“Pursue what you have a passion for…”

An interview with David D’Amico

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
David D’Amico

Dave D’Amico is a well-respected and experienced geophysicist who works as Geophysical Advisor at the Exploration Technology and Geoscience group at Talisman Energy, where he supports all exploration and operational groups. Interestingly, Dave took up Physics in his undergraduate classes, then switched to Medical Physics for his M.Sc., and finally landed up with a job in Geophysics at Amoco.

With his stints at Amoco, Range Petroleum and Talisman, Dave has developed a broad experience in all aspects of geophysics, with an excellent grounding in seismic processing and technical projects. This has enabled him to become a creative explorationist working with team members in successful discovery of hydrocarbons in various plays.

Dave continues to enjoy the application of newer techniques in the projects that he oversees and always likes to assess the value addition to the data in doing that.

The RECORDER approached Dave for an interview quite some time back, and after a period of waiting and persuasion, he finally agreed, much to our delight. Following are excerpts from the interview.

(Photos courtesy: Penny Colton)

David, lets begin by asking you about your educational background and your employment experience.

Sure. My education is a little bit different than most because I graduated from Honours Physics and then did a Masters in Medical Physics; subsequent to that I joined the Oil & Gas Industry with Amoco Canada, so a little bit different route than most.

And where did you get your degrees from?

Both degrees were at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton.

I was born in Calgary, moved to Leduc for Jr. High and High School, lived in Edmonton during university, got married to Bonnie after undergrad in 1984, and moved back to Calgary after post-grad in 1986, so I’m fairly locally raised, especially compared to many I work with in International Exploration. But that may be why I am usually excited with being able to travel.

As for growing up in Leduc, I tell people, especially when working carbonates, that I was raised on “reefs”.

Edmonton, ok, very good. With an M.Sc. in Medical Physics, how did you get into Geophysics?

While doing my Undergrad in Physics 1982, I had applied for summer jobs in geophysics in Calgary and after several interviews, I was fortunate to land one at Amoco. Back in those days, many majors were more interested in hiring Physics or Electrical Engineering students, even Math students, than those in an actual Geophysics program.

Again in 1983, I was a summer student at Shell; both were great experiences, so I think that got me very interested in Geophysics.

I had originally contemplated entering Geophysics rather than Physics out of high school, but I wanted to have more options and expand my interests, and I figured I was able to sample geophysics via the summer student jobs. I always knew I would go on to a post graduate degree of some sort, though earlier I thought it would be a Ph.D. For my Masters, I chose Medical Physics because it still provided me with a chance to investigate something else but keep my options open for Geophysics. I chose my Thesis topic on Image Processing of Computed Tomography because that work had some relation to seismic processing.

After working on my Masters for a time, I realized a Ph.D. would be mainly more of the same. After 6 years I was starting to get tired of school. I also discovered that a Ph.D. was required for anything meaningful in something like medical physics, like in a research setting, and even then I would likely have to spend a lot of time on routine Quality Control of x-ray equipment (protecting the public and adhering to Atomic Energy Canada and so on). That started to strike me as quite boring; geophysics seemed much more varied in scope and way more exciting.

My Master’s defense and graduation was set for about October of 1986. One day in the earlier fall of 1985 – fall was and still is the typical Petroleum Industry hiring season – I sort of in a panic realized maybe I ought to apply for some jobs now! Some of the deadlines had started to pass. I quickly threw my application in only to Amoco (what was I not thinking?), but I was incredibly blessed to get an offer a couple of months later with a start date subsequently agreed to as December, 1986.

