“There are tremendous opportunities in the exploration business...”

An interview with Ken Umbach

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Penny Colton
Ken Umbach

Ken Umbach is an experienced geophysicist with EnCana Corporation and has spent more than two decades in this profession, spanning domestic and international exploration activities. He is a well travelled man who has seen the ups and downs in our industry. Ken agreed sportingly to our request for an interview and following are the excerpts from a very interesting and lively discussion we had. Penny Colton, as usual, helped us with the photos and also had an occasional question for Ken.

Let’s begin by asking you about your educational background and your work experience?

Actually, I started off in university in Physics. While in high school I really enjoyed Physics and did fairly well on an Alberta prize physics test. I thought that was the direction I wanted to go – pursue scientific interests in university studying physics. At the University of Alberta a friend, Gary Focht, was a year ahead of me in the physics program and he switched over to geophysics. I had known Gary since elementary school and he is a really bright guy so he made me start thinking about geophysics. U of A had a strong Geophysics program and I considered it. After looking into the first year of doing geology and geophysics sort of combined I found it a really interesting field to apply science and a geographic area that I loved working in, the mountains. I also thought of Calgary as a very desirable place to move to once I graduated. But in terms of my work experience, things had been going really well for me in Calgary before the NEP hit the industry in 1981. The NEP ended my western Canadian exploration activities but created a new opportunity for me and it kind of changed my career in a positive direction, I feel. Along with a big contingent of other Canadians I was quickly transferred down to Houston by Amoco. I had about 3 years experience in western Canada and transferred into working international. I got involved in International exploration and I have just loved it ever since. So I have had a lot of interesting opportunities pursuing my personal passions through my career.

Could you tell us about your professional work, like where you worked, how did you like it and all that?

Okay. I have worked many of the active exploration areas in Southeast Asia, parts of South America, Africa, Middle East currently. My first International opportunity was in Trinidad with Amoco. Really we had a lot of industry firsts going on there in the early days of marine 3D. Our team did a lot of test processing with DMO when it first came out. We tested Bill French’s then new algorithms and DMO techniques – I believe Trinidad was one of the first offshore area processed using 3D-DMO. We helped delay the oil decline and found lots of offshore gas. Anew 3D survey set up the gas development feeding into a new fertilizer plant at 10 cents an mcf. After Trinidad I spent quite a bit of time over in Indonesia; we actually lived overseas in Indonesia for 3 years. My family loved it over there. My kids grew up traveling to Singapore for week-ends and things like that.

So while their friends back home were make believe playing school, our kids were packing up their suitcases for pretend trips to Singapore for the week-end. They grew up thinking that was normal. But our travels took me to interesting places in Indonesia. My work was in Irian Jaya, which is one of the most remote places on earth. We did some very interesting jungle operations out there with a crew that peaked just under two thousand men. It was a really a challenging time with the politics and logistics of support operations located almost three thousand miles away in Jakarta. Eventually I got back to Calgary. I had left for an international temporary 1-year assignment and it wound up being 8 years before we got back to Calgary. It was a lot of fun. When I finally got back to Calgary, I worked the East Coast for a couple of years and then left Amoco to join PanCanadian in 1992 to start up their international exploration ventures. Some friends enticed me to PanCanadian to set out in a new international direction for them. The startup created some really interesting times, like being a small Company within a big Company. I was involved in kickstarting things there and then eventually I jumped to AEC. I worked the NW shelf of Australia for many years and had various degrees of success there. It was great place to work with a free flow of data and ideas. The SEG in San Antonio in 2001 was a break between my working Australia and starting Middle East new ventures. I did worry about my switch of areas as we watched the video screens in the convention hall on September 11th. But the Middle East has taught me more interesting geology and I have enjoyed my travels there. We initiated some new ventures in Oman and while we were over there the EnCana merger was announced. That was great as I got back together with all my old friends in the same building and we are all working together again. So it has gone full circle.

You have been outside of Canada only for 8 years?

Yes, we were gone for 8 years, down in Houston and over in Indonesia.

Which area or country did you find particularly interesting or challenging?

Oh, I loved Indonesia. We built more lifelong friendships and had some tremendous experiences and work challenges. Our family loved life over there. We were there from 1984 – 1987, and unfortunately the oil price bottomed out at that time. With all of the oil companies pulling back we wound up going back to Houston during the downturn. The people there are just wonderful to work with. There are lots of challenges working overseas but in general if you have a good attitude about it you can really have a great experience.

Kids must have been pretty small at that time?

