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GeoLegends: Dietrich Welte (Part 2)

Summary

Dietrich Welte: Geologist and Chemist, Leader in Organic Geochemistry, and Father of Modern Petroleum System and Basin Modeling, Part 2

Full Transcript

You’ve had two editions, I think, of your book. Let’s talk about the first edition because it certainly was one of the most influential texts ever written regarding petronogology, certainly petrology and chemistry.

What brought about its genesis? How did you and Bernard decide to write the text, and having written two books myself I tell people, “If anytime you have the urge to write a book, go lay down until the urge goes away.”

So I’m sure it must have caused you great deal of pain and anxiety, but also reward with the final analysis.

That’s right. And the initiation of the idea came through the APG.

Bernard and I were invited to a number of conferences, independently, but both of us were giving lectures there or we had keynote talks.

And in such a case, it is very important that you find yourself and your partner sympathetic.

And I think it was our complementary education backgrounds. Bernard had practical experience as petroleum geologist and engineer with the IFP in Australia and other places.

And I had practical experience before with the oil companies, Shell, Chevron.

And we were both, scientifically speaking, we were generalists because we had covered geology, geochemistry, some geophysics. Not in too much detail as many specialists, but we had a good background in the geosciences as generalists.

And then we decided at a lovely dinner, I think it was at the time in Calgary even, when the ultimate people from Canadian Hunter, but I had no idea that I would get involved with them later.

And we decided. Let’s write a book. And this period was a very busy period because Bernard had a big job at the IFP in Paris, and I had a big job at the research center in Germany.

I was not only director at the time of an institute, I was managing director of a department.

And Bernard and I said, “Well, let’s give it a try.”

And we would meet in regular intervals, and we would assign to each other different tasks, and we collected, I counted it once, we would collect literature.

And for one chapter on migration, I had collected two trunk loads of, I mean the volume of a car trunk load, of literature to read and scan, and there was no electronic system at the time.

And make excerpts and put together the knowledge I found and make a story out of that.

And Bernard did the same. And then we would meet and present our material, write it up, and then we would cross over and I would read his papers and he would read mine.

And then when we were content, we had a new chapter.

And I believe that this is really, which can only be done when you have a congenial partner you trust, and this was Bernard.

And this way we endured to the end of the book.

And we had many friends in the geoscience community, and I have forgotten who did cross reading, some French scientist, a lot of American friends, and then the book emerged.

And it was the most rewarding and fantastic experience. And this is a lot of stimulation for your own thinking.

And I learned from Bernard a lot about his mathematical talents, and this stimulated me.

I was already a professor, a well-known professor, to take math lessons.

I couldn’t really handle anymore partial differential equations, and I don’t want to do that, but I need to understand it, and I need to be able to talk to these people who can do that, the mathematicians.

And this was the basis for me to do simulation work on geoprocesses.

The idea to do that came already during the period when I worked with Chevron from these [inaudible] model people from the production side.

And I thought, “Gee, this is ---,” when I had this experience with Bernard and his mathematical thinking.

And I knew that, I think I wrote that already in one of my little papers which I sent to you, that really the work on the kinetics on chemical reactions was done at the IFP, and they did fantastic work.

To define the necessary energy discrimination on how many kilocalories per mole you need to split bonds, etc.

And I said, “Look – if you do that detailed and refined work, what you need to know is the temperature history because this is what keeps the reaction going.”

And I decided because they occupied that field, that we would not want to duplicate kinetic work.

And I said, “Let’s try to reconstruct temperature histories in a basin or temperature history of a source rock during subsidence[pf].

And then the erroneous erroneous really was the answer because there, you need to put in the temperature history.

And we worked on that and together with a person who was very talented in that field was Ari Vichler [ph].

And together with him then, we developed this idea of developing a temperature reconstruction history program.

And what you needed was calibration tools and, therefore, then, you look at vitrinite reflectance values and other maturity parameters.

