“Enjoy it...”

An interview with Paul MacKay

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Paul MacKay

Paul MacKay is a professional geophysicist/geologist who is known for being an active explorationist. Since his beginning days at Amoco, Paul has come a long way, having served as senior explorationist at Morrison Exploration, Regional manager (Foothills) at Northstar Energy, President and CEO for K2 Energy, VP Sunshine Oilsands and President, Shale Exploration Ltd. An all-round explorationist, Paul has worked with conventional operations, development and exploration in almost all of Alberta including the foothills of western Canada as well as international areas in the US and the Middle East.

Paul has also worked as a consultant and has been an Adjunct Professor at the University of Calgary in the Department of geosciences since January 2005. He also conducts three industry courses: Exploration Models in Compressional Systems, Fractured Carbonate Reservoirs and Field Excursions in the Southern Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Paul has received awards for his presentations at the joint CSEG/CSPG/CWLS conventions in 1998 and 2010 as well as the CSPG Service Award in 1995 and CSPG Track Award in 1997. Paul has been an active volunteer at the CSPG and is the general co-chair for the 2011 CSEG/CSPG/CWLS Joint Convention. He is always ready to shoulder any such responsibility that may come his way.

Paul readily agreed to our request for an interview, which was gratefully appreciated. Following are excerpts from the interview.

(Photos courtesy: Joyce Au)

Please tell us about your educational background and your work experience.

I graduated with a B.Sc (Honours, Geological Science) from Queen’s University in 1980 and a Ph.D. in Structural Geology from the University of Calgary in 1991. In between my degrees I worked for Amoco Canada Ltd., as a geologist and was crosstrained and became a geophysicist. The cross-training came about as the result of an economic downturn and a hiring freeze coupled with a shortage of Geophysicists so that Amoco was forced into cross-training some of their geologists into geophysics. The training was intense with numerous trips to the training centre in Tulsa for formal courses and on-the-job training that included working in the seismic processing group for three years.

So just after getting your B.Sc., you joined Amoco Canada, and worked there for over 7 years. Thereafter you decided to work for a Ph.D. What made you decide this?

I had always wanted to return to graduate school but had put it off because of the diverse opportunities that Amoco was giving me. In 1987, the downturn was growing more intense and Amoco had just taken over Dome Petroleum. I took this opportunity to take a leave of absence as the company was totally tied up with resolving the merger of the two companies. My wife was at Law School so it was a good opportunity for us to become students again. Amoco was kind enough to support my thesis and I had a few contracts with them through the period to keep a close tie to the company.

With a doctorate degree under your belt, you got back to Amoco Canada and became their structural geology expert. But after working for 2 years you decided to quit Amoco. Why?

Amoco was a great place for me to work. They were very supportive of the things that interested me and they gave an extraordinary amount of independence. I was not looking to leave but was recruited by my former boss to a small company called Morrison Petroleums Ltd. It was a difficult decision to change companies but Morrison offered a new type of challenge with a greater degree of freedom and a greater degree of accountability. Some of my closest friends in industry came from those first years at Amoco when we were all fairly impressionable and eager to advance our careers, so I remember my time at Amoco very fondly. Morrison was a totally different experience, very demanding, very exciting and professionally rewarding.

Did your stint at Morrison Petroleum Ltd. help you with your objective?

Extremely so. I was given great opportunity at Morrison. Amoco provided the nurturing environment that allowed me to develop my skills and Morrison provided the aggressive environment that allowed me to test and advance my skills. At Morrison, if there was an idea on the table it quickly became an action item. We shot seismic, acquired land, bought pipelines and gas plants, and drilled wells – lots of Foothills wells. At one stage we had three rigs working in the Foothills, which is a lot considering that we were a very small team in a small company. I was very fortunate to have moved to Morrison. The company expected quite a bit but did not hold back any support and was open to and acted upon new ideas. Again it was a place that good friendships were made at the same time as I was able to develop my career.

Some interpreters may find it challenging going from the interpretation of plains areas to the Foothills. How did you find this switch when you went over to Morrison and then to Northstar Energy?