Yes, they were young but they loved the school there. They went to Jakarta International School and had friends from all around the world. One caution, when you take your kids internationally they may expect that for the rest of their lives. So even though we are now settled in Calgary as a family, it’s not really settled because the children want to move around. We have one daughter who has just come back from Australia, she lived in Australia for a year and now she is looking to go back overseas again. My son and his family want to go to China.

Would you like to share any of your success stories with us?

Sure, there are some really interesting things I was a part of. Some of the things in Indonesia that I got exposed to were things I never would have anticipated. We did a single 12,000 km marine gravity/magnetics survey in the Java Sea. It took two boats surveying for about two months to record the data. At night I was coordinating the operations by single side-band radio from my house because there was too much static during the day. I hadn’t done much with gravity before. You study it and you learn some principles but just seeing the crew in operation and working with the data once you get it back was really a different side of my experience. So there are some funny stories there too, one boat ended up with 2,000 pounds of chicken and the other boat had 2,000 pounds of tripe. We had two US based grav/mag geophysicists, one on each boat. One of them is really happy and one wasn’t but the job goes on and you learn how to survive with things that. Bob van Niewenhuise lost a bit of weight. He was a good sport and we still chuckle about it when we see each other. We didn’t find any oil but, operationally, I consider it was a very successful survey in the end. I understand it may still hold as one of the largest dedicated marine gravity surveys done in exploration.

Satinder Chopra and Ken Umbach

Working in Australia was a tremendous opportunity. Everything works really easily in Australia – maybe too easily. There are some tremendous opportunities by taking a situation where somebody thinks they know what’s going on and we challenge those ideas with a new approach and take a risk. It can be very beneficial and very rewarding for our companies. My first well in Australia for AEC was on a farm-in that turned out a barnburner. It wasn’t possible to test its full deliverability but it calculated at something like 250 mmcfpd. So being successful in those cases where somebody else is really down on an area is really an interesting thing to go through. But all of it just depends on being tenacious and sticking with it in an exploration program. When you are successful and find something it feels really good. I just wish that every explorationist could have those feelings more often.

Let me ask you a somewhat related question. What were some of the successful landmarks in your professional career that put you on a sound footing – okay, now there is no looking back and you just move on with the Company?

Certainly going back, the school focus was a big landmark right there. I started off with the honours geophysics program and I quickly realized that I couldn’t study much geology if I stayed in honours geophysics. I switched to a specialization program to allowed me to take quite a spectrum of geology courses at the University of Alberta. The additional geology was very beneficial because early on in my career I had a good understanding of how to integrate geology and geophysics. It creates a lot of different perspectives to see as an explorationist and geology is essential for me. I think I try to be more oriented toward applied exploration and although I remain intrigued by the science I try not to get blindly focused on the science. That results in oil and gas finding results in exploration. I guess what I mean to say is, I have a toolbox of science tools and I love solving mathematical problems but understanding geology and finding hydrocarbons has to be our focus.

Another interesting landmark (no pun intended) was development of computers and interpretation workstations. Back in my early days, working in Trinidad, the current 3D interpretation technology was a seis-crop table. That involves using a 35 mm filmstrip back-projected onto a ground glass table and drawing contours following interpreted time slices. So you learn all about that technology, just making the film strip was a challenge. You get a permanent colourbar. But we got into workstations quite early in 1982, just as PCs started coming out. I got involved in designing some specifications for the new workstations and I jumped on board with computer workstation interpretation right from the early stage. That experience has come back to me many times over as I am queried by numerous vendors regarding their new workstation developments.

So just being willing to take opportunities as they come creates changes that can springboard into something different and unforeseen. I never really envisioned going overseas when I was in University, but at that particular moment of opportunity, my wife and I talked about it and we said – let’s just take a jump into it and see where it goes. She was perhaps more adventurous than I and it has been very beneficial for us and our family. So those are kind of pivotal points in my career.

What has been your philosophy towards your professional growth?

With Amoco, I quickly got into taking almost every course that was available just in the course of their normal training program, so that was fairly well laid out for us as we graduated and started working. After that, I really sort of started building relationships with contractors and colleagues in other companies and the organizations that were in place in the various locations really helped to strengthen each other’s technical abilities. We would talk about processing techniques and interpretation techniques between us and you’d learn a lot from your colleagues and that has always been an approach that I have taken – try to learn from other people and be available to teach other people what I have learned. I have always taken an interest in passing that information on and it’s benefited me and hopefully I have benefited some other people as well.

When you are talking about other organizations when you were overseas, is that like local branches of the SEG?

