"Perspective is Everything"

An interview with Kurtis Wikel

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Kurtis Wikel

Kurtis Wikel is part of a dynamic group of young geophysicists in Calgary. He received his Master’s degree in Geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines in 2008, with a Minor in Petroleum Engineering. Thereafter, he worked for Schlumberger (Denver) on geomechanics applications to time-lapse seismic data, followed by a two-and-a-half-year stint with Talisman Energy in Calgary as a geophysicist, and as their international exploration geomechanics specialist. Next, Kurt turned to Petrobank Energy and Resources in Calgary, working on subsurface geophysics and geomechanics. He is currently working at Parex Resources in Calgary as a Team Lead in the Exploitation/Development Group.

Kurt received the Nigel Anstey Award for Best Paper in the EAGE’s First Break journal in 2011, and received the Best Geophysical Oral Presentation at the CSEG Convention in 2012.

I managed to work this interview into Kurt’s busy schedule, to discuss issues of interest to CSEG members. His interesting and insightful comments are contained in the following excerpts.

Kurt, let me begin by asking you about your educational qualifications and your work experience.

I graduated with a BSc in Geology from the University of Montana in 2005. Fun fact, I was a history major at first, until I realized the career prospects were… ahem… limited. I received my MSc in Geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) in 2008. I completed my thesis on geomechanics – a link between subsurface stresses and 9C seismic data. Because of the topic, I also received a Minor in Petroleum Engineering. As a result, most of my work experience has been centred on seismic and geomechanics. The petroleum engineering aspect of my education has helped me throughout my career, in a way I didn’t fully appreciate at first.

While at CSM, I was a research intern with Schlumberger, working on Petrel and stress modelling. When I graduated from CSM it was early 2008, before the crash in prices, so I was able to obtain several offers for employment, and decided to take a position with Talisman Energy in April 2008.

An important lesson to note here was how a portion of any person’s career trajectory in this industry is pure luck in timing. Had I graduated a year later, the odds of me starting a career in the energy business would have been extremely low, to nonexistent. The cyclical nature of massive layoffs in the industry has always amazed me, with student positions usually being the first to go, then the hand wringing about a lack of talented staff and the fears of senior staff retiring with no one to replace them. I am a good example of someone who might not have been in this industry, just based on the commodity cycle and lack of long-term hiring and retention processes.

At Talisman, I started as part of the team working the Altares and Cypress area Montney plays. We managed to get some traction with the side work we were completing using seismic and geomechanics, and I was transferred to the international side of the business, in the specialist group. I was in international projects for almost two years, building 1D geomechanical models, doing pore pressure prediction, and constraining models with seismic data, when the opportunity arose to move to Petrobank.

I moved to Petrobank as a geophysicist and geomechanics specialist, working on projects similar to those at Talisman, with more emphasis on R&D in Canada. The Canadian business unit and heavy oil group at Petrobank was a great place to work. It was a small group piloting combustion (Toe to Heel Air Injection - THAI) as a method to upgrade heavy oil/bitumen in situ, using produced gas to power the facility, and decreasing the environmental footprint by making a more marketable product when it came out of the ground. Petrobank was a small company where I was exposed to all aspects of the business, our main task being the monitoring of the combustion front using three-component (3C) time-lapse seismic. A lot of the work we did was centered around the physical processes driving the time-lapse response, and trying to distinguish between fluid phases, from the stress responses as we produced. We were encouraged to publish and present, and it was my first meaningful exposure to the CSEG.

During this period, I was the assistant director, and subsequently the director of education at the CSEG. I really enjoyed my time with the executive, as it was a great way to meet many new colleagues and geophysicists, but it also taught me a lot about balancing work, executing on a plan, and coming up with solutions to problems. The team we had for the CSEG luncheon and education initiatives was excellent, and we were able to bring in some new topics, teachers, and events. I should stress here that without the great volunteers and staff at the CSEG, none of what we accomplished in the education group would have been possible. The amount of free time our members give to the Society is astonishing.

