Tech Leaders

J.C. Cunha, Well Operations Manager, Petrobras America

Max Medina and Marie Van Steene Editors, Technical Leaders

Your first graduate degree was in civil engineering. What motivated you to join the oil industry and how was the transition? 

Well, while doing my bachelor’s, I heard about some former students from my hometown university that had joined Petrobras. We heard that they would travel and work in various places in Brazil, a huge country, and it seemed really exciting. Then, when I was about to graduate, in 1978, Petrobras opened registration for a national exam, which is mandatory in the company’s hiring process. So I registered and took the exam. To my surprise, 16 students in my class, including myself, were selected and had job offers from Petrobras. That is how it started.

How has your view of the oil industry changed through the years?

The industry has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Two points that we must mention are the enormous technological advances in well construction and the increasing care for the environment.

How did you face the challenge of language and culture when you did your graduate studies away from Brazil? What was that experience like?

My mother language is Portuguese. When I came to the US for my PhD, even though I spoke some English and Spanish, it was really difficult at the beginning. One thing that helped was the fact that, to my surprise, all of the students pursuing a PhD in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Tulsa at that time were non-Americans. Even most of the professors were from other countries as well, so they understood the natural difficulties one faces in the first semester. But I did not have any problem with the culture. It is a characteristic of mine to seize the opportunity to learn from a different culture. I will try the food, the music, the books and I will subscribe to the local newspaper. So, in any country where I have lived or worked it has always been a positive experience.

“It is a characteristic of mine to seize the opportunity to learn from a different culture. I will try the food, the music, the books and I will subscribe to the local newspaper. So, in any country where I have lived or worked it has always been a positive experience.”

Your work on advanced well construction has brought you recognition as an industry technical leader. What is required to become considered a technical leader? How did your work become so relevant for the whole oil industry?

Relevance and recognition come basically from two factors, opportunity to work on important projects and exposure to the professional community. Our industry has many fantastic professionals; some may be more recognized than others. If an engineer does very good work, he or she will certainly be recognized within the company; however, to be more broadly recognized you need more exposure. You need to participate in conferences, give presentations, mentor young professionals (YPs), and write and publish papers and books. I was lucky enough to publish a few papers related to my research, as well as my technical work at Petrobras. Besides that, I had the opportunity to teach numerous short courses for young engineers at the Petrobras training center. Then, later on, when I became a university professor in Canada, I did research and published on various subjects and presented at many technical conferences around the world. I also did consultancy work for various companies. In addition, I have been for many years actively involved with various committees of SPE, and currently I chair the JPT editorial committee, which has certainly helped in gaining recognition.

Your career has been mostly with Petrobras; however, you spent some time in academia at the University of Alberta. How would you compare the different experiences that you faced in each of these work environments?

I get this question a lot. The fact is that a tenured professor, if he is lucky enough to get good funding to support his research, has a kind of freedom to work and dedicate as much time as he wants to certain subjects of his interest that are not commonly found in the industry. On the other hand, the industrial environment is much more dynamic and gives further opportunities for interaction among peers. At the university, a professor with expertise in drilling may be the only one in the department with that particular knowledge. On the other hand, any large oil company will have dozens, sometimes hundreds of experts on drilling, so the opportunities to interact with your peers are much more frequent, let alone the opportunities that arise from the contact with professionals from other companies that may be partnering with your company in a certain project.

Have you ever considered joining an International Oil Company (IOC)?

First, let me tell you that Petrobras is the ultimate IOC. The company is present in most South American countries and has offices in the US, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. I traveled many parts of the world working for Petrobras.

What do you think are the differences between working for a National Oil Company (NOC) vs. an IOC?

NOCs are those companies that are owned or partially owned by the government and traditionally only operate in their country of origin. When compared with international companies, the differences are significant in the sense that IOCs will have worldwide projects while NOCs will primarily have impact in the country where they are headquartered. An E&P professional working for an NOC probably will focus only on projects in that particular country and travel and move less throughout his or her career. People working for IOCs tend to travel and move more.

Most of the R&D is done in the developed countries. What do you think young E&P professionals may do to increase the amount of R&D initiatives in their own countries?

I believe that research is generated by many factors, including local conditions, needs, markets, and opportunities. I had a colleague at the university, an environmentalist, who did research on various issues related to ice conditions in the Arctic. But then, we were living in Canada. Opportunities for this type of research probably would not exist in a tropical country. The same happens with R&D in oil and gas. If a country, even a developing one, has significant resources, then it has the possibility to bring R&D programs to the country, provided that the local professionals create the necessary conditions and make clear to other stakeholders, service, and oil companies, that solutions from other parts of the world are not necessarily the best solutions for the local challenges.

Are NOCs and IOCs doing enough to make sure that lack of technology will not become a barrier for hydrocarbon exploitation?

I believe so. This is a globalized business. Technologies and equipment used in the US are also being used in Africa and South America. Certain countries may not have access to all proved technologies, but this is probably more related to market and political conditions than to oil companies’ strategies.

“Be a truthful and reliable professional. Be kind and treat everybody with care and respect. What I most care about in my career are my colleagues.”

