“There are paleontologists and then there are paleontologists,” the much-honored paleontologist Edward Picou says proudly.
And make no mistake: Picou, an AAPG Honorary Member who recently was inducted into the Louisiana State University College of Basic Sciences Hall of Distinction, knows something about the passion and focus it takes to be a geologist, generally, and a paleontologist, specifically.
But technical, scientific and geologic matters aside, Picou has a more personal, almost artistic explanation for why he has spent so much of his life doing what he’s done.
“As for what motivated me to become an economic micropaleontologist, it was the desire to sort out the structure and stratigraphy in wells,” he said.
“In a way, examining a set of samples on a well, which consists of a sample of each 30-foot interval, is much like reading a mystery novel,” he said. “The reader is anxious to get to the next page or end of the book to see how the story ends.
“It is much the same examining well samples – the curiosity factor.”
For Picou, geology is as much about the adventure as the outcome.
“I often told my managers that being an economic paleontologist is much like having a calling to the cloth – becoming a minister or priest. It isn’t something that is widely accepted.”
From the Beginning
Picou, a certified petroleum geologist, was a geologist in various capacities for Shell Oil for 34 years, being named an exploration consultant in 1989.
In addition to being widely recognized as one of the “gentlemen” of AAPG, he is famously known for his work developing the application of biostratigraphic zonations for Cenozoic exploration and development in south Louisiana and the offshore of the Gulf of Mexico.
Born, raised, attended school, worked, lived and now retired in Louisiana, he has been at the forefront of, in and around Gulf of Mexico research and exploration for the past 50 years.
Picou has played key roles in Gulf Coast paleontology, both in the private and public arenas, and has served as a mentor for a generation of paleontologists. He counts among his greatest successes his involvement in the publication of the Gulf of Mexico Basin Biostratigraphic Index Microfossils: A Geoscientist’s Guide - Oligocene Through Pleistocene.
Calling this book a “Rosetta stone” for key fossils encountered in Gulf Coast wells, he said, “It was my very good friend John Armentrout (current AAPG vice president-Sections) who asked me to pull together a group of paleontologists to cross-reference the name of every microfossil of any use to biostratigraphers in the Gulf Coast.
“Many working sessions were required to hash out differences and come to a unified decision regarding each microfossil,” he said.
When asked, though, why his passion kept him near home, he talked of necessity and circumstance.
“Remember,” he said, “that the development of geophysics, with its wonderful seismic lines that allow a display of the subsurface, was many decades into the future. Consequently, by the early 1930s most oil companies drilling the Gulf Coast area employed micro-paleontologists. The main purpose was to establish a tie, or correlation, of the sequences of sands and shales between wells. Operators wanted to know if their well had penetrated to the same subsurface level of the discovery well drilled just down the road or across the county.
“In these early days the microfossils were the only means of making any stratigraphic sense of the monotonous layers of sediment being penetrated.”
Picou joined Shell after World War II, leaving LSU before attaining his Ph.D. – something, to this day, he recalls with ambivalence.
More on that in a second.
“By the time I joined Shell Oil in 1957, the subsurface sequences drilled onshore were fairly well defined and technical papers were published on the zonal schemes,” he said. “However, exploration in the offshore Gulf of Mexico was just then accelerating. By 1960, I transferred to our offshore exploration staff and began a long involvement with the development of both regional and local zonal schemes in the ever-expanding drilling in the Gulf.
“After the 1962 lease sale, Shell was drilling wildcats about 100 miles down dip from the last point of stratigraphic control,” he continued. “It was an exciting time for the entire geologic staff, especially when oil and gas was discovered.”
In fact, during the span of his 34-year career at Shell, Picou “witnessed the almost complete drilling of the shelf areas in the Gulf and participated in about a dozen deepwater discoveries before retiring in 1991.”
Since then, he has served on advisory councils, been active in the New Orleans Geologic Society, served as editor of the monthly NOGS LOG and was instrumental in the formulation of the AAPG BULLETIN on CD-Rom.
Receiving AAPG Honorary Membership “is the one recognition I cherish most.
“As I often remind [students], if you were a medical doctor you would surely be a member of the American Medical Association, which is the ‘standard-bearer’ for the medical profession. For petroleum geologists, AAPG is our standard-bearer.”
The Tie That Binds
There is, though, something special about his admission to a Hall of Distinction from a university that is such a part of his life and work.
In short, it’s home.
But now, about that ambivalence.
For Picou, after retirement he came face to face with an old friend, a mentor, who was bittersweet at his friend’s career path.
Harold V. Andersen, or “Doc Andy,” as he was known, along with Henry V. Howe was one of the founding fathers of the geology department at Louisiana State University.
“As I was retiring from Shell Offshore, on one of my visits with Dr. Andersen, he confided to me that he was disappointed in me because I hadn’t stayed at LSU for a Ph.D.” those many years ago, Picou recalled.
Andersen had hoped Picou would replace him in the teaching of micropaleontology.
“What a wonderful, yet perplexing, statement,” Picou says of his friend’s reaction.
“Perhaps, I did miss a wonderful academic experience, but – that’s all hindsight. However, at Shell I mentored a whole generation of paleontologists during the two-plus decades I was Division Paleontologist.”
And for that, Picou says he has no regrets: “During all those years with Shell I was never too far from LSU and the geology department not to maintain a constant relationship with the faculty.”
Still, he felt it pull on him.
“Perhaps this is why I chose to endow an AAPG University Restricted Grant-in-Aid for the Geology and Geophysics Department at LSU.”
As for the future of the industry, Picou strikes a cautionary note about perception.
“Many individuals have the misconception that geology is a ‘low tech’ profession. Nothing could be more false,” he said. “Today’s geologist is expected to handle extremely sophisticated projects and be able to work with all sorts of computer programs.
“While the glamour of being out in the field looking at rock exposures is wonderful, the reality is few geologists today actually have that opportunity.”
He is less ambivalent, though, about the state of geology in academia, especially his field.
“Sadly, today very few university geology departments offer degrees in micropaleontology,” he observed. “In the U.S., I doubt if there are more than three or four. My old company, Shell, over the past few years, has hired several new paleontologists; however, all were educated overseas.
“As the world’s population continues to grow and metropolitan areas expand,” he said, “having a thorough understanding of geology will become increasingly important.”