James E. Wilson: An Inspirational Legend in the Petroleum Industry

Title: James E. Wilson: An Inspirational Legend in the Petroleum Industry
Author: Laura L. Wray
Publication: The Outcrop, August 2004, p. 1, 6-7

How many geologic celebrities do we have living among us in Denver? One of the many is, unquestionably, James E. Wilson, an accomplished, yet modest champion of the petroleum industry for the past 60 years. His life story reveals many geological challenges, adventures, successes, and contributions. It is a story with many lessons for us all.

The year was 1938. New opportunities for geologists were not abundant at that time. Jim Wilson had just received his geological engineering degree from Texas A&M the year before and was hired by Shell Oil Company to work as a field geologist. Shell was beginning a field program of detailed mapping to examine the complexity and importance of even relatively small faults associated with the phenomenon knowing as “growth faulting. ” Having worked the previous summer doing fieldwork for the National Park Service in the Big Bend area of Texas, this full-time position as a field geologist ” just suited me to a T”!

Wilson entered the oil business during an “Explosion of Knowledge” period, one that required scientists to dedicate themselves to the rapid understanding of new geologic concepts and to acquire the requisite skills to translate those concepts into new drilling opportunities. Picture, if you will, the state of the industry at that time: Schlumberger was the only logging company, boasting a total of three qualitative curves; exploration seismology was “a ten-trace squiggle record scissored off at three seconds” (Wilson, 1987, acceptance speech for AAPG Powers award); field geologists were paid approximately $150/month plus expenses; and Wilson’s first field tools were a strong pair of boots, a geologic hammer, a hand lens, and a ready supply of curiosity. One of his very useful mechanical devices was a contra-flush (reverse circulation continuous coring drill). The first model was a rather primitive hand operated machine. Wilson was among the innovative employees to assist in having a motor-driven drill built of spare parts and mounted on a four-wheel trailer hauled by the core drill geologist. Being a “jack of all trades” served Wilson well in this and other circumstances requiring mechanic ingenuity, particularly when it came to repairing these contraptions!

His field days were interrupted by World War Il, for which he went on military leave from Shell for four years. His first assignment after the war was in Tyler, Texas. From those early days in Texas, his career was upwardly mobile with assignments requiring increasing degrees of responsibility in Tyler, Houston, Wichita Falls, Oklahoma City, The Hague, Holland, Casper, and Denver. What factors contributed to the success of this rising star, who eventually became the youngest Vice President Shell had ever had at the age of 43 (and the first geologist in that position) and then went on to be President of both AAPG and AGI and an AAPG Sidney Powers Medallist in 1987. Primarily, it was Wilson’s canny ability to capitalize on long-range rewards by creating, then empowering, talented and collaborative teams of scientists. He was a fervent advocate of the integration of all the practical math and science disciplines, hand-selecting team members that he believed could make the fullest contribution to a project. He recognized and nurtured the value that applied research could have to exploration and development operations.

Wilson credits four attributes, all equally rated, for the success of a good manager from the technical ranks: integrity, ability, responsibility, and “inspirability. ” In humble fashion, he commented that his success at Shell was tied to the opportunities “to play on some awfully good teams!” He also believed that he had more than his share of good luck. But despite this humility, Wilson attained the reputation of being an outstanding leader while continuing to be a team player. He reflected on four personal experiences that convinced him of the need for effective teamwork: 1) high school and college athletic participation; 2) fieldwork that forced him to integrate many different disciplines; 3) his role as captain in Normandy on D+6 and later as major in the intelligence branch at the Command and Staff College of Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas; and 4) the academic blend of geology and engineering that he enjoyed in college.

Armed with a personal recognition of the value of teams, he spent his career assembling teams and integrating information. Someone once credited Wilson with putting the ampersand between E&P (Exploration & Production)! What an important accomplishment it was, given the fact that the individual scientific disciplines, up to that time, worked independently and often in different office locations. Geologists favored their forays into the field to examine rocks and depositional processes. Geophysicists concerned themselves with seismic acquisition and patterns, and neither they nor the geologists were able to extract the depositional implications from the seismic data or impose process-related concepts on the seismic lines. Production people were responsible for the drilling and production of the variety of prospects generated by the exploration people. Into this world of parallel scientific studies came Jim Wilson, a manager who promoted the concept of team members as “technological hybrids” scientists who aspired to be well-versed in geology, geophysics, and engineering, capable of adapting to and incorporating new technologies. His mission was to assist these talented people in gaining recognition and achieving their greatest potential. Perhaps the high points of this teamwork came in the preparations for the high stakes, winner-take-all sealed bidding sales for offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Wilson brought together the best available experts in Gulf Coast stratigraphy, geophysical interpretation, platform design, underwater production engineering, reservoir engineering and economics, and even economists knowledgeable in price forecasting and probability theories. Shell’s success in these sales apparently prompted other companies to adopt a more integrated analysis of their evaluations for bidding. In the meantime, Shell pioneered ventures into deeper waters when it commissioned the first floating drilling vessel which permitted consideration of prospects in water depths beyond the capability of bottom-supported rigs.

