Guilherme de Oliveira Estrella Managing Director for E&P, Petrobras
The Way Ahead Interview invites senior figures who shape our E&P industry to share their wisdom, experience, and deep knowledge with the young E&P professional community. Each interview is an open conversation that explores the careers, advice, and vision of these successful individuals. It is hoped that these interviews will help young E&P professionals learn how to nurture their own personal skills, understand the nature and challenges of our industry, and grasp the technologies, developments, and issues that are key to creating our industry’s future.
For this interview, we visit Rio de Janeiro. Before the interview, I stood atop Corcovado mountain beside the 40-m statue of “Cristo Redentor” (Christ the Redeemer). Since its inception in 1921, the monument has become the symbol of Rio de Janeiro and the Brazilian people, receiving visitors with open arms.
Petrobras is another symbol of Brazil’s warm and friendly people. I joined my friend Anelise Quintão Lara, a key supporter of SPE in Brazil and in Petrobras, for a conversation with Guilherme de Oliveira Estrella, Managing Director for E&P. Estrella enthralled us with adventure stories of exploring for Brazilian oil, his passion for technology and our industry, and his wise insight, modesty, and charm. I hope you enjoy the interview just as much as I did!
John MacArthur, TWA Interview Editor
What in your early life led you to choose a career in the oil and gas industry?
When I was 18, there were very few geoscience courses, and most people would train as a lawyer, doctor, or priest! I have to thank a professor at our Natural History Museum for convincing me to take some geology courses. I had always found natural history, nature, and rocks fascinating. So I studied geoscience, and when I graduated I joined a very young Petrobras; the company was a decade old and produced 30,000 BOPD.
What was your first job and impression of the industry when you joined?
I first worked with Petrobras on scholarship as an intern. I was working as a wellsite geologist drilling the Carmopolis field. The first well found a little oil, the second well was dry, but the third was a commercial discovery. I was impressed by the industry, with the drilling rigs, and an exciting job. Drilling operations were very dynamic, with real-time decisions to be made night and day. There were technologies like seismic, but it was very different from the sophisticated tools we have today. Seismic was difficult to interpret, and we relied on classical field geology a lot. I continued working as a wellsite geologist when I joined Petrobras full time. I was lucky to be involved in some important discoveries like Miranga-1, where we cored 6 m at a time, finding more and more oil. I remember especially lots of coring, finding oil, and somehow, as an old oilfield saying goes, this always seemed to come after midnight!
What are the most memorable experiences in your career?
I have many happy memories. Like your first love, you never forget your first oil discovery—mine was Miranga. Another well was Espirito Santo 1. This was the first well we drilled into the salt dome flank to test a new concept—we were on a three-legged jackup rig on the Brazilian continental shelf offshore in 45 m of water depth. We had to sail for 7 hours in a tugboat to get to the rig. That boat trip was terrible. I remember we were just getting helicopters, and they were expensive. We had a senior manager who thought it showed we were tough to go by boat for 7 hours. But after his first time on the boat, within about an hour, he decided to sign the budget for helicopters.
We also drilled in 15-m depth offshore; this was the Guaricema field back in November 1968. As part of the geology staff team, I came up with an elaborate model of a distributory system, with shallow-water characteristics, and so we planned 10 wells. The drilling was a great success. But when we studied the coring results, we found our model was wrong. This proved that geologists do not always have to have the right model to get exploration right.
I must say that a most special memory for me was when I retired from Petrobras a few years ago. On my last day, at the end of lunch in our staff canteen, I was deeply moved and humbled when my Petrobras colleagues gave me a standing ovation.
What advice would you give to professionals early in their careers?
I would say to all young people that you must be enthusiastic. This is what moves you. You must like what you do and find pleasure in it. We need things beyond our formal job, some broader objectives that we can relate to our job and to our dreams, which makes a better society, a better world. If you see this clearly, then you will have enthusiasm every day you wake up. This is a special feeling, a feeling of contribution. And you must study hard! Keep learning throughout your life.