Some of them are the local SEG branches but also other organizations like AAPG affiliates and local country associations. In Indonesia it was the Indonesian Petroleum Association. Generally each of these organizations would put on conferences, usually annually, and by fully participating in the activities of the conferences and the interchange between the delegates you learned a lot of things as to what was going on, but you also established those relationships that you continued through the rest of the year, so they help you in an exploration sense. Additionally there are the good friendships that make your life more enjoyable in each of the locations.

A lot of these societies are related to the SEG or the EAGE ?

And the geological societies as well have a lot of connections there and being an exploration focus you try to not say “I am a geophysicist” or “I am geologist”, you just get together and you talk about exploration in general.

[Penny]: Were you allowed the opportunity to make presentations yourselves without the help of the conference?

Yes! In Jakarta we had a group under the auspices of “chief geophysicists” that met and discussed technical challenges. Sometimes a vendor would present and sometimes we would pull together a few slides to give a talk. We got a lot of mileage out of the remote operations in Irian Jaya. Back in Calgary, I have given slide shows to some teens not related to exploration. I wanted to open their eyes to a culture and locale from a lesser known part of the world.

Ken Umbach

At the conferences we have actually used presentations as a stepping stone to build relationships. A colleague Dave Klepackie and I did a talk on triangle zones of the foothills area of Southern Irian Jaya. Dave had seen a presentation that we had given in farming out that area and we often talked about the structural geology interpretation. So when a CSPG/CSEG Triangle Zone Symposium came up we jumped at writing a joint paper for the symposium and the annual Indonesian Petroleum Association convention as well. It also helped to reestablish some connections in Indonesia and Pertamina people that I knew. It was all a part of the process that eventually took PanCanadian into some new Indonesian exploration activities. The common connections we find with our colleagues are all so important because those coincidences bind together our professional relationships and friendships.

What are your aspirations for the future, Ken?

I just love doing the exploration side of things and there are times when you get up and down in your motivation but generally I always want to be able to come to work and just say “I love what I am doing every day and I just can’t wait to get into work”. I just want to continue doing that, as long as I am happy doing that. At the same time I’ve got other hobbies that I try to balance and carry on so that I have a very widespread or diverse view of the world. Continuing to pursue some of those in the future is important to me. I see a lot of people talking about slowing things down, and you know maybe working part-time as you wind down your career and I think that comes all out of just loving what you are doing. You don’t want to cut it right off and certainly, I am loving what I am doing.

One last question in the same line – looking back now at your career, if it had not been for geophysics, what else do you think you would have ended doing?

I would have stayed in the physics side of things. Nuclear physics was one of my biggest loves when I was in University, but back in the 70’s nuclear physics was not a good field to be talking about and it had limited opportunities. There was a lot of research going on, but the opportunities were quite limited and thinking ahead as a family man I suppose, I wanted to get into something where I could actually get out and get a job outside the universities’ circles. Geophysics certainly was the route that worked out for me.

[Penny]: I am wondering what you would recommend for today’s current crop of second, third, fourth year students, some of them are clearly in geophysics, some of them maybe are in physics and haven’t made the transition. With that specialization program that you participated in, was it very popular at the time? Was it a new program, did it continue?

It was very popular, it had been running for a number of years before I got involved in it. There were two focuses at U of A . One was continuing to go on to graduate studies, and that was really the emphasis of the Honour’s program. The Specialization in Geophysics program was more geared into getting out into industry. I think the students have to take a hold of their program and decide what they really feel is important to them in going forward. I felt that geology was a necessary component for me and I took all the options that I could take in geology. In those extra courses, I learned to learn about geology so I had a basis to integrate the geology with the geophysics. I still think that is a good route to go but that is from my perspective. There are a number of other things that people can get more involved in. Some may think more in terms of programming and geophysical software as their field. I still think the geology is important so the software implementation becomes an intuitive flow. It’s individual, but I think some of the specialization programs allow you a little bit more flexibility. Right from beginning I challenged everything, I guess I even challenged the program by taking too much geology. I was being advised by my advisors not to get out of the Honour’s Program, because that limited my options, but here I am today and I feel that I had a tremendous number of options to follow. So tailor your own program that matches your desires and ambitions and move forward with that.

Who were some of your mentors?

Oh, dangerous territory! It is a long list that I am sure I cannot completely do justice to!

Early on some supervisors challenge you to step out and grasp your challenges. For me Clem Trenholm was one of the first. He put me in charge as he left me packed with a sleeping bag on the way out to go do some acquisition parameter tests. I was supposed to tag along for experience but he quit that morning and gave me the confidence to get the job done. Sometimes we have the ability but need a challenge like a little shove. It takes a while in your career to understand that. All of those people become a special part of your career.