Jim Wilson lived through the explosion of many technological advances. Thomas F. Hart, in his address to the AAPG Convention in 1987 honoring James E. Wilson as the Sidney Powers Medallist, recapped Wilson’s own summary of the progress made in the 20th century: “[I] believed that the ‘software’ of modern geologic thinking had to come together with the ‘hardware,’ or new tools, to give industry an exploration capability never before attainable.” This continues to be the challenge facing all scientific fields.

One of the historic challenges was the Michigan Basin where seismic work was unproductive because of the blanketing effect of glacial till that suppressed the seismic reflections. Shell’s seismic staff in Denver, working with its research group, discovered a solution to this problem. With this secret “weapon, ” Wilson announced, “Let’s attack with a full-court press.”

A wide band of small reefs was known to exist below the glacial till in the relatively shallow Michigan Basin. With deep snow covering the ground during one winter in the early 1970s, Wilson’s plan to attack was to use a small airplane with skis to place a dozen lease men in small towns or crossroad stores in this wide band across Michigan. By mid-December, news was broadcast that if anyone would like to lease their land, they could bring their identity of ownership to the store or hotel where the lease men were located. Signing bonuses were quite modest and were paid in cash or cashier’s check. This was a popular incentive near Christmas. In just two weeks, over one and one-half million acres had been leased for about that number of dollars. Shell had “blitzed” the area before the competition realized what was happening. Shell was working on the probabilities that at least some of these sporadic reefs would be found under or near some of the leases.

The next spring, Wilson went to a luncheon set up in Gaylord, Michigan, near the center of the most environmentally sensitive area, to speak to a gathering assembled by his public relations people. He wanted to reassure the people that Shell would take extensive measures to protect the environment while drilling several test wells to evaluate Shell’s scientific studies. In fact, local Forest Service employees were grateful to Shell because the company cut seismic survey roads in locations that were best suited for service roads and forest protection. Though the purpose of the project was not necessarily to drill for oil, the third test did reveal an economic oil field. At that point, Wilson’s staff asked him where else they could take him “to not drill for oil!”

Wilson’s post-Shell years have been brimming with geologic projects. In addition to serving in prestigious positions with AAPG and AGI, he enjoyed a busy life as a consultant for domestic and foreign clients. Among such activities was leading a group of geologists on a mutual exchange lecture tour to China under the auspices of the People to People Program. One of his life-long interests was observing the interrelationships between bedrock, resultant soils, and the natural preference of certain vegetation for soils of a particular geologic formation. As a connoisseur of wines, and particularly French wines, he embarked on a study of French “terroir, ” the geologic and climatic components that create the environments in which various French grapes flourish. The culmination of his curiosity and research resulted in his 1998 book, entitled Terroir — The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines. He actually preferred his original title, “Wine on the Rocks… with a Splash of History”, but was convinced to help popularize the term “terroir” in order to reinforce the interrelated importance of many geologic and climatic factors. How fitting for a man who promoted the interrelationships of scientific contributions! It is a beautifully crafted book that illustrates convincingly the connections between stratigraphy, microclimatic conditions, subsurface structure, cultural practices, history, and wine. As an aside, I cannot tell you how many people, seeing me with a copy of this book, asked why I was reading about “terror”! It became a wonderful opportunity to explain to them what I was really reading and why.

Wilson’s wartime experience helped to cultivate this interest in geomorphology. After extensive hospitalization following wounds sustained at Normandy with the Third Armored Spearhead Division, he was assigned as an instructor in Military Intelligence at the Command and Staff College of Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. As a part of his lectures, he emphasized the importance of geology in the analysis of enemy terrain, eventually publishing an article titled “Geology, The Fourth Dimension of Terrain.” The important thread of surface geology is one that binds Wilson’s geologic and military history together.

Jim Wilson is now in the process of compiling his geologic and personal memoirs for his family. He worked with his administrative assistant, Marguerite Bradford, receiving editorial help from his wife (now deceased), his two daughters, and his grandchildren, all of whom assisted in some fashion with his “Terroir” book. He is now compiling several fascinating volumes that describe, in a colorful, and often-humorous manner, what life in the oil patch was like during his career in the mid- to late 1900s. He has included an extensive supply of photographs, newspaper articles, and other memorabilia that enhance the historical fascination of his experiences. Having met his two daughters and one of his granddaughters, I know that they are thrilled to have these family records, but I cannot help but think that they would be of great interest to the geologic community at large!