Who has helped you the most in your career, and what lessons did you learn?
I have learned so much from so many people. My very first boss when I was a young wellsite geologist gave me responsibility. He made me feel I had an important contribution. Another great man that helped me was Alvaro Teixeira. He is now with the Brazilian Oil and Gas Inst. He set up the first geological interpretation team, and I was one of the six geologists he picked. I learned about interpreting regional maps, and Alvaro invited experts from the world to come and teach us. Soon we had enough knowledge to write the first paper on global tectonics pertaining to the Brazilian continental shelf.
Geologists and reservoir engineers must ensure their work is very closely integrated. This is crucial. I learned this special lesson from another mentor, Othelo Nascimento, who taught me to believe in combining the skills of geologists and engineering—geoengineering. I helped organize an MS course on this subject here in Brazil.
What does leadership mean to you?
Leadership can be seen as the people at the top of a company, or the chief executive. This view is related to a hierarchical view of position as determining leadership. I prefer that my reports do not just agree to what I say or want. It is not about that. I want my staff to disagree if I am wrong. We have bright people, and they need to lead, too. I once thought that the best chief is one who is not missed when he is at home or on vacation. Nowadays my new idea is that the best chief is one whose company runs better when she or he is on vacation!
I once had to submit a paper to our board and delegated the task of finalizing the paper to a younger man on my team. Later, I decided the paper was not good enough and telephoned to tell him. But he told me he had taken a careful look at the paper and decided it was not good enough—and had already withdrawn it. That is how I see leadership: there is courage and personal character in the best examples.
What are the key technology challenges you see for the E&P industry, and what can young E&P professionals do to help?
Exploration helps me to describe a fundamental challenge. We have sophisticated seismic technology now. But a potential problem is that these tools have become so complex that we do not sufficiently understand how to use them. To become a better geologist, it is important to understand the fundamentals, to understand the petroleum system, and not rely on models and technology too much. There are cycles of knowledge and technology in our industry, and we need to strike a balance because knowledge is in our minds and not just in the computers.
Hydrocarbon recovery is getting more challenging in areas like unconventional oil, deep water, and tight gas sands. There are technologies that will assist us in unlocking these resources. Real-time reservoir management will benefit from smart-field technology. Production will become increasingly focused on subsea. I would expect to see the end of the surface era and a new world with drilling and production on the seabed, and no floating systems. There are exciting times ahead. Young professionals need to get involved and help find creative solutions.
What is on the horizon for the industry, and how might young E&P professionals prepare?
Most people do not recognize that petroleum is the salvation of the environment—replacing coal and wood as fuel, also providing plastics instead of natural products. Young professionals must keep striving to develop clean, simple systems to produce hydrocarbons efficiently because environmental sensitivity is important.
Another important area is technical expertise. Young professionals must develop sound technical skills during their career. I have noticed that there are quite a few nontechnical chief executive officers (CEOs) leading some companies in our industry. I think they do a good job, but I also believe that those CEOs who have a sound technical grounding bring something extra to the industry. We must consider the long-term cycle and work to that horizon. We need people who understand dry wells and a 5-year program.
What changes would you make to the way our E&P industry attracts people?
We have just left a period where we did not hire for a long time. Now Petrobras is making huge investments in Brazil and, like the rest of the industry, needs to hire people. We are recognized as the most preferred employer for young people in Brazil, and this is because we offer equal opportunity, recognize and reward innovation, and help our people fulfill their talent. People can discuss their ideas, challenge their boss, and we invest in their development—spending a full year training our new graduates.
E&P is a constantly challenging business, challenging your mind every day. There is no definitive truth, and there are always new problems to solve. The industry needs to get that message out, because we need special people to work in our industry.
Petrobras is a major South American company with a rapidly growing international presence. Brazil is world-famous for exciting football, colorful carnivals, and lush Amazon rainforests, among many things. How does this unique character reveal itself in Petrobras?
