Oral-History:Tom Blasingame

About the Interviewee

Tom Blasingame

Tom Blasingame is a Professor and is the holder of the Robert L. Whiting Professorship in the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station Texas. He holds B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees from Texas A&M University — all in Petroleum Engineering. In teaching and research activities Blasingame focuses on petrophysics, reservoir engineering, analysis/interpretation of well performance, unconventional resources, and technical mathematics.

Blasingame's research efforts deal with topics in applied reservoir engineering, reservoir modeling, and production engineering. Blasingame has made numerous contributions to the petroleum literature in well test analysis, analysis of production data, reservoir management, evaluation of low/ultra-low permeability reservoirs, and general reservoir engineering (e.g., hydrocarbon phase behavior, natural gas engineering, inflow performance relations, material balance methods, and field studies).

Blasingame is a member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), the Society for Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG). Blasingame is a Distinguished Member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (2000) and he is a recipient of the SPE Distinguished Service Award (2005), the SPE Uren Award (for technology contributions before age 45) (2006), the SPE Lucas Medal (SPE's preeminent technical award) (2012), the SPE DeGolyer Distinguished Service Medal (2013), the SPE Distinguished Achievement Award for Petroleum Engineering Faculty (2014), and SPE Honorary Membership (2015). Blasingame has served as an SPE Distinguished Lecturer (2005-2006) and is the SPE Technical Director for Reservoir Description and Dynamics (2015-2018). Blasingame has prepared approximately 140 technical articles; and he has chaired numerous technical committees and technical meetings. Dr Blasingame also served as Assistant Department Head (Graduate Programs) for the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M from 1997 to 2003, and Blasingame has been recognized with several teaching and service awards from Texas A&M University.


About the Interview

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

Interview SPEOH000133 at the Society of Petroleum Engineers History Archive.


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Interview

INTERVIEWEE: Tom Blasingame
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 29, 2015, and I am speaking with Tom Blasingame. Tom, thank you for participating in the interview.

Okay, well let’s begin. So my first question for you is: how did you get involved in the industry, and what was the industry like when you began your career?

BLASINGAME:

Okay, very good. I’ll start sort of with a personal story and then I’ll work my way up to what the industry was like when I first graduated with my baccalaureate degree. When I was a child, my father owned an oilfield drilling and well service, and he had been a driller at that time for about 25 years. I was born late. I have a sister who is much older than I am, and she has a family of her own and they lived on their own. But my parents moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana after a hurricane, and my father built an oil and gas well drilling business. And about the time I was born -- and we were inseparable. I went to the office with him every day. When there was no school, I went to job sites, locations. I drove equipment, usually sitting on his lap, sometimes not. I got into trouble for that a few times. We owned offshore equipment and we owned an inland drilling barge which really amounted to me being about the filthiest little boy you ever saw in your life. Those were good days.

I thought that oil and gas -- that side of it, the drilling and completion side, was the way I was going to go. Unfortunately, my father contracted leukemia, and he died rather quickly in 1973. My mother sold the business [00:02:00] essentially at fire sale prices and we just sort of went back to a non-petroleum related life. I had a few relatives that were still involved in it, but my mother was able to not have to work based on the proceeds of the business. And I was just a kid. And when I was in high school, I was arguably not a very good student. I in fact had pretty terrible grades from time to time, but I did well enough to get into university.

I applied several places, and I actually applied in petroleum engineering, in a couple -- and the reason for going to Texas A&M was basically they said yes first, so I said, “Okay, that sounds pretty good.” So I went to Texas A&M and I started out in aerospace engineering and I liked it, but just to make a long story short, they changed the instructor on us in our initial class, and this fellow wasn’t very student-centric and it was clear they had too many students and they would like for us to go away. So then I changed majors a couple more times and didn’t like that either, all in the course of about eight months. And a friend of mine literally put my head in a vice and—well, figuratively, I guess I should say—and told me I should try petroleum engineering, and I did. It was a little bit of a rough start. I wasn’t really academically prepared. But then, sophomore, junior, senior courses, I just got better and better, and the old skills kicked in. I was pretty happy.

