Pillars of Industry

A Career Exploring the Frontiers of Drilling and Well Technology

Bob Worrall, Shell E&P

The oil and gas industry has benefited from select individuals who, in the course of their careers, have distinguished themselves by contributing to the industry in profound ways. Those individuals who have dedicated their lives to the advancement and improvement of the oil and gas industry are considered Pillars of the Industry. The featured Pillar of the Industry for this issue is Bob Worrall of Shell Exploration and Production. His career spans nearly 4 decades, with distinction around the globe. On the eve of his retirement, Worrall provides perspective and advice for young professionals. Worrall has borne witness to the development and growth of our industry into the modern state in which we see it today.—Tim Morrison, Pillars of the Industry Editor


The successful man is one who organizes his life so that the world owes him a living for doing what he enjoys doing.—Anonymous

A successful man is one who makes more money than his wife can spend. A successful woman is one who can find such a man.—Laura Turner

If you want to get on in the oil patch, go where the big money is being spent and work as hard as you can.—Bob Clawson, Project Manager, North Cormorant Field

Those seeking deep and penetrating analysis and understanding of the current and future status of the world’s petroleum engineering skill pool, or useful career advice, or technological understanding of the well engineering process, or how to rise up the corporate ladder, need read no further.

However, it is possible that the odd reader may be curious as to how one engineer, now very close to retirement, viewing his past life through the misty rose-tinted spectacles of old age, thinks he employed his professionally active years. The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different from the past, for change is the natural state of human beings. But unfortunately, the past, plus our analysis of the present, is all we have to guide us into the future, and on this basis I submit this short, and very personal, narrative.

I have been very lucky in that I have managed to spend most of my career working at or near the frontiers of drilling and well technology in a variety of situations and in the company of some wonderful people. I have enjoyed this immensely. The world has given me a good living, there is still some money left in the bank, and so, based on the above quotations, it has been a successful career. I have no doubt that someone with technical competence, creative ability, and energy can make a similarly enjoyable and satisfying career by going where there are technical challenges and the money is being spent.

To support the above conclusions, I submit the following brief, and rather selective, narrative.

Imperial College, London: A 1969 advertisement in The Times for “Young Single Engineers” (remember the Pony Express advertisements “Orphans Preferred”?) offered twice as much money as anyone else and a free trip to the U.S. I stumbled headlong into the oil patch (or was it a mud tank?).

West Texas: Something of a culture shock, but we both survived. I started off as a trainee mud engineer, but after a short time gravitated to being a field engineer on a research project to optimize bit performance using real-time control of the drilling rig with a Honeywell computer (16k of memory), the size of a wardrobe (or closet) with input and output via paper teleprinter tape. This was about 2 decades ahead of its time, but I did gain a detailed understanding of the drilling process and its associated control systems. I found the variety of interdependent technologies used to drill, evaluate, and complete a well fascinating. I just enjoyed playing with the technology, and this sense of sheer enjoyment and wonder has survived throughout my whole career. I liked the people, the can-do atmosphere. I mentally joined the oil patch for life.

I joined Shell in 1970 and was posted to the U.K. for 18 months. I left 9 years later after being part of a small (but growing) cog in the North Sea oil boom and being part of an industry that was experiencing an incredible learning curve. It was a terrific education by doing, and I have many memories of this time, in turn happy, satisfying, challenging, frustrating, and at times just plain scary. If you were competent, you had as much responsibility as you wished to take and could handle. Only in the military would a young engineer have as many technically advanced toys to play with.

Thinking back, it is hard to realize how little we knew and how primitive the technology and equipment was. In 1967, 17% of all the wells drilled in the U.S. were drilled with cable-tool rigs. In the North Sea, most, if not all, jackups were slot type, and 110 ft of water was considered near the limit. When it was designed, Auk was the world’s deepest offshore platform, in 350 ft of water. The limit for a semisubmersible in the summer was 500 ft of water; a 4,000-hp anchor-handling boat was considered enormous; a semisubmersible rig was moved with four tugs all straining at 2 knots; all directional drilling was done with magnetic single shots, and 45° inclination was considered  the prudent  limit; a mud motor run of 12 hours with no junk left in the hole was considered exceptional; all calculations were done with the Halliburton book, slide rules, log tables, mechanical calculators, and U.S. surveying tables; and iron roughnecks, top drives, digital wireline logging tools, steering tools, measurement while drilling, and polycrystalline diamond compact bits were all things of the future. I recall seeing a reservoir simulation done with a scale model of the reservoir made out of glass beads, the glycerin representing the oil being displaced by water. There were very few locally owned companies in Aberdeen active in the technical side of oil industry, and, sadly, health, safety, and environment was not accorded the priority it now has.

