Oral-History:Christine Economides

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About the Interviewee

Christine Economides

Christine Ehlig-Economides is Professor and holds the William C. Miller Chair honoring Charles V. Fitzpatrick at the University of Houston. She was Professor at Texas A&M University for the last 10 years and before that worked 20 years for Schlumberger. While at A&M, she managed research in production and reservoir engineering in conventional and shale reservoirs and helped the petroleum engineering department to grow and evolve to a broader energy scope.

Professor Ehlig-Economides was elected to the US National Academy of Engineering in 2003, was a member of the National Academy of Science Committee on America’s Energy Future, and is currently a member of the NRC Board on Energy and Environmental Systems (BEES). She is one of the 16 Quantum Reservoir Impact (QRI) Scholars and has recently been named a Chief Scientist for the Sinopec Research Institute on Petroleum Engineering as one of the Thousand Talents in China. Ehlig-Economides earned a PhD in petroleum engineering from Stanford University, an MS in chemical engineering from the University of Kansas and a BA in Math-Science from Rice University.

About the Interview

Christine Economides: An interview conducted by Amy Esdorn for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, September 30, 2015.

Interview SPEOH000139 at the Society of Petroleum Engineers History Archive.

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INTERVIEWEE: Christine Economides
DATE: September 30, 2015
PLACE: Houston, Texas


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 30, 2015, and I’m speaking with Christine Economides. Christine, thank you for participating in this interview.


Well, thank you.


All right. Let's begin. My first question for you is: how did you get involved in the industry?


We’re going to go way back almost to the dinosaurs on this, but when I finished my first degree, it was in math and science. I was at Rice University, and quite frankly, women were not welcome in engineering. And there were only two in my graduating class. I was not one of them. I went off to Kansas, and my first job ended up to be at the Kansas Geological Survey. And the first person I work for, John Halepaska, he told me to my face, “I don't think you can work for me because the first time I shout at you, you’re going to crumble, and we just won’t have a working relationship.”

But somehow he let me try. And within three weeks, I had completed the first thing he asked for, which was just a little simulation exercise, and I came in with my pile of computer printouts because in those days it went in on computer cards and came out on big, thick stacks of paper, and shouting my results. And he said, “Well, they’re wrong. I got to tell you they’re wrong.” And so, I said, “Well, yes. The analytical approach is wrong. Geometrically speaking, there are some compromises going on there, and the Cartesian approach is wrong in early time, and these are just results of the details of the choices in modeling. But overall, there’s some important insights there,” something like that.

I actually did not crumble [laughter]. After that, we had a great working relationship, actually, and published a couple of papers together. Me in my early twenties got a great start, and I would say he was my first mentor.


Really? That's interesting. How did you sort of turn that relationship around, as it were? Was it just because you were definitely prepared and you didn't crumble in the face of his…?


Well, I was definitely prepared, and I just went back downstairs to see the graduate student who had kind of coached me into how to go about working on what he’d asked me to do. And I said to him, “You think he's always going to play these games?” and he said, “Oh, maybe. But it sounds like it went all right.” [laughter] So it was a game, and it was okay.


That's great. So before you went to Rice, you got your degree in math and science, you said. So, what sort of got you involved in that, and why did you choose that as an undergraduate major?


Well, you’ll love it. I thought I would be a teacher. Where I come from, women become teachers, and my adviser in high school, when he found out I was going to Rice, he said, “Oh, that’s great, you’ll find a good husband there.” You’re rolling your eyes. That was then, this is now, I hope. I hope. But one day, I came into the office, and Dr. Halepaska told me, “You know, you don't have to go, but tomorrow I made an appointment for you to go see the Chairman of Chemical Engineering, because,” he said, “I know you're thinking about computer science, but I think you’d make a good engineer and they're willing to talk to you. So I just recommend you go over and see what they have to say.” I did that and met Don Green. He became my adviser.

I did a masters in chemical engineering, and when I got ready to think about a PhD, he and I had a talk. And I said, “I think I want to go into petroleum engineering,” because the modeling I'd been doing was groundwater, only groundwater, only water, one phase. I said, “You know, I think I'd like petroleum engineering because there are three phases, flowing, and yeah, technically I think it would be interesting.” I asked him, “Where do you think I should go?” and he said, “Well, there’s Stanford University. They’re really strong, and I think you'd be a great fit for them. There’s OU. Yeah, Stanford University, that would be good. There's University of Texas.” I think Stanford University [laughter]. The third time I heard Stanford University, I was like, “Okay [laughter], I get it.”

Well, so I did apply to Stanford University. Amy, you got to know that in those days, if you were a woman at that level, you were the only woman. I was the only woman in any of my engineering classes at University of Kansas, but this will surprise you, maybe. But it was Richard Nixon's administration that changed it for women in engineering.

It’s got to do with the Title IX, I think, because the Equal Rights Amendment that has had a huge impact for women in the US, women professionals. It was back in ’67, I think. But the academics had to be told no more harassment. And the moment there was no more harassment, within a year, 50 percent of the incoming freshmen in chemical engineering were women. It was like overnight, the change.

So, when I applied to Stanford, there too, there weren’t many women around. But I think there was one or two others. I was the only one working on a PhD. In those days, I was just about five years older than I should’ve been, and I think it lasts even until today [laughter]. But I had a very famous adviser at Stanford, Henry Ramey, and that’s a name you can drop even today and people know how important he was.

I got a great start, and since then, it was kind of important to pass 30 [laughter] because the industry just saw young women as sweetie this and honey that, and eventually, you get old enough that they start to realize that maybe you’re one of them, one of the professionals. I had to ask SPE, could they put “member” on the badges at ATCE because women look like they must be somebody's wife. And within one year, it had “member.” So today you see that “member” band just because I asked for it.


You talked about your first job and sort of winning over your boss a little bit by not falling apart and reaching out for input from the other graduate student who was there working with you. After that job -- what was your next job after that?


I had some summer internships, a couple with Shell. Those were great experiences. And I got to know some people in Shell who became quite famous, so it was a wonderful opportunity. But once I finished towards the end of our time at Stanford, one day I’d looked at the bulletin board and I saw this thing about University of Alaska, one and a half positions. So I called my husband over and said, “Look at that. That would be kind of an interesting thing to do, don’t you think?” and yeah, he went for it too. So we chose a road that most people wouldn’t take and went up there with only one and a half positions. Within three years, we had expanded that to six. And that was the first real job. So it was an academic job. But then, in three years, I’d been putting out so many fires and I was tired of running the fire extinguishers because I’d become head of -- well, chairman of a department after one year there. Because we had a hundred students with one year, with one year.

We were bigger than the host department we were under by a lot, and so I became a department chair while I was still an assistant professor. And this is not to be recommended. After a couple more years of that, when Schlumberger sent me a recruiting letter, it caught my attention. So I ended up going there, thinking, “Yeah, yeah, Schlumberger. That would be a great way to get a little bit of industry experience, and then I’ll go back to be a professor, and I'm sure I'll be much more confident and effective with some industry experience.” I never expected that I’d do that for 20 years.


What did you do for Schlumberger?


I started in my strength, which is pressure transient testing. And that was with Flopetrol. Flopetrol were the green guys. Schlumberger used to have a color for different directions, so Flopetrol was the testing. But when we got to the mid ‘80s, Schlumberger consolidated a lot, and so I came in under the blue guys, the Wireline, the major product line. After that, I went into the Integrated Reservoir Characterization Group. So by the way, my first three years with Schlumberger were in France, in the mid ‘80s, transferred to the US, because that's what they did, they brought international people back to the US. But when I went into this Integrated Reservoir Characterization Group, I was back to Paris again.

I loved working in France, totally loved it. That was an interesting experience because I think we were a department of 16 and I was the only engineer, because the rest were all geophysicists and geologists, mainly geophysicists. It was the time when 3D seismic was becoming very important and serious reservoir models had to have a seismic base. So I wasn't really working on the seismic. I was working on how do you integrate well tests and production data into models that start from seismic. So, great fun, great -- different thing to do. Should I keep going? Because there are a few other things.

I mean, I had a wonderful time with Schlumberger, because after that, I came back and worked for a while in Houston in more of a sales group but still kept very much my technical strength. I really wasn't very good at sales because people wanted to hear what I had to say technically, and if I would’ve ever let myself be tainted by what you needed to sell instead of by what I really thought technically, I think it would've been a major loss for me and probably Schlumberger as well. But my favorite year in Schlumberger was when they asked me to be part of a special team of five for Anadrill. And this was called the RAPID Team. I’m not sure I could remember what that acronym stands for or stood for, but basically, it was about designer wells. It was about horizontal wells and multilateral wells. I just thoroughly enjoyed working with drillers and the people they talked to.

I met drilling geologists. I met people with wonderful innovative ideas about how you might apply these technologies. And what was the most fun of all, we take our teams. So we had a driller, we had a mud expert, we had a mud logging expert. I was the reservoir engineer. And I can't remember what the fifth was, but everybody had their own hat. So it was a team, everybody had a position. We’d go in to talk to different operating companies about possible wells, and they’d come up with ideas and I’d say something about, “Yeah, yeah. I think we should try simulating this, try to do a model,” and they’d just blanch and they’d say, “How long is that going to take?” Because reservoir engineers, when they start talking simulation, they mean another year. And the truth is that drillers with a drilling budget will never wait a year, and a lot of decisions that should belong to reservoir engineers are taken by drillers because the reservoir engineers take way too long. When I’d come back to them and say, “Oh, I think a couple of days we can work something out that will be helpful,” you can see the relief on their face. “Oh, okay. Yeah, let’s have a look at it.” So, it was just fun, it was just fun, my best year.

Another year, probably the year after that, I got into production enhancement, so well stimulation. I mean, how lucky can you be to get into horizontal wells and multilaterals and then go into hydraulic fracturing? Because today, that’s what it’s is all about. You combine those two, and that's what we do in the shale. So, my last few years in Schlumberger, after a couple years in Venezuela, where I managed a reservoir characterization and modeling team, came back to work deepwater, one client. So in Houston working with Shell, back to Shell of all things, but I wasn't allowed to look at Gulf of Mexico because that was still ran mostly out of New Orleans. So I was always following the deepwater rigs all over the world, trying to anticipate where we’re going to be next. I actually got to sit in on one or two limit drilling sessions with the Shell drillers. It’s just a phenomenal opportunity because you’re going to put it all together, all these things that I had a chance to touch on. So a little bit of drilling, a little bit of -- a lot of 3D seismic—what the logs mean, how to test, what are your objectives. Amazing, amazing. And that was kind of the last part of my Schlumberger. I don’t know if I went too long and on and on, but it was a great 20 years.


Not at all. So you talked about your best year. And what year was that?


So really, I just thoroughly enjoyed working with Anadrill.


What year was that?


I think it's going to be ’95, I think so.


So you mentioned living and working in Paris and in France and in Venezuela, and you were married, and your husband also worked in the industry as well. Was that a challenge for both of you to find who gets to travel when, et cetera?


Yes, but first of all, I would credit Michael Economides [her husband] with constantly pushing me to keep this going. So we do have a family. I have a son and a stepson, and Michael always insisted -- we had a really good living arrangement for me. We weren’t always in the same country. The first nine years of our marriage… well, no. This is not quite right. But nine years out of the first 12, we were in different countries because when I went to France, he stayed in Alaska.

When he came to Europe to be with me, he was in the UK. When we went back to the US… I’m trying to remember, but I think I went back first, and then he decided after a couple of years there he wanted to leave the industry altogether, and so he went to Austria as a professor. So Schlumberger transferred me within nine months to France, so we were a couple of years in France and Austria. And finally, after that, we did sort of manage to be in the same country. We both were in Venezuela, same house [laughter].

I don’t recommend this, but dual career’s tough, and that's how we did it, but I don’t recommend it. It’s a pretty crazy way to live. But because two of us were working, he did manage to come to us if not every weekend at least every other weekend, except when we were across an ocean. So when we were actually across an ocean, that was tougher.


It sounds like a big challenge.




So you discussed working in hydraulic fracturing, in horizontal drilling, which are really -- and that you really enjoyed that. So, along those lines, what are some of the technological innovations that you’ve seen that you think have been the most important in the last few years?


I actually touched on it, but they bear repeating. So 3D seismic is a huge big deal coming out late ‘70s, probably sooner than that but really showing up in the industry and then into the ‘80s. So by the time we get towards the end of the ‘80s, developing reservoir models that incorporate 3D seismic -- North Sea is a beautiful example of how you could truly understand these reservoirs through what you could see in the seismic. That experience actually made me learn geology because I’d studied it as an undergraduate at Rice and so at Stanford, I made excuses, “I already know geology. I don’t need to take anymore geology.” But the 3D seismic revealed reservoir -- well, seismic size reservoir features that clearly are going to affect flow. And it’s not just about the wells.

So, I actually bought books. I became a member of APG, read them, and to this day, I can get in a conversation with the geologists. And they kind of think I’m a geologist, so I have to correct them, “You know, I’m really an engineer.” [Laughter] But I also learned to appreciate especially production geologists because these are geologists who understand geology but learned enough engineering to communicate. I think a lot of the most insightful things that I’ve learned over the years have come from production and drilling geologists, so geologists that moved in the direction of the engineers. So 3D seismic is high on my list, and then I mentioned the horizontal wells. It started with the Russians in the ‘50s, but if you judge drilling by how much it costs, as even the Russians did in the ‘50s, which kind of amazes me, then you abandon it, because they’re too expensive.

It took -- I guess we’re going to be late ‘80s or early ‘90s, but it’s Rospo Mare field, and it was Elf Aquitaine with the Italians, so probably a subsidiary, that drilled these horizontal wells with an objective to intersect natural fractures. So they had done their work to characterize these natural fractures and figured if they drill a certain direction, they’re going to intersect them. And out of that, those wells were so successful that everywhere in the world people wanted to try this technology, and before you know it, everybody you talk to is drilling horizontal wells and telling you their management wants to know why they're not drilling horizontal.

The truth is, it’s not always the best choice, and too much of the industry does kind of go with fashion. But there is no question that the horizontal wells made a big difference. In the US, the Austin Chalk, Bakken. So we did a lot, and not just the US with the horizontal wells. Oman went crazy drilling horizontal wells—very, very effective. And many other places. I just can't name them all. The last one, the hydraulic fracturing, again, I have to say Michael Economides spelled out the production basis for hydraulic fracturing in a very elegant way in what he called the unified fracture design, and it applies. It applies even in the shale. People question that, but if they come to me, I’ll explain to them why it does apply. But the horizontal wells in shale have become an extended reach mechanism to launch hydraulic fractures, so every one of these hydraulic fractures would have been another well if we didn’t have horizontal well technology. You put all this together, and suddenly, you reach a technology that allows us to produce rock that I was trained originally to understand as two things, source rock, cap rock, but not to drill into and produce.

Today, we do that. And in fact, the industry has done it so well that companies like Chesapeake took this technology and made it so successful that before you know it, the price of natural gas has gone from $10 or more and tagged with oil as an associating gas to $2. And it’s a glut. But we’ll stop there in the United States and just pick up that technology and move it into very tight rock, which might or might not be shale, but very low permeability rock and apply it the same way. And the next thing you know, the next thing you know, in five years, we ramp up almost five million barrels per day of new production out of rock that nobody saw it -- never say nobody. I mean, somebody saw it coming, but I didn't see it coming.

If anybody wants to know why we have low oil price, it’s because of this success in the shale. If you look historically at ramp-ups in oil production that steep, you got to go to Saudi Arabia or you go to Russia after the breakup, and you'll see production rate increases that fast. But guess what? Those are conventional. We did it in rock that people called uneconomic, even for gas in 2006. So, I don’t know. Those are my three.