I am trained as a Foothills geologist so it was one of those odd situations where I found the Foothills data easier to interpret than the Plains data. I found that the issues associated with detailed ties to wells and phase matching a much more challenging task than interpreting noisy data in mountainous areas. At Morrison we were so busy that we just pushed ahead and dealt with details later. This was not the case at Northstar. I enjoyed my time at Northstar but really did not appreciate all that the company did for me until after I had left. Northstar took a much more paternalistic, collective approach to my work and career than what occurred at Morrison. When let loose it is hard to get reined in again but in hindsight it was a good exercise for me to have to deal with process, corporate structure, and collaborative thinking. Northstar really confronted me with the issue of having to work with others and to accommodate a different thinking style. It was a very hard lesson for me and I still forget it at times but it was one of the more valuable lessons that I have ever received. It serves me very well now and I find that my frustration level is greatly reduced because of the experience. When I see one of my former bosses from Northstar I find that I thank them for the experience – they were very patient with me.

Exploration in the foothills is difficult. How do you tackle it? What made you so sure to go ahead and drill?

In my opinion, Foothills areas are one of the most exciting areas to interpret for the geophysicists. The first look at the section can be intimidating and the costs are frightening but it is surprising how much information lies within the section, even older, noisy, 2D trade data. My approach is to start with the things you know and move out from there. The first thing I do is look at the surface geology. There is a huge amount of control in Foothills areas from the surface geology. In western Canada we are blessed by very good surface maps made over the past 80 years by the Geological Survey of Canada. Not many other thrust belts have such good control. It is important to learn how to read a geology map and to understand structural plunge and projection but with a few skills quite a bit of control can be put on the seismic data. Another important tool that we have as interpreters is that we can look at the structural style and make sure that our interpretation fits the structural style that we see at surface. As an interpreting geophysicist, I do not like to interpret data where I have not looked at the surface geology. This isn’t always easy, such as the work in Kurdistan and other remote areas, but it is of such importance that I do my utmost to get out into the field. I find the trick is that I don’t worry so much about the things I don’t know but rather to get down the things I do know and to be very critical and objective about the interpretation. This is probably the hardest part because these interpretations take time and effort. There is a tendency to invest quite a bit of oneself into the drawing of lines and no one likes being wrong. I have finally come to the conclusion that ultimately I will be wrong but I try to be less wrong. After that we discuss the range of possibilities and if one of these possibilities occurs then it is a good interpretation. If something unforeseen occurs – we have learned something new. Maybe one of the best tools is have friends that are happy to tell you that you are wrong – I have a lot of these.

After your stint at Northstar you decided to become a consultant. Tell us about how this brought change to your professional life.

Northstar gave me an opportunity to be a manager. At the time I was driving the interpretation and as such I found myself managing a group of which I was a key technical member. At the time I did not understand that this really does create a fundamental conflict and in that conflict I had a growing sense of frustration. These types of situations create situations where it is possible to lose objectivity and allow passion to become too much of a driver. I am a big fan of passion but it does need countervailing measures so that it is balanced. As the manager/interpreter this is difficult balance and I personally found I was getting pulled into too many directions. I went to the Northstar executive with this dilemma and indicated that I was planning on forming my own consulting firm. At the same time Northstar was acquired by Devon Energy and was quickly growing bigger. Northstar/Devon was understanding about the situation and hired me as a consultant for another two years to work on their projects in the Atlantic Provinces. It was very generous offer on their part as it gave me a solid, reliable client around which I could build up a broader client base.

The role as consultant has been fabulous for me. I have had numerous challenging projects, was able to work with a very broad spectrum of the industry and many extremely talented people. I travelled much of the world and was able to get to places that are open to only a few. As a consultant I have been able to test out many ideas and thoughts. Shared ideas tend to flourish while ideas that are kept in secret tend to stagnate. Working as a consultant I had up to eight clients at any one time, which gave me a busy work life but also a technically rich group of geoscientists to discuss concepts, ideas, processes, and results. It has been a fabulous opportunity.

Looking back now what do you have to say about how your career shaped up?

I remember two pieces of advice quite clearly in my first few days at Amoco. An older colleague (near retirement) came into my office and told me, “Paul, you have it made. All you have to do is stay sober, show up on time and you will retire a millionaire – trust the company, they will look after your career.” Another, more senior colleague told me, “Stay on as steep a learning curve as you can, once you get comfortable with how to do your job – force a change.” I am thankful that I tended to take the latter advice and not the former, although staying sober at work is not a bad idea.

