On a field trip to the Bahamas in 1974, Paul M. "Mitch" Harris sat alongside his thesis adviser on a beach of the Joulters Cays, gazing at the white sand - the landscape lush with colors "not unlike an impressionist painting," Harris recalled.
In that moment, his adviser, the world-class carbonate geologist Robert Ginsburg, changed the course of Harris' career when he suggested Harris scrap his plans for a doctorate on the recent geologic history of Florida Bay.
"Florida Bay has been looked at already," Ginsburg said. "Look at this place. It's beautiful. Nobody has ever worked here, and it's a reservoir in the making."
And so began a research career in carbonate rocks, which contain roughly half of the world's oil in limestone and dolomite.
Harris' research - which started with the study of the sedimentology of the Joulters Cays ooid sand shoal on the Great Bahama Bank - has taken him to other exotic places like Kazakhstan, Russia, India, China and Brazil, as well as the Middle East and Europe, to sharpen the industry's understanding of carbonates.
His extensive research on carbonates coupled with his globally renowned carbonate training programs for scientists of all ages and skill sets, have earned Harris this year's AAPG Sidney Powers Memorial Award.
The award is given to those who make notable contributions to science while serving others in the industry. The fact that Harris' colleagues and students have often called him the "Godfather of Carbonates" as well as "Uncle" no doubt serves as a testament to Harris being an obvious choice for AAPG's highest honor.
"Mitch is a man of the rocks, and he has been so for more than three decades. If we can borrow a quote from (British geologist) H.H. Read, '...the best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks,'" wrote AAPG member Paul Siegele, president of the Chevron Energy Technology Company (ETC), Harris' former employer.
"This certainly applied to Mitch," he added, "and his lifelong history with carbonate sediments and rocks."
Choosing a Career
The Godfather of Carbonates did not start out with a love of rocks.
As an undergraduate at West Virginia University in Morgantown in the late 1960s, Harris majored in aerospace engineering and then biology before discovering geology. A week-long field trip to south Florida clinched the deal, opening up to Harris the world of carbonates, particularly how they relate to sedimentology and stratigraphy.
After earning his master's in geology in 1973 from his alma mater, Harris set his eyes on the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Studies, where the renowned Ginsburg, who worked for Shell before moving into academia, studied carbonates on Fisher Island.
Harris eventually worked with Ginsburg, who had just opened the Comparative Sedimentology Laboratory (CSL), which later became the Center for Carbonate Research (CSL-CCR), to fine-tune his research project.
"The CSL was an ideal laboratory, not just for studying carbonates, but for understanding the industry interests and viewpoints and for building industry relationships," Harris said. "There were endless opportunities to meet with industry visitors, take short courses with them, and go on field trips with them.
"All of this allowed me to develop my own 'industry view' while I was still a student," he said, "and it definitely influenced me in my own research direction and findings."
In this "carbonate paradise," Harris solidified his commitment to researching sedimentary rocks, intrigued by their complexity and the major part they play in forming reservoirs.
"What I learned at the Joulters Cays resonated throughout my career and provided themes that I carried through further research," Harris said.
"One of my passions, which probably more than anything has led to this award, was to organize and actively participate in publications, core workshops, short courses, conferences and fieldtrips that created opportunities for earth scientists from industry and academia to focus on the varied aspects of carbonates."
Three Influencing Factors
The list of Harris' accomplishments and accolades carries on for miles. During a 36-year career at Chevron, from which he retired in 2014, Harris worked his way from a project geologist to senior research consultant and a Chevron fellow.
He has performed carbonate core, petrographic, stratigraphic and seismic studies that have aided development and exploration programs around the world. He has conducted research in carbonate stratigraphy, facies, diagenesis, play types and reservoir modeling. And, he headed up Chevron's Internal Technical Group on Carbonate Geology.
Harris has been published in more than 200 books, journals and guidebooks.
For all of his accomplishments, Harris can narrow his top achievements to three influential factors:
♦ A long-standing relationship with his company.
♦ An opportunity to interact with academia.
♦ Regular involvement with the AAPG and its affiliate, the Society for Sedimentary Geology (SEPM).
Harris is an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer and International Distinguished Lecturer, and past recipient of the Wallace E. Pratt Memorial Award, the Robert H. Dott Sr. Memorial Award (twice), the John W. Shelton Search and Discovery Award, and an Honorary member of AAPG and SEPM.
