Tuesday, July 2, 2013

TOPP Interview: Sally Meador-Roberts; Owner of Sonshine Exploration and Geologist

Welcome to the latest interview for TOPP.  I was honored to have the opportunity to interview Sally Meador Roberts; owner of Sonshine Exploration and geologist.  As an independent who own’s her own company, she offers us a unique view as she has to face not only the geology end of the business, but the business end and all the challenges that come with it.  Challenges that I can personally relate to as a small business owner (Check out the new site.  Click our icon on the right).  I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed visiting with her.

JL: Hi Folks.  This is Jay Leeper with The Oil Patch Post.  I have as my special guest, Sally Meador-Roberts of Sonshine Exploration.  Ms. Meador-Roberts has been at this for almost 40 years as a geologist, 24 of them as an independent Explorations Geologist.  Ms. Roberts was nice enough to let me visit with her and let me post a few questions.  

Ms. Roberts, is there anyone you’d like to say hello to?

SMR: Howdy, y’all! 

JL: LOL!  If you would, ma’am, please tell us a little about yourself.

SMR: I was born in a small town up in Iowa.  A town of 200.  You never know where you’ll end up.  I got my bachelors at the University of Colorado.  My dad had always said the only thing women did was teach and that was the Colorado State Teaching College and I was bound and determined that I was not going to teach so I got my hours for my BS but took my education and did a full year internship for teaching.  I did this to fulfill my dad’s request but unfortunately he passed away before I graduated.  It probably was a good thing because I went to the University of Arizona and got my Master’s degree there.  At that time, every weekend was field trips and the only thing Spring Break was for was weeklong field trips.  I look back at what a blessing it was and all the things we got to see.  Well, we kinda fast forward to City Service.  I wanted to work for them because they had a 1 year training program and I really wanted that.  They only took about 15-18 people every year.  The training program was set as they felt it was easier to train geologists to interpret geophysics than it was to take a geophysicist and train them to understand geology.  (It was an extensive training program – 9 months intensive geophysics,3 months advanced geology, land, etc.  Classes I would rely on later in my career.  I have done LOTS of well site work, trained geologists in well site work, LOTS of log analyses, putting prospects together from grass roots to successful discovery, field development of discoveries, consulting for other independents, you name it, I’ve done it.  As an independent you have to do all your own data mining, drafting, writing, paperwork for BLM lands, state lands, units, NMOCD and RRC hearings.) I don’t want geophysicists to take that wrong.  Forty years ago, geophysicists training was basically physics and not much geo.  Of the group, they (City Services) would find out who of us were pretty good in geophysics and those who were better off in geology.  At that time, we had nine months in training.  At that time, help in vibro-seis had just came out; the same vibro-seis that is now forty years old.  We got field trips to the barrier reef off the shores of Belize to digging trenches in the Colorado River down by Easton to knowing the rocks up in the Colorado Rockies.  We had to interpret dynamite data to single fold data to vibro-seis data.  At that time, it was BC … Before Computers. 


SMR: The Seis Log was just coming out and we had to do that by hand.  When I was out on Drilling Rigs, that’s what I did.  They gave me the log and I’d color them by hand and then take them back in.  Now, all that’s done in seconds by PCs and things.  I had gotten to do a Summer Intern (use to be called a Summer Hand) with City Service here in Midland.  Being from a small town, in 1975, Midland was 45K.  For me, that was a big city.

JL: Heck yeah.

SMR: I enjoyed my time.  I got to work in the Four Corners area.  People want to know the difference between a wildcat and a rand wildcat, go work for Four Corners for a little while.  I enjoyed it.  Like I said, I went full time with them and got the benefit of the training program.  We even had a week of training on report writing for the industry.  Probably, this is where being candid and outspoken worked for me because I wrote them a nice letter saying that if they send me to Houston, I’ll know they don’t want me. 


SMR: My boss was wanting to recommend me to Denver.  I got my Bachelors in Greeley, just north of Denver and I really didn’t want to go back but I couldn't say that.  I held my peace because there were two other shoe shiners who wanted Denver.  When I was sent to Midland, I was probably the only person alive that was excited to go to Midland.


