Oral-History:Mary Van Domelen

About the Interviewee

Mary Van Domelen

Mary Van Domelen is an Engineering Advisor with Continental Resources. She holds a BS degree in Chemical Engineering and is a licensed professional engineer. She has 30 years of experience in research and practical application of well completions.

Mary started her career with Halliburton and has worked in the USA, Europe and Africa. Prior to Continental, she worked for Maersk Oil and Chesapeake in horizontal drilling and completion operations. She has co-authored more than 30 papers and holds 8 patents. Mary plays an active role in the SPE by participating in organizing committees for conferences, applied technology workshops, and forums.


About the Interview

Mary Van Domelen: An interview conducted by Amy Esdorn for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, September 28, 2015.

Interview SPEOH000124 at the Society of Petroleum Engineers History Archive.


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Interview

INTERVIEWEE: Mary Van Domelen
INTERVIEWER: Amy Esdorn
DATE: September 28, 2015
PLACE: Houston, Texas

ESDORN:

My name is Amy Esdorn and I’m 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 28th, 2015 and I’m speaking with Mary Van Domelen. Ms. Van Domelen, thank you for participating in this project. Why don’t we begin? My first question for you is what was your favorite project that you worked on?

VAN DOMELEN:

All right. My favorite project I just wrapped up earlier this year and I’ve been in the industry 30 years, so it’s fun to be able to say my favorite project was most recently but I joined my current company in December two years ago and in January, my boss came into my office and said “I’ve got a project for you,” and I said “Okay.” He said “It’s an area we’re doing in exploration. We can’t talk about where it is, and there’s no infrastructure, there’s nothing there and I want you to run the completions part of it.” I thought “Okay. “

So, I did and I was fortunate to get some good people on the ground who helped me, but I worked the project from figuring out how big the pad needed to be, the drilling pad to make sure it could accommodate all of the completion equipment. There was no production facility, so I had to figure out what we could use for temporary flowback. On top of it, we were going to work under a subsidiary name that nobody knew, so I couldn’t leverage the company I worked for, and I had to work under my maiden name because there are – within the fracturing industry, it’s a pretty small audience and so, people would know who I was. I went into an area with nothing to work with except for getting some good people on the ground. [00:02:00] I couldn’t leverage my company, I couldn’t leverage my own experiences with other people and we drilled three wells and we completed them.

We did it safely. No accidents, no incidents, no spills. I spent probably a sum total of 50 days living on location in a shack with a bunch of men which made them more uncomfortable than me. I was okay with it, but it was a tremendous experience, just realizing everything that you’ve taken for granted that other people normally do for you. It was we were about to do the first well and I had frac equipment out there, I had tanks, my water was heated and at the last minute, I realized something I had forgotten that was a simple thing and I was just like, “Oh gosh,” but the suppliers I was working with really pulled together and said, “Okay. We know someone who could do it,” and it was just an awful lot of fun. Some really good friendships made and such a good experience to take something from start to finish. You don’t get to do that often. A lot of times you handle little bit of projects but to really see it through was really great.

ESDORN:

You say, usually, you do little bits of project. What do you usually do?

VAN DOMELEN:

My specialty is fracturing, and I’m usually – by the time I come to location or get involved, the well has been drilled, all the preliminaries have been done and then when we’re done fracturing, somebody else takes over for the production. For this project, it was start to finish. It was from the time they spudded the well until we walked away when facilities were completed.

ESDORN:

Had you had experience in drilling the well and doing the post-production and everything?

VAN DOMELEN:

I’ve been part of a drilling department before, so I knew a little bit, maybe enough to be dangerous. From the production side, I didn’t know anything but I do have a Chemical Engineering degree and so that was an opportunity for me to reuse my fundamental training rather than the Petroleum Engineering that I’ve worked with in my career.

ESDORN:

[00:04:00] When you started it, was there more of that feeling of excitement or trepidation? Was it a mixture? How did that work?

