Oral-History:Nathan Meehan

About the Interviewee

Nathan Meehan

D. Nathan Meehan, 2016 Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) president, is senior executive adviser at Baker Hughes, advising executive management on reservoir and geoscience issues. Previously, he was president of CMG Petroleum Consulting, vice president of engineering for Occidental Oil & Gas; and general manager exploration and production at Union Pacific Resources.

Meehan earned a BSc in physics from the Georgia Institute of Technology, an MSc in petroleum engineering from the University of Oklahoma, and a PhD degree in Petroleum Engineering from Stanford University. He previously served as chairman of the CMG Reservoir Simulation Foundation and as director of the Computer Modelling Group, Vanyoganeft Oil Company, Pinnacle Technologies, SPE Board of Directors, and JOA Oil & Gas BV. He served on advisory boards of the University of Texas and the University of Houston and currently serves on the EME industry relations board at Pennsylvania State, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the Advisory Board of World Oil.

He is the recipient of the Lester C. Uren Award for Distinguished Achievement in Petroleum Engineering and the Degolyer Distinguished Service Medal and served as a Distinguished Lecturer. He is a licensed professional engineer in four states and has published scores of papers.


About the Interview

Nathan Meehan: An interview conducted by Amy Esdorn for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, September 29, 2015.

Interview SPEOH000132 at the Society of Petroleum Engineers History Archive.


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Interview

INTERVIEWEE: Nathan Meehan
INTERVIEWER: Amy Esdorn
DATE: September 29, 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 29th, 2015 and I’m speaking with Nathan Meehan. Nathan, thank you for participating in this interview.

MEEHAN:

I’m glad to be here.

ESDORN:

Great. Well, let’s begin. My first question for you is: how did you get involved in the petroleum engineering industry?

MEEHAN:

Well, I went to high school and college in Georgia. It’s one of the states in the US that has no oil wells, no gas wells. It never occurred to me as a Georgia Tech Physics Major to get in the oil and gas industry. But one summer, my brothers and I headed off from South Georgia to the Yukon, and we would stop and work every so often. We cut weed, we painted at K-Mart, we did different things. But on the way back, I stopped to get a job, and the guy said, “Do you know how to operate a bulldozer?” I said, “Well, sure.” In fact, I had only operated a backhoe, and those two things are much more different than I realized at the time. But I went out to what we’d now would call an oil and gas location and dug what I now recognized as a frac pit. There was an oil well nearby, or gas well, I’m not sure, but the one instruction I had was, “Don’t go near that thing.” So I didn’t know what it was, but it was on my paycheck that I was roustabout one and I dug a frac pit. So I put it on my resume, and because it had gone from July 31st to August 2nd, I put July to August, 1974.

And at college, one of my Physics professors told me that someone from a French-sounding company wanted to speak with me. Of course, that was Schlumberger and they interviewed me. It’s a long story. [00:02:00] But in any event, I went on the interview, and it was very interesting. But I realized there that maybe I didn’t want to be in exactly that position. I asked the well logging engineers about other positions. One of them said, “You should be a petroleum engineer.” I went back to Georgia Tech, interviewed with a geophysics recruiter from Amoco and told them I want to be a petroleum engineer. He connected me with some Amoco people in Denver. I got to have a summer job there. And as soon as I got there, they told me, “Well, you can be an intern, but you can’t be an engineer without an engineering degree. Physics degree is not going to cut it.” So you needed a masters degree in petroleum engineering. I applied to both Colorado School of Mines and the University of Oklahoma, and because my dad went to OU, I chose OU. I got a masters degree there. And in my very first class, Martin Chenevert handed out the application form for SPE and said, “If you’re going to be in the oil and gas industry, you need to be an SPE member.” Boy, was he right about that.

I, of course, subsequently went on with some summer jobs and went to work there in Oklahoma City. But that’s how I got into the oil and gas business. It was a big change for me. When I drove to Georgia Tech, I filled my car with 19.9 cent per gallon gasoline. We had price wars back then. I don’t think anybody even remembers what price wars were, but 19.9 cents per gallon. When I graduated, I paid 75 cents per gallon. And it struck me right then. I said, “You know, I might have chosen the right industry.” It was pretty exciting times, really.

ESDORN:

That’s great. So you had originally gone in for physics?

MEEHAN:

That’s right. I was a physics major. [00:04:00] When I went from a bachelors degree in physics to a masters degree in petroleum engineering, something funny happened on my first day in Martin Chenevert’s class. Of course, as a physics major, I knew that gases did not behave in an ideal manner. PV equals NRT, which is the Ideal Gas Law. I knew that wasn’t correct, but of course the physicist’s point of view would be to add various terms that take care of the actual hard sphere corrections, the attractiveness that certain molecules have to each other. We say PV equals NRT plus this, plus that, plus that, and it gets to be really complicated.

Well, in Martin’s class, he first wrote up -- he said, “Let’s write the ideal Gas Law.” He said, “PV equals ZnRT.” I raise my hand. I said, “Professor Chenevert, P and V and NRT, these were all friends of mine. But who is Z?” He just laughed. He said, “Well, it’s the factor you have to multiply to get it to be correct.” I laughed out loud. I said, “You’re joking.” He said, “No, we’re not joking.” Of course, we have these correlations to correct and find Z factor. Years later, I would write the HP67 and 97 calculator programs to calculate that Z factor that were used widely throughout the industry, and we put them in the petroleum fluids pack. And my little program to calculate Z factor was quite the technical hit of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. It was kind of funny after I’d made fun of it.

ESDORN:

Well, speaking about some of the things that you’ve worked on, what was your favorite project that you worked on in your career?

MEEHAN:

[00:06:00] Well, I had a lot of great projects, and I’m still getting some great projects. But the best project in my career for me involved the Carthage Cotton Valley Gas Field. It’s located in East Texas. It’s a massive series of low permeability sands, and it had been developed on 640 acre spacing. Well, I was pretty good at down spacing fields, and everybody had a feeling that we needed more than one well per every square mile. So they let me go to work on it. I did the log analysis, the petrophysics. I did the PVT determinations. I looked at all the well tests that we’d done, and I did a series of reservoir simulations. Now, back in the day, reservoir simulation was kind of a big deal. We physically had to go out of our office, go down to the scientific software offices, and run a single well radial 3D gas model. And we paid by the run, so it was really important to get it right. I did all this analysis and I got to work with Heber Cinco and a few others to improve my interpretation. Heber Cinco would write back to me and send me information and data. It was amazing that I was able to interface with some of the great minds of the petroleum industry.

Well, after I did my study, I came back with the answer. I said, “We should drill either one well every 40 acres or every 80 acres.” Everyone was astonished. They were thinking 320s or maybe 160s, and so I was suggesting drilling hundreds of additional wells, instead of 30, maybe 3 or 400 additional wells. They could hardly believe it. We had to go get regulatory approval for it. It was opposed by several people, but we were successful. [00:08:00] Of course, the predictions I made turned out to be more or less spot on. And then we would go on from the 320s to the 160s to the 80s, and eventually, that field was largely developed on 40s. Then later, as a consultant, I was able to work with several operators in the Cotton Valley to help design horizontal wells in the Cotton Valley with multi-stage hydraulic fracturing.

That also has some excitement because I had a great team there. We brought together some of the hydraulic fracturing gurus that have gone on to be pretty famous, and we worked in a team there that was very aggressive and we’d try different things. And we tried this slick water fracturing. I was able to co-write a paper we called “Proppants? We Don’t Need No Stinking Proppants.” Now, the SPE actually changed the title of that, but everybody knows what it was. So I was able to present that paper, and essentially, it was introducing slick water fracturing for tight gas. And it went like crazy. I got calls and notes from people around the world who were successful at it. Ultimately, slick water fracturing in multiple stages is what made a lot of the unconventionals possible. Even when they’re not doing straight slick water, they typically do partially slick water, partially conventional jobs in what we call a hybrid job. That work that we did there went on and greatly expanded the profitability of hydraulic fracturing, so it was a great project, lasted over years. We got to see many different people working on it, and it made a big difference ultimately in the natural gas and oil available in the US.

