursued a California lease for growing premium oysters and fresh kelp.

Copyright Blue Latitudes

Growing up on the other side of the country, in southern California, Amber Sparks was drawn to the ocean from an early age, a natural curiosity fueled, in some part, by proximity. Funneling that passion into her academic pursuits at the University of California, Berkeley, she majored in marine science. For the uninitiated, marine science focuses on understanding the interactions between the biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere, looking at topics like the role of the ocean in climate change, the ocean’s role in climate phenomena and their effect on modern marine ecosystems, the history of climatic/oceanographic events recorded in marine sediments and corals, coastal pollution and its effect on coastal marine ecosystems, and coastal erosion.[2]

After graduating, Amber felt called to do more. “I wanted to take everything I learned,” she explains, “and apply it to the bigger picture. How do I communicate the value of a healthy ocean to everyone around the globe—even those who can’t access it?” As she started working with Google Earth and the Sylvia Earle Alliance—whose objective was “igniting public support for a global network of marine protected areas”—her primary focus was on disseminating research and science to communicate more effectively with the public via Google Earth and Google Maps.

Amber met Emily Hazelwood at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego, when the two were pursuing their master’s degrees. As Emily told Amber more about her work in the Gulf of Mexico, including as a field technician after the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the conversation eventually transitioned into the Gulf’s active Rigs-to-Reefs program. The initiative aims to facilitate the transformation of decommissioned oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs, which can host environments for tens of thousands of fish and hundreds of species of marine life springing up from the skeletons of abandoned offshore assets.

“Growing up in California, I was aware of the platforms offshore,” says Amber. “And it was hard to believe that reefs could be thriving beneath the surface?”

Amber and Emily’s passion aligned on the topic of reefing decommissioned platforms, and both women were curious if the success seen in the Gulf of Mexico could be replicated offshore California. They ended up writing their master’s thesis on just this topic.

Be sure to check out Part II of the article, where Emily and Amber discuss being inducted into the Forbes 30 under 30 program, their vision for the future of Blue Latitudes and the company’s charity arm, and how their quest to showcase the marine environments and life around reefed platforms is driving a rethinking of Rigs-to-Reefs programs in different waters around the world.



Breaking and Rebuilding: A Journey of Truth and Discovery

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

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: