Twenty-five years ago, I embarked on an eight-month adventure that would define my adult life. It was not intended to. In fact, at the time it was more lark than prescience. Okay, maybe lark isn’t the fairest description, but academic value and eyes to my future were certainly not priorities when I chose to spend the final co-op term of my university career working as a petroleum geologist in Calgary’s oil and gas industry.
The chapters of my life that work term inspired, are now complete. Well, for me they finished more than a decade ago. For my wife, they ended last year. Neither seemed believable at the time, but with the world now mired in uncertainty from a pandemic, savage oil price war, and an accelerating transition to greener energy sources, it feels very much like the novel I expected to write with my career will remain a novella. Or, in my specific case, a short story.
Rather than mourn this reality, I want to do something more upbeat. Embrace my old friend, nostalgia, and look back at the experience that literally changed my life. Those eight months set in motion a timeline that ultimately resulted in everything I am and everything I have and continues to colour my life, even still. It was a bumpy ride back then too, but also one of the most wonderful periods of my life.
The Student Intern
In 1995, co-op terms weren’t quite as ubiquitous as they are now. That made the co-op program at the University of Waterloo a bit of a plum. And the plum of the co-op program, at least for Earth Science students, was getting a gig with an oil and gas company.
Few of us were angling for an oil and gas career at the time. We had our sights firmly set on environmental, mining, or engineering careers. The university didn’t even offer specific oil and gas courses. But money is money, and the lure of good coin was too much for broke, indebted fourth-year university students so westward we ho’d. Besides, what could be better than eight months on the doorstep of the Rocky Mountains?
Thankfully, there were several jobs to be had. 1995 wasn’t a boom year in the patch, but it wasn’t a bust year either. Prominent, oil patch stalwarts like Petro Canada, Husky, PanCanadian and Imperial all offered coveted positions for top tier students. They would prove elusive to me. Gulf Canada Resources, on the other hand, was happy to scoop up the dregs others left behind.
Gulf was also a stalwart of the Canadian oil patch, with a long and storied history, but it had been bled dry by the Olympia and York real estate empire in the late eighties and early nineties. By 1995, it was a teetering shell of its once glorious former self and struggling to right the ship. A Waterloo alumna oversaw Gulf’s student recruitment and, loyal to his alma mater, brought on board a motley crew of 5 aspiring earth scientists; three environmental hydrogeologists and two geological engineers. I was one of the former.
The Manual Transmission
My fateful dalliance with the energy industry, began on a decidedly inelegant note. A friend and I, one of the other chosen five, decided to drive to Calgary rather than fly. I wanted access to wheels during our eight months stay, partly to facilitate sightseeing, but also because I had family living two hours from the city whom I intended to visit regularly.
Our chosen route took us through the United States to take advantage of lower fuel prices and avoid risky road conditions in northern Ontario, it being the dead of winter and all. We would cross into into Michigan at Sarnia, head north, over the Mackinac bridge, steer west, and then return to Canada somewhere in Saskatchewan.
And that’s exactly what we did. Easy peasy. Except the starter on my damn car died at our very first gas stop in Michigan. Not wanting to pay for repairs in US dollars, in a strange city, and with a tight deadline ahead of us, I decided it was in our best interest to capitalize on my ownership of a standard transmission vehicle and use the now lost to time “pop the clutch” method of vehicle ignition.
An otherwise brilliant plan, it had one glaring problem; my co-pilot did not know how to drive standard. This was, in fact, his maiden voyage, I having convinced him that clocking endless miles on interstate highways would be a piece of cake no matter how poor his gear shifting skills were. Sure, there might be some jerkiness or false-starts getting going, but once we were at cruising speed it was just like an automatic. No big deal. Except, if you need to pop the clutch to start the bloody vehicle in the first place, a method usually requiring someone to push unless you’ve miraculously stopped on a downslope.