VAN DOMELEN:

It was mainly excitement. I like working in the field and it was an opportunity to get out to the field, a little time away from the office and I guess, I probably wasn’t nervous because I just didn’t realized the extent of what I was taking on. I figured that out very quickly when I – you know, simple things that should have taken a couple hours to line out when it took several days to get done since I was pretty much heading that section of the well by myself.

ESDORN:

You said this project was in the last two years that you did?

VAN DOMELEN:

Yes. In fact, it started – well, the preparation phase started in 2013 and then the work started the end of ’14 and then finished up in 2015.

ESDORN:

So just recently?

VAN DOMELEN:

Yes, very recently, yeah.

ESDORN:

That’s great. You said there were three wells that you completed and drilled. When you normally, I guess, do a project – well, you’re usually working with wells that have already been drilled obviously and you’re helping with the production, I guess, but to increase production through fracturing?

VAN DOMELEN:

That’s correct. In fact, my permanent area work is in the Bakken over the last two years, there’s been a big trend towards what they call enhanced completions. Larger jobs, more efficient jobs and although the rig count is dropping in the Bakken right now because of the price of oil, for all the operators as a whole, our production continues to increase and that’s the result of applying the new technologies and the enhanced completions.

ESDORN:

[00:06:00] Great. Well, sort of along this line because it seemed like that was a pretty big challenge to really do everything from beginning to end and see it all the way through to completion. What were some of the challenges that you faced in your career?

VAN DOMELEN:

In my career, I guess probably my biggest challenge was balancing the life-work balance. My husband also works in the industry. He also does fracturing and we’ve been married since 1990, so almost 25 years now and we’ve raised two sons and we’ve lived international half of our career and so it’s been a challenge. We’ve been able to do it, but there’s always been give and take. There was always guilt as a mother that I wasn’t there for the kids like I should have been on a regular basis. But we work for the same company, which was good because that enabled us – we were actually able to move quite often and still both maintain our careers. Where so often, one of the spouses might have to make a decision to be what they call a trailing spouse. We had transfers where I might have been the person transferred and then my husband was able to transfer with the same company or there were transfers where he was transferred and then the company accommodated my career. We’re very grateful that we were able to do that because it’s a challenge for other people, so.

ESDORN:

Absolutely. When you say the work-life balance, what specifically, in Petroleum Engineering industry, is it just long hours? Is it being on location with certain places? What specifically makes it a challenge to have that work-life balance?

VAN DOMELEN:

Yeah. Particularly, the area we work in, which is pumping services and we both started with an oil field services company, so time in the field is definitely required. [00:08:00] My career has never been an 8 to 5 job. Things always delay, so when my husband was traveling to Africa, he would leave for a job but it would be delayed and it wouldn’t start for two weeks until after he left and then he’d be gone and I’d be home with the kids and now, it’s the same thing except I’m the one who goes to the field now and he’s home. The kids are out of the house, but he’s home with the dog and it’s not a conducive life where you can say, “Okay. Saturday, we’re going to go on this. We’re going to have a date night,” or “Three weeks from now, we’re going to take a week off and go to the beach.” You have to be really flexible because the work comes when the work comes.

ESDORN:

Absolutely. Would you say that there are any other challenges that you specifically found working in the industry over your career?

VAN DOMELEN:

I would say in certain occasions, being a woman was a challenge. Even today, there’s often a period of time where you have to prove yourself. There’s also times when it’s an advantage. People will remember me that I don’t remember them because I was one of the few women that were there. But yeah, I would say, having to prove yourself happens on a regular basis no matter… Generally, by the time you get gray hair, you think you could stop proving yourself but I think as being a woman in the oil field, there’s still that little question about “Can she really do the job?”

ESDORN:

How long do you think it usually takes to sort of prove yourself in any situation?

VAN DOMELEN:

Well, it depends. That exploration project that I worked on, the crew that was pumping the job was kind of just ignoring me and I suggested to them, there was something I needed to do to fix the problem and they only fixed it because I was the boss. They didn’t think it would work and then it worked. [00:10:00] After that, everything went just fine, so.