Looking back, I often think how patient people have been with me. I am embarrassed and thankful to think how many times I was heading down one track only to be gently steered back to a better course by someone else. We tend to think of these things as a product of our own hard work as if we are battling against some great unseen foe but the reality is that I have had the most fun and the greatest success when working collaboratively with others for a common goal. The thing that catches me off-guard is how some past experience that I vaguely remember comes back up at a crucial moment and how important those past experiences become as we create new experiences.

What personal qualities do you think helped you achieve all that you have achieved so far?

I tend to find it easy to make friends and my friends tend to become good friends that treat me honestly in a compassionate way. I’m not sure why that is so but it is a blessing.

How would you describe yourself in five words, one word for one personal trait?

That’s too hard a question. I know how I would like to be perceived and I know that I routinely fall short of that perception. I tend to be a bit impatient but thoughtful, I am generally social but need some alone time, I am friendly and open in a guarded Canadian way, I am humorous but can’t tell a joke to save my life, I am more an idea man than a task doer and find it easier to start a job than to clean up the mess at the end. That is six, I like to overdeliver.

Please share with us one or two of your most exciting successes?

Personally, my greatest success is marrying my wife, Lilly, because she has built a home life for the two of us and our three children that is a solid foundation for everything else that happens in our family and our lives.

Professionally, success is not something that belongs to an individual has but is rather the group’s success. I would say that one of the most exciting stages was my time developing our Foothills business at Morrison Petroleums. I had a great boss who gave an amazing amount of support while leaving a lot of room for new ideas and independence and a super team to work with. It was the size of company where one can make a contribution that will have a direct effect on the company.

Another exciting time was working with Rally Energy on an Egyptian Project. The team was a more mature group but we overcame a lot of inbred thinking to deliver a new product that proved to be successful both technically and economically. I made some good friends and often look back on the experience.

What according to you is your most important contribution so far to geoscience?

I hope my greatest contribution is still to come. Part of my career has been guiding filed trips into the Rockies. I have taken over 1000 colleagues out into the mountains to show them one of the most beautiful areas they can find and to discuss how this may have formed. The discussions we have range from discussing details of geology to broad discussions of philosophy and life. Somehow those discussions are the most rewarding to me and I think are the greatest contribution that I have been able to make. We get a chance to swim in deeper water than you do at work or in the classroom and the quality and insight that comes from that experience tends to stick well after the trip is over. I occasionally run into some of the people with whom I have been able to share this experience. They often bring up details of our conversation that I have forgotten and explain how they have used it in their own career or even life – now that feels good. One day I would like to take a group of interested colleagues on a two week trip through the mountains, where we can discuss both details and the large picture. For me this would be more than a trip it would be the continuation of a journey with friends and colleagues – I really couldn’t think of a better adventure.

What personal and professional vision are you working towards now?

Professionally, I am working on publishing a set of papers that have been bouncing around in my head for some time. I tend to be a more verbal communicator and feel I should make the effort to publish. I find that initiatives need champions, whether that is a play one is trying to develop in a company or a new initiative for the science. I have been thinking quite a bit about what to do next.

My tendency is to have more things on my plate than is wise, so it will take effort to focus myself but I find myself drawn into making Earth Science more accessible to the public. I fear I sound like some pompous blowhard but we need to become more media savvy. The field that we work on is expanding so much and the complexity of both the science and the tools that we use to study the science is growing exponentially. It can be intimidating for someone new to venture into this field and the public really doesn’t have a hope of trying to understand geoscience despite the fact that they all live, breath and work on the earth. I think we, as geoscientists, have an amazing opportunity to become relevant on an everyday basis to the public. Our tools for communicating are inadequate when talking to the public. Issues that we can influence are lost by our poor ability to discuss at the right level of understanding. We as a community of earth scientists will have varying opinions on topics, such as Climate Change. The one thing I think we can agree upon is that the information that makes it to the public is incomplete, poorly reported, jaded with hidden agenda, and purposely misleading. Although we will never shed our geek demeanor, maybe we can reveal something about the complexity of the world in which we live. I find these are the types of things that catch my attention.

Paul and Satinder

You have worked in the oil sands area in northern Alberta. Tell us about it. Was it exploration drilling being done when you worked for Sunshine Oilsands? What is the present status of oil sands or heavy oil production from Alberta and how is it facing the challenges from the environmental groups.