SMR: Out here, I was able to go back to work in the Four Corners and Paradox Basin and northern San Juan Basin.  Broke in working 4-Corners area, then SENM, Eastern Shelf, W/NM, SE Colorado, So. Utah, All of Arizona, N. Permian basin TX, SENM (30Yrs in SENM).  I got to work with shelf edges there and work with some algal mounds and get my feet wet.  I also worked the north end of the Tatum Basin and Permian Basin; Tatum Basin being the New Mexico side.  I also worked the western extension of the Matador arch.  I got to work with not only structural problems, but pinch outs as well.  My favorite terms are the “Elida Highs” and the “Insipient Ensleberg”.  I like that.  That’s a case, too, where one of the things I’d like to stand up and scream out to managers is “What do you think a structure map is?”  30 years ago, 40 years ago, and even today everybody has to have a structure map.  There have been so many periods of structure movement since deposition and I want to say, “What does a structure map tell you?”  All it is is a topographic map of what the surface looks like today.  That’s all it is.  Is it important? There are structural plays so yes, it is important.  But, there are a lot of plays where structure on the top of a zone doesn't tell you squat.  That was kind of the case working the Devonian up on the Roosevelt Positive; the western extension of the Matador Arch.  We ran two seismic likes up there and there is a 1500’ fault as you come up out of the Arch and up onto the Roosevelt Positive.  It basically has three brothers just under the Wolfcamp where on old logs looks like three fingers.  Very identifiable.  We ran a couple of seismic lines; one from north to south and one from south to north.  On one of them when they did the processing and migration on it, the ringing in the granite lined up with the reflectors in the sedimentary section and you couldn't see the fault.  In the other direction, the fault was “Boom” right there.  It was an interesting enigma.  There were very few sonic logs out there (at that time).  What we did was find a deep well close to the line that we had and I took the sonic logs we had and I cut out sections equivalent to the sections that we had and made what I called the “Psudo Sonic Log” and digitized that.  It worked out really pretty well.  Like I said, that was back in the days where everything was typed into the cards.  It took forever.  But, it was a very interesting project.  

JL: If you don’t mind, how long were you with City?

SMR: 5 and a half.

JL: Where did you go from there?

SMR: Harvey E. Yates Company (HEYCO).  From what I was mentioning earlier, I did all of this work on the cross sections to figure out what, when, where, and why the Devonian Play was and the actual Paleo Crest which was where you wanted to be on the Devonian was on the third block fault down.  I spent two hours going through everything I got and at the end the manager said, “Well that’s all good, but we need to move the location two miles up here to the structure high”.  Well, evidently, when I get mad my ears turn red.  My boss looked at me and said, “Why don’t you go downstairs?”  I was livid.  I got moved over to Coke County.  They moved locations and they drilled themselves a nice granite well.  Another company went and drilled my proposed location and got a Devonian discovery. 

(**groan** … from me)

SMR: I spent the next 15 months looking at southern Nolan and Coke and northern Tom Green.  There’s some super exciting things over there.  There’s a great submarine canyon that goes right through the center of one of the fields.  On the carbonate shelf edge, there’s a beautiful surge channel.

JL: You know there are people who are going to call trying to get info from you.

SMR: I’ll tell them that it was thirty years ago.  Over on the east side of the Midland Basin, there’s a spot where you can see the sands coming off the shelf and the long shore current taking them to the south.  There is just so much over there on the Eastern Shelf.  I said you could make a living forever just in those three counties.  The sad thing about computers today is that the kids don’t understand that there’s other maps besides a structure map and an isomap and if you let the computer make an isopach map then I’m sorry but you’re an over paid geotech.  If you want to write me and tell me how ugly I am, go for it.


SMR: Computers can do structure maps, but they don’t have a brain.  A computer can’t tell the difference between an offshore sand bar and an algal mound.  It just can’t tell the difference.  If you don’t understand the model you’re working then you’re probably in the wrong field.  You've got to understand the structure and the area that you’re working and the structural history and you've got to understand the depositional environment of each and every zone.  If all you’re doing is working on the Morrow and you’re not looking at anything else then you’re missing how the Morrow was laid down and why as well as the faulting that occurred as well as since then.  If you’re only working the Strawn and you’re not looking at the Atoka base and you don’t understand the depositional models then you’re going to drill you some good dry holes.  I've seen them.  There are ways to map on the Eastern Shelf to find additional reefs.  I spent the time needed to gather the information to make those maps.  Like me spending 15 months to make those maps and then being moved.  I was like, “What are you doing!?” and was told that you have starters in this business and you have finishers.  There are very few people who can start a project but there are lots of people who can finish a project.  I was told, “We appreciate you starting this project.”

JL:  That’s not frustrating at all.

