Tech Leaders

Benchmarking the Oil and Gas Industry

Editor’s Note: Houston, Texas, is a hub for several cutting-edge, demanding industries. The city’s high concentration of professionals in such industries presented a unique opportunity for this issue’s Technical Leaders section. We hope you enjoy the distinct views and insights from three highly respected professionals in medicine, space science, and, of course, petroleum engineering.

Please briefly describe your career path.

JW: My first job after college was at a Madison Avenue, New York City, art gallery. After my senior year as an art history and photography major, I was hired to work for the directors of Old Master and Modern prints at the parent gallery. After doing a studio architecture course, I took a position at the architecture firm founded by the school’s former dean, working as his assistant. Tracing back my interests, the common themes are creativity, cutting-edge ideas, and impact on people’s lives.

My work now, as a physician/scientist working to develop new clinical therapeutics, is based on these same themes. Initially, I went into medicine without a very specific direction. I had done some volunteer work in a pediatric emergency room. I gravitated toward oncology, specializing in breast oncology, and then jumped at the opportunity to come to MD Anderson Cancer Center to be a part of the group running clinical trials of new therapies for cancer patients.

RM: In 1980, I started right out of college into the space program with Ford Aerospace Technologies, a division of Ford Motor Company. Eventually, the job was moved to United Space Alliance. The job was to train for and become a flight controller in the Mission Control Center (MCC), where I worked for the next 20 years. Afterward, I hung up my flight controller hat and continued with project management and operations systems integration on new proposed spacecraft, continuing into the Constellation/Orion program. Presently, I am integration lead working in Orion Systems Operations Integration and also in commercial space programs.

JP: At the start, I was fortunate enough to be offered a summer internship with Amoco Production Company as a roustabout engineer trainee in south Texas for three straight summers. From there, I soon found myself at Champlain Petroleum Company, which later became Union Pacific Resources. After a round of layoffs, my career path took me from Fina and then to Devon, though many of my colleagues and I succumbed to layoffs at both of those due to consolidations and then the great recession. The history of the oil and gas industry is indeed a cyclical one.

I am now the ultradeepwater program vice president for RPSEA [Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America]. This is a consortium of companies pooling resources to solve some of the toughest challenges facing the oil and gas industry today. This position offers ample opportunities to work with the best minds in the offshore deepwater business from industry, academia, and laboratories. These people are trying to solve very complex problems, improve safety, increase efficiency, and find breakthroughs that will be transferred to others worldwide. I am honored and proud to play a small part in their efforts and provide support whenever I can.

What were your reasons and motivations for joining your industry?

JW: It became clear to me after treating oncology patients for many years that the future of treatment lies in targeted therapies. Chemotherapy still has an important role, but a more targeted and personalized approach is gaining momentum as the new paradigm. Rather than a one-size–fits-all approach to treatment, we are becoming increasingly interested in offering individualized treatments. We have a long way to go in terms of the regulatory apparatus and conventions of our current clinical trials system catching up with this more progressive approach, but we will get there. It is the excitement of this cutting-edge environment that drew me to this field. The successes I am seeing in the clinic every day keep me fascinated and engaged. I believe I was motivated to do this work because it is truly making a contribution to the future of oncology treatment. I don’t think I would be happy in a role where I offered just the status quo. I need to feel like I am exploring new territory.

RM: When I graduated, the space industry had a very prestigious allure. Until I interviewed, I was not that interested in and had not considered working in the space industry. My initial interest was in the oil or telecommunication industries. When I was doing my plant interview with Ford Aerospace, they took me through the MCC and explained the job. At that moment, I knew this was what I wanted to do.

JP: I originally wanted to be a research chemist in order to cure diseases, and I poured my efforts into science and mathematics to accomplish that dream. When I graduated high school, I was offered a generous [US] Naval ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] scholarship, but it was stipulated I would have to pursue an engineering degree. I logically decided to do a double degree in chemistry and chemical engineering and accepted the scholarship and an invitation to attend The University of Texas at Austin.