In 2013, I moved to Parex Resources, my current home. I wanted to get back to international exploration, with a small and aggressive operator that would allow me to continue doing both geophysics and geomechanics. When I joined in 2013, Parex was around ~12,000 BOPD. Today, we are ~47,000 BOPD, with almost all of that growth being organic, through exploration, not acquisition. Currently, I am a team lead in the exploitation group in engineering. We look after reserves and strategy, static reservoir modelling, development planning, and operational execution of our operated production assets in Colombia.

You did your BSc in Geology and then earned your Masters in Geophysics. How come you made this switch?

At the University of Montana, the geology department was very small, with no separate degree for geophysics. I was always interested in geophysics, and did my senior project on a refraction seismic case study of groundwater resources in NW Montana. I was able to take a lot of physics and mathematics courses, but couldn’t get my undergraduate degree in geophysics, specifically. Because of that, I made sure I had enough mathematics and physics to get admitted to a graduate geophysics program. Getting my Master’s was never really a choice. If you want employment in the field in the USA, it’s pretty much impossible with a bachelor’s degree.

You started working for Talisman in early 2008, and after not very long, went over to Petrobank Energy, where you worked for a couple of years. Since you joined Parex Resources, you have stayed put. Tell us about the challenges you faced during your early years, and how you have been able to overcome them at Parex.

One of the main reasons I came to Canada right after graduation was because of the smaller size of Talisman, in relation to other options I had. Also, I wanted to work for an operator. I wanted to shoot, process, interpret, and invert multi-component seismic and to continue to work on geomechanics. In Canada at the time, stock option-based compensation was still a large part of the equation, whereas that had largely been phased out in the USA. In addition, I always intended on moving to a smaller operator as opposed to one of the mid-size/larger companies. My preference has always been to work for smaller companies where I can do both geophysics and geomechanics without being constrained to working a single topic or area. This preference doesn’t translate well to larger companies.

I am also a firm believer that every employee at a company should be a businessperson first, and that concept is a lot more tangible and necessary at small operators, where the work you do often impacts the share price, and your compensation, directly.

In addition, I wanted to work for operators that promoted and based compensation on performance and productivity, not just tenure or time served. Larger companies, by nature of their size and processes, have a more difficult time with this. Since my first years with Talisman, I have always gravitated to smaller operators with a focus on innovation, community engagement, and sustainability. Parex has been a great fit in how they do business, allow flexibility in what I work on, and allow room for professional growth. One of the few downsides is that we are so busy with our core business, that time for volunteering and publishing has been hard to come by.

Interestingly, you are also the founder and board member of a microbrewery. Tell us about it. How did you conceive of this idea, and how were you able to overcome the initial hiccups in setting up a new business? It looks like it is flourishing, as per the increasing number of employees.

I have several friends who are interested in craft beer. We used to home brew at our current brewmaster’s house every Sunday, talk about beer, and have a good time. We had always joked about starting a brewery in Inglewood, as it seemed like something the neighborhood was missing. At the time (2014), the province was reducing the restrictions on beer manufacture volumes. The opportunity arose to lease out a run-down space in Inglewood just off 9th Ave SE. We signed the lease, renovated the space, and opened our doors in November 2016. Our five-year anniversary is this year, and business is better than ever. This is a testament to all the hard work our staff and the owners have put in.

Another part of it was the desire of all four of the founders to open our own business, gain the experience of starting and running a brewery, and add something to the culture of the neighborhood and city. We gained lots of experience, from our initial open, scaling up the recipes, quality, and consistency of our beer through time, then catering to what the neighborhood wanted. We really hit our stride in our third year, and were about to expand when COVID hit.

By sheer luck (again), we were planning to shut the taproom starting in early 2020, to expand and renovate, but COVID did it for us… so we were able to renovate the space and still do off sales while the various shutdowns and closures from COVID were enacted. We reopened our expanded taproom with a full bar and kitchen in January 2021, and things have been going great ever since. We were extremely fortunate to have navigated COVID lockdowns the way we did, and to come out the other side with a strong business. As with most things, good planning goes a long way, but luck still needs to be on your side.

You began at Talisman working on a variety of things, including unconventional shale gas projects, structurally complex areas such as the NE BC Foothills, exploring the application of microseismic data, and the integration of geomechanics into unconventional shale assessment and development. Tell us about your experience there.

I started at Talisman at an interesting time. Their long time CEO, Jim Buckee, had just retired, and John Manzoni was taking the company in a much different direction, and heavily into tight gas. I worked initially as a geophysicist in the NE BC gas fairway, looking for prospective Montney land. We had a lot of success at land sales, and I was able to be part of the team drilling some of the initial vertical and horizontal Montney pilots in the area, predominantly dry gas. A lot of the area had tectonic stress induced wellbore stability issues, being right near the Front Ranges, and since all the wells were stimulated, it was a good place to apply 1D geomechanical models and predictions about stress magnitudes and direction, from existing logs.

At the time, not much was known about stress direction in the area, which direction to drill horizontals in, or how stimulations interacted with fractures and preexisting planes of weakness. We were able to execute some of the first wells in the area, while collecting a bunch of essential stimulation and microseismic data that would apply to future development spacing and stimulation design. It was interesting scientifically; however, about the time we were getting a lot of this data in, gas prices dropped dramatically, as did the company’s investment in the area. I was transferred to international after about a year, even though I was still able to help with some of the technical data. Remarkably, I haven’t been back to unconventional development since then, which is significant since I initially thought my entire career would be spent on that side of the business.

At Petrobank Energy, the nature of your work changed, as now you were dealing with heavy oil production and monitoring processes. Petrobank had their proprietary, THAI (Toe to Heel Air Injection) controlled combustion technology for mobilizing heavy oil. Tell us about your experience there, in terms of your use of multicomponent seismic data, geomechanical applications for in-situ recovery, and ensuring caprock integrity to satisfy ERCB regulations.

I always wanted the freedom to do both geophysics and geomechanics, and it was clear that that wasn’t always going to be an option at Talisman. Petrobank’s heavy oil unit at the time was small, and I was encouraged to do time-lapse seismic, geomechanics, and to publish as much as I wanted. The freedom it offered was amazing, and on top of that, I really believed that the technology could make a difference. At the time, Petrobank was piloting a more environmentally friendly technology to the oil sands, and I wanted to help it succeed. THAI could mobilize bitumen, upgrade it in-situ (reducing the need at surface), then the produced gas could be used to co-generate power at the facility, making it much less harmful in terms of emissions.

We were able to show that the THAI process could be monitored with time-lapse 3C seismic (converted P to S wave), which could show evidence of shear wave splitting around the fire front chamber, due to stress changes occurring as the THAI front progressed. We used the time lapse seismic to improve our dynamic reservoir modeling, which, in turn, improved our monitoring of caprock integrity to ensure safe execution of the process. In addition, we used that data to monitor caprock integrity through time, and to ensure safe execution of the process.

We were also able to show how the process had much less of a surface expression, in terms of ground heave and overburden impact, as opposed to SAGD. I spent a lot of time going through ERCB (now AER) oilsands reports and compiling case studies on wellbore stability vs. overburden heave, caprock integrity technical data, and how it applied to the THAI process, for monitoring. It was known at the time in terms of physical process, but we were able to show the value of converted wave splitting for characterizing where stress changes could be occurring in the subsurface, and it wasn’t always where you would predict. Seismic is linked to geomechanics in many ways, and we were able to explore those connections using time-lapse seismic applied to EOR.

How did the nature of your work change when you came to Parex?

Parex has been completely different than what I was doing at my former employers, and I am grateful for the opportunity they have given me to leave the specialist domain and take a different career path. As a conventional operator in Colombia, my first job was to interpret 3D seismic data, assist with the geomechanical analysis of upcoming wells, and find hydrocarbons. The major difference at Parex is that we are so busy with operations and exploration that I haven’t really published that much (one publication at a CSEG/EAGE workshop). It’s been incredible – I was part of the team that helped the company grow from ~12,000 BOPD when I started to over ~47,000 BOPD now. That was achieved almost entirely through exploration success.