SMR:  (**nodding**) They moved me and put two geologists on what I had spent all that time working on.  You just lose all of the knowledge gained.  I could show you the Stripe Valley Sands and the surge channel and submarine canyon.  I figured out a way to map where there might be potential carbonate mounds.  People have a tendency, if they are looking at the Strawn, to forget about the Cisco and the Canyon that’s on top of it.  There’s just so much to do.  Anyway, because I was candid and outspoken I got to work the Western Edge.  I think what they wanted to do was see if I could come up with a strategy to do that and I actually did.  I came up with a strategy and trained geologists.  I had one week of experience on a drilling rig and I had the most experience.  Yes, I was the very first woman … let me back up a moment … as a summer hand, I had a friend … let me back up even further … City Service, like most oil and gas companies in the early seventies, were not allowing women on rigs.  I didn't know that.  I’m from a little town.  I was never really told what women could or couldn't do other than my dad telling me that the only thing women could do was teach.  So, fast forward, there was a gal working there who was a district geologist and she had not been allowed on drilling rigs.  Well, I was a summer hand and there was another fella there who was a summer hand for another company and his boss said if you want to see one of the best gas drill stem test you’ll ever see be at such and such location at such and such time.  He asked, “Can I bring a friend?”  The boss said, “Yes”, and I was the friend.  Well, I am very fair skinned.  I don’t tan.  I turn red.  I was excited.  I was going to be on a drilling rig.  It flowed, the flow line froze, caught the prairie on fire … it was exciting!  Well, I go in Monday and I was bright red as a lobster and the boss kind of looks at me over his glasses and goes, “Hmm … What did you do this weekend?”  I got excited, “I got to go out on a well and it flowed this much and caught fire..” and went on.  He just looked at me and said, “Really”.  I later found out that he went right upstairs and told the bosses that their female summer intern got to go on a competitor’s drilling rig and see a gas stem test.  The female district geologist, within 30 minutes, got to get some gear and head out on a rig.  I’ve been known to cause some thing to happen like that.  When I was on the Four Corners on a rig up there, I was evidently the first female geologist to go on a rig up there.  Within 6 hours, everyone knew there was a woman on a rig.  It was kind of like mines, if a woman was on a rig then it was supposed to be a bad omen.  Another thing young geologists need to understand is that our job as geologists is to find enough oil to replace that which is produced every year plus increase the average production.  Don’t think this will last forever.

JL: You bring up and interesting point.  Do you see this boom lasting a while?

SMR:  What is different now is the horizontal drilling.  The existing downstream infrastructure, which most geologists don’t think about, hasn't changed.  Refineries can only produce so much.  They don’t have enough drivers or tank trucks to even pick up the oil.  One company in New Mexico just bought a dozen trucks themselves and hired their own truck drivers to get their oil hauled off their leases.  Oil pipelines are pretty much full and I’m told the tank farm out here is pretty much full.  There’s supposed to be one pipeline up here by this fall that will ease that but right now operators are taking about a $14/barrel hit just to get their oil picked up.  This means that if the posted price is $90 per barrel, operators are only getting $76 per barrel.  Now comes in the economics.  There hasn't been a new refiners built since ’72. Environmentalists aren't going to let you build a refinery.  So, you have a capacity problem.  There may reach a point where you don’t have any place to take your oil.  I’m a geologist and not a economist and I’m kind of afraid that if oil drops down below $75 you’re going to see a whole lot of horizontals shut down.  Gas may come up.  Gas needs to be at $6-$7, I’m told, to make it cost effective to drill gas wells.  Still, geologists need to find oil.  If dry holes don’t bother you, you’re in the wrong field.  You’re asking an engineer to take your word that there is oil here and several million dollars are spent on your word.  If you’re wrong, they are out millions dollars on a vertical well.  You won’t be working very long.  An engineer and I found a company to drill based on my findings, but the engineer paid for a science well.  He spent a lot of money on logs trying to get as much information as possible.  If I would have been wrong and the wells didn't pay out in 10-12 months, I would have caused him to go broke.  It was either a bust or a plus.  Turned out to be a plus.  I've been blessed from the work at HEYCO to go independent in 1989 at one of the worst times and the Heavenly Father blessed me with enough consulting through my career to keep the bills paid.  I was able to put together enough prospects that each one was successful and made the engineer some money.  But that’s what I stress to interns, that’s your job.  That company doesn't grow and the bills don’t get paid and employees don’t get paid if you don’t replace those reserves plus increase them.  When you work for a big company, you’re insulated from that.  When you work for a small company it becomes real “in your face”.  One of the first things I learned when I worked for City Service is that we had to double the reserves you thought you were going to get because the engineers were going to cut them in half. 