I was brought into Sunshine as a temporary measure to get to a reserve report and to help them move from an exploration level to a development schedule. I think this was achieved but they got caught in the economic downturn of 2008 and have worked hard to get back to the position that they wanted to be prior to the downturn. Working an oilsands project is one of the toughest jobs that I had. The numbers involved are huge even compared to the Foothills. We were geared towards SAGD technology and the idea was to try and get enough work done that we could apply for a permit to develop one of the areas that the company had bought at the previous year’s landsale.

We drilled and cored about 70 wells over several hundred sections to the northwest of Fort McMurray. I started at Christmas and finished the following July so it was an intense half year. I am glad that I left when I did because the industry downturn created an extraordinary amount of economic pressure on those types of junior exploration companies that do not have a steady cash flow. I don’t have the time to follow the oilsands projects that closely but they seem to be doing a bit better now that we are experiencing some economic recovery. I think the real challenge to face oilsands exploration is a combination of resistence of the environmental movement and the need for new as yet undeveloped technology. The reward is huge but so is the challenge and it involves a large number of people and is likely to be generational in terms of its time window.

Although it is in its infancy in terms of technology, it looks like shale oil will be a competing technology for investment dollars. I am confident that existing oilsands projects with developed infrastructure will remain economic and successful but developing new oilsands areas that have to compete for investment dollars will continue to be a challenge. Knowing the people who do this I am sure they will be successful but it will take more time and effort than I think I could manage to give.

If we take the lesson from shale gas and look at the economic impact that the shale gas plays had on the economics of gas plays in the arctic we might see a similar trend with respect to shale oil compared to oilsands. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next decade.

You are now working as President of Shale Petroleum Ltd. Tell us about this venture. Where are you going with this, and what are your production goals? Do you think this will be profitable, considering the low price of gas at present and in the near term not predicted to increase drastically?

I think that the gas industry will face significant economic pressure for the next several years. I am nervous about predicting any kind of resurgence in the gas commodity price until there is a structural shift in the market, for instance the shift from coal power to gas powered electrical generation. The gas exploration industry has become a victim of its own success and optimism. Reserves (supplies) are growing against the given consumption levels. It really should not come as a shock that this will suppress the price of gas. Shale gas has become a dominant source, especially in the US, and we really do not have a good estimate of the size of the resource available to us – it is large.

Shale Exploration is working to strategically place itself in some of the emerging shale oil plays in North America. It is a small private company but we have had some success in the recent past and are working to establishing a land position that should expand our business. Our strategy is to be an early entrant in these emerging plays and try to acquire a land base prior to the significant inflation in land prices once the play becomes known. The Cardium play in Pembina is a good example of how land prices grow. Our goal is to finance the company through the equity markets and grow oil production through exploration and development. We are a small group at the moment but if things work out we will be a growing company over the next few years.

In your opinion, what is required for doing good and effective exploration?

I find that our industry is relatively conservative. It is deeply inbedded into us as an industry and it shows in our approach to evaluation. Good exploration requires an environment where ideas are embraced, shared, and modified. Often one hears colleagues discussing a discovery and saying that they had thought of it years ago but for some reason it didn’t work and that the discovery team had gotten lucky. One keeps civil thoughts but I find this attitude annoying. It is so hard to latch onto the right idea and to push it forward. If one does not have accepting collegues who will grab hold of these concepts and work hard to refine them and bring it to a logical place then the exploration project will fail. But when you have a collaborative process and there is true excitement of the things that are possible – well that is simply great fun and success will follow.

You have written and published many research papers. Could you share with us your writing experiences?

Early in my career I found writing to be difficult. Writing is a matter of discipline and practice. Take the time to organize the thoughts, be objective about the style and content, and be a brutal editor. I had opportunity to be an editor for the Bulletin and that helped me tremendously in my writing. It is odd but in many ways there is more emphasis on clear concise written communication than ever – because of email. We have all read horrible emails that fail to help communication and instead create confusion. I take some effort when I write an email and rarely send anything out that hasn’t been read at least three times. Often I will get a colleague to read an important email before I send it out just to make sure that it is clear.

Writing has become something that I enjoy as long as I set apart the time to try and do it well. It does not come naturally to me but I am improving and it has become a more pleasurable pursuit. I have even tried creative writing and have written a few skits that were performed at our church – the church is very kind and patient.

I think the best thing about technical writing is that people read it for information, so you have an attentive audience. After putting my thoughts to paper I discover that I have much more clarity and my arguments become stronger. It is a beneficial process but it does take time and effort.

