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The optimistic explorer

KJH“I was lucky enough to go to a school that taught geology – Bridgend Grammar.  Otherwise I might never have discovered it, which is an interesting thought, now there aren’t so many schools doing geology these days.   In fact, I moved to one such school to do ‘A’ levels, and did Geology with two dragooned geography teachers helping me (I was the only candidate!). 

“I ended up at Kingston, which was a very good teaching school and I owe it a lot.  I have gone back every year for almost 20 years, to lecture about the industry.  When you’re a student you don’t really know much about industry, what it really does, what it’s really like; so having someone come in with first-hand knowledge of hydrocarbons, or mining, or the environmental side, has to be a good thing.


“When I came to leave after my degree, there was never a question in my mind about further studying.  I wanted to go overseas, to get out and explore; but there weren’t many jobs at that time (1976) so I ended up in Libya, mud-logging for a small Texan run company – ‘Gibco’.  The place was a bit tough, but that helped create a great sense of community.  It was good, spending time in the desert or in Tripoli, playing football and drinking beer, two months on and one off; and then travelling - seeing the world. 

“I then went to Saudi Arabia, and worked for a directional drilling company doing subsurface surveying, which paid better.  We used to drive all over the place in Saudi; no mobiles, no GPS, no nothing. 

“But that was a young man’s game, and soon I concluded I needed a ‘proper’ job, and applied in 1981 to do the renowned Petroleum Geology MSc at Imperial College – a well-trodden path.  That was, without doubt, the best investment in myself that I ever made.  I discovered the bit of geology I really liked, which was finding oil and gas – that puzzle, the ‘buried treasure’ thing, I suppose.  You can’t see it or smell it, but you know it’s down there – how to find out exactly where, and get at it?  It started my fascination of this intriguing combination of complex geology, technical uncertainty, high tech tools and an overlay of politics and business – the whole deal.


“Following the MSc and a short stint as a technical assistant (not what I’d done my MSc for…) a job came up at British Gas. At that time, British Gas was a nationalised industry with a large North Sea position.  I initially worked onshore southern England, then early wells offshore Bournemouth, before moving to the Southern North Sea and the ‘dash for gas’.   British Gas was going through challenging times, with the Government forming Enterprise Oil from the company’s oil assets, but it was a good place to learn your trade.  I was thinking – ‘three years and move on’; but then privatization came along.  That changed everything. 

“We bought Tenneco International in 1988, which gave an international portfolio. I went to Houston in 1991 for three years, working on West Africa, then South America.   Pressure from the regulator led to the first demerger in 1997, which split off gas distribution to become Centrica.  Unfortunately, to balance the books the Morecambe gas field - the biggest cash-cow we had - went to Centrica.  So we were independent, but – poor!

“I was made Exploration Director (my first job was to cut 40% of my staff - not nice, but it had to be done).  We high-graded our portfolio and drilled out the best things on the books.  We had a great run of success in places like Egypt, Kazakhstan, Bolivia, Trinidad, which was fantastic.  In 2000 I took a holiday from geology for a bit; but realising how much I missed it, came back in 2005.  After that, we found the big pre-salt fields in Brazil, doubled the size of the company, and recently found major gas reserves in Tanzania. 

“I’ve had a good career – and was planning to retire from BG in 2016 anyway.  But now, after the acquisition by Shell, things have come round full-circle.  In fact, I found out I had been elected President on the very evening of the Shell takeover!  (What do they say about doors closing and others opening?)   I’ll take these next two years at the Society as a welcome stepping-off point from full employment to – the next phase of life.


“It has started already – I’m here today for a meeting about the successor to the Society’s current 10-year strategy, for example.  Much of the previous strategy I think will remain, simply because it still makes good sense.  But life does change; and every 10 years is probably a good interval in which to do this.  Social media has come on the scene, publishing evolves, moves ‘online first’, the open access movement, and so on – all in the last decade.  A lot of this, as yet, I don’t know enough about.  But I’ll find out!  I guess Presidents always find this.

“Part of my preparation is engaging with various Society stakeholders, including academics, who for a range of historical reasons are less likely today to be Fellows than in my day.  How do we make that connection work for more people?  Is there a problem, and is it cost?  It’s a challenge.  But in many ways I’m finding these meetings very encouraging.

“For example, our Accreditation Scheme helps support university geoscience departments to defend fieldwork against pressures to reduce it.  So how can we help departments and academics more?  Many new academic recruits – whose backgrounds are not in classical geology – may be uncomfortable in the field, leading field trips.  I am a great believer in fieldwork, in getting that 3D understanding for yourself.  There are challenges, of course, in providing fieldwork and perhaps also in selling it to a younger generation that is perhaps less ‘outdoorsy’ than ours was. But we just have to face those challenges and get over them.


“I have said that we must look to diversify our income streams further.  We can, for example, look to boost recruitment; but I wouldn’t want to see a blind ‘dash for growth’.  People need to join us for the right reasons.  Another potential area is Burlington House – a truly fantastic asset, but one that may become more expensive.  How might we make better use of it, make it earn its keep?

“That link - between the Society and Burlington House - is 140 years old.  I often think that, to some people, the two are synonymous. This is an issue that will require our attention in the near term.  It’s always good to see the lecture theatre full - for example, the London Lecture Series, which is an excellent outreach activity.  I’m always impressed by the ability of speakers to present often complex subjects to a non-technical audience; it’s a great skill.  What would be really good is to put these talks on in other parts of the country – another challenge.

“Actually, I feel surprisingly optimistic, really looking forward to the role. (I hope I’ll be able to say the same in six months!)  But I am optimistic by nature.   I’m an explorer, after all!  If you aren’t optimistic as an explorer, you’ll never discover anything!”