I was really at a very good level by the time I actually finished my undergraduate degree. I didn’t have any job prospects. I had had a really good summer internship, got this five-star report, and I was so [00:04:00] pumped up over how great my review was. And then that company, which doesn’t exist anymore, didn’t hire anybody. And I was devastated and I wondered what I was going to do. And at the time, it was pretty easy because there were no jobs of any consequence. I mean, there were if you were willing to go to Alaska and had truly phenomenal grades. There were quite a few people who did that. There were a few other jobs here and there as well, but prospects were really, really poor, a lot like today, especially with people getting their jobs rescinded. That was sort of like the experience. I had a report that was due, sort of a senior thesis, and I had never met John Lee but I heard he was pretty good at ideas, so I went and saw him. He didn’t say anything to me. He just reached up in his bookshelf, got a book, put a post-it note in it, then handed it to me and told me go figure out everything about that topic and then come talk to him. And after a bit of a story I did and I took my work back and we had a nice chat—and this was about midway through my senior year—he really liked what he saw, and he encouraged me to go to graduate school. That was pretty much the start of my career.

And I look back and you think about every young person and the reason that they’re so motivated is because they don’t know they can fail. They don’t know that there are obstacles out there that they can’t see or things that will happen that they can’t overcome, perhaps. It was a tough time. The industry went into a slump for quite a while, but I went into graduate school instead. And I have to say this—I know it’s probably going to get me into trouble—but I would go to graduate school for a thousand years before I would go back to undergraduate for a day. I really fell in love with graduate school. [00:06:00] And I really -- probably whatever the opposite of being in love with undergraduate, it was sort of like being in boot camp for four years, getting pressed into the discipline and so forth. But that was the start of my career, and that was where the job market was in 1984. And the surprising thing is, things didn’t really bottom out for another couple of years, but the number of graduates dropped precipitously and the number of students dropped precipitously. But about the time I finished my PhD in 1989, things were picking up somewhat. But I really at that point did not want to work. Not as a job, I guess. I really loved the academic and the creative lifestyle, and I became a post-doc and then eventually a junior faculty member. So, that was really the start of my career in the oil and gas industry and a little bit of history to go along with it.

ESDORN:

So, you’ve performed a lot of research and you’ve in your career so far worked on many technical innovations. Can you discuss some of those?

BLASINGAME:

Sure. Back when I was looking at that problem with Dr. Lee, he planted a seed that he probably didn’t realize it was a problem for variable rate analysis. And it was sort of an older problem, but I looked at it -- I guess you just have your moment where you see something that nobody else sees. And I saw a way of plotting and analyzing data that really became a whole another branch of reservoir engineering eventually. There was a lot of things that went before that, but it also incorporated some work that Mike Fetkovich had done. And it allowed you to use any -- you would take data from any rate or pressure profile and analyze it against a prescribed model [00:08:00] and estimate reservoir properties and make future production predictions and so forth. That would probably be what I’m best known for. And unfortunately, even after more than 30 years, you can’t really get away from your expertise.

It’s nice to be thought of as the expert in something, but I’ve done a lot of other things. I have created solutions in well test analysis and other aspects of reservoir engineering, including phase behavior and petrophysics. I wish that I could tell you that I have all these great and innovative ideas that rival what I did in my youth, but frankly, the problems got a lot harder. When we went to ultra-low permeability systems, I had been working on that for about the last 10 years. Of course, everyone starts by assuming what we did before works on what we’re doing now, and sort of my current theme is to try to utilize a most appropriate theory for well performance in these kinds of systems. There have been various recent work in creating models to see how you can approximate behavior. A paper we have at this conference is on extremely fine-scaled simulation to understand what actually happens in a fractured media. It’s one of those things where you kind of cartoonize your mind and you say, “Okay, if I impose this on the system, how does it behave?” because we can’t ever see the physical representation of the system, so we tend to model it. But in order to model something this complicated, we created a random or stochastic system, [00:10:00] and we observed the behavior of that system. I think it will be interesting work. I think it will give other people some time to think about things, and maybe others will carry it on.

But for myself, what I wanted to see was if we’re really effective at stimulating a reservoir, what’s the maximum sort of benefit we could get or what’s the maximum expectation of productivity we could get, work like that. I have also tailored work in the past to a particular student’s need or the problem that they’re working on. Had a recent effort as well into some extremely complicated thermodynamics for phase behavior. It wasn’t really my favorite thing. This is more the domain of chemical engineers. I have also done quite a bit of work when we first started working on unconventional reservoirs or shales on numerical modeling and what those aspects would look like—nothing that necessarily changed the way we do things, but it gives us a better feel for or more confidence that we can model these things, these behaviors. I’m trying to think if there’s anything that I would really say -- you know, a visionary statement is that reservoir engineering and unconventionals is going to require rewriting of the textbooks, rewriting of the papers.