ESDORN:

Well, you know. That’s part of it, I suppose.

VAN DOMELEN:

It is. I mean it’s not unique to being a woman. I mean if a man comes out of research and goes to the field, the field guys will think he doesn’t know our part of the business. There’s guys in the field that – they don’t have college degrees but they really know a lot about what they do, and I’ve seen cases where maybe the engineer or geologist might ignore them because well, they’re just the field hand and often, they have the best experience and they’re the people you really need to listen to because they’ve lived it.

ESDORN:

Yeah, it sounds like it’s just when something's different than what you expect. They’re like, “I don’t know if I want to trust that, just yet,” so yeah.

VAN DOMELEN:

Yeah.

ESDORN:

Unfortunately, sometimes. Well, so those were some of the challenges that you’ve faced, but what have you found to be sort of the most rewarding things or aspects of the industry?

VAN DOMELEN:

I like mentoring and when I was with Maersk Oil, they had a really, really good training program for the engineers that came into the company and I would sometimes get invited to speak at their events and afterwards, the engineers would come and thank me and I always had a couple of the trainees in my group and tried to make sure they had good projects. And one year, I got to go with them for a week to Berkeley for a mini-MBA type thing and that was a nice little reward that I hadn’t counted on.

Right now, I’m getting ready. I’ll start this fall as SPE Distinguished Lecturer and I’m really excited. It’s something I’ve wanted to do before but I couldn’t, as I mentioned about the family situation, I couldn’t really justify going off, touring around the world, giving lectures with everything else that was going on. Now that both of my sons are in college, I was nominated and I thought, “Okay. Now is the time to do it.” [00:12:00] I’m really looking forward to doing that, to be able to travel again and meet people and take the experiences we’ve learned in the United States to some of the international areas that were unconventional or new and developing and also, just to get feedback from other people and just have a change of pace and see what I can learn and hopefully, people can learn something from me.

ESDORN:

Well, this is our last question, so if you’re ready. How has being an SPE member affected your career?

VAN DOMELEN:

I mentioned about being a woman. You sometimes have to prove yourself and absolutely being in SPE has helped. I made a decision early in my career that I would author or co-author a paper for every year of my career. I didn’t do one every year but some years, I did more than one so I’ve been able to keep up with that. That gave me the opportunity to go to conferences. A lot of times, companies won’t allow you to go to conference unless you’re presenting. It enabled me to meet people who became mentors. There were projects that I got involved in, in international that came as a result of working with SPE which resulted in my first international transfer. So, I can accredit being asked to be moved overseas as part of that, and then when I was in Egypt working, I was recruited to go to work for Maersk Oil based on SPE papers I had written and I had done a lot of work with Maersk Oil and I always wanted to work for them but I thought, “Oh, well, they’re not going to hire me.” The lady recruiting people recruited me off of SPE papers and when she sent my resume to the people I worked with, I had worked with for years and they were like, “Oh, we didn’t know you wanted to work with us.” I said, “Well, I didn’t know you’d want me to work with you.” That was a real definitive change in my career where I went from working for a service company to an operator and it was purely based off SPE papers.

ESDORN:

[00:14:00] That’s great. Well, so you mentioned making that goal of saying, “I want to write one paper a year.” What sort of precipitated that? What was the impetus behind wanting to do that?

VAN DOMELEN:

I was working in research and so writing papers is important in research. I, in particular, chose the company and the location I went to work for because one of the things that they were promising when they interviewed was the ability to travel. So, it was really all about being able to travel and go to conferences. But then, as I started doing it, it forced me to be more technical in specific areas. If you’re going to write a paper, you have to do some research and I actually – you have to do something to write about. It was probably selfish early on, but then I realized the benefits of doing it, so I continued with it.

ESDORN:

Well, that’s great. Well, thank you so much for coming down and giving us this great interview. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.

VAN DOMELEN:

Well, thank you very much.