For coloration index, you may want to go back to the more exact temperature data from fluid inclusions, and once this was underway, it was clear that if you want to have your own independent program, you also had to know kinetics.

Well, then I started parallel to the work at the IFP kinetic work at the research laboratory at the research center.

And then, I think, you need to project that into the 3D space of big basins.

I think, personally, that this is the future for, important part in the geosciences.

The numerical simulation of these good computers and this concept of looking at geoprocesses in general can only be refined with the tool of numerical simulation.

And, therefore, I believe we need to train new geoscientists in that respect.

I don’t want to make or belittle very important work which is done in many specialties, like stratigraphy, to look at micro fossils.

That’s all okay, but if we want to understand the subsurface processes on any scale, on the large scale and on the small scale, we need to be able to do numerical simulation programs.

And for that, we need geoscientists who understand the mechanism of numerical simulation, who need to understand the basic physics behind that and the basic chemistry.

Now I know no one person can do that all together, but we need an additional curriculum that allows an understanding of this generalist background.

With that I mean also the data collection, because data collection nowadays is a very, very refined process.

You’ll have down load logging tools. You’ll have the seismic interpretation which goes further and further, and very often I say, and some people don’t like it, but I mean it in a very mild way, that geophysicists have spoiled for a long time the progress because they thought going to an ever more refined understanding of the data of the present subsurface geometries is the top.

This is correct to a certain point, but what you really need to do is to understand how it got to the present situation.

In other words, the dynamics behind the entire evolution of a basin has to be understood in order to understand what it is today.

And the geophysicists had a different thing in mind. They wanted to understand the little, most little detail of what it is today.

This is important. No question. But the final result of your thinking is how did it develop to this point?

In other words, I tease them with saying, “You think in static ways, and we want to think in a dynamic way. In the end we come together.”

And this is what happens now. If you look at [inaudible], If you look at our [inaudible] system, this is what it is today.

And I come back to what I said before, I wish that we get modern curricula where this dynamic understanding, in all the different fields, is understood.

And it’s probably some sort of a modern generalist-type thing.

You need to understand the physics behind it and the chemistry behind it in order to really appreciate what happens.

How did IES come about? It was very innovative.

This is probably the most interesting story I can present.

The big research center had the 25th anniversary, and somehow at the time I was elected to give the scientific speech at this 25th anniversary symposium. And we had a number of very prominent people there, two Nobel Prize winners, Ms. Bauer [ph], and Manfred Eigen, chemist and Nobel Prize winner.

And I was asked to present the idea of numerical simulation of petroleum generation.

Somehow people liked it at the time, and I presented the talk.

And we had an industrial board at K of A [ph], and the name of the gentleman who was their representative of General Electric was Ed Schmidt [ph]. As far as I know and believe he was a direct grandson or something like that of the founder’s family of General Electric.

And he took me aside and he said, “This is very interesting what you say.

Wouldn’t you like to present a talk like that at General Electric headIntervieweruarters?”

And I said, “Well, if this is of interest to General Electric, I’m surprised about it, but I can do that.”

Then I didn’t hear for a long time about that anymore, and we were on a trip to the United States and Canada, on a private trip more or less.

And I got a phone call from Ed Schmidt in Calgary. I was with Canadian Hunter, and he said, “Why don’t you come to ---“ I think the name is Schenectady in New York, and I said, “I can’t. I have a pre-booked flight schedule."

And he said, “We will send you a little plane.” And they did. They invited me to give the talk there, and I found out that General Electric had losses of millions of dollars in the nuclear energy industry.

They lost a lot of money, and they were interested, and it was an interesting business plan, they were interested in selling their, well, they make these jet aircraft engines, gas turbines, and use them coupled with steam generators as individual decentralized power plants for developing countries who cannot afford nuclear power or big energy systems.

And we should look for the gas with our system.

The modeling I presented at the K of A 25th anniversary.