It’s going to happen unfortunately in increments. It will be small steps, just like it was for tight gas reservoirs, as a comparison: tight gas 35 years ago seemed like an impossible achievement or an impossible task and yet now that’s fairly common. I think in 25 or 30 years, we will be seeing the same thing about ultra-low permeability shales, for example. Whether or not the same physical principles and the same thermodynamics [00:12:00] are being used then as we use now remains to be seen, but those are the kinds of problems that I would like to see us emphasize. And again, there’s a hornet’s nest of activity around these things right now, but they’re all about incremental changes. And we have to recognize that this is what happens in an evolutionary process. Things are static until some mutation occurs, and I’d love to say I know what that mutation is going to be, but I’d rather pressure people to try to achieve a mutation and then see what our next level of understanding is.

ESDORN:

So, it sounds like as a professor, part of what you do is mentoring. And I’m sure you have received a lot of really good advice yourself, but what was the best advice that you’ve been given for working in the industry?

BLASINGAME:

[Laughter] I’m sure everyone agonizes over this question, but I’ll tell you it was the first time I taught a course, we had a department head who was a bit of a legend. But he was just a really nice fellow underneath. And he told me, “You never know a subject as well as you do 15 minutes before class [laughter].” What that meant was always be prepared for class. And it also extrapolated into being much more prepared than the students are. And I found when you deal with students, fairness, kindness, bending over backwards to try to help -- some take advantage of it. There’s always a dark side to that. But others recognize that even though you’re really tough, that the mission is to make them stronger and better and that they become the next generation.

I’d like to mention as well that [00:14:00] I have a bit of a reputation as a tough taskmaster, and sometimes even a tough grader. I try not to be cruel, but I try to be very deliberate. If somebody makes a mistake in school, it’s a free mistake. Nobody dies. Nothing bad happens. And I also learned again from my most important mentor, I think, John Lee—that you don’t motivate people by crushing their dreams. I tend to curve as much as possible. I tend to give as much credit as possible. So in terms of the best advice, I’d go back to Doug about being ready for class, and I’d go back to John about recognizing that students need something positive in their life. And maybe, moreover, they need someone positive in their life, and you want to try to be that.

I was also given a piece of advice by a very famous reservoir engineer. And I won’t mention his name, but he told me that enhanced oil recovery was a loser and that it’s to be avoided at all costs. And at the time, I was pretty impressionable, and I thought, “This guy, he’s probably making a joke, but this is really terrible advice.” But what he meant was that wasn’t where his skills lie, and mine either. There are a lot of topics where my skills aren’t really suited, and I guess his advice was stay where you are strong. Some people can adapt. They can change. They can create a whole new field for themselves. I have tried that a bit, Amy, and it just -- where I’m strongest is sticking with the fundamentals, sticking with the things that I know how to do. I’m a really good interpretationist [00:16:00] and analyst, and if that can be adapted to other things, then I can teach people how to do that. But things like reservoir modeling or process design or experimental design, really not my cup of tea. But analysis, diagnostics, forecasting, integrating analytic solutions with data are probably my strength. And again, that advice, albeit a bit negative [laughter], I think it was meant to inspire and to get me to focus. That’s probably good enough for now.

I think those three people were like gutters in a bowling alley. They kept me honest, so I’m pretty pleased that I had those guys, and also to recognize that there’s been a lot of other people that have had strong influence on me personally that maybe I didn’t realize at the time. I wouldn’t want to forget them, but you don’t realize at the time that you’re learning something.

ESDORN:

Absolutely.

BLASINGAME:

So, thanks for that question. That really made me think.

ESDORN:

Well, this is my last question for you, and it’s how has being a member of SPE affected your career?

BLASINGAME:

You know, back in the late ‘80s, when I was just getting my academic career started, the SPE was a vehicle for me to publish. It was a vehicle for me to present. And I never really ever saw myself as achieving much or accomplishing much or amounting to much. Quite frankly, it was a compulsion. I really believed in my work, and I was really pushing, but I never saw myself as a leader. I never saw myself as a contributor. I saw it as a vehicle [00:18:00] not to enhance my career but to allow me to interject what I was doing into the public domain.

