Oral-History:JC Cunha


About the Interviewee

JC Cunha

Jose Carlos (JC) Cunha is currently D&C Technical Training Leader for Chevron. In addition, Cunha serves on the Board of Directors for SPE as Technical Director for Management & Information.

Cunha’s career spans engineering, teaching, and management positions in South and North America, Africa, and the Caribbean. Prior positions include manager of the Center of Offshore Excellence for Ecopetrol America in Houston, Texas, drilling manager for Petrobras International, well operations manager for Petrobras America in Houston, and associate professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Alberta, Canada.

Cunha has served on several SPE committees. He chaired JPT’s Editorial Committee from 2009 to 2012, was vice-chair of the SPE Edmonton Section in Canada, and chair of the SPE Technical Communities Coordinating Committee.

Cunha has authored several technical articles including more than 30 SPE papers and has coauthored two recently published SPE books on the fundamentals of drilling engineering and advanced drilling technologies. He was an SPE Distinguished Lecturer during 2010–11.

Cunha earned a BS degree in civil engineering from Juiz de Fora Federal University, Brazil, and a PhD degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA.

Further Reading

Access additional oral histories from members and award recipients of the AIME Member Societies here: AIME Oral Histories

About the Interview

JC Cunha: An interview conducted by Amy Esdorn for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, September 27, 2015.

Interview SPEOH000121 at the Society of Petroleum Engineers History Archive.

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DATE: September 27, 2015
PLACE: Houston, Texas


My name is Amy Esdorn and I am here at the Society of Petroleum Engineers Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston Texas. Today is September 27th, 2015, and I am speaking with JC Cunha. JC, thank you for participating in this interview.

CUNHA: My pleasure.


So, let us begin. My first question for you is, how did you get involved in the industry?


Okay, I am originally from Brazil and this is important because at that time, people of my age that start in the oil industry in Brazil, it was a time where we only had one oil company in Brazil which was Petrobras, the state owned company, and Petrobras had the monopoly to exploration and production in Brazil, so it was the only company in the country. So, the only way for you to work in the oil industry would be to work for Petrobras, and because it was a state owned company, by regulation, they only could hire people that would pass in a certain national exam. And I did my engineering course at my hometown, in a federal university in my hometown, and by that time, I knew about a couple of engineers that graduated there that were working at Petrobras, and I knew that they worked in different parts of the country, and this looked like kind of interesting. So, in my last year as a student, there was this national exam for people to join Petrobras engineers. They were hiring around 100 engineers and then I participated. I did my registration to this exam and to my surprise, [00:02:00] in that particular year, 16 students of my university passed it, so we joined Petrobras, and most of us stayed until retirement, working for Petrobras and that was when I started, and this was 1973.


That’s great, and so what kind of engineering did you study at university?


I am originally a Civil Engineer. This is another thing. We didn’t have petroleum engineering schools in Brazil by that time, so Petrobras would hire people from – I said 1973 but it is actually 1978 – but Petrobras would hire civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and during your first year at Petrobras, you would do some short course on petroleum engineering, mix it with time working on the field as a field engineer and that was our basic graduation in petroleum engineering. Later on, I did my masters and my PhD in petroleum engineering, but when I started in the industry, I was a civil engineer just learning on the go [laughter].


That’s great, and so what was your first job?


Well, my first job was almost like an internship but it is an internship for people already graduated, okay. So your first year, you are like – the best term is actually engineer trainee. So your first year is as engineer trainee, [00:04:00] and if you pass in all the short courses that you are taking during that year and if you do your job as a field engineer as we are supposed to do, after one year, you graduate and you become officially in the company your title changed to Petroleum Engineer 1, which was like the very first step of your career, and my job was basically during the first year was doing my courses, studying, and then half-and-half, so in the other half of the time I was working at the rigs doing everything, anything that was necessary because Petrobras had this philosophy – and a lot of companies still do that, that you are supposed to go to a rig and do everything and all the functions that they have there, work like a roustabout, as a driller, as a chemical fluid engineer mixing chemicals to prepare drilling fluids, etcetera, etcetera.

So we did almost everything there, and it was a learning experience, not really something that is, let’s say, very enjoyable because it’s very hard work and sometimes working in places like very far places, either sometimes you are working at the jungle or in places that are very dry kind of desert places, so it was a learning experience. I learned a lot but I cannot say that I liked it [laughter] [00:06:00].