So I was invited several times with General Electric people to present further ideas and how we would do, what we would do.

And I learned that GE bought lab petroleum for that purpose, to have new exploration technology available for an arm in the energy industry.

And then there was a big meeting at Schenectady again in one of the top offices, and we talked and discussed, and then all of a sudden the door opened and a gentleman came in I didn’t know, and everybody was Intervieweruiet and very respectful, and this gentleman started to ask questions.

And then at a poignant time he said and then we would define the royalty system for the oil we find and the gas.

And I shook my head and I said, “Sir, I’m afraid you don’t understand the oil business. What I’m presenting is the typical drop of the service industry, and the big oil companies don’t want to share royalties with the service industry. And if you can resolve that conflict, I’m absolutely unable even to understand what would be the dealings and wheelings, but a service industry classically does not take royalties.”

And then there was a big discussion and the meeting was almost in an uproar, and this gentleman left.

Later on I found out it was Jack Welch. So the meeting was over and I went back on my trip and four weeks later, I was told GE had lost interest in founding the company.

And now a surprising thing happened.

The government in Germany, because KFA was a government laboratory like you’re national laboratories, the government said at the time, “Let’s do it. We will found the company.”

And it was General Electric who had worked out that I should get 15 percent of the shares when they found the company, and they said, “We need Welte to guarantee the success of the company, and then he needs to get a share.”

And I knew that and I told the government people, “Okay, we can do that, but I need 15 percent.”

This was a long fight, but I got it. And then we founded IES, but the story is not yet at the end.

Then the disliking of the oil business came, and the government all of a sudden found out that a professor who was a government employee in effect running a company, that was not what they wanted, and they forced me to have a second manager for the company.

And very Intervieweruickly oil prices went down and I had employees, and the manager didn’t do well, and I had the responsibility, and we didn’t get contracts anymore, and I really saw a big problem.

And I asked for a credit line from the research institute, from K of A.

There was a big board meeting. I was pretty high up in the hierarchy of the research lab.

There was a board meeting and I had to leave the room, and the government supervisors were there, and when I came in, one of the people who knew me well and liked me put the thumb down and I knew it was rejected.

So then I had to find out what was I going to do. I had about ten employees.

I had the main responsibility. I had no more contracts.

I had a certain obligation to maintain the company also because my name was associated with it.

And the government will pull out. And I had a friend whom I had known from my time when I did work with Canadian Hunter.

It was an investor, a German investor, a very young person.

And he had invested money in Canadian Hunter and in Canada and the U.S., and I had given them scientific and technical advice among other things for [inaudible], etc.

And they apparently liked what I had done. And I called this gentleman.

His name is Clause Heaven [ph], and he said, “Yes. I’ll invest in your company.”

And really, it was the last relief and even better, Canadian Hunter guaranteed us new contracts.

So I had a financial person backing me, and I had an oil company backing my concept. And that was saving IES.

One of the letter writers for your Congress Medal basically said when you started IES, there were a lot of people in the industry who were very skeptical that you wouldn’t succeed, that the kinds of things that you described, and mostly some qualitative, some quantitative ways, could not be transferred into modeling, and you were a little bit of in the wilderness by yourself for a while.

That’s right.

Interviewer: Can you comment on that? It’s a very interesting observation.

I certainly can, and the background I had given to you before, I realized that modern computer technology and numerical simulation demands a great deal of very refined mathematics, and I was not competent in that field, and I never claimed to be confident in that field.

What I knew was that you need a concept which puts all that together, and this really was my kind of thinking.

And I was convinced that the thinking is more important, I mean, the generalist thinking, geology, geophysics, the knowledge of the dynamics of the basin, the chemistry involved, the physics involved with respect to the necessary processes like migration, capillary pressures, the understanding of different kinds of rock environments.

You have completely different migration concepts for carbonate environment as compared to classical shale lithologic environment, different tectonics.

And I realized that the specialists are very important, but they alone cannot solve the problem.