The highlight of our westward migration occurred in some forgotten town in Wisconsin, where a left turn at a downtown intersection while my buddy was driving resulted in a stall. As panic-stricken outsiders, we scrambled like sitcom characters to rectify our situation, he jumping out of the vehicle to push, I crawling into the driver’s seat from the passenger side. As the vehicle ambled forward through the intersection, I frantically popped the clutch and after two failed attempts, it finally started. My buddy hopped into the passenger seat and I matted the accelerator, getting our sorry asses out of town while dozens of bewildered locals stared at the two idiot Canadians with the blue Honda Prelude that wouldn’t start.
The remainder of our trip was uneventful, save for immature antics when passing other vehicles and the giggles we failed to stifle while passing through the village of Spread Eagle. Upon our arrival in Cowtown, we were rewarded with a short stay in a posh, downtown hotel. The kind that leaves fancy chocolates on your pillow and wonders why two young, single college kids with a car that doesn’t start are staying in such a fine establishment.
The First Day
The single most memorable part of my first day at Gulf Canada Resources, was meeting the senior geologist I would be working with. Or working for. I’m sure he would say working for. It would be the briefest, least welcoming introduction I’ve ever had.
The area manager was the first to greet me after the perfunctory indoctrination with Human Resources. He was friendly, if gruff, and didn’t reflect the stereotypically middle manager, reminding me more of the drummer from Cheap Trick than, say, my dad.
He, in turn, introduced me to the aforementioned senior geologist who would be my mentor. An earnest chap, perhaps a decade older, it was clear from the get-go he didn’t relish the thought of supervising a bratty co-op student for two thirds of a year.
After a brief “hello”, he ushered me to an empty office and left without saying a word. I sat still and alone and thoroughly confused for perhaps ten minutes when he suddenly returned, proceeded to plunk about seven robust textbooks and binders onto my desktop, said “read these”, and left. I didn’t see him again the remainder of the day.
Surprisingly, he and I remain friends to this very day. A good reminder that first impressions needn’t be lasting, albeit unforgettable, ones. He’s still crusty at times, but I now know it’s mostly for show, though he still likes to push my buttons whenever possible. He even helped me secure the best job I’ve ever had by being shockingly blunt about my shortcomings when my eventual employer called him as a reference. Sometimes honestly really is the best policy.
He also proved to be a fantastic mentor and whether intentional or not, he ignited the passion that resulted in my eventual return to the oil patch, including a move to Calgary and buying a home, three years later. My life, as they say, has never been the same.
The Co-op Term Project
My co-op term at Gulf Canada Resources can be broken down into three pieces. The bulk of my time was spent working on a primary project. Sure, I was green as spring foliage and had an endless number of skills to learn, but I was also expected to submit a work term report upon my return to school that fall. These work terms weren’t all fun and games, after all. We were expected to gain valuable, hands-on education in the real world and prove it.
My primary project, chosen by my mentor, which would become the subject of work term report, was a thorough documenting of a potential natural gas play in the Wabamun formation of the Trout-Senex area in Northern Alberta. It was the first prospect I ever generated, and I still have the report. Hey, you never know when the hall of fame might come calling.
The first thing you need to know about this project is that a LOT has changed since 1995. In many ways, the current oil and gas industry would be almost unrecognizable by 1995 standards. Or vice versa. The changes are stark, nowhere more so than in technology and its impact on workflow.
It may be hard to believe, but in 1995 computers were only beginning to poke their way into the lives of petroleum geologists. They were certainly around, but far from the advanced workhorses capable of performing every task required of a geologist we have today. CRT screens, spreadsheet calculations, and e-mails were still very much the extent of cutting edge. As a result, I cut my petroleum geologist teeth on microfiche, a delightfully antiquated data storage medium that I, by sheer coincidence, was familiar with since I had used it during my high school job at the local hardware store.
Well logs are the single most important piece of information a geologist has to work with, and in 1995 they were only available on small rectangles of transparent plastic that you shoved into a glass sleeve on a large, floor model viewing and printing machine that looked like a beige version of an arcade racing game.