So, going on in your career, what were some of the challenges that you faced in your career?


Well, in terms of social challenge, I can guarantee you, this first year it was – a few times during that first year because of the work conditions that were very hard, I really asked myself a few times if I really wanted that thing, but I knew that if I stayed, in the future, it would be different, but that was one real challenge for a young person coming from the university and you think that you are going to be an engineer, that you are going to work in an air conditioned office, anything like that, and then we work in these harsh conditions, so that was a challenge to pass through that.

After that, I would say that a few years later, I started working internationally for Petrobras International and one of the challenges was like travelling to different places, different cultures, and this was fantastic, but of course language sometimes was a problem. Of course, English became like the official language for the oil industry around the world, so that was one other challenge. You have to learn English to communicate with people and then of course I worked in a lot of countries in South America and I had to learn Spanish – in Brazil, we speak Portuguese – but at the end, the result was fantastic because not many people speak three or four languages in the industry [00:08:00] so I had this privilege of working in different places and had the opportunity to learn about other languages and cultures as well.


What technical challenges did you face when you were working in your career?


Okay, well, in terms of technical challenges, I was always a drilling engineer, so in my career, I saw several advancements in the industry related to drilling and completion wells, and I would say that the most important challenge that the industry faced and myself in particular faced at Petrobras working in Brazil, was when the industry started to develop oil fields located under very deep water, so deep water exploration was a challenge. Remember in Brazil there was just Petrobras. We did not have other companies to help us and Petrobras actually became one of the companies with specialization in deep water exploration and production, but that was really a great challenge that we faced, and I managed one project in the ‘90s for three years, one huge research project where we were developing the planning and the procedures to drill extended reach wells [00:10:00] for fields located in ultra-deep water. And so, that was one fantastic experience I think that brought me some recognition in the industry. We managed to publish several technical articles including at SPE regarding the developments that we did and made actually Petrobras become a worldwide recognized company, and so I would say that was a very important challenge but with excellent results for the industry and for myself in particular.


And was it a first because it was extended reach or what made it a first? What made it so challenging?


Well, in terms of extended reach wells, at that time it was extended reach wells, wells drilled from one point to reach a reservoir that’s far from the point where you are drilling. They were becoming common for onshore wells, for onshore development including – there were several wells being drilled in Argentina as well as in the UK that were wells being drilled from land to reach reservoirs that were located below the ocean. But remember, when we were doing this from land, it is a much easier task. So, Petrobras was one of the pioneers in the world to drill such wells from floating vessels [00:12:00], so you went to 100 miles offshore with a drill ship or semisubmersible drilling rig and from there, you try to locate yourself, let’s say, at the central point of a reservoir, and from that point you start drilling wells reaching the entire reservoir. So that was absolutely fantastic thing that Petrobras was doing and other companies, they were doing as well, but certainly it was a first for Brazil and certain things that we did, it was a first for the industry, and in our days they are just like regular wells – that’s the way we develop our fields offshore.


That’s great. So, what project did you work with or work on that you are the most proud of?


Okay, so from the ‘90s certainly when I was managing and at the same time doing research towards the development of the procedures and planning for extended reach wells and deep water. That was one project that I am definitely very proud of, being working there and it was a huge project. Besides myself coordinating the project, I had full-time eight engineers – some of them with Master’s degrees, some of them with PhD degrees, doing research towards this project, and besides that, several technicians and other engineers not working full time. So, it was a challenge [00:14:00] and certainly because we got the results that we were supposed to. I am very proud of that. But more recently, I was already working here in North America, working as a well operations manager for Petrobras America here in the Gulf of Mexico. Petrobras America is the operator of two fields actually called Cascade and Chinook, and so as operations manager of course I was just part of a much larger team, but we in Cascade and Chinook Petrobras, was the first company to ever produce an ultra-deep water from the lower tertiary fields in the Gulf of Mexico and besides that, Cascade and Chinook, the production nowadays is being produced to FPSO, FPSO being a production floating vessels that receives and stores the production and offload it.