You are very fond of teaching. Tell us about it? Over the years what courses have you taught and on what platforms?

There is a saying that goes, “If you want to understand something – teach it”. I run several courses through the year that are mostly a combination of field and classroom. The courses are on Structural Geology, Fractures, and a new one on shale resource plays. The teaching is rewarding because there is generally positive feedback, the participants seem to get something from the experience, and I learn an incredible amount. I have also taught a bit at the university and have thoroughly enjoyed working with the students.

Teaching will be something that I will try to continue until I completely retire or get out-of-date. Some would claim that I already have reached that level.

I am now going to ask you questions that have half-line answers:

What drives you up the wall?

Safety pilons on the side of the road after the construction is finished – why can’t they take the pilons away?

What is one household chore you rather do yourself?

Cutting the grass – I have worked out what I feel is the most efficient path and like to see if small tweaks can make a faster route (I know it sounds stupid).

What is one thing that you would always like to get as a gift?

Time with someone. If they are a friend – then it is fun; if we are in conflict – then we have a chance to resolve; and if they are a stranger – then we have a chance to make a new friend.

Are you a night person or a morning person?

Definitely a morning person.

What is your retirement dream?

I would like to teach in developing nations. As a western economy we put effort into front line aid and basic education, which is necessary and honourable; but, these countries need to develop indigenous post-secondary educational institutions. In this way they will keep their brightest minds at home focused on their problems and self-solutions. I would like to be a part of that process. It strikes me as something incredibly challenging and rewarding.

You are the general co-chair for the 2011 CSPG/CSEG/CWLS Joint convention. Tell us about some of the distinguishing features that the prospective delegates can look forward to?

Recovery 2011 will have some fundamental differences to it compared to past conferences. I am careful with my words because the conference organizers of the past put a tremendous amount of effort and passion into producing many excellent sessions. I have always enjoyed the Joint Convention but the past few years things have become a little bit predictable and I think as a society we have been supportive about attending but it seems as if our expectations were dropping and as such we didn’t expect too much out of the convention. As a result the convention became less germane.

This year I hope that changes. The past decade our work environment has changed dramatically. We work in integrated teams on projects that require cross-discipline approaches. Gone are the days of the geophysicists hiding in their office until an interpretation mysteriously appears. We now need to be conversant on so many different topics across a wide spectrum of varying specialties. Our flagship sessions will now be specific integrated sessions such as the Horn River Session, where one can go and see a variety of subjects on the Horn River. There will be talks on geophysics, petrophysics, geology. Engineering, environmental concerns, booking reserves, multi-stakeholder approaches. The idea is that the delegate could go to one on these sessions and learn the broad background of a play in one session. I don’t think one could get a more cost/time effective experience.

The key to a successful conference will be on our session chairs. We are very dependent on them and as such we have taken care to find the best possible candidates. The session chair is a responsible role, we are asking them to provide leadership to the session. We have given them the time to introduce the session, explain its importance. The session chairs are also given time at the end to wrap up the session, to highlight some of the major themes and to suggest where the themes may be going in the future. Our session chairs will provide leadership in the session and it is probably worthwhile to go just to hear their thoughts.

We are also trying to jazz up the social side of the conference. It will be downtown this year at the Telus Convention Centre and we hope this will make it easier for delegates to attend. It should also help with things like the Icebreaker and the lunches. An after-party is planned at a few of the clubs on Stephen Avenue after the Icebreaker and it looks like this is getting a lot of interest with requests already coming in for tickets. With all of these changes and many more planned the convention is trying to go from an event that was supported by the membership into an event that supports the membership. It is what we call a “Sea Change” and I hope it will signal a new era for the conference. My goal is to move the convention into one of the premier annual geology events in North America. We can accomplish this by delivering a superior technical program, a strong exhibition trade show and a fun social network experience. It is a bit ambitious but we have very ambitious technical societies.

What other interests do you have?

I haven’t had much time the last few years to pursue other interests but I like to get involved with our church, hike in the mountains as much as I can, woodworking with all of my fingers, garden, although my wife likes it more if I simply sit and enjoy the plants. They seem to grow better if I don’t mess with them. I have plans to take up music and we always seem to have some sort of building plan at home or at the cabin. These things seem to fill the time.

What would be your message for young geoscientists entering our profession?

Enjoy it.


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