You adjusted the fiche holder until the desired log image and depth interval appeared in the viewer, clicked the print button, and the image would print onto a piece of paper. You then took the paper to a paper cutter, either a desk model or a floor model, and trimmed the excess white space leaving you with a perfectly sized reproduction of the well log. This was repeated for each type of well log needed (there are several) and then again for each well.
The reproduced image was used for everything from picking tops, determining net porosities, measuring resistivities. You name it, it was done with, and annotated on, these precious reproductions. And if you needed to make a cross-section, well, sometimes you went through the entire process again to get another image to use. Those were then glued, or more often taped, onto large sections of paper cut from a roll of either white plotter paper or this weird, plasticky mylar stuff with gridlines. You’d then annotate the wells as needed and colour the formations. Literally. With pencil crayons even. It was all very Kindergarten for Grownups and I loved it!
The Drafting Department
Another startling example of technological change was the drafting department. As much fun as colouring and cut and paste can be, most geologists didn’t produce gallery quality artwork. If a finished prospect, requiring millions of dollars in investment, was to be presented to the decision-makers controlling the company wallet, presentation materials had to look professional. Likewise, my project report.
Well, in 1995, preparing such documents on our own computers was not yet possible. Instead, a geologist would mockup the various cross-sections and maps needed, annotating all the appropriate details, roll them up into a tube, affix return information, and submit them to the drafting department. In the case of Gulf Canada Resources, that also entailed an elevator ride down to the +15 level of the building where the delivery window for the drafting department was located. Honestly, I half expected those vacuum tube delivery networks they have in vintage Looney Tunes cartoons.
Once submitted, an entire team of drafting folk would create professional versions of your maps and cross-sections. A couple of days later, lest you put a “rush” on the work, you’d get the finished pieces either delivered to your office or a message to come retrieve them. And if there was a mistake or you needed to make a change? Well, you did the whole thing over again.
It was a fascinating process then, and looking back now, it’s equally fascinating that it ever existed. Literally, all the work mentioned above is now performed on the computer each geologist has sitting on their desk. Whole departments no longer necessary and entire categories of machines and products, obsolete. All in less than two decades. One, really. They don’t even need to print any of it off, either. Just punch it up on the boardroom projector for all to see. Amazing.
My particular project was a natural gas play potentially present on lands Gulf Canada already owned thanks to an older, deeper oil play. Finding additional resources on existing lands was, and is, a welcome boon for oil companies. By the time of my co-op term, infrastructure had spread northward enough that combined with modestly strengthening gas prices, the Wabamun subcrop shallow gas play was looking financially viable.
Wabamun Play Economics circa 1995
There was a problem with this play, however. It was so shallow, in an area dominated by deeper oil plays, that well logs over the appropriate geological interval were rare. Furthermore, if they did exist, they were typically small-scale, lower detail logs void of the tell-tale signs of gas accumulation often visible on detailed well logs. In other words, we were farsighted geologists exploring without our reading glasses.
Between January and August, my learning curve was vertical. I would later learn it was also only just beginning, but at the time I felt I was becoming a genius. Oh, I still wanted to save the world from environmental catastrophe, but this oil and gas stuff was fast becoming a tantalizing alternative. I was enthralled.
Eventually I completed my work on this prospect and presented it to the entire team of which I was a part. That was a nerve-wracking experience for someone not too fond of public speaking. I was scared and anxious and yet when it was over, I was also thrilled. The professionals to whom I presented were great, for one. They challenged me, sure, but they also encouraged and supported me. I was already nibbling on the bait and they were doing a perfect job of setting the lure.
Here’s what I wrote about it in a letter to my family at the time.
So, how’s work been going? Pretty wicked, actually. I did my first presentation a few weeks ago and it went really well. Sure, I was extremely nervous, but once I got going, I calmed down a fair bit. The best part of it all, though, was the fallout afterward. Everyone came to congratulate me on the job I did. Get this, even the manager of the entire exploration group (i.e. my boss’s boss), who attended the presentation, came to my office a few days later and personally congratulated me and said I was doing a great job so far. I was so nervous but it sure felt good when he did that.