ESDORN:

What year was that, or years?

MEEHAN:

Well, I started on it in the early 1980s, and of course it continues on for decades.

ESDORN:

[00:10:00] You said that there was some disbelief of having to say that, “Oh, well, we could drill hundreds or even 300 wells in this one square mile.”

MEEHAN:

Not one square mile, but in that field.

ESDORN:

Right, excuse me, in that field. And how did you deal with that?

MEEHAN:

Well, the good news was it was going to be a stepwise process anyway. When I came and told them the right answer was one well every 40 acres, I said, but of course right now, we’re at 640s, and the first step is to go to 360s, and then we’ll go to 160s. And each time we did that, we updated our models. We got more data, and it all confirmed the original interpretation that I had. And there are parts that are on 40s and even 20-acre spacing today, phenomenal for tight gas.

Historically, oil was on close spacing, but gas was on wide spacing. And here we found a way that said, “No, we can drill lots and lots of these wells.” Of course, doing research for those, I learned about some work in hydraulic fracturing that had to do with fractural orientation. Some of that work led directly to what I did in my PhD thesis. I also got a chance to talk with and get to know some of the geomechanics people at Stanford, and Mark Zoback explained some stuff to me about wellbore breakouts. And it got me enthusiastic about geomechanics and the value that that technology has. And I knew then that we weren’t using enough of geomechanics in the oil and gas industry, and I’m really proud to say that today, geomechanics like petrophysics, is part of everything we do.

ESDORN:

After this experience, this project that you worked on, then you went on to get your PhD, is that right?

MEEHAN:

It was in the late ‘80s. It was sort of in the middle of it, if you will. [00:12:00] We had done a couple of rounds and we were going to keep doing some more rounds after that. Actually, during the 1980s, the second part of 1980s, it was bad. I had gotten up to a pretty senior level. I was the most senior engineer for the Houston region, and that meant all the district engineers and many, many engineers reported to me. I was in the unfortunate position of being the guy who decided who got let go. The first round wasn’t too difficult, but the second and third round, these were really painful. I realized that I was missing something and this was not my career. Being in line management wasn’t really the thing I wanted. I like the staff work, I like the technical work, but I looked at an SPE paper one day, at an ATCE, and I didn’t understand the appendix. It was all in Laplace base. And I said, “I’d forgotten that stuff,” if I ever knew it.

My wife and I said, “We should go back and do a PhD,” and Scott Kraemer helped me go back to get a PhD. He was a great influence in my life. And I was able to go to Stanford, and that decision has been the best one of my career. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I actually have kind of a graph of how much money I’ve made over time, and after that PhD was a big improvement. It wasn’t because I went into research or development, but it was also a big improvement in fun. I got a chance to do more fun projects essentially because of that exposure, that credential, than I had previously. I have still have lots of friends that are from the faculty days or from the student days or people I’ve met subsequently. [00:14:00] It was a great decision. So if Cotton Valley was my favorite project, the best decision was going back and getting my PhD.

ESDORN:

That’s great. You mentioned some people like Scott Kraemer, who really encouraged you to go back and get your PhD. Who were some of your mentors that you’ve had?

MEEHAN:

Well, there’s no question. Scott Cramer was my mentor. Scott Kraemer is a former president of SPE, and most of the people who worked with him would have used adjectives like “crusty” to describe him. He was not a guy that was super slap-you-on-the-back, friendly kind of person, until you got to know him. And he was really a fun guy. He was an Aggie’s Aggie. I mean, he was really an Aggie, and he loved his school. But he loved petroleum engineering, he loved the oil and gas industry, he had a long history with Amoco and was an SPE president who loved the society. And he not only encouraged me to go back and get a PhD, he made it possible.