Lowestoft: A shiny, new, bright, green drilling engineer on platforms and jackups, with trips to Aberdeen on Air Anglia by DC-3. I believe that there were three semisubmersible rigs in the North Sea. A later memory of seven charter DC-3s lined up on the tarmac at Sumburgh comes flooding back, as does arriving back on shore with a broken ankle, having fallen through a hole in the grating on a platform rig move. Back in the office, one small study compared two platform rigs (one French and one American) to see which learned fastest. (Answer: They both seemed to be equally smart, but a footage bonus improved the rate of learning.)

Aberdeen: Working on and around floating rigs, on one occasion being seasick for 4 days on a supply vessel; learning the mysteries of anchor handling, ship stability, saturation diving, risers, newfangled heave compensators, subsea blowout-preventer stacks, as well as the odd bit of drilling technology. Then I was assigned to planning and starting up drilling on platforms in the Brent system, including  all the complexities of simultaneous drilling and production, in a very crowded area. At times, it seemed that we were designing the platforms as they were being built. Few of those involved in the design had been offshore.

London: Working in a multidisciplinary team on field development and platform design, learning a lot about other disciplines, and broadening my outlook immensely.

Nigeria: I have many, many happy memories of the people I had the pleasure to work with and meet. From the Warri area, we were producing just under a half a million barrels per day, operating between five and nine rigs and hoists on land, in swamp, and offshore. As the drilling project engineer, I was busy on a huge variety of projects, some planned, some not, but practically all very satisfying.

The Netherlands: A 12-rig operation. Among many other projects I participated in were the development of the steerable mud motor, working closely with Shell Research in Rijswijk and what is now Baker Inteq. We had 17 field trials before it worked, and much credit goes to the many people involved. Remember the old saying about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration? It became the enabling technology for horizontal and extended-reach-drilled wells. I then gravitated to drilling research and found that my varied experience, ability to think laterally, and somewhat flaky physics combined to make me a useful member of the team. I was lucky to work with some excellent colleagues, and they all seemed much cleverer and better educated than I.

At that time, much theoretical and research work was done in silos, which reflected the organizational structure of our research effort and much of the industry. The introduction of horizontal wells, which was to a certain extent a drilling-driven, but multidisciplinary technology, created some realignment of priorities and understanding among some professional groups. At times sparks flew, and a lot of my blood ended up on the floor.

“Bob, what is the torsional impedance of a rotary table?” After what I hoped sounded like intelligent grunts, and frantic thinking back to my mud engineering training, I replied, “What do you want it to be?” This innocent exchange triggered a disparate multiskilled team to develop the soft torque system for dampening drillstring vibrations.

The oil price crash provided the spur for reducing costs by developing slimhole drilling, evaluation, and completion. We adopted an evolutionary approach, working closely with Inteq, which also eventually found application in high-pressure/high-temperature wells, coiled-tubing drilling, and in small-production sidetracks. Those interested can read SPE 24965. Again, many people, and a variety of closely interrelated technologies, were involved.

Much inspiration for the development of expandable casing and sand screens was gained from studying sewer relining systems and related technology, an area I felt much at home in. From basic idea to initial field trial was about 15 years and a lot of blood, toil, and sweat by many people. But it now looks as if it is taking off.

Venezuela: Mud cap drilling in a sour, high-pressure reservoir from a jackup (see SPE 52828). A form of managed pressure drilling, which is a collection of techniques that have the potential to unlock many difficult reserves. This is currently a major area of advancement in well engineering, greatly facilitated, as with practically all the changes that I have seen, by advances in a number of technical and organizational areas.

The Netherlands: My last posting, working in geothermal energy (which is a whole new area), and on a few other things.

I have been lucky to have had a very enjoyable and satisfying career just playing with a huge variety of interdependent technology, and frequently I have been at the boundaries of technology. I have always been fascinated by the relationship between various apparently unrelated developments, and to search to see how they can be used synergistically to make things better. I have also seen the technology used in drilling change dramatically and safety standards improve greatly.

For progress, one always needs a combination of “technological push” and “business pull.” One has to try to understand what the business is today, to think how it will be in 5–10 years’ time, and to see what technological gaps need to be filled. If you get the answer right 10% of the time, you are doing very well.

I have had the great pleasure of working with some wonderful and very clever people, too numerous to mention by name, who have taught me much, and I acknowledge them all. It has been fun and very satisfying, with a few low spots, but in general the highs have far outnumbered the lows. Would I join the oil patch again? Definitely.


Bob Worrall works for the Geothermal Team of Shell and has held a number of well engineering positions in both international operations and in R&D at the company’s research facility in Rijswijk, The Netherlands. He joined the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies in 1970 after a short stint with Baroid upon graduation. He holds a number of patents in various aspects of well engineering, and in 2002 he was awarded the Drilling Engineering Award by SPE. He lectures in petroleum engineering at Imperial College, London. He earned both a BSc degree in mechanical engineering and an MSc degree in operations research and management studies from Imperial College of Science and Technology, U. of London.