Three years ago, I started to take more responsibility in the engineering domain by helping build static geomodels for reservoir simulation. I was able to plan, interpret, and link seismic to well data with geologists, then construct the reservoir model using seismic data for a structural framework, then (when applicable), use seismic inversion to guide the distribution of reservoir properties for modelling. It took a while, but I found that building reservoir models was the end point of what I wanted earlier on – to link a bunch of geoscience disciplines together to help grow the business. As a result, I am a Team Lead in the Exploitation/Development group, and we look after operated production as it moves from exploration to appraisal and development.

What is the most important thing you learned in your educational years, which influenced you later in your professional life?

Growing up, I lived in rural North Dakota and Montana, and worked most days since I was 13. I had every job imaginable in high school and university. I built barbed wire fences on the ranch, worked as a dishwasher at Perkins, as a busboy at an all-you-can-eat buffet, as a gas station attendant, garbage collector, recycling sorter, forest service surveyor, geophysical crew member exploring for copper… I remember thinking, one morning when I was dragging cable through a forest in -20o C, how nice it would be to find a job that paid me to work inside. Back when we were in the office, before COVID, I used to look up at the building, most mornings before I walked in the door, and think about that. Perspective is everything.

I never went to the best elementary, middle, or high schools. I grew up in towns where there was basically only one option for a school. I was never the smartest person in any of my classes or departments; however, I worked hard and constantly, to figure out what I didn’t know. My wife and I put ourselves through university, and $USD debt is a hell of a motivator. I was terrible at math in high school, and had to take remedial pre-calc before I could take any physics courses as an undergrad. In addition, I was always driven to learn more, and that has served me well in my career. One thing they drive into you at Colorado School of Mines is that nothing should be a black box. Don’t ever just push buttons for a result…find out what fundamentally drives it, before you accept the outcome.

One of the most important things to look for in a geoscientist is motivation. You cannot train the unmotivated, you cannot train someone to have drive, and you cannot make someone curious about learning something new and outside their comfort zone. The point in all of this is to stay motivated, curious, and don’t quit just because something isn’t easy at first.

Kurtis Wikel

I note that you have been a constant user of seismic data for characterizing the subsurface in your projects. I am reminded of a workshop that I attended at the SEG some four odd years ago, where the panelists from leading oil and gas companies had stated very clearly that they did not use seismic at all for their shale plays. How would you react to this statement?

If one company uses all the geophysical tools at its disposal, and one does not, my feeling is that the one that utilizes geophysics will be more successful much faster than the one that does not (credit to Marco Perez for the discussion on this). That being said: unconventional development doesn’t need seismic past a certain point – you can update interpretations of a structural model occasionally to calibrate development plans. Unconventional exploration and appraisal do need seismic.

Unconventional oil and gas, at a high level in a development execution sense, does not NEED geophysics past a certain point. Initial exploration, delineation of trends and rock properties, and fault mapping over a large area NEEDS geophysics. The problem for our profession is that the process doesn’t require a lot of geophysicists, and it opens development in that area for years or decades, with minimal updates needed to that interpretation through time.

Depending on the geological setting, you may need to use geophysics more to lay out a development plan. However, the subsurface interpretation under a 3D could be done by a single geophysicist in months, and they could update that interpretation as they drill, or have that interpretation updated and used by a geologist while drilling. In many unconventional plays, the use of seismic is short-lived, and companies could drill for years before ever really needing a geophysicist again. The heart of the problem to me is the fact that geophysics was a business driver in the conventional world. In the unconventional world, it’s a business service, and in some instances, its return on investment is negligible to the economic return of a large-scale factory style development project. Hence the statements in the question above.

Is there value in microseismic, inversion, and rock physics in the unconventional? Undoubtedly there is, to improve our understanding of results, delineate major trends while exploring for new unconventional plays, and outlining mechanical properties to constrain stimulation models in initial exploration/appraisal stages. However, you don’t NEED it to be successful once you start to develop the asset.