There is an interesting further story about that which was much later disclosed to me by Ken West (Chief Geophysicist at Amoco Canada). This was 1986, the year of the infamous National Energy Program, and the industry was in turmoil. For the first time in Amoco's history, they had to have significant lay-offs. Yet here they were, the previous fall having made offers to several new hires (the likes of Dave Nordin, Deb Duggan, Steve Marston, Tom Radford, Ron Jackson, Atul Nautiyal, Ken Stagg, Roger O'Regan, Geoff Fraser (returned); Dave Welsh and a bit later Mike Pacholek and John Maruszeczka from Dome; and others; Greg Partyka and Karin Michael came a bit later – all a really good crop). Atul and I were to join in December, but the others were to start in the more typical spring, just as or before these lay-offs were to occur – not a good situation at all. Calgary Management had the clever idea that perhaps they could offer us a very delayed start and work out some sort of a payment deal to send us back to school for a couple of years of post-grad while the industry stabilized. But Corporate thought it was too complex and so maintained their commitment to hire.

So my route into geophysics was a bit obtuse and my getting on with Amoco Canada was very lucky indeed. And it seemed like we continued to have layoffs about every 2 years from then on, until the first next up-tick in the industry in about 1994.

Eleven years at Amoco was followed by 4 years at Range Petroleum, and the last 9 years at Talisman.

How interesting. Well, you spent 11 years at Amoco Canada and then 4 years at Range; so what prompted you to make the decision to leave Amoco, the company which people still talk about today?

Yes, I very much enjoyed working at Amoco. It had a great training program, great mentors, and provided me with excellent grounding in the basics of Geophysics.

Thanks to that NEP and the several years of downturn, along with the takeover of Dome Petroleum, the typical cycle at Amoco of moving through Processing, Special Projects, and finally into Interpretation was stalled for me. The usual cycle was supposed to be about 2 years, but because of lack of hiring, absorption of Dome, and letting people go, in my case it was extended to nearly 6 years. I probably whined a bit at the time, but in retrospect, as is so often the case, it turned out to be a good thing for the additional great grounding, chance for experimentation, and great mentorship I received. These are things sorely lacking for many in our industry these days.

During that time, you know how people have a “buy-out” when they get a major transfer or if they leave a company – well back then we would have a “buyout” whenever someone finally moved on into Interpretation.

During the next up-tick in 1997, a few highly skilled people from Amoco (Scott Hadley, Rick Brown, Bernie Goruk) started up Range Petroleum with a few others. Eventually they were looking for some geophysical assistance – they were not happy I guess with using geophysical contractors; they wanted someone full-time on staff and approached me. I knew it was a high risk opportunity, exasperated by our unusual strategy of drilling high risk opportunities. But that in itself was exciting, and there is something very enticing, I guess, from a feeling of being wanted and valued. Also, here was a chance to take what you know, and work in a small team for a very common focused goal and see what we could do.

I expected that if we did not have early success we would last about 2 years. To a degree, seeing all those who had been laid off from Amoco having done well – in some cases “extremely” well – also gave me courage.

And it turned out to be a fantastic further learning experience. For much of the time I was the only Geophysicist there; Marilyn Mawdsley joined soon after (along with Mark Hadley), but started a family and didn’t stay the whole time. We had to handle all aspects of Geophysics, right from the design of seismic programs through to processing, and interpretation, and then the selling of those opportunities, so it was very exciting.

Thinking back, there seemed to be an important turning point in our strategy at Range. During the late 1998/1999 downturn when oil reached down to ~$11 something, one faction proposed we buy some producing oil properties. The other didn’t want to get on the “development treadmill”. The latter won out, and we continued drilling mainly high risk opportunities in WCSB and not-so-low risk Silurian prospects in Ontario and Michigan. At the end of the day we were not very successful economically, but we lasted 4 years and I really enjoyed the whole time, except for the ending few months.

Very interesting, normally people get a chance to do either processing or acquisition or interpretation but not all three. Lucky for you.

So since January of 2002 you have been with Talisman, what all have you been doing at Talisman?

