Is geology hereditary?
It could be for Dudley J. Hughes of Jackson, Miss., this year’s AAPG Outstanding Explorer.
Hughes and his twin brother, Dan, both earned degrees at Texas A&M University and built highly successful careers in exploration geology.
“My brother is down in South America right now and he’s doing very well,” Hughes noted.
He also has younger twin sisters, Jane and June, who received degrees from the University of Oklahoma and went on to their own careers in geology.
“We liked it so much, they were inspired by us,” he said.
Hughes, 78, has shown an almost genetic ability to pursue oil and gas plays during the past 50 years. Working primarily in Mississippi and Alabama, he developed concepts that opened 65 new fields.
That’s right: Sixty-five.
His insights enabled discoveries in the Lower Cretaceous and the Upper Jurassic Smackover that have produced more than 200 million barrels of oil to date.
That’s 200 million.
And his work led him to develop or participate in wells that have produced more than a trillion cubic feet of gas, including a major find in Canada and exploration in Australia.
You get the picture.
Hughes will be available to discuss his play concepts when he receives the Oustanding Explorer Award at AAPG’s Annual Convention and Exhibition in San Antonio.
Among his many honors are outstanding wildcatter awards from the Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association and the All American Wildcatters, lifetime achievement recognition from the Alabama Oil & Gas Board, induction into the Mississippi Business Hall of Fame and a Distinguished Achievement Medal from Texas A&M.
Much of Hughes’ work involves salt-influenced structures in an area extending from eastern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, including the Mississippi Interior Salt Basin.
As a perpetual student of local geology, he draws on both mapping and a fundamental understanding of exploration settings.
“I do a lot of subsurface – I never relied a lot on seismograph,” Hughes explained.
“I’d go through the old fields and map them horizon by horizon,” he said, “and try to figure out why some of them weren’t trapping.”
Hughes grew up near Palestine, Texas, and graduated from high school there before receiving his geology degree from Texas A&M in 1951.
Hired by Union Producing Co. as a field geologist and scout, Hughes was almost immediately called up for active duty by the military.
He served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army artillery in the Korean War. His book about that experience, The Wall of Fire: A Diary of the Third Korean Winter Campaign, was published in 2003.
After returning to the United States, Hughes rejoined Union Producing, and the company assigned him to an active exploration area in Mississippi.
That proved a fateful posting.
“I came over here in 1953, as soon as I got out of the Army. I’ve been here my whole career. It’s just a good place to live,” he said.
At the time, local operators had branched into a series of successful, fairly shallow discoveries in the Upper Cretaceous.
“I came to Mississipi when it had lots of shallow production,” Hughes recalled.
The play then turned to deeper prospects, attempting to push the same concepts into the Lower Cretaceous. Union Producing had a good discovery, finding multiple oil pay zones down to about 12,000 feet.
By this time, Hughes and his brother had formed a partnership to hold a producing lease. They later started a company, Hughes & Hughes, for independent operations.
“After a few years we opened our own business,” he said, “and have been kind of hopping on from there.”
In 1960, the Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies awarded him its Best Paper award for his work on faulting associated with deep-seated salt structures.
AAPG tapped Hughes as a Distinguished Lecturer the next year.
In Mississippi, his theories were put to the test.
“Everybody was trying to play the Lower Cretaceous the same way (as the Upper Cretaceous discoveries), and it wasn’t working,” he said. “We decided to drill in the grabens.”
Hughes’ concept of drilling in grabens where anticline closures developed between faults broke open the lower play. The 1961 Summerland Field find led to the discovery of eight more Lower Cretaceous oil and gas fields in Mississippi.
‘Bama Bound – And Beyond
But his pioneering work to develop Smackover oil plays in Alabama might be even more impressive. Hughes said he didn’t really go looking for the oil – at first.
“I was acting as a consultant on a well where they had this shallower Utah (formation) production, and they wanted to drill deeper,” Hughes recalled. “Danged if they didn’t hit Smackover.”
Once again, Hughes found an advantage in knowing what didn’t work, as many other operators missed the Smackover pools.
“The big play started off with everybody drilling the deep-seated structures. As it happens, the Smackover actually opens up like a drawbridge,” Hughes said.
“The best Smackover structures are not even reflected in the shallower beds. Out of all the big structures there was only a puddle of oil found in the deeper structures,” he added.
Using his knowledge of local faulting and salt movement, Hughes mapped potential plays extending into Alabama. His analysis led him to propose a well between two dry holes, about a mile apart, in Choctaw County, Alabama.
The resulting Choctaw Ridge field Smackover discovery produced 900 barrels per day of 40-degree gravity oil in testing – the state’s first major Smackover well.
“Once we got that idea,” he said, “we were able to find about 10 fields over in Alabama.”
In the late 1960s, Hughes and his brother traveled to Calgary to review an Alberta gas prospect. After checking the geology, they decided to buy a working interest in the exploration well for their company.
That well discovered the Dunvegan gas field, one of Canada’s largest, which has produced over a trillion cubic feet of gas.
“Of course, gas wasn’t worth a lot then,” Hughes noted.
Ten years later, another exploration opportunity took the brothers to western Australia. The Dungarra Field, Perth’s principal source of natural gas, had gone into decline.
“They had some gas lines that were running out of gas, and so we thought if we found something we would have a good market for it,” Hughes said.
“We didn’t find any major gas but we were kind of able to save the day,” he added.
An Australian company had acquired drilling licenses along the existing pipeline. Dudley and Dan Hughes joined the project to develop gas prospects.
Working from seismic data this time, they mapped a 10-mile wide anticlinal mound in the area. Drilling to 7,000 feet discovered the Woodada gas field –a Permian, fractured, carbonate reef play.
Back home, Hughes continued his string of good work and good fortune into the 21st century.
“In the last three or four years there’s been one pretty good field found down here, but it was out of the salt basin,” he said.
Hunt Oil Co. had drilled a Smackover discovery in the Little Cedar Creek Field in Conecuh County, Alabama, but it produced only about 30 barrels/day.
Still, it was Smackover, and Hughes had a look at the play area when another operator took over the production. He decided to buy the interests of investors who were dropping out of the development project.
An attempt to extend production turned out to be a dry hole. Hughes was able to acquire the interests of other investors – and as it happens, he said, became the largest interest holder in the string of highly productive wells that followed.
“Now we’ve drilled 43 wells on 160-acre spacing there,” he said.
While no official estimate of oil reserves exists yet, “I’m going to say it’s at least 30 million barrels,” Hughes commented.
Ask him for advice to young petroleum geologists, and Hughes has the same counsel as so many other successful explorers: You’ve got to think big to be big.
“What you’re looking for is something that’s big enough to be worthwhile. Then you look for parallels to what has worked before,” he said.
Today, from his Hughes South company in Flowood, Miss., he’s developing Smackover stratigraphic play concepts to continue the exploration work.
Hughes, who might carry geology in his genes, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think it’s the most exciting business in the world.” he said.