By the time you move into development, you should understand what you are doing enough to average a type-curve result over time. It’s the reason why so many unconventional companies employ several geophysicists, but multiple more geologists and engineers.

Even if you disagree with my answer, I think the market told us the answer a long time ago. Geophysicists just don’t like what it is telling us.

For shale resource development, hydraulic fracturing is required for rock stimulation, and elastic moduli are generally used to evaluate, say, the rock strength. Routinely, the effect of compressive strength on the shale formation is ignored, often because no data are available. Would you consider such an avoidance to collect this data a challenge, and, if so, what would be your suggestion to address it?

Use empirical relations to start, tie it to the core data when you can, and that’s the best you can do, short of building your own correlations and database, if you are lucky enough to have statistically significant data. Unconfined compressive strength (UCS) is an essential rock property that is directly related to wellbore stability and frac modelling, so we cannot ignore it. Also, it’s a fun problem to try to solve. I’ve made my own empirical models for UCS in almost every play I’ve worked, where the data were available.

Two things are commonly communicated these days. The first is that it is critical to access more data while working on an unconventional reservoir. The second is that artificial intelligence can be used to determine target rock geomechanical properties by utilizing the access to more data. Is there any truth to such statements, or does it need to be demonstrated with real case studies?

If you have enough well data to predict rock mechanical properties using neural networks (or AI, since everyone just uses that term freely these days), from a basic suite of logs you collect on every drill, I think it’s already being done and it’s a workflow we can adopt today. How successful is it? I have been out of the unconventional world for a while, but judging by the literature, I would say many companies already employ this workflow in various forms.

With a large enough data set, our ability to predict properties, and even other modelled log suites, is already a reality. If we link that to inversion, to update our offset understanding through time, it’s a powerful tool to optimize development. I should stress, going back to an earlier question, that a petrophysicist and one properly trained geophysicist could do this for numerous properties at a large unconventional operator, that could drill on for years, possibly decades. This is a good indicator of how the automation of these workflows is affecting employment in our field.

You have volunteered your services for the CSEG. How was your experience?

It was excellent. I would highly recommend that anyone interested in the science should volunteer, especially if you can bring a new viewpoint and perspective to the Society. My experience was very intense and a large time commitment, but I met many wonderful people and learned a lot about myself and the industry. Also, I was able to bring some things I was passionate about, like engineering, to luncheons and the Doodletrain.

I haven’t been as active in recent years, due to being a dad, the brewery, and my current position’s time commitment. That doesn’t mean I won’t be back in the future.

What would be your message for young geoscientists joining our industry?

Cross-train in business, engineering, geology, and make sure, as a geophysicist, that you have a solid background in mathematics and coding. I would also recommend completing a master’s degree or higher, as it makes you more marketable, globally. Canada is one of the few places in the world where a bachelor’s degree is the working standard.

Assuming you go into the energy industry, a broader background that allows the combining of disciplines is essential. Assuming you graduate in a downturn, or want to go into a different discipline in the field, cross-training and having a quantitative background with coding will allow you to move into other geophysical domains, and even other industries, with a similarly high (or higher) quality of life.

The future of the industry will be shifting in the next two decades, from exploration to development, and then to carbon capture and storage, and natural gas or renewable energy. While the skills required are shared for some of these fields, the future will be heavily reliant on quantitative skills, coding/AI, engineering, and the crossover of these fields with geophysics.

I have a really hard time advising most students to train purely for roles in energy companies, because our track record of hiring those students in the past decade has been exceptionally poor. I would advise most students in geophysics to assume that a career with an energy company is either a long shot, or a short-term prospect, and to train accordingly.

What are some of your other interests besides the work you do for a living?

I am a pretty big fan of, and very interested in, being alive. Other than my family and friends, I enjoy being active in the local business community, records, beer, skiing/running/biking, being in Montana, fixing old trucks, beer, fixing up old houses, and all things esoteric and sarcastic.

Thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed. It’s an honour.


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