I had four children, and before I finished my PhD, I had a fifth. And I lived in a big house and we were kind of used to having nice things, and he told me this. He said, “Nathan, I’ve sent a lot of people back for PhDs, and I always ask them the same story. When you’re 40 years old, if you don’t get this PhD, will you regret it? If the answer to that is yes, you go back and get a PhD whether we support you or not, because it’s not worth living your life with regrets.” I can hear that like it was yesterday. [00:16:00] I talked to my wife, and we both said, “No, I think I would regret it.” He did make it possible for UPR to provide a little support enough for us to get by on. And it was a great time. While we were there, my wife got a master’s degree and I had had four daughters. And so, she got pregnant at Stanford, and we had our first son. We got all kinds of bonuses from getting that PhD, but Scott was my mentor.

When I wanted to be a Distinguished Lecturer, he put in a good word for me and he was entirely supportive. When I wanted to be on the SPE Board of Directors, he said, “I can get you in.” He says, “I’ll write you a letter.” I said, “Do I need some other letters?” He says, “If my letter is not good enough to get you in, then you don’t deserve to be on the board,” which is kind of funny. But I knew then, many of the SPE presidents -- and I’m privileged to have known all of the living presidents of SPE, the past presidents of SPE. Some I know better than others, but I believed -- I had a look at the list. I knew every single one of the currently living presidents. Many of them were influences on me. I had a chance to be on the board and I made a lot of great friends there, worked on lots of committees, and I got to travel the world as a DL [Distinguished Lecturer]. And it really was tremendously fun. I learned more than I thought, I think, so that was really my mentor was Scott Kraemer.

ESDORN:

How did you meet him and work with him and how did he evolve into your mentor?

MEEHAN:

Well, when I first met him, I was an engineer in South Texas. [00:18:00] He came down to visit, and I had just taken a downhole fluid sample. My boss down there wanted me to explain downhole fluid sampling to him. I said, “Well, we took downhole fluid samples for this well,” and he immediately asked a question. He said, “How many times did you have to take it before the bubble point came out the same?” I said, “Four.” And it was clear to me I didn’t have to explain anything about technology to the man. In any event, he saw fit that I got promoted almost immediately to district engineer, and then I became division engineer, and then I became region engineer. And in the way we ran that company, we had a committee that reviewed all the AFEs, and the region engineer sat right by him. So I would sit right by him. And when something came down to a vote, he would go around and ask every single person that had a seat at the table, and I was the last one to vote. On the very first AFE, I voted no when everybody else voted yes. He said, “Well, why?” I said, “Well, this, this and this,” I explained to him. He said, “I agree.” He says, “Send it back. You’ve got to do a better deal.” I was perspiring like crazy, but he would bring me into his office. And I’m going to do a terrible Scott Kraemer impression. He’d go, “Meehan, get in here in my office.” That’s about what it sounded like sometimes. Yeah, and I would sit there, and people would make presentations. Sometimes it would be about natural gas prices and marketing things, stuff way outside of my bailiwick. [00:20:00] Then he would turn to me and say, “What do you think?”

He came to me one time, and the gas people had brought a project and they were offering to let two closely related parties balance gas over-and-underage, back in the taker pay days, between the two parties. They had already negotiated the deal and were ready to sign off. He said, “Meehan, what do you think?” I said, “Well, frankly, I’d rather be able to take our share. If all these parties can’t take their share, I’d like to be able to take it,” you know, our proportionate share. He said, “That’s exactly right.” Now, I was wrong plenty, and he let me know it. But he didn’t let me know just sort of in front of everybody. He would come back and he would say, “The right way to do this is this. Here is the right principle,” and he taught with principles. One time, one of the parties decided to go non-consent on an exploration well. You could tell that they didn’t want to. And he called me in there and he said, “Let’s call them back,” and they said, “Yeah, we’ve gone non-consent,” and the guy says, “I think we shouldn’t have.” He says, “Okay. If you want back in, you’re back in,” because the well had just spud. He said, “You need to treat other people like you want to be treated yourself.” He did it in real business.

When I negotiated a deal between Amoco and us that was a big dollar item, he said, “Well, is this a deal that you would take if you were them?” [00:22:00] I said, “Yeah, I really believe I’d take it,” and it’s a good deal for us. He says, “I think so.” He says, “I’d like to have a better deal for us, but any better I don’t think they’d take.” So he took it to them and they made that deal, and it solved a big problem for us. It would have been a huge court fight. And he explained to me sort of the principles that you’d do business by. And he was a man of honor, and again, “an Aggie’s Aggie.”