And for me, mathematics was one of these specialized disciplines.

We needed it but alone it wouldn’t be the success.

And I believe this was overemphasized by some of my critics that they realized, I am not the kind of physicist of mathematician who can solve these problems.

But I believe what I had was the vision of what you can do with it.

And I adhered to that. And my friend and colleague, Klaus Hebben, who was the investor shared my view, so that saved the company and in a way, I believe, I’m very persistent with my thoughts and I just kept it and I was hanging on to it.

Interviewer: I also like to ask you about the very influential book that you edited with Brian Horsfield in late 90s, ’97 maybe. So, why don’t you talk about that first.

Again that was a very influential book that you and Brian and possibly one other editor? I can’t remember – Baker.

Interviewer: Baker, that’s right. Tell us about that. Was it kind of scientific update as to your previous work or how did that come about?

Oh, the background to this book is completely different one.

At that time, I was the Chairman of the Scientific Technical Board of The Research Center and I had a lot of fights with the political people and the ministries.

I don’t want to go into details there but very strange things happened in different fields.

And it was clear to me that the energy and climate discussion in Germany is on the wrong track and I could see that what I had build up, this research institute, Petroleum and Organic Geochemistry, would not survive if I’m gone.

And my job was so big, I couldn’t really devote enough time to research anymore.

It was a research management task. And in order to preserve what we had done and to give credit to the excellent scientific team I had, I started to propagate the idea with my fellow scientists to write a book, to present in a concise way what we have done.

And therefore necessarily this should have been the document of the individual scientists, not my book, our book.

And this was really the idea to write that book, Petroleum and Basin Evolution.

Then we discussed what we would do and how it should work out and then we decided that we would have some sort of a editorial board.

Then we decided that Brian Horsfield would be the guy who could do that and this was the reason that Brian Horsfield and Donald Baker, who was formally at Rice University, and I would do that.

And I meant it as a document of what we had done together and it really, I hope, is clear, anybody who is successful in science, everybody stands on the shoulders of others and I certainly stood, also, on the shoulders of my younger fellow scientists.

And this is part of what you had asked before.

Many people in the petroleum industry and in the universities were very skeptical about our ideas of basin modeling, but the fact is – and this is why I believe we need a new curricula in the geosciences and probably not only in the geosciences – I will make a little sidestep and comment on that.

You need people who have a deep, maybe a contradiction, deep generalists’ education.

And I’ll give you an example, not in our field.

One of my very good friends is an engineer and a professor for automotive engines and we started at about the same time to have the idea of doing something in a, let’s say, scientific business oriented situation.

And what he did was, he had the idea to take modern automotive engines in the 1980s and place measurement devices at any place you can, in the cylinder, in the fuel injection, detecting the different temperature curves in any part of the engine, the sounds vibration.

He really used any kind of measurement technology that was available at that time.

And they detected marvelous things.

The combustion wasn’t complete in certain engines, the speed of injection was not correct, the transport of the heat in the exploding flame.

And this is now one of the most successful engineering companies and the name is FEV in Germany.

And it rose from a 5 people shop to a 3,000 people research entity.

One in Detroit, one in China, one in Poland, one in South America now and two in Germany.

And again, he had more or less the same concept I had. He said there are so many specialized disciplines in engineering, you need to know exactly what the thermal the conductivity is in different metals and in different materials you use and you put all that on a computer simulation in order to understand the whole.

And this in many respects is similar to what we did. You have to understand the whole thing in order to, really, make a focused further development.

I’ll give you an example, depth conversion in seismic.

They have their different, they pick the different speeds for the different depth layers and different kinds of material and that’s it.

And I said, yes, that’s fine, but how about if you have a supernormal pressure or an abnormal pressure.

You cannot predict that, but if you do modeling before, you have a pretty good concept where you should have an overpressure.

And then you can pick a different speed for that sound in your depth conversion.