Well I started in the North Peace River Arch Group thanks to Dave Cottle (ex- Amoco) who convinced me to join Talisman. We worked on Slave Point and Keg River opportunities. I was very fortunate to be able to work with a great geophysicist, Chris Irving, and some good geologists; we did some fine mapping. Over that time I drilled a few quite successful Slave Point wells and a couple of unfortunately non-successful Keg River ones. But part way through I had the chance to show-case some of the special attributes I had developed. I showed those techniques to the geophysical “Tech Group”, who at the time was just Gary Billings. Mark Godlewski had just taken over from Mo Krause as Manager of Exploration Technology. I think they all were instrumental in developing an internal posting for a new opportunity in the Exploration Tech Group, so I applied for that and was accepted to work with Gary, a great geophysicist whom I deeply admire. I guess during that time I developed a reputation for technical astuteness and applied solutions.

So I worked in the Specialist Group for about 5 years supporting both our North America Operations (NAO) and International Exploration (IEX) groups; I also became involved in peer reviews. We slowly expanded geophysically by bringing in Heath Pelletier, Eric Andersen, and Hugh Geiger.

Eventually I desired a change and some new challenges, so I applied for an internal position in our Portfolio Management Group led by Abhi Manerikar. So there I was responsible for coordinating risk and resource assessment of all of our IEX wells. That has been a fantastic opportunity because it has allowed me to see all of our International opportunities in quite some detail over a short timeperiod, and witness many of the drilling results. I’ve learned a lot, also from Abhi and from Pratt Barndollar who subsequently took over from him.

Yes, you are exposed to a lot of stuff going on in the International projects.

So I did the Peer Review Coordinator thing for the last two years. Part way through we had a change in management with some different ideas on Technical Assurance; so there is now a fulltime team doing reviews, rather than peers. This has allowed me recently to move back into the Specialist Group as a Geophysical Advisor, hopefully with a more over-arching viewpoint and a bit more business focus.

Good. So going from Amoco to Range to Talisman, what differences in the work culture or work environment did you perceive when you made these changes?

Yes, so Amoco, as I said, was an excellent training ground and a great place to work. It certainly provided me with great grounding in processing, special projects, and interpretation.

Amoco was very collaborative. One interesting story… in the early days the cafeteria staff would come by with a coffee-break cart twice a day. We young bucks would often “flip” to see who would pay for coffee and/or a “gut bomb”. Then a few would congregate for a short while, when time permitted, to discuss our processing flows or details of some of the algorithms, or whatever we were curious about. We could bounce ideas off each other, and take ribbings at the same time – really quite fun.

Such collaboration was encouraged in many ways – through exploration team meetings, networks of excellence, interface with Tulsa Research, workshops, annual geophysical presentations, even preparing for the Risk Police, etc.

At Amoco there were pockets of fantastic innovations, very unique innovations. And I really appreciate the mentorship I received there.

I’m shocked at the outcome of BP/Amoco. At one time, Amoco Canada was about 3000 people, and at an earlier time while still independent, Dome was about 6000. BP Canada is on the verge of becoming a remnant of perhaps a couple of hundred!

Many of my mentors and associates have retired or are retiring. Many of them, and many others who earlier left Amoco, have been and continue to be fantastic contributors to the industry.

On the downside, there was a lot of implementation of Organizational Capability at the time and a lot of process to go through. A lot of energy went into setting up great processes, but I recall we would sometimes get tired by the time it came around to continual implementation.

As I mentioned, at Range I was responsible for everything geophysical, plus I was the office IT person too. This was also great fun, working on such a focused team and handling all aspects of geophysics. But being a small company there was limited support functions, and there was limited opportunity for application of technology, mostly because we didn’t have access to a lot of data. We made up our own processes.

I found that in moving to Talisman there was a great balance of the two, because it combined some of the best aspects of both the Amoco and Range environments. There were some of the key processes and structures of Amoco, there were good support systems, and especially we had access to vast datasets, or the support to go and buy what was needed. Talisman was very good at implementation and it was fairly easy to get things done reasonably quickly. I found we were quite nimble in our exploration groups.

Lately because of its growth, Talisman seems to have embarked on more of that Organizational Capability that Amoco had started in the mid- and late- 1990s.

On the downside, I found Talisman quite siloed as it is quite lean – especially at first I missed the collaboration we had at Amoco. I hope to continue to improve upon that aspect.

What career accomplishments are you really proud of?