Brazil’s oil industry is going through very interesting times. Can you share what are the main technical challenges and technology opportunities for developing new resources in years to come? How are young E&P professionals helping this cause?

In this year’s Offshore Technology Conference there was an entire technical session dedicated to the challenges faced in the presalt deepwater development in Brazil. Some of the points mentioned, specifically related to well engineering, were the thick layer of salt to be drilled, the need to do directional work in the salt layer, drilling and completion fluid selection, bottomhole assembly selection, casing and cement design, and corrosion-resistant materials. These are just some of the many challenges. In the last few years, Petrobras has hired hundreds of young E&P professionals. I am sure that this young generation will have an impact on the development of those new fields in the same way my generation has contributed to the first offshore projects back in the 70s and 80s. One particular challenge for young drilling engineers will be to come up with solutions to improve drilling performance and reduce drilling costs in those new developments.

What are your views on the recent trend of many countries making their NOCs larger, while scaling back their relationships with IOCs?

I do not feel that there is a trend. It may be true in some isolated cases, but the fact is that the opposite has happened in the last 2 decades. Many countries that were totally closed to foreign investments in E&P developments have changed their policies.

How do you view the opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of the E&P industry?

There have been tremendous improvements regarding the environmental impact of E&P developments in recent decades. Also, most of us working in those projects became more conscious of the need to preserve the environment. Additionally, most of the countries in the world have adopted very restrictive regulations, which contributed to the improvements. In the field of drilling and production, adoption of modern production schemes—with horizontal and multilateral wells—has reduced the number of wells needed in a project and, consequently, contributed immensely to diminishing the environmental impact of drilling. However, this is an area of constant evolution, and certainly more improvements will be achieved in the future.

There is strong belief that the future of energy will become more diverse as hydrocarbon resources become less available. How should this affect the long-term perspectives of YPs?

As an engineer and researcher, I welcome all innovations. I hope that our society will develop and make available cleaner and cheaper energy. Nobody knows what the future will bring to us. However, it seems that our industry, either producing fuels, or covering the needs of the petrochemical and so many other industries, will be sound and strong for many years to come.

What has been the highlight of your career? If there is one thing you could have done differently, what would it be?

During my career I have had the opportunity to work as an instructor at Petrobras Corporate University, to be a professor in Canada, and to teach courses, as a visiting professor, in many other universities besides the University of Alberta. Also, I taught many short courses in conferences and for various companies. I feel that I gave a small contribution to the development of hundreds of YPs. If I am right, this is certainly the highlight of my career. Regarding the second part of the question, except for sometimes working too much and staying away from my family, there is nothing I would do differently.

What issues do you care most about in your work and your life? What advice would you give young E&P professionals?

This is my advice: be a truthful and reliable professional. Be kind and treat everybody with care and respect. What I most care about in my career are my colleagues, and what I most care about in my life is my family.

Finally, if you had to give a brief speech to young E&P professionals about the attractions of the industry, and specifically the industry’s technical challenges, what would you discuss?

I wrote a chapter for an upcoming SPE book where I mentioned that: “…No matter the nature of the business, it will, in some way, depend on that energy (provided by oil and gas). You may think about any industrial enterprise, any large or small commercial endeavor, the construction industry, the entertainment or the tourism industries, and even the processes involved in producing other types of energy. Regardless of the venture, this extraordinary energy will always be present, and almost every individual living on Earth, even on the most remote locations, will certainly need it. …”

I believe this is reason enough to make our industry especially attractive. But I prefer not to mention any technical challenges. They are too many, which is also another attraction don’t you think?


J.C. Cunha is well operations manager with Petrobras America. He spent 4½ years as a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Alberta, Canada, after earlier working for Petrobras for 24½ years. During his years with Petrobras, Cunha has had responsibilities in all E&P business units in Brazil and responsibilities in many international projects. A civil engineer from Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora, Brazil, he also has an MS degree in petroleum engineering from Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto, Brazil, and a PhD in petroleum engineering from the University of Tulsa, USA. Cunha is an active SPE member, chairing the editorial committee of the Journal of Petroleum Technology. He has authored 45 technical articles and two book chapters, and is currently an SPE Distinguished Lecturer nominee.

Quick Take

Describe SPE in a single phrase.

My technical society.

What technology has made the most impact on your career?

The development of deepwater drilling technologies.

Why work for an NOC?

IOCs, NOCs, service companies—they are all part of the same industry and offer wonderful opportunities for a YP.

Which is your favorite SPE paper?

I love all of Arthur Lubinski’s first works on buckling. I invite readers to visit OnePetro.org and download paper 672-G from 1957. There is no copyright on that. It is still very good.

Who is the technical person you admire most in the E&P industry?

Luciane Bonet-Cunha. (Reservoir guys might want to check her papers.)

What is your favorite gadget?

My blackberry.

What is a must-have for YPs to succeed?

A strong will to learn.

What is your favorite oil city?

Calgary.

What is the game-changer technology for the next 20 years?

No one really knows. It will be interesting to see.