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The Story of Innovation

John Donnelly, JPT Editor

John DonnellyIn times of high and low oil prices, the oil and gas industry has pursued innovation and steady technological advancement. In the last prolonged oil price slump, which began in the mid-1980s, many international oil companies cut or outsourced research and development. This ushered in a wave of innovation and growth in the service sector, with service companies still the leaders in upstream R&D today.

A new book chronicles over a century of incredible technological breakthroughs and developments in the upstream sector, and the individuals and companies behind the innovations. Groundbreakers: The Story of Oilfield Technology and the People Who Made it Happen is written by historian Mark Mau and Henry Edmundson, a longtime employee of Schlumberger and founding editor of its well-regarded Oilfield Review. They tell the story of the industry’s technology achievements from the early wells at Baku, Titusville, and Spindletop, through significant developments in drilling, geophysics, and production engineering, up to the present day with breakthroughs and research into automation and nanotechnology. Sprinkled throughout the book are the pioneers and personalities who made many of these developments possible including many larger-than-life figures.

The authors conducted interviews with more than 120 well-known industry veterans and experts in addition to poring over numerous technical papers. Many of the pioneers cited in the book were or still are SPE members, such as Henri Doll of ­Schlumberger, Erle Halliburton, and M. King Hubbert, famous for his predictions of peak oil production; Gus Archie, the Shell engineer who helped create the discipline of petrophysics; and Ed Horton, inventor of the spar and tension leg platform, whose obituary was published in these pages last month (October JPT, p. 99).

The work of recent recipients of major SPE awards and recognition are also discussed in the book. For example, Ken Arnold, SPE’s first Technical Director for Projects, Facilities, and Construction, who developed crucial recommended practices for offshore safety and design; Leon Robinson, known for numerous innovations in mud drilling, who was named a JPT Legend of Drilling in 2008; and Nansen Saleri, a recipient of SPE’s John Franklin Carll Award, who pioneered the concept of maximum reservoir contact, to name but a few.

From the beginning, one upstream innovation frequently led to others. The 1901 Spindletop gusher popularized the use of rotary drilling, which was quickly put to use in the fields of Romania and in California, and subsequently launched the use of drilling mud and Christmas trees. Spindletop proved the worth of exploring for oil under salt domes along the Texas and Louisiana coast, which gave rise to a huge regional oil and gas industry there.

The authors underscore the contributions of the exceptional individuals who have guided this progress through the decades. “Anyone joining the industry a generation ago would have ridiculed, let alone predicted, the notion of drilling horizontally, seeking reserves in water 10,000 ft deep, or monitoring a reservoir with 3D seismic,” they write. “It is the industry’s good fortune to have been well served by innovators who believed so much in their particular vision of the future that they were willing to sacrifice almost anything to see their ideas get developed.”