Hmm. Over time I have built up quite a bit of knowledge to answer many issues (at least superficially) so I have a good, broad understanding of almost all aspects of geophysics. I think I can point people in the correct or proper applied direction to pragmatically solve some of the issues that they come across. I have a collection of references and documentation to which I can quickly point people.

Something I often recall is the work done with Jack Bouska at Amoco Canada on Sparse 3D, another geophysicist I much admire. I was responsible for the processing of our “go big or go home” first five Sparse 3D projects. When I look back knowing what I know now, it turns out we were very fortunate, very lucky, that we had some really good processors working on that difficult data, otherwise we may have abandoned that innovation.

One of the things that I enjoyed most was taking what I learned at Amoco on the Slave Point, plus what we worked on at Range (but lacked extensive data), and applying those learnings at Talisman (where we had great seismic coverage), to drill successful wells even in a fairly heavily worked area. The Slave Point figures prominently in my career because it is weaved through all three companies. It has been my favorite play, which explains why I refer to it a lot.

What has been, out of these various accomplishments, your most challenging project?

Well I think it’s been the most recent one, working in the Portfolio Management Group and coordinating almost weekly risk reviews with limited support. It is difficult to try to handle all of facilitating the meetings, taking notes, making comments, keeping to the time, and then subsequently writing the documents and PowerPoint summaries – also while actively participating on Postdrill reviews and doing other ancillary functions. And because we are a global company, many of these reviews are done by Video-Voice Conference in the late evenings to accommodate the time change from SE Asia.

Satinder and David

Tell us about some of the memorable moments in your professional life and also a success story that you might want to share if the two are different?

Sure. One of the things that I vividly recall from Amoco was the first, I think it was the first, exploration 3D for Slave Point. And I still remember sort of the gasps in the room, in the boardroom, when I first unrolled the horizon pick image that showed clearly the difference between the Reef and the Basin. It was quite impressive. Of course it was the data itself doing most of the talking, not me. What was further interesting about that though is that later we had to decide whether to really start exploring for Slave Point to the east or west of Chinchaga, where we did the first program. For various reasons, such as competition and land availability, we decided to go east, but if we had instead gone to the west, I think we may have perhaps discovered Ladyfern before Apache and Murphy. So that was quite disappointing but yet exciting; certainly memorable.

Another as I touched on before was working with the first five, we called them “go big or go home” exploration 3Ds at Amoco – these were the Sparse 3Ds developed mostly for Devonian Exploration. It was great working on a small team for that common goal. Unfortunately they mostly resulted in smaller prospects than what we had mapped from 2D seismic. Still though, it was always exciting, that rush when the first well results start coming in, and of course when the seismic candy first gets loaded to the workstation.

And a third is when at Range we did one of the first exploration 3Ds in Ontario and it was exciting just to manage that whole process and get a seismic image at the end of the day that clearly showed some drillable (though small) Silurian Reef locations.

Have they been drilled now?

Yes, that first 3D showed two small, uneconomically small, incipient pinnacles which we did drill anyway but they didn’t even quite pay for the seismic and drilling program. Ironically, the early “success” imaging those small reefs kept us playing in that game too long.

Dave, what personal professional goal are you working towards now?

Personally I am trying to determine what I should do with the rest of my career and life. I am close to either five or fifteen years from retirement, depending on what I need to decide, so I’m trying to figure what to do next.

And professionally I am working towards becoming more persuasive or influential, a stronger leader without authority.

Very interesting. David, you come across as a very soft-spoken, shy and warm person. Is that right?

I think some people would say that, yes.

Tell us three other personal qualities that would describe you as a person.

I am probably a bit shy but much less shy than I used to be. Sometimes my shyness is misinterpreted as aloofness. Another trait is that I am detail oriented and thorough, occasionally to a flaw. I think I am also collaborative, at least that’s what my Myers-Briggs or colorinsights say – so I am a coordinator. And I think I have a penchant for continuous improvement.

All are excellent qualities that one would like to have. Good.