It perked my interest and has helped increase my ambition to do even better on the next project I’ve started. Granted, this one is going to be a lot more difficult and I’ll be doing a lot more of it on my own, but I really want to do a bang-up job. K—–, the geologist I work with, says if I do as good a job on this project, I should be able to write my own contract here at Gulf. Now, I’m sure he’s exaggerating on that point, but hell, there’s no harm in trying!
The Reality Check
That next project I’d be given and was so keen to excel at? It was the Granite Wash oil play and this time there was no specific opportunity to evaluate. Rather, I was tasked with getting up to speed on the play itself and having a general looksie to determine if anything might have been missed that Gulf could capitalize on. Despite my enthusiasm and burgeoning, if unwarranted, confidence, my naiveté soon exposed itself.
I had embarked on this foray under the assumption that my hydrogeological training was easily transferrable to oil and gas. It seemed to me that groundwater was just a different fluid moving through the earth, how different could oil and gas be. This assumption led to the first truly embarrassing moment in my nascent petroleum career.
In hydrogeology, scaling is everything when it comes to depicting direction of groundwater flow and extent of contaminant migration. In class and previous work terms, it had been driven home that cross-sections needed to be prepared “to scale”. I readily assumed the same truth held in petroleum, so when it came time for me to create my Granite Wash regional cross-sections, I was a good geoscientist and made them “to scale” too.
Of course, in hydrogeology, the cross-sections are often over a single property. Oil and gas plays can be kilometres in size, with regional sections covering multiple townships. I spent days upon days, diligently printing, annotating, and assembling my cross-sections, ultimately creating epic masterworks that literally needed to be unfurled down hallways. All, as you can imagine, to the bemusement of my more seasoned workmates who’d never seen such sincere ineptitude.
Suffice it to say, my Granite Wash oil project was less than fruitful. I gained back some much-needed humility, but that self-written contract never surfaced.
The Pay Off
My final week in August, bereft of a project to work on, and with no time to start a new one, was filled with grunt work for the other geologists in the team. In particular, I spent a lot of time printing logs for them. One, a dear friend still, and new graduate hire at the time, went so far as to give me a special nickname and created a matching mask. Hence the title image to this post. I still have it too. A touching gesture, only surpassed by the swath of stag gifts they’d all give me as parting gifts.
In the years that followed, long after I’d finished my work term, completed my final year of university, and begun my first career in Saskatoon, I learned that my Wabamun prospect had proven successful … with a caveat or two. Some of my projected pools were located outside Gulf’s existing land holdings and they’re financial situation was too dire to pursue the play more broadly.
Still, others had drilled it. Eventually, Gulf did too. And several bonafide natural gas pools were discovered where I had predicted them to be. Except, they weren’t Wabamun. Many were actually Bluesky pools. The Bluesky was a younger formation, deposited on the eroded, older Wabamun. The former clastic, the latter carbonate, both indecipherable on the poor, low detail logs available. But gas is gas, so it’s still a win in my book!
That confirmation of my work was the final draw and I soon found myself packing up and moving to Calgary. The chase, and then the catch, of oil and gas exploration had me hooked. Memories of Stampede (Frac Juice, Silver Slipper, and Dusty’s to mention a few), box seats to Flames games, and seeing the Tragically Hip at Another Roadside Attraction in High River didn’t hurt either.
I returned to where it started, at Gulf Canada Resources. I didn’t write my own contract by any means, but that co-op term laid the foundation for a reunion, though it would only last ten months. I’d enjoy another decade working in oil and gas at two wildly different companies; one a micro-junior, the other a super-major.
In 2008, I stepped away to raise a family which, regrettably, killed the career I had so thoroughly enjoyed. I always assumed I’d one day return, but like so many are discovering today, the oil and gas industry is not the golden goose it used to be.
It was wonderful, once. And it fashioned a life for me that was wholly unexpected. As this dominant portion of my life story comes to a resounding close, I’m happy that several of those people I met back in 1995 remain a part of my life. They, along with the memories, will always be with me. Not a bad return on a lark.