This is the concept. You have to understand the whole story in order to make a sound decision of what you’re going to do.

And another thing I had preached many times and I negotiated with – what’s the name of the geophysical company in Houston?

Veritas, yes. I talked to Veritas people and I said – we talked about these things like depth conversion. And then I said, look, you want to sell your seismic and this is excellent.

I mean, their technology is excellent. And I said, we needed a geophysical partner because we know that all the data comes from geophysics and I realized that we needed a geophysical partner. This is also the reason we finally sold to Schlumberger.

The modeling by itself is meaningful. You need the data to do it and I wanted to have a connection to a geophysical company, so I negotiated with many of them among others was Veritas.

And during the conversation, I probably made a mistake and I said, look, you have a much better focus of where you would like to acquire costly geophysics like 3D seismic.

If you have a basin modeling concept at hand because then you can focus on certain areas and don’t randomly select where you want to have your 3D seismic taken. And this developed quite well and then one of their managers, I really have forgotten the name and I wouldn’t even tell, he said they’re not interested.

Because then we do not sell 3D seismic anymore the same way because people would be more selective.

And this is the kind of conflict you have depending on the different kind of business program.

And they were very open to say that.

And at that time then I understood why we didn’t get together with PGS.

They didn’t tell but they said, no interest.

Interviewer: How did the purchase of IES from Schlumberger work out? What was the history on that? You said IES, around 1990s when it kind of became commercialized and you had a good capital investment at that point.

It was clear that at some in time I should get out of that because of my age and I’m also interested in other things.

And I had two really excellent younger guys with me.

Thomas Hantschel is the physical genius, physics genius. He is really extremely good. I hired him in a very funny way.

It was in 1990, it was just when the wall fell down and the merger between East Germany and West Germany.

And East Germany, the former communistic Germany, had excellent physics center.

They really have brilliant guys. And we had a little ad in the newspaper and I was looking for good people, because we needed another physicist.

And he came with one of these little East German cars made out of wood and plywood.

And Thomas Hantschel, he was one of their young, brilliant guys and I liked him so much, I hired him on the spot.

Out of two reasons, he was very open.

I mean, many physicists have their nose very high in the sky and I know these guys managing the research center.

Climate modelists, for instance, very high in the sky. And this guy didn’t, and he was brilliant, so I hired him.

And he developed extremely well, very qruickly he grasped the ideas about geology, geoscience, et cetera.

And the other one, Bjorn Wygrala was with me from the beginning of the company.

And Bjorn Wygrala is a geoscientist, also a generalist.

Australian born, Australian citizenship.

And when I realized that I should finally step out I selected the two to be my successors.

I made a management team out of them.

And it was already clear to me that we needed a geophysical partner and then we searched around and Wygrala had the talent, very quietly to talk to people. And one of the guys he talked to was Ian Bryant from Schlumberger, you probably know him.

And Ian had very similar thinking we had and he convinced Schlumberger Corporation to buy IES, and I was very pleased with it.

In the beginning I was not, because they were these “dumb geophysicists.”

But it worked out very well and now – and for instance a tool like petrel, this is another thing, well, you know that if you want to do that what we did, you needed something like petrel.

I didn’t know it at the time. But we needed data management and geophysical, how do you call it, management or geophysical data integration tool, we needed that.

And we had started to develop something like that. And again this is something you, really, have to do from a geological mind point-of-view.

You cannot let it do alone by a physicist, it’s impossible and petrel is a success, no question.

And petrel – modern modeling would be helpless without petrel on the long run.

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Internationally known geologist and chemist – a leader in organic geochemistry – for Royal Dutch Shell and, later, California’s Chevron Lab. He is known as the Father of Modern Petroleum System and Basin Modeling. (Sidney Powers medalist) Show More

In the News

Explorer Emphasis Article
Standing ovation, please: Dietrich Welte adds the Sidney Powers Award to his long list of accolades to become one of the most honored geologists in AAPG history.
American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

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