I guess you are a firm believer in new technology, that’s my impression at least. Over the years what new technology ideas did you assimilate in your interpretation, since back in Amoco days, and tell us about the outcome of those ideas, how they were favorable and why, etc.?

Sure. We touched on Sparse 3D; also I used Megabin a lot in the East. Fit for purpose acquisition can save a lot of cost. Coherence Cube and Spectral Decomposition have figured prominently, as have other attribute and waveform analyses, for identifying facies and compartments. Depth migration imaging has progressed so far over that time. The same goes for processing algorithms, especially noise attenuation. “Dual processing” has worked very well for me.

Here is one example that has to do with one of the unique applications that I think Amoco developed (Mike Kelly and Richard Lindsay). It was “amplitude versus bandwidth”. So this technique would be used in, say, the Gulf of Mexico where it could help distinguish whether you had a blocky type sand or a more gradational zone. You would do this by looking at the seismic amplitude of sand response with different frequency high-cuts. A blocky sand stays strong amplitude at all high-cuts while a gradational sand is strong amplitude at low bandwidths and dims as the high-cut rises. I was able to take that in a slightly different direction at Talisman; I morphed it to “time versus bandwidth” and used this unique technique on some plays we were working on. I would look at the time of the horizon pick on sections displayed with different bandwidths, different highcuts. The times of the horizon pick would behave differently if it was onreef versus off-reef, say. Of course it requires detailed modeling to help understand. And it is related to spectral decomposition but approached in a different fashion. So that’s just an example.

Another, of course Satinder you are familiar with, is using ThinMan for thin bed identification on some of our Malaysian offshore development drilling.

You know, even today though I see a preponderance really of interpretation being mainly wiggle picking and structural mapping rather than trying with a vengeance to pull out as much stratigraphic information and patterns within the seismic. I think that requires a deep understanding of your seismic data. I think there are more time pressures today than there used to be and a bit of a lack of mentoring and coaching for some of the newer geophysicists. You know Satinder, all through our careers, we have talked about emphasis on integration and yet that still is seldom really achieved. I think we’ve lost a bit of focus on what that really means.

Do you think new geophysical technologies hold the promise of extracting more information to help characterize hydrocarbon reservoirs?

Yes of course, I do as I just mentioned. You know we do have so many tools that can help us extract more information and are developing more all the time. So it seems that we have, not so much the lack of ability, but I think more a lack of effort and time to really focus on those and apply them well.

I have seen though some tremendously good work, say recently summarized by Bill Goodway and Heloise Lynn, on extracting more from the seismic data and relating it, these days importantly to geo-mechanics, to try to find the sweet spots for unconventional plays.

Let me ask you this. We know that the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin is maturing. So do you think there is enough potential here in Alberta to keep us employed for the next 30 or 40 years, or at least until we retire?

I certainly do. You know Ontario as a comparison is a significantly more mature basin – with a limited set of hydrocarbon zones – and yet it still at least partially employs a hydrocarbon business. So here in Western Canada for sure, especially as we’ve seen the uptick of unconventional production, the latest big technological push, we still have lots to find. I think unless there is a black swan for some new energy source or break-through there will be exploration and production for our life times at least.

Could you comment on the shale gas exploration and development which is hot these days as you mentioned. Your company is heavily involved in this as well as other unconventional plays; in fact the last restructuring that was done in your company was focused on shale gas. Some people think that gas production from shale tends to drop faster than originally thought, and so companies will have to drill more wells to sustain the same level of production. Is that correct?

Yes, I think you are implying a bit of a reference to the recent buzz at the AAPG-ICE Convention and other venues – perhaps Arthur Burman’s more cautionary viewpoint. But you know development and exploitation has always been this way. It’s a constant treadmill fighting the decline curve, but now it has become much wider and larger, it’s on a larger and wider scale, with unconventional plays. It’s the gas price which is the most serious problem today for our industry and thus, like others, Talisman is pursuing liquids rich shale plays, such as the Eagle Ford in Texas.

Is Talisman also involved in the Marcellus Shale?