ESDORN:

That’s great. How has being an SPE member affected your career?

MEEHAN:

Well, being an SPE member has been a huge plus for my career. I started out just as an SPE member there at Oklahoma University, and they told me about the monthly meetings up in Oklahoma City, so I decided to go every month. Within a few months, I met Mike Fetkovich and Hank Ramey. These were legends. And I got to know them and I got to communicate with them and they became friends for the rest of my life. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe that we could actually talk to the famous people. And so, it inspired me to try to do things technically and try to think like they thought, and then ultimately, I got on committees and I went to SPE forums. And wow, the forums. So I got to be on a forum once when I was really early in my career. I was way too early to qualify for that forum and I don’t know why they let me in. But I met all these famous people. And now these famous people are all my friends, but it was amazing to me to see the level they thought and the advances that were going on, because what they were talking about then essentially became the literature over the next five or six years. [00:24:00] It was exciting. So I got to meet people that were involved in hydraulic fracturing and well testing and the earliest business of simulation and water flooding, and it was amazing.

But the biggest impact was not when I was Distinguished Lecturer. It was not when I was on the board. It was when I decided to become a consultant, because almost all of the big projects that I had came about because of relationships I developed in SPE. A friend of mine I met from SPE called me up one day and said, “Hey. A client of mine has bought a well, and we have a question about it. We know that you worked the Austin Chalk, so tell me about how we should do this.” I spent an hour or two with him, and they came up with a plan. And he said, “Well, send me a bill for your time.” I said, “No. I’m not going to send you bill for two hours. Just keep me in mind for another project.” It was about a few months that he called me back and said, “Look, I’ve got a project. Unfortunately, I’m conflicted out. I want to see if you’re interested.” It was the biggest project in my entire consulting career. It made me more money in five months than I made in the previous two years. It was awesome, and it only would have come out from the fact that I was a friend of his from SPE. That kept happening. Being an SPE member was essential for that. My wife and I had a long desire to go back and do some humanitarian work. We left Baker Hughes for a year and a half, moved to Hong Kong and coordinated our church’s humanitarian projects in Asia. [00:26:00] We did water projects and wheelchair projects, neo-natal resuscitation projects, and trained a lot of people in many different countries in Asia. Well, I look back on that 18 months as the best 18 months of my career.

But coming back on that, I realized, I had a lot of friends in the industry from SPE, and they all wanted to know what I did. They all kept track of me on my blog that we published while we’re there. It was pretty great, and so, I’m just thrilled to have the opportunity to be SPE president. I decided a long time ago that I’m not really going higher in my career ladder. If you report to the CEO or the CTO, there’s only a level or two up, and I’m not going to be the CEO of any company. But I am going to spend my life in service because it was such a great feeling to serve others and help others. Not just doing humanitarian work but, for me, the right kind of service kind of I’m good at, is helping students and young professionals and mid-career professionals and encouraging people and trying to talk about the value of what we do.

Every single measure of quality of life is correlated to energy usage. When I was out there in Asia, I saw things through the eyes of a petroleum engineer. I saw the impact not having safe, affordable energy has on people’s lives. I saw the impact of having a pump available, having lights available. The difference between having safe, affordable energy and not having it is immense. In everything we do, we need to stay focused on enabling safe, affordable energy because that really improves people’s lives. [00:28:00] I want to encourage people that way, and I want to be a chair leader for our industry, and as well, help make sure SPE stays relevant and useful through this downturn. We don’t know how long this downturn is going to last. I’ve been on downturns that lasted a year and a half, and I’ve been on them that lasted six years. People forget that from the day I was born to the day I got my first car, oil was $3 a barrel, so it can be flat for a long time. And it was. The world is different now. But in 1985, not many people thought we would stay at $20 a barrel as long as we did. We just don’t know. And we’re going to have to be successful delivering energy no matter what the price is.

ESDORN:

Well, thank you so much for your service, and also, thank you for this interview.

MEEHAN:

Okay, thank you.

ESDORN:

It was a pleasure speaking with you.