Halfway through college, I became disenchanted with the politics I found in the military and dropped my scholarship. I had to find work to make tuition payments. I decided to try the exploration and production [E&P] industry because I found it presented many unknowns and challenges.

Can you please describe the most technically challenging aspect of your industry? Is there one particular technical challenge you had to solve in your career that stands out?

JW: Drug development is complicated, expensive, and high-risk. The majority of drugs will never get into the clinic to be tested in humans. Among those that do, a minority will move forward in the drug approval process. Good science is key at every step along the path. My challenges have involved primarily two areas. Firstly, the regulatory side of protocol development. Getting others on board with novel ideas is sometimes challenging, particularly if you are challenging the status quo. Secondly, the process of obtaining information on tumor tissues (which can help guide treatment). With personalized treatments, it is critical to have all the molecular data at your fingertips to make the best possible decisions. Often, simple logistical issues can get in the way of this happening. I believe the technical challenges are part of what draws people to this kind of work. Drug development is so complex and multifaceted, and we are forced to problem-solve and troubleshoot at every step. This creates total engagement in the process. And the goal at the end of the day is always the same—to get effective drugs to patients as quickly as possible.

RM: I worked in several projects that involved upgrades to the space shuttle. This proved very challenging to integrate current technology into a technically old spacecraft. Another challenge was applying new industry techniques in a government workplace.

JP: Early in my career, the price of natural gas was depressed, and oil prices dropped precipitously in late 1985. By March of 1986, my personally supervised drilling rig count had dropped from 16 to 1. And the reason was purely economic: The oil price could not sustain a decent return on investment. In April of that year, a friend of mine, who was a drilling engineer, and I attended a local SPE meeting at which an engineer with Arco described an improved mud motor that allowed his company to drill horizontally at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. On the ride home, my friend and I discussed it and recognized that the Austin Chalk should be the perfect reservoir—a highly fractured formation in one predominant direction and difficult to predict—to drill horizontally.

It took the two of us months to obtain buy-in, but, eventually, management agreed to allow us to cut windows in three existing wells and try out our theory. The results included three to five times the initial rates and reserves, but the costs were steeper than expected. We were allowed to drill seven horizontal wells on the company’s contiguous acreage, and the rest, as they say, is history!

What technologies that emerged over the course of your career did you find particularly groundbreaking? Looking forward, what technologies do you see playing a key role in your industry in the future?

JW: The emergence of high-throughput next-generation sequencing platforms to profile a broad range of molecular aberrations is now available to all patients. This was a major breakthrough over the past few years. Now, with this information, we can truly select personalized therapies. While not all patients’ tumors will have molecular abnormalities that match with a drug, in many cases, we can design a rational approach to treatment based on this data. Using molecular profiling, we are refining our approach to treatment, recognizing that each tumor type in fact consists of many, many different subtypes. In essence, everyone’s disease is now an “orphan” disease that needs to be addressed for its unique characteristics. This is remarkable progress when we look at how we were using agents in the clinic just a few years ago. The gold standard is to have tumor tissue to evaluate at several time points in a patient’s course of treatment. Technology has advanced such that high-throughput techniques are able to do a lot more with a little bit of tissue. Currently under development are technologies that can be used at the bedside to obtain information from blood. This will be another remarkable step forward.

RM: My career spanned a time period that saw some very key technologies that made a major difference in my job. I would consider the advent of personal computers, computer workstations, and the Internet in the office and MCC to be the most groundbreaking technologies that made a major job difference. We went from memos and paper in boxes stacked high, with a teletype machine attached to a mainframe in the office for doing some basic failure analysis, to a laptop (or two) on each desk and no more “in” basket; now, [we’re] reading emails and using instant messaging.

The new computer technology also led to a change from mainframe IBM 370s in the MCC to an information-sharing protocol workstation system using fiber optics and the latest Unix workstations. With the advent of composite materials and newer power technologies, the spacecraft now being built are lighter and the onboard systems are getting more automated.