Yes, also the Marcellus Shale, we manage that now out of our new Pennsylvania office. And we are in the Montney Shale here in Alberta and BC.

So three different places?

Yes, at least. We are also pursuing the shale play in Poland.

Great. Is Talisman also involved in heavy oil areas in Columbia somewhere?

We have never actually been in heavy oil as per Syncrude, but we do have some heavier oil operations that we have recently expanded into in Colombia.

I see. What in your opinion are the effective geophysical techniques that are being practiced these days to characterize shale gas formations?

You know that finding the sweet spots is the current holy grail. For example, I like the interesting map that was just shown, I think it was shown by Richard Salter from Schlumberger at the AAPGICE; it was a map showing one-year production from wells in a region. It would be interesting to see if there is any correlation between that and any geophysical attributes or geologic trends. This is the type of integration I think that is needed.

Production rate is the new measure in the mix. There is no longer a direct correlation to logs – and completion practice is another wild card or variable. It’s no longer as simple as just trying to match porosity to seismic acoustic impedance. It becomes much more of an integration game, much deeper integration than the relatively superficial integration of geology and geophysics and land that we used to talk about.

Multicomponent seismic is useful for imaging gas clouds – you remember the examples from the North Sea or Gulf of Mexico – and that is one of its biggest applications. Is it still considered expensive and not commensurate with the benefits that it could yield at your company, or have you found some value in using it? Could you tell us something about that? What applications has it been applied to in oil sands or shale gas plays?

I think multicomponent acquisition is an extra expense and its net present value (as it often sits on the shelf essentially unused waiting for the future) is not really commensurate with the benefits that it is supposed to yield. Talisman is not into oil sands, we don’t have those kinds of activities. We are not actively employing multicomponent. In many ways multicomponent has been a solution waiting for the right question. Shear as we know is plagued with processing difficulties: noise, low bandwidth, large statics, and difficulties with registration to the compressional data. And we don’t really have the right problem to apply it to, the right problem hasn’t been determined yet.

How do you coordinate things in your new role as global geophysical advisor for Talisman?

Well I am trying to place some light process enhancements to improve some aspects such as collaboration, communication, project management – basically trying to overcome the silos that we have at Talisman. There are several issues to overcome which I am trying to break down into smaller pieces that I can influence. Otherwise the default is sort of fire fighting, trying to just answer whatever questions come up at the moment.

I should have actually checked this, but didn’t. Are you a member of the CSEG, the SEG, CSPG and APEGGA? Are there any others that I am missing here?

I am a member of the CSEG and the SEG, but not the CSPG or APEGGA.

I have just somewhat recently discovered the CSPG International Division and I very much enjoy attending their talks.

We are very fortunate in Calgary to have such vibrant participation in these societies.

Do you like to volunteer your time for these societies?

You know, embarrassingly I have not been very active as a volunteer in the CSEG. You know that flaw I have of attention to detail and thoroughness that I mentioned earlier? Well it takes quite a bit of time away from those kinds of opportunities. But I am considering a more active role.

Very good. So we can look forward to your participation?

Maybe something somewhere!

What are your other interests apart from the science that you practice?

That’s another reason too, why I haven’t been that active in the CSEG. I was heavily involved in a 6-year term in an administrative leadership position in the church that we attend. I like tinkering with our PC home network and I have an interest in cars and sailing, though I sort of live that vicariously through magazines, but I am perhaps on the verge of committing more interest that way. And I do like to travel.

Very interesting. What would be your message for young entrants in our industry?

I have three I think. Find a niche but don’t lock in too strongly such that you lose your general knowledge.

Take managed risks, don’t be handcuffed by fear.

And most of all, pursue what you have a passion for or at least have a passion for what you pursue. Live it and you’ll be successful.

Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to down and talk to you, David.

Thanks Satinder, I just wanted to say too that I very much admire all the efforts you put into the societies and your publications and poster presentations. I don’t know how you can accomplish it all, it is amazing to me.

Thank you very much. I also wonder that at times, but thank you so much for the kind words!


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