This is a great question—the people of Petrobras give the company a unique character. This character is not only Brazilian, because we have multiple nationalities in our company, but I do believe that there is a Brazilian flavor. In Brazil, we also have a mixture of races and content. We are football, we are carnival, we are warm and friendly people—and this is the same for Petrobras. I hope people sense that when they meet Petrobras people around the world. Petrobras is not very formal. When I was working in Iraq, I took the same open and friendly attitude to working with people as I always do. We are joyous people, and that helps us as the company grows. Tough work is easier with laughter and friendship among colleagues.
You have traveled a great deal. What advice do you have for young E&P professionals when they get the opportunity to travel or work abroad?
We sponsor our people to study and to work abroad. I request a formal report of this travel and meet with our people when they return. This is in recognition of the importance we attribute to this overseas experience and to their jobs. We need them to come back and help Petrobras and work hard to share what they have learned about other cultures. There is only one world, but it is big, and there is a lot to learn. Petrobras is the first company in the southern hemisphere, and we are also in the Gulf of Mexico, west Africa, Middle East, and other regions. I always ask people who go abroad to go with the Brazilian culture I mentioned earlier, to go with the way of life and enjoy their experience.
What involvement have you had with professional organizations such as SPE, and what benefits do you see from such professional organizations?
We belong to a very special oil industry community. My son and daughter work outside the industry, and they see us as mature, brute, and unsophisticated. They do not see the high level of advanced technologies we apply at the frontiers of possibility. Professional organizations help to get this positive message across. SPE is an important E&P catalyst to keep people talking about technology and sharing knowledge. In Petrobras, we encourage young professionals to join SPE. We pay for their membership and push for active membership.
What issues are most important in your life and work?
The answer is very personal to each person. I think it helps to have several interests in life. Work should be one and should be fun. I do not wait for other people to do things to make me happy. My family is important, and I have eight grandchildren. The opera and music are a love of mine too. We have a beautiful concert hall in Rio. More people should go to the concerts. It is very easy to relax and have a stress-free life.
You have a very busy professional life, but what is your ideal escape?
I live in the mountains on the weekend. I pull the bed covers to my chin and I can dream. This helps me to relax. Every day when I arrive at my desk, I make a conscious examination of what needs to be done and decide when I will leave at the end of the day, and I leave when those priorities are achieved. When I am at work, I do not apply an exaggerated seriousness to my job. I talk with people freely and make jokes. I am free.
Finally, what would your message be to young E&P professionals about the attractions of the industry, and working at Petrobras?
You have a vital job for humanity—energy, food, medicines, transport, and cosmetics—all sustaining life. That is true. Some people try to distort that, but we produce positive richness for life, and, yes, we have lots of things to do better, and that is why we need the best young people to join our industry and contribute. It is very exciting, and every day is different.
In Petrobras, we never forget that our contribution to Brazil, and other countries where we operate, is related to our self-esteem, and that many people are depending on us.
Guilherme de Oliveira Estrella came out of retirement on 31 January 2003 to take his current position as Managing Director for E&P at Petrobras, Brazil’s largest integrated oil company. Estrella graduated with a BS degree in geology from the U. Federal do Rio de Janeiro in 1964 and joined Petrobras as a wellsite geologist in 1965. Estrella has held several positions in his Petrobras career including General Superintendent of the Research & Development Center (1989–93); Superintendent of Research and Development for Exploration, Drilling, and Production (1985–89); Head of the Exploration Div. (1981–85); Head of the Organic Geochemistry Sector (1981); Head of the Brazilian East Coast Basin Interpretation Sector of the Exploration Dept. (1978–81); and Exploration Manager of the Iraqi branch of Braspetro, an international subsidiary (1976–78). Estrella also was Director of the Inst. Brasileiro de Petróleo e Gás (Brazilian Oil and Gas Inst.), of which he has been Chairman of the Board since 2003.
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17 September 2018