JP: Besides the aforementioned horizontal drilling technology, one should include equipment to allow underbalanced drilling and, now, managed pressure drilling, which has yet to hit its stride. On the completion side, stronger and more uniform proppant, consistent liquid carriers and gels, and reliable pumps have all impacted fracture stimulations. Frac packers and perforating sleeves and improvements in projectiles are also at the top of the list. In production, more reliable production pumps (ESPs [electric submersible pumps], hydraulic units, rotary pumps, plunger lift systems, etc.) have contributed to additional recoveries from mature fields. On the facilities side, I would say that compact separation and subsea separators are currently beginning to impact the industry. And let us not take for granted the abilities to construct large vessels capable of drilling and producing in up to 10,000 ft of water (semisubmersibles, spars, drillships, MODUs [mobile offshore drilling units], transport vessels, pipe-laying vessels, etc.). These are no small tasks we can perform now, which we were incapable of doing a short time ago.

On the horizon, we must answer public scrutiny. We will develop methods to keep the oil patch out of sight, greatly reduce road traffic, use greener fluids, recycle more fluids, maybe eventually to include selling recycled water back to municipalities for consumer use.

One common denominator to all of the above future breakthroughs is the use of data. Our industry is at the edge of making major improvements because digital technology will allow us to create tools to better and more thoroughly analyze, forecast, predict, and, in some cases, run our business. As a result, the E&P industry will be able to improve recovery efficiencies while safely operating in more hostile environments.

Many high-tech industries progress by adapting technology from other industries. Have you ever had the chance to use a technology that originated in another sector?

JW: A great deal of progress in my field of drug development will rely on bioinformatic models. Increasingly, we realize tumor pathways are so complex that we will need mathematical models to figure out probabilities of success with drug combinations. There will never be enough time to test each drug combination.

RM: In the 15 years prior to the final shuttle flight, there were many projects that concentrated on upgrading the space shuttle to make it more reliable and fly until 2020. One that was worked on until the Columbia tragedy was an upgrade of the shuttle cockpit to a “glass” cockpit.

When the shuttle was first flown, it was the first aircraft to have a CRT [cathode ray tube] type monitor in it; but, after 15 years, the shuttle cockpit became a dinosaur in this area. The cockpit upgrade project was started based on the current aircraft glass cockpit and smart caution and warning systems. Some of the ideas were taken from the Boeing 777 aircraft and other aircraft experiences to bring the shuttle cockpit up to the later technologies. This was also a challenge to fit this newer technology into the old cockpit backbone. After Columbia and the announcement in 2010 that the shuttle program would be stopped, this program was canceled; but, work was still completed, and the old CRTs were swapped for LCD [liquid crystal display] displays.

JP: We already take advantage of many synergies with the medical industry, where we recognize the similarities between pumps and hearts, filters and kidneys, pipes and arteries or veins, for example. There are similarities between the aerospace industry and our subsea industry; just witness the success of Oceaneering, Lockheed Martin, and others in both fields, as well as the tremendous draw on highly skilled NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] contractors by the oil and gas industry in Houston.

The military and the E&P industry have a long intermingled history. Kongsberg was once a major gun manufacturer. Our perforating devices have their source directly from armor-piercing technology.

For a specific example, RPSEA has been involved in applying autonomous underwater vehicles equipped with infrared technology, LADAR [laser detection and ranging], and possibly ultrasonic detection to the subsea environment to measure and monitor equipment effortlessly. The vehicles were originally developed for the US Navy, and many of the tools were developed for space flight.

Do you think there are adequate channels for technology transfer among different industries? What can we do differently to further promote technology transfer?

JW: Tech transfer is a critical area in drug development. I am a bit removed from this work but do recognize the challenges. Clearly, this area is evolving as synergies between industry and academia have proven effective.

RM: It seems technology transfer can depend sometimes on proprietary information or technology that may have to be bought. Of course, though these intellectual property protection measures are sometimes seen as barriers, they are key to incentivizing the creation of new products and processes.