JL: I know you have done this for a long time, but do you think there are still new discoveries out there?

SMR:   Oh, it’s vast out there.  So much to do and so little time.  If you love the geology, I liken it to not only finding the needle in the haystack but the reservoir is like threading the needle.  Once you have made a new field discovery, you want to keep making them.  You want to find that reservoir that others don’t know about.  It’s like playing “Hide and seek”.  “CSI Geology”.  I was blessed to get in on the discovery and development of the initial Bone Spring carbonate production and kick off of the Bone Spring sand production when I worked for HEYCO (Harvey E. Yates Co) in the ‘80’s.  Because of log analysis classes taken in the CS training program, I recommended perforating the 2nd Bone spring sand in a well in 1984 – the well flowed 140 BOPD.  That well allowed us (HEYCO) to do a lot more exploration for more carbonate reservoirs because now we had potential sand reservoirs in each well also..  Because of a carbonate field course I had taken in the CS training  program, I had a plausible idea for the depositional environment of the Bone Spring that wound up being and changing the way operators viewed the Bone Spring.  At one point, we drilled 66 of 68 successful wells – THAT is amazing by any account.  This allowed us at HEYCO to keep everyone’s jobs through the toughest times of the downturn in the mid to late ‘80’s.  Although I was not allowed to publish any data, Ted Galowski, then with Mitchell, did publish a paper that, for the most part, was pretty good.  I think it is still considered one of the best papers on the Bone Spring.  To look back and think that one recommendation to perf the 2nd B Sp Sand, that engineering actually decided to do prior to plugging a well, turned things around and, now, with horizontal drilling and slick water frac’s, has caused what some call a “rebirth” of the Delaware Basin portion of the Permian Basin, is something even I am in awe of.  The Heavenly Father truly blesses those who try to live their lives for Him. Secondly, an Engineer I have worked with for over 20 years, was able to put together a large acreage block on a prospect we had been working on for approx. 19 yrs. (we got the 1st lease some 18 yrs ago).  Recently we had a significant new field discovery and are very excited.  We have multiple reservoirs to further evaluate and are super excited about the potential of several of these.  One has the potential to be very significant.  Talk to me in a couple years.  Another highlight of my career was mentoring a young Geologist who now works for Concho – Sergio Ojeda.  What an amazing and fulfilling few years!  Even more fulfilling is to watch him drill successful wells at his young age.  I've been associated with 2 dry wells in my time and they both about killed me.  I was like, “What went wrong?”  On one of them it was like a wildcat and it drilled out like we mapped it.  What a geologist cannot determine necessarily is if it’ll be pickle juice.  We got salt water.  There was an argument among the field people.  The well was TDed 100’ shy of our planned TD.  I let my superiors know they made the decision.  A number of years later on a farm out another company drilled out the other 100’ and found the sands we were looking for.  It was there.  Things like that bother you.  When you drill a plain dry hole it’s got to bother you.  I always say, “What did I do wrong?”  I use a 20’ contour interval and believe that if I can’t be closer than that 20’ contour interval then I did something wrong.  If I pick my tops, I want to be within 5’.  If I had one thing to say to young geologists, it would be to know and understand your logs.     

JL: Agreed.  Any other observations on what’s to come in the oil and gas field?

SMR: Watch out for the environmentalists trying to shut down the Oil Industry by using the Endangered Species act and scare tactics about fresh water contamination.  HOWEVER, that aside, there are so many potential reservoirs still to be tested based on shows in older wells, based on advances in completion technology, exploration for reservoirs heretofore ignored.  There is so much left to do – and so little time!

JL: What are some of the main differences between today’s professionals and the prior generations?  Is this good, bad, both?   