He also served as president of SEPM, and has served on numerous committees for both associations.
"I was blessed to be able to stay and thrive with the same company for such a long period of time," Harris said. "I liked the technical challenges that were always there, and I loved the people to work with and interact with."
Chevron proved to be highly receptive to Harris' desire to venture into academia and build strong relationships with several carbonate-oriented schools, such as the CSL-CCR; the Reservoir Characterization Research Laboratory at the University of Texas' Bureau of Economic Geology; the Kansas Interdisciplinary Carbonates Consortium at the University of Kansas; and the Earth Science Department at Rice University.
In fact, even after retiring, Harris continues on as an adjunct professor at the University of Miami and at Rice.
In devoting much of his time to AAPG and SEPM, Harris gave talks, poster presentations, organized sessions, presented short courses and core workshops and ran field trips at national and international meetings.
"There are very few people in the world like Mitch with this combination of top-tier technical understanding and a social element that brings everyone together into synergy," said AAPG member Ted Playton, a development geologist at Tengizchevroil in Kazakhstan. "He is an excellent communicator, networker, integrator, mentor and teacher, and adviser, which furthers the science by promoting relationships and teamwork across a variety of spectrums."
Hallmark of His Career
Some of Harris' most noteworthy accomplishments are the carbonate training programs - which Siegele calls "the hallmark of his career" - that Harris developed and offered to Chevron employees and its overseas affiliates.
Traveling around the globe, he explained with great exuberance - and sometimes in a body of water up to his chest - why carbonates are challenging exploration targets and heterogeneous in reservoirs.
Different from an academic course, Harris' training offered a fresh perspective on carbonates in places such as the giant Tengiz Field in Kazakhstan on the shore of the Caspian Sea, to outcrops in the Guadalupe Mountains, and to the Bahamas countless times - initially through AAPG's former field seminars in Sequence Stratigraphy and Reservoir Distribution in Modern Carbonates, followed by similar programs of the CSL.
"I have emphasized the relevance of the subject to understanding a reservoir," Harris said. "Even when taking people on a modern carbonate field trip and showing them different depositional environments, I try to emphasize the 'analog' aspect of the field stop and focus the information and discussions on the subsurface."
Harris wanted his fellow geologists and engineers to perfect their interpretations of seismic facies and stratigraphy, to more accurately describe a core or "thin sections," to improve their interpretations of logs and build better geologic and reservoir models.
"I was always taught that the more a geologist sees, the more he learns, and the better his interpretations will be," he said. "I believe this is certainly true as far as seeing different modern areas of deposition, different outcrops, different subsurface datasets, and even hearing different points of view.
"Studying carbonates worldwide, and traveling to see them, broadens your understanding and perspective," he added.
No doubt Harris' groups left his courses richer in knowledge than they ever thought. Having held thousands of rocks in his hands throughout his career, Harris developed an "encyclopedic knowledge" of 30-plus years of studies of his company's carbonate assets, said AAPG member and former colleague James W. Bishop, a research geologist for Chevron's ETC.
In fact, to some, Harris' retirement means the end of an era for many geologists learning about rocks the old-fashioned way, said AAPG member Jeroen Kenter, a lead research geologist at ConocoPhillips.
Harris' leaving the carbonate geosciences community marks an "industry-wide transformation from a generation with a passion for finding truth in rocks 'old style' through observations on modern carbonate sediments and the rock record and asking fundamental questions, to one that is more driven by digital data and less exposure to those rocks," Kenter said.
Of all of Harris' contributions to the industry, he looks back on mentoring as the most meaningful.
With his love for people as strong as his dedication to science, Harris shared the knowledge he gained in every opportunity that came his way.
"Mentoring and teaching are the most important things we can do, whether it's part of your job description or not," Harris said. "Companies all have some form of formal training, but the informal learning from your peers and on-the-job training is perhaps the most valuable way to learn.
"Seek to learn, regardless of your age and level of experience," he added. "There is always more to learn and there are always people to help you along the way."
And while he is officially retired, he continues to offer advice, especially for those in the industry who are experiencing the fallout from the recent economic downturn:
"Appreciate that a long career in the industry will cause one to experience downturns several times. As budgets shrink, activities decrease, and opportunities become fewer. It's only natural to feel frustrated," he said.
"I always tried to stay focused on the technical challenges - the science - and minimize the bad aspects of a downturn," he said. "They don't last forever, so don't give up."