JP: As I noted previously, certain channels to communicate with others who have similar interests exist. However, they are few and far between. I have found there are several roadblocks that hinder our knowledge sharing:

  • Pride—Most people don’t readily admit they don’t know everything and have all the answers.
  • Time—We are so busy doing our jobs and trying to keep up that we simply have no time to stop and listen to others.
  • Overwhelming choice—There are literally hundreds of conferences and events competing for our time.
  • Ignorance—There’s a group of us who don’t know any better.
  • Neglect—There’s always a percentage of the dynamic that muddles to and from work every day and that is content to go on doing the same thing over and over again until retirement.

To promote change through technology, one must do two things. First, one must recognize the problem. Second, one needs to make an effort to climb out of the comfort zone and regain that inquisitiveness that made us want to be engineers and scientists in the first place. Then, we must practice, practice, practice until it becomes second nature.

Do you have any thoughts on the current state of your industry and its prospects for the future?

JW: Increasingly, we need to develop new ways to bring drugs to individual patients; the era of the blockbuster drug may be over, and there are many challenges ahead. In general, it takes about USD 1 billion to bring a drug to the market and often over 10 years. Patients will require combinations of these drugs to fight their cancer.

As cancer becomes more of a chronic disease, patients live with during long lives, we need to figure out how to support a sustainable model. The economic challenges are enormous. Who will cover the cost of these drugs? Ideally, we would like to see patients treated much earlier in their disease, when we can truly make an impact. Regulatory hurdles are high.

The prospects for my industry are bright, and I am very optimistic about the possibilities for meeting the challenge of treating and eventually curing cancer. To be truly effective, we will need to find ways to confront the economic and regulatory challenges.

RM: Unfortunately, sometimes my industry is dependent on whichever administration is in office; but, the prospect for space going more commercial seems to be in the making. With the latest decisions on where NASA is headed, the prospect looks good for continuing human space flight, but it will probably not look like it has in the past.

JP: The “Big Crew Change” hasn’t happened as expected, in great part due to the recession, which caused tens of thousands to postpone retirement and rebuild their nest eggs. Like when a rubber band is stretched, eventually it will give way.

Once it does, there will be an exodus of Baby Boomers and relatively few Generation Xers will be left to run the operations. They are well trained, but there simply aren’t enough of them to replace my generation.

Enter an opportunity for certain very sharp and well-placed younger employees, who will have a shot at moving up the ladder earlier than expected. But those who do should be aware that there is no replacement for pure experience. Therefore, the younger generation will have to do more with less first-hand knowledge.

How have economic downturns affected your industry?

JW: Pharmaceutical companies are less willing to take chances. They run fewer trials and expect strong results in the early clinical trial setting for a drug to move forward in development. Unfortunately, this means that many potentially interesting and valuable drugs that may, for example, have efficacy in combination or in a very select patient population are abandoned early. Economic downturns, however, can serve to promote creativity; so, it is my hope that a lot of good has come out of the downturn in terms of creative thinking. As an example, many smaller companies have formed to address specific “orphan” diseases. 

RM: Definitely the economic downturn has affected the space industry in the form of budget cuts. This makes for different directions based on what can be afforded in space exploration, meaning a leaner space program.

JP: The oil and gas industry is in the middle of a renaissance period. Oil prices are high enough to create incentives for the industry to take calculated risks in the areas of exploration and advancing technology. Natural gas prices will come back once utilities and businesses decide that the switch to gas from coal makes long-term economic sense, which will hopefully lead to more innovation and progress.

How is technology development different today compared with the past, and what can the younger generation do differently to keep creating novel technologies and adding value to our industries?

JW: Increasingly, the development of technologies to support more efficient drug development will rely on adapting existing technologies from other industries and sectors.

Young people need to be fluid thinkers, willing to look outside established norms to promote novel discoveries and applications. Certainly, a background in a quantitative, mathematical, or computer modeling area is helpful. But there are plenty of liberal arts grads who can equally contribute.

RM: Technology seems to be moving at a very rapid pace, what with electronics and gadgets resulting from faster processors and electronics miniaturization. Much of the technology development seems to center more on consumer hunger, but the younger generation will be challenged with coming up with technologies that add value to our industries that may not necessarily fulfill a consumer desire.