And I was one of those people who were really excited when you got an abstract back and it was approved. I used to feel like you won the lottery, and then -- well, I still do, actually. But then you feel like, “Well, is it good enough?” and you always want to make sure that your work is relevant and new. Probably in the mid ‘90s, something strange happened. And I can’t really put my finger on it, the exact date and time, but I can tell you what happened. It was that I was asked to co-chair an ATW, an Advanced Technology Workshop. It may not have been called that at that time—I really don’t remember—and I found out I was really good at it. I don’t like to ask anything for myself, but I have no problem asking people to do other things for the society. That said, in effect, a chain of events where I probably chaired 20 events and I probably worked with thousands upon thousands of people in these events. I never really thought about other than that was a call of duty. So, I went from using SPE as a vehicle to produce technical work or to present technical work, and then the service aspect kicked in.

Lately, maybe the last six or seven years, I’ve just sort of fallen into the opportunity to provide a lot of guidance on unconventional reservoirs. So up until -- well I guess technically I’ve chaired all of SPE or co-chaired [00:20:00] all of SPE’s major conferences on unconventional reservoirs in the US, and I now co-chair the UR tech events as well. Try to get others to step up, by the way, but kind of like everything else, it just follows you and you need to do that. And I also in the midst of that I realized that there a lot of people who don’t get recognition for their service to SPE, and I tend to write a lot of nominations now. I tend to try to think about someone who is really deserving and they warrant a better recognition or a bit of attention, if you want to call it that. And I’ve been pretty passionate about that for the last 10 years.

I’ll also say that I have done a lot of international seed work. I had an unofficial education project in the country of Iran almost 15 years ago now, and I was helping them to maintain their SPE presence in, really, a vacuum. There wasn’t anything wrong with it at the time, but you see people in places where they don’t have a lot of influence or a lot of information coming from the outside. So that would have been one case. And I had a recent education project in the country of Mozambique, where we started from nothing, and SPE is their vehicle for communication with the outside world.

You didn’t ask me this, but I’ll tell you my most rewarding SPE service without a doubt—and I would recommend anyone who is passionate about it do so—and that was becoming an SPE Distinguished Lecturer. I really enjoyed that. It was by far, like the army used to say, the hardest job you’ll ever love. It was pretty brutal. I had a couple of pre-tour deliveries, and then I had something like [00:22:00] 28 or 29 deliveries that year, and then three or four the year after. I did three countries in one day, and you’re like, “Where the hell am I? What time zone is it” and that sort of thing. But unbelievable, the response in places in the world where they don’t get to see anybody.

And I remember going to Bangladesh without a visa, and I probably shouldn’t say that because somebody’s going to spank me, but it was because of Ramadan, and you couldn’t get a visa because the embassy was closed. And they said, “Well, if you have to, just get back on the plane and go back to Singapore and go to your next stop,” or that sort of thing. So, landed in Dhaka and there’s this giant sign that says, “Visa, 50 US dollars,” but it was on the other side of immigration [laughter]. How the hell do you get a visa? Anyway, somebody walked me through it, and I had a truly -- almost an epiphany there because those guys had very little exposure to the outside world. And it was really an amazing journey, and China and Russia and Eastern Europe and places. I told myself I’d go anywhere nobody else wants to go, which is a mistake, [laughter] because they’ll definitely send you there. But I would rank that as probably my favorite service, but I would rank my dedication to conferences and so forth as probably my most significant service.

But the thing that I’m really passionate about right now is give somebody a pat on the back. Not everybody is going to win an international award. Not everybody is going to win a regional award, but nobody is going to win if you don’t nominate them, and if you don’t encourage other people to nominate them or at least give them a pat on the back, tell them they’re doing a good job, write a nice note to them, and let them know [00:24:00] that what they do matters to the society.

As opposed to other industries, we have only one professional society, and if this is what we’re dealt, then we have to give this organization every bit of attention and credit that we can. And you can tell that I’m really passionate about this and I believe that for the rest of my career, SPE is going to be my—forgive me—my favorite charity, my favorite passion, and so forth, but I want to see the society encourage technical development. I want them to encourage professional development, but I also want us to realize there are some things that are intangible. And those people who don’t have access to things really want and need our input. So I’ll stop there and I’ll say that I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the petroleum industry. I started from very humble beginnings. I was fortunate to have a seed that led to some technological innovations, and I’ve really been fortunate to have been able to serve. I’ll stop there.

ESDORN:

Well, thank you so much.

BLASINGAME:

All right.