SMR: It is both bad, bad, Leroy bad, and good.  The main difference I see is the use of computers.  They really started coming into their own in the 1980’s with the advent of personal computers and, later, with networking capabilities and the Internet.  The first mapping programs came out around 1984.  The best one was a DOS based program that, unfortunately was never converted to MS Windows.  It had an internal database that allowed you to enter data sheet tops, porosities, perms, 150 pieces of information per well.  It used USGS squares so could be used in SENM w/out lots of problems or a land map.  You could also import a land grid to use if you wanted.  You could use footage locations, not XY or Lat Long coordinates.  Neither Lat- Longs nor API numbers were readily available in the ‘80’s and 90’s.  All programs can produce good structure maps – whoopee!  But even today, none of the programs can accurately make Isopach maps, Isolith maps, Relative Net Perm maps, etc.  These maps depend on the depositional model you are using.  These maps are produced using one’s intellectual understanding of the formation (s) you are working with.  None of them deal accurately with faults, some high angle normal (extensional) movement, some high angle reverse thrust (compressional) movement, some with lateral movement (strike-slip).  If all you do is allow the computer to do the mapping, a good Geo-Tech can do that, the company doesn't need a high paid Geologist for that.  You cannot do really detailed multi-well correlations on the computer.  I know they say you can but, trust me, they know not what they say.  Additionally, with modern technology, the geologists really never have to leave their offices to get data from the well site.  It is important for geologists to be out on location, to understand what goes on, how wells are drilled, what the abbreviations on the mud logs mean, how to look at samples and understand what the different types of shows are and what they mean.  How a well is drilled, the type of fluid used, has everything to do with shows and with how the electric logs are affected.  Most young Geologists have NO clue.

JL:   If you could pass something along to the new generation of professionals, what would you like them to know? 

SMR: Your work and your word are all you have, your reputation.  Guard them wisely.  Ethics, Ethics, Ethics.  You can get sucked in far more quickly and easily than you can get out.

JL: Any cool stories you could share? 

SMR: Several.  Somebody chased me out to a rig one night.

JL: Why? What happened there? 

SMR: I have no idea.  It was 11 at night.  This car was going 20 miles an hour on this road.  I came up on this 60 MPH road and they were in this dip and I didn't see them.  I whipped around them and they chased me all the way to the rig.  I pulled around to the back side and they pulled up to the dog house stairs.  I went up the backside.  All the hands knew me because I spent 60 out of 75 days on that well.  All I had to do was tell those guys that they chased me and it would have been ugly.  I didn't.  I didn't want there to be a problem.  I just stood there.  It was scary.  Another story was when I was with City Service, this guy, a landman, came out and told us that this rancher really wanted our company to lease his land.  It was out of NW Arizona.  They came to me and asked me what I thought and at that time they hadn't completed the topographic map of that part of Arizona.  I said that the only way we can evaluate it is to go out on the ground.  I figured that would kill it as there was no way they would send us out there.  The landman kept coming back and asking questions like what sort of techniques would we be using to evaluate this.  He wrote us letters and fortunately I was smart enough to keep copies.  Well, we ended up meeting this rancher in the Flagstaff.  We had a late dinner.  He brought his sons which I could tell was strange as they could go bear hunting with a switch.  They weren't little.  They were making all these snide remarks about these big oil companies who thought they could do all these things and I kept thinking “Something’s not right”.  I was sitting next to the attorney who was a gentleman of gentlemen in every sense of the word.  Part way through the dinner I leaned over and said, “I need to talk to you after everything has broken up.”  He said, “OK.”  I kept listening to these comments.  Well, when he and I got together, what had happened was this guy (the landman) had come to us wanting us to lease the rancher’s land (202 sections) and was telling the rancher that we really wanted to lease his land.  He was playing both ends against the middle.  Every time we wrote a letter, the landman wouldn't pass the letter along.  He was telling the rancher stories about us that we had equipment to test the land.  I showed the lawyer the copies of the letters and the lawyer said, “I understand.”  Well the next morning the rancher was much nicer and offered to take us to his property in his private jet by way of the Grand Canyon.  What geologist wouldn't jump at the chance?  He told his boys to drive with the intermediary to the property.  I’m sure it wasn't a pleasant ride.  The plane ride was awesome, though!   I could go on, but if you’re bitten by the bug it isn't about the amount of money you make; it’s about the chase.

We visited at great lengths and Ms. Meador-Roberts shared a great many views. In fact, I'm considering posting her and other interviews on an audio site.  Ms. Meador-Roberts shared a lot of insight that is hard to put into text and her words do her own justice where my text fails.  Still, I gained much insight and definitely could appreciate the challenges she faced.

Thank you so much for taking time to read this interview.  As always, feedback is encouraged in form of a comment or email.  Also, if you have any questions for Ms. Meador-Roberts, you can email her at smrrocks@sonshineexploration.com.  Be warned, if you're going to try to get secret info out of her she is pretty cagey!  

Take care and I hope to see you on the oil patch!