Many of the others are people that I had when I was overseas. Some of them I didn’t even know were mentoring me at the time. I suppose it’s a little bit of youth and naivety but they were quietly backing me in a number of areas and directions that I was heading. Even being sent overseas was under the guidance of a mentor. I had no idea why I was selected to go overseas and it was for a number of years after I got back before I found sort of some of the details as to selection process and why I was chosen to go over there. When I was in Indonesia, our country manager Ike Herrick started a lot of our conversations around lunch with something like “Well Ken, I have given you a lot of fatherly advice over the years and here is a little bit more …”. When I look back on those days, they are really special moments to me because I realize Ike was backing me and he considered his mentorship as an investment.

There are a number of others that were always being good teachers and keeping you on track. Another person at Amoco, Bill Phillips, used to call me Kenny all the time. Professionally he is one of the few people that did that but you tolerate it because of the special relationship.

And certainly back here in Calgary when I joined PanCanadian, one of my most influential mentors was Keith Skipper. I learned a tremendous amount of the business side of exploration from Keith and I feel tremendously indebted to him. There are also a number of colleagues and friends that influence and shape a career. I take them all as mentors because they take a personal interest in us and teach us something about what we do and how to do it better.

You worked at Amoco, PanCanadian AEC and now after the merging of the two, Encana; in your opinion, what is the fraction of work done on an average in the international areas as compared to the total work that the company does?

I think it is relatively a small amount compared to what happens overall in a company. In Amoco we had a fairly big international presence but in view of the size of the company international was probably less than 10% of the total company operations. At PanCanadian and AEC it was probably more in the order of 5% or less and now at EnCana after the merger less than 5% of the overall exploration activity is international. So it’s a small, small part of the corporate activity but you are looking at tremendous variability in the opportunities t h e re. Internationally you are looking at fields that are outrageously huge, in the multi-billion barrel potential range, and sometimes you feel like the numbers are crazy but you try to go at it and you just dream big. So it’s a small percentage but it can have a high impact and it is certainly satisfying for many explorationists.

Now that Encana has pulled out of the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea, so what are the areas that Encana is active in?

We are still interested in international opportunities. Middle East is an area that I have been focusing on for the last number of years and it remains an area that we see huge opportunities for us to continue exploring for. It is a business and so you have to recognize that sometimes a company sees more value in selling and leaving an area than it does in staying and some of those decisions are made corporately and well beyond me. But I get to provide the input into what the potential is in an area and it’s up to management to see how to pursue a strategy with that information. But I see areas that are continuing to be explored, certainly South America, parts of Africa are still very active and I’d love to get back to the Far East, I love that area of the world and would love to be a part of that again.

Ken Umbach

In your opinion, what is required of becoming a good geophysicist?

I think you have to be quick to realize conflicting information or to identify discrepancies. Those are our anomalies. Scanning through our data we basically identify those things that just don’t look “normal” and then we have to be able to make an opportunity of them. It is an ability you can learn but part of it is an innate tenacity to challenge things and connect with ideas that could be a more favourable interpretation. You have to quickly be able to put up a flag on something and say “This needs to be looked at in more detail” or “This is an opportunity” because somebody else has overlooked it or because nothing has been done here. Those are types of things that you have to jump on quickly after you identify them. So you can see where the geology focus comes in. Our business relies on geologically consistent interpretations.

As we are all aware, the changing oil prices have a significant bearing on our industry. Keeping that in mind, would you still recommend the young entrants to be joining in our industry?

Yes, I often worry about that myself. Should I be encouraging people to come into the industry? I have asked that question many times of myself, but at the SEG in 2001 in San Antonio (actually on September 11, 2001) I bumped into a geophysicist that had been a summer student when I was still at Amoco. She had started the week that Amoco was laying off the usual twenty percent of exploration staff. She went through that experience with the rest of us and was really questioning whether this was a good industry to be getting into. I remembered telling Nicole that a lot of people will go through some career changes, some of them will wind up ahead from their situations and make the best of it and there will be a few people that will leave the industry but I felt that generally there is a lot of opportunity if she was willing to accept those opportunities and challenges I felt that there was enough potential in the industry that she could have a good career. I felt that I spoke from some experience as it was really no different when I was in University. I had a number of people telling me the oil industry is past peak, there is no future in it, and get out now before you even sign up onto the Geophysics Program and that’s almost 30 years ago. Well fortunately Nicole confirmed that she had had a good career and the advice I gave was sound. That cleared up fifteen years of nagging heartburn caused by concern I gave someone some bum advice.