JP: The younger generation, as I see it, is better prepared on the whole for technology than past generations. I have been fortunate to have met some extremely bright young women and men, certainly more than I recall meeting before. What many of them do lack by and large is field experience. In too many instances, these new employees are placed in an office environment and rarely go out to the field to work on problems. When they do go, they spend no more than a day or two, so they never develop that rapport with the field personnel, the knowledge gained from being part of ingenious repairs or solutions developed by wise old(er) workers or the chance to hone their soft skills.

Many of us, on the other hand, like our parents before us, spent our childhoods working on cars, building gadgets, repairing farm and ranch implements, and finding solutions using recycled parts and materials. This was our strength, and I don’t see very many opportunities for many in the younger group to learn the same way.

Are there similarities and differences you see between technology development in different industries? How important is technology development in your industry?

JW: Within my industry, technology development is critical. Technology will support the molecular characterization of patients’ tumors, the identification of novel drugs, and drug delivery systems. The nano revolution is just beginning, and I anticipate it will further revolutionize the way we treat cancer. There is a tremendous amount of overlap with other industries, and, increasingly, we need to take advantage of cross-industry synergies.

RM: Technology development for the space industry is very important with the need for lighter composite materials and with the development of propulsion systems that can put humans to Mars and beyond without depending on the current liquids-based systems.

JP: In nearly all cases, there seems to be a large breakthrough technology that sometimes comes from within the industry and other times is an adaptation stemming from another industry. This is followed by increased use by competitors as they become less skeptical. One of those competitors then leapfrogs the group, and, frequently, the original inventor is left as a has-been, at least as far as this technology is concerned.

For the importance of technology development in the E&P industry, one need look no further than shale gas development. We in the US have gone from USD-13 to USD-2.50/MMBTU wellhead prices and an enormous glut in 6 years. While a part of the reason is a depressed economy, a large part of the equation is the increased ability to extract gas from shale rock in an efficient manner, primarily due to improved hydraulic fracturing and horizontal well technology.

What advice would you give to young professionals who are evaluating their future career paths?

JW: If a career decision seems purely rational without that tinge of excitement and emotional oomph, it is usually not the right decision. The best way to evaluate career options is to start by exploring what you naturally gravitate toward, regardless of industry trends, and then figure out how it could work for you.

RM: Don’t be afraid to try something that does not exactly fit your career goals, and be willing to move jobs and not become stagnant, even within the same industry.

JP: I have been approached by numerous young people for advice concerning their career paths. I’m sorry to say I do not have the answer. I have learned some things I can pass along, though.

  • Brush up on communication skills. Too few professionals in this business have the ability to express their ideas clearly.
  • Make a bucket list of what you want to do during your life. Include work and play items, and revise this list once every year or two.
  • Seek the advice of a learned friend. People around us care about us, and that is even more apparent if we do our best to respect and help others.
  • Pick your battles. Decide when it is important enough to stand up and disagree; and, above all, do the right thing.
  • Set the proper priorities in life. This holds true whether one decides to be an expert in a given area or aims to be more of a knowledge generalist, be a technical person or a manager, or remain with a single firm or jump around from company to company. I recommend thinking of God first, family a close second, others third, and you fourth. For others, that list might be different, but this has worked for me.

Are there advantages and disadvantages to staying in one industry throughout your career?

JW: I am a big believer in following one’s passion and intuition. I am a good example of someone who has made a big change from the art world to medicine. I don’t think there is any one right way to design a career. It would be wonderful to find something and be able to spend a lifetime engaged in that work. However, since that is less common these days, I believe we all need to be very flexible and adaptable. A good problem solver and creative thinker can be effective in almost any area. As the cliché goes, we all only have one time around. Reminding ourselves routinely of how precious our time is can help to keep priorities clear.

RM: I feel it depends on what your interests and desires hinge on. Some people have a tough time staying in one place for their career, and the job can become stagnant. I have done many different jobs while in the space program and was always willing to take on new projects, work proposals, and such that dealt with the newer technologies and space systems. With the advent of continuing improvements in computers and software, I was always involved with new projects incorporating the latest computer systems for the MCC. Depending on the industry, as long as the job is kept vibrant and ever-changing, staying in one industry can be very satisfying. 