So that was the first FPSO ever to be installed in North America, so this was also a first for us, and several records for the industry. For example, the deepest free standing production riser was installed in North America, actually, and this is not only North America, this is in the world. The deepest one was for Cascade and Chinook and several other records. I was the manager for the well operations so I was responsible [00:16:00] for the engineering and the engineers and the drilling superintendents working on this project, and one very interesting point was when we were drilling our first two production wells, that’s when we were almost at the completion of those wells, preparing those wells to produce, that was when the Macondo accident from BP happened, and it was a very tense moment for us because we were drilling those two wells and completing those wells that were much more a challenge than the well in Macondo itself.

And so of course, until we finished those wells, it was a very tense moment for the entire team because we didn’t want anything to go wrong in a moment where the industry was under scrutiny of the society. But anyway, the fact that we concluded that and actually those wells were the last two wells that I drilled for Petrobras because after that I retired from Petrobras and joined another company as a drilling manager but this is another story. But anyway, I am very proud of that as well.


And now, you work with students and are a mentor?


Yes, and actually this is something that is recognized by Petrobras. It is recognized in the industry and in the company I am currently working with is Chevron, but this permeates my entire career. Once I was still a young engineer but with four or five years of experience, [00:18:00] I started giving talks at Petrobras Training Center, the same center where I used to study when I joined the company. And then during my entire career, my more than 30 years that I spent with Petrobras, I was always involved and invited to go back and teach some short courses and so training and development as well as mentorship of young professionals – it was always something permeating my entire career, my entire life, so I am very proud of that and the fact that – still today by coincidence a young lady student came to me and said “Hey JC, how are you?” and of course I did not recognize her and then she was telling me “No I was an intern for Chevron during summer and you went there to talk to us and to give a talk and it was wonderful and I asked you about a book, you recommended me a book, and now I am actually studying with that book in California.” So this type of thing has been happening in my entire life, you know, and that is probably the thing that I am most proud of.


That’s really wonderful. You know, the industry needs people like you who do that.


Thank you very much. I appreciate it.


Well, this is our last question together, and that is, how has being a member of SPE affected your career?


Okay, well, a few years ago, SPE has a magazine that was called The Way Ahead, which is edited and prepared by young professionals, so they do everything there. They have, every month, one interview [00:20:00] with one person that they called like a technical leader. A few years ago, they interviewed me and one of the questions that they asked me was exactly about the importance of SPE. What I can say is that SPE is my technical society. I started my involvement with SPE doing technical review of technical papers and I did this for a long time. I became a technical editor and then a senior technical editor for one of SPE journals and some years ago, SPE started to recognize people that had reviewed 100 or more papers and I was actually in the first group that received this recognition. I think it was in 2007, and I did not realize that I had reviewed so many papers.

But anyway, so that was my initial involvement with SPE. I never had much opportunity to participate in technical conferences. Petrobras was very strict in terms of giving funding for travel and participating in conferences, so for many years, that was my connection with SPE, and when we started, it was prior to internet so I would receive the technical articles in paper by the mail and then would do the review, write my observations by hand and put it in an envelope and send to SPE here in the US. This is from Brazil, right? But that really made me feel connected with this wonderful society [00:22:00] that is actually a global society. SPE is present in 143 countries.

And after that, I started working internationally so I started having more opportunity to network and participate in more technical meetings, conferences. I started to write technical papers and I think just for SPE, I wrote 30something papers, maybe 35 or something like that, so most of the time I had the opportunity to present these papers in technical conferences and so my involvement started to increase and up to a point that some years ago, during a period of four years, I was the chair of the editorial committee for JPT which is our main publication because it reaches 100% of our membership, so I was the chair of the editorial committee. We were editing JPT for four years and all of those things I mentioned, not to say that I was helping SPE, because actually for all of us working as volunteers for SPE in a variety of activities, it’s actually we are helping ourselves because it is an opportunity for you to meet people, to expand your network, to know more people, so I think it was great.

And I think I am now in my very high point at my involvement with SPE, [00:24:00] being a member of the board of directors. That actually came as a surprise. I still do not know who nominated me. Someone did and for some reason, this person preferred to remain anonymous, so I do not know who nominated me, but I am glad that the committee accepted me and I am on my first year of my mandate and I still have two years to serve and it has been a fantastic experience.


Thank you for your service. We really appreciate it.


My pleasure. Thank you very much.


Thank you so much for agreeing to participate in this project and I am so glad that you did.

CUNHA: Thank you very much.