Yes, so we all have gone through that and really there is nothing new under the sun. Things have changed in the last 100 years but people are the same.

There is an opinion amongst geophysicists that working in Canadian Basins is not challenging enough because it’s all flat geology here and things like that, so do you agree with that?

No, I don’t agree with that. I still get a kick out of going back and looking at the areas that I worked at when I was starting in the industry. We had paper seismic sections and I remember trying to buy land when the Wembley play was breaking. At that time Dome blew everybody out of the water with the landsales. We had seismic anomalies but we couldn’t compete against their tight wells. I find it intriguing going back and looking at some of those areas now with 3D seismic. It’s just tremendous seeing the results in there. I know the grass always looks greener, but sometimes in international new ventures we still are dealing with paper sections and crayons. I think there are still a lot of opportunities in Western Canada. Certainly the industry has done very well and when you look at the profits and the money being spent and the money being made, we are doing as well or better now than we ever were. So Western Canada has got a lot of potential. Major companies may not see that, decide to pull out because there is not enough opportunity for them, but certainly for the individuals there is lots of interest, lots of interesting opportunities and good challenges for them to advance their career and come to work and enjoy what they are doing.

So there was nothing about this bothering you when you went into international?

Well, not really. I enjoyed the busy times we had working NW Alberta pre- NEP but when I looked at the future shaped by the politics things looked like they were going to slow down so I said, well, I want to go where the action is going to be sustained, and so that’s where we went. I chose to go to Houston to venture off to who knows where.

For seismic interpretation work you have carried out over the years, what new techniques or new technology did you rely on in order to extract more value out of the seismic data?

More value? Really just being able to just go through more data at a time. Certainly workstations and computer mapping have helped us mine through a lot more data. We can map faster but you still have to think about what you are doing. On the seismic processing side, there has been tremendous gains there in improving the data quality and as you know, with migration, AVO and coherency processing. They have made tremendous improvements. I try always to grab a hold of using that, those technologies and try them out and it helps you to connect up with more people in the industry and it also has a beneficial trend to your broadening of your understanding of geophysics. So, all these different techniques and being around very smart people really helps too because they teach you a lot of things.

Ken Umbach

[Penny]: I bet you wouldn’t even fall into the trap of saying “Who is the smartest person you ever met”?


What your other interests?

My other interests? I love fishing, flying and the outdoors, I got into fly fishing a number of years ago and now I pack my float tube wherever and whenever I can go. I love fishing the evening hatch on Elbow Lake. When I was overseas my wife got me back into a hobby I had left as a youth, radio control airplanes. Now I am back into it and I just love doing that. Technology is changing there too with electrics and now micro turbine engines. One long term goal is to build and fly my own airplane. Some day I will get off the ground on that.

[Penny]: Have you taken flying lessons, ground school?

That’s step 1. I haven’t done that but I have had a lot of pressure from my brother who has recently got his private pilot’s license. So I am going to be doing that real soon.

[Penny]: I think we probably both know a few other geophysicists that either have a pilot’s license, fly gliders, or have flown on a plane.

[Satinder]: We have one working in our company who has a passion for flying. His name is Dave Anholt.

Have you volunteered for other societies or organizations or something like that?

I have had various participation in conferences, usually in their technical programs and various places. There are many good societies that have excellent conferences and they make it easy for somebody to come in from overseas and be a Session Chairman. It is a great professional networking opportunity and I have that done that a number of times. I also believe we should step in to help in other areas when we can and I have been involved in some church and charitable organizations as well. You learn some management skills and can give back some service to help everyone. It adds to round out your character as well.

What are your impressions about the future of our industry?

Oh I still think there is tremendous potential in our industry. Exploration is far from over and in the science side we don’t know everything yet. For that which we call “noise” right now, someday it’s going to be called “signal”. It is just a matter of getting the right insight into the science and using the resulting understanding. So I think we still need a lot of smart people to figure things out. We need geophysicists who can write an equation on a white board and then implement an algorithm to re-illuminate our data and explorationists who can use those concepts to find the subtle geologic truths. So there is still a lot to learn and discover.

One last question. What message do you have for the younger lot who are planning to join our industry?

Just stick with it. There are tremendous opportunities in the exploration business. We still have a long way to go to find the last of our oil and gas. The hunt is challenging but the find is very rewarding. Nothing beats that feeling of success when you get a good test that comes in and everybody is giving you a high-five. So just go for it! I wish everybody will have a big success and be able to have that great feeling.

Good. Thank you very much Ken for giving us this opportunity to come here and talk to you.

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


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