JP: One advantage of remaining in a single industry is that knowledge builds directly on top of itself, especially technical knowledge. Changing industries has advantages, too. Like a new kid in the neighborhood, you carry different baggage than others. That baggage can include valuable experiences and ideas. The diverse background you bring to another industry can work to your advantage under the right circumstances. Also, those who change industries are sometimes looking for new opportunities or challenges. They may have been bored in their old industry or felt that they could not contribute sufficiently. For those people, the positives far outweigh the negatives when it comes to starting anew.

Any final thoughts?

JW: I have two young children in a Montessori school. I am delighted with their experience there, and it has had an interesting effect on me. Just as children go to school and select their activity from a shelf, and then are encouraged to pursue their interest, I now try to approach each day like this. I deal with dying patients every day, and I have an appreciation for life’s brevity, and I don’t take a lot for granted. Life is simply too short to spend a lot of time doing work that is not engaging. We are meant to be engaged and allowed to follow our curiosity and interest. If I don’t feel at least some of this every day, I try to make a shift in how I am doing things with the goal of feeling like a kid again, exploring new things.

RM: I have always felt that, if you can get a job doing what you love, you typically will have a fulfilling life, even if the pay is less than desirable. Always stay young at heart and stay positive, realizing that you have ultimate control and can always change jobs if you are unhappy in the one you are in.

JP: This new generation has more knowledge, technical skills, education, and opportunity in any place around the world in our business than any other before it. If its members recognize this fact but are also willing to admit to their shortcomings and work on them, as a group this generation has the ability to be the next greatest generation.

It will require hard work, humility, learning from the mistakes of others and of oneself, honesty, respect for others, perseverance, and a continued high hope to withstand storms. You have what it takes. Your families, friends, elders, and the world are counting on you. I wish you the best!

Ray Miessler worked for 20 years at Johnson Space Center, where he was a flight operations controller and trainer supporting shuttle missions in electrical and environmental systems. During this time, he also served as a manager of engineering personnel as well as a software project manager. Miessler continues to serve as a project lead engineer and systems operations integrator for government projects, exploration proposals, and contracts. Currently, he is working on test engineering and flight operations for NASA’s Orion contract. Miessler holds a BS degree in electrical engineering technology from Texas A&M University.
James Pappas is vice president of ultradeepwater programs for the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, in Sugar Land, Texas. He has held various engineering and management positions with Devon Energy, Santa Fe Snyder, Fina Oil and Chemical Company, Union Pacific Resources, and Amoco. Pappas has served on several technical program committees for meetings, including the Offshore Technology Conference, SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, Latin American Continental Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, and other SPE conferences. In addition to authoring more than 60 papers, he has earned numerous accolades including the SPE Gulf Coast Section and SPE Gulf Coast Region service awards, as well as Houston Area Engineer of the Year in 2007 and Texas Engineer of the Year in 2008. Pappas was selected as a Distinguished Engineer in Texas by the Texas Engineering Foundation in 2008. He has been a registered professional engineer in Texas since 1985. In 1979, he earned a BS degree in chemical engineering and a BA degree in chemistry, with math and Spanish minors, from The University of Texas at Austin. Pappas earned an MBA with highest honors from The University of Texas at Tyler in 1993.
Jennifer Wheler, MD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Investigational Cancer Therapeutics at MD Anderson Cancer Center, where she leads clinical trials to develop novel, targeted therapies for cancer patients. She is also the founder and board president of COLLAGE: The Art for Cancer Network, a nonprofit organization that brings high-impact art programs to patients living with cancer. Originally from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Wheler earned a BA degree in art history and photography from Princeton University. She received her MD degree from Cornell University and subsequently completed a residency in internal medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, followed by an oncology fellowship at Yale and a special breast fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Wheler is the principal investigator on more than 20 Phase I clinical trials and the author of several peer-reviewed publications. She has a particular interest in targeted therapies for women’s cancers. She is the mother of twin girls, age 3.



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