Those are great. My last question for you is: how has being an SPE member affected your career?


Many ways. Back in my first job in the Kansas Geological Survey -- again, my first mentor—and I didn't have very many, really not very many—John Halepaska said, “This is what you got to read. It's coming from the Society of Petroleum Engineers.” And what he was telling me to read wasn’t the JPT. Sorry, not the JPT, but rather the SPEJ, the Society of Petroleum Engineers Journal. At that time, that was the only other journal than JPT. But that was where to look for the rigorous, serious technical work in SPE. So I kind of thought -- that’s when I joined SPE, but the society tells me it wasn’t until I got to Stanford. So here I am, 40 years this year.

I first went to an SPE meeting in California when I was coming to interview at Stanford to see about becoming, joining the PhD program. Ahmed Kamal met me at the reservoir simulation. Maybe they called it symposium then or maybe even now, but it’s a very technical meeting only about reservoir simulation. I met him there and soon after became a member of SPE. And I just have this feeling I have not missed an annual meeting since I joined. I don't know. I should really check and see if for 40 years, have I really not missed one. But I think I have missed one.

I told my students last week I made a big effort to try to get our undergraduates at University of Houston over here. This is Houston, you just got to go over there. And I said, “We’ll cancel my class and I’m going to see if we can’t cancel all the petroleum engineering classes, because I think what you can learn at ATCE trumps anything we do in a lecture this week.”

So I told them to get on over there and over here, and I said I bet you, if you come once, you’ll come many more times [laughter]. I mean, many things that have aided professional development for me, opportunities to present my technical work, many opportunities. I’ve done many, many technical presentations, managing to get through peer review and get articles published in journals, traveling to many different venues for the SPE meetings. I don’t know, you can just go on and on, being part of committees or even chairing committees to plan a forum or plan an ATW. So, lots of leadership opportunities.

And I’m forgetting many other, many other things that SPE has done. For me, it has certainly been an important part of my career growth and development.


Well, you’re a professor right now at UH, and I just have one more question for you. And that is: what advice do you give these students as they’re coming up and learning about the industry?


[Laughter] Something that totally surprises me, I’m teaching very big classes, production engineering. And in my 10 years at Texas A&M, I only taught graduate level petroleum engineers because I developed a broad energy course for freshmen and people liked me doing that. So I never was teaching the undergraduates. And I can't make comparisons, but they really like my class. I guess one of my favorite taglines when I teach them some part of production engineering that genuinely will improve well performance, I’ll tell them, “Yeah, this makes money, this one makes money,” and they laugh. So I think, they’re picking up on the excitement that I have about this particular subject. It’s not the only one that excites me, but it’s the one I have the opportunity to teach undergraduates. And I’ll tell you what, Amy. May is going to be tough, because U of H grew very fast and we have about a thousand undergraduates. Not sure how many are seniors graduating, hoping for placement in the industry, but there may be some disappointments there.

I’m starting to think about and trying to talk it up with some of my colleagues what ideas can we give them to think about. If the petroleum industry isn’t going to offer them a job because some of them are not -- think about, what else, what are other industries could you think about going into, what could to do, maybe you’re going to go back to graduate school. [00:34:00] I’m talking with the industry right now, a great time to share data with the universities because we’re going to have armies of talent that could look at the data that’s been gathered in recent years and discover things that they have not had time to discover and have had to let people go who might've done so.

So, we need to realize that the National Academy of Engineering President said this some years ago, not all engineers should go into the obvious jobs that engineers do because the engineering mindset is so valuable. And you can apply it in more ways than the average company man or woman thinks about. Engineers that become medical doctors, develop artificial hearts. I’m not totally right in that statement, but I know you get what I’m saying. They develop replacements for muscles, shall we say. Who knows, who knows? Or engineers that go into law and become involved in patent work. There are many things that engineers can do, and I really think maybe that's part of the answer that’s coming up for this large group of students that got into it thinking that they would be out there working in the standard corporate positions that won't be as plentiful as we’d like.


Well, thank you so much for coming in and participating in this interview.


Thank you.