geologist Robert Sneider and British poet John Donne share a basic
philosophy: No man is an island entire of itself. It's the people
that make a difference along the way.
back over his long and successful career as a geologist and oil
finder, AAPG's 2001 Sidney Powers Medalist is acutely aware of --
and thankful for -- the many mentors and colleagues who have influenced
him throughout his journey.
Amazingly, Sneider didn't even know what geology
was really all about when he switched majors from engineering his
junior year in college, on the basis of a mineralogy class he crashed
with his roommate.
Still, he has had a profound impact on his profession.
"I was born and raised in a seaside resort in New
Jersey," Sneider said. "We had plenty of sand, but no rocks. I had
no clue what geologists did, but I saw the excitement and enthusiasm
of the students and instructors in that mineralogy class and I guess
I was infected -- It was so different from my engineering studies."
There were just 12 undergraduate and graduate students
in the geology department and six full time professors, he added
-- "an enormous contrast from the engineering school where there
were hundreds of students and very little one-on-one instruction.
"I decided geology was for me."
Learning From the Masters
Indeed, from that inauspicious beginning Bob Sneider
has become a leader in his field -- and it would be difficult to
find anyone with more enthusiasm and love for his life's work.
For his contributions to geology he is receiving
AAPG's highest honor, the Sidney Powers Memorial Award, taking his
place among the ranks of legendary geologists who have elevated
and enhanced the profession.
Of course, jumping majors was not an easy decision.
In the late 1940s money was hard to find, and Sneider was attending
Rutgers University on an engineering scholarship. When he changed
majors he knew he would have to get a job to help support himself.
And that turned out to be one of his first lucky
"My mineralogy professor and one of my first mentors,
John Prucha, arranged for me to work with Dr. Benjamin Leonard at
the U.S. Geological Survey at Princeton University, which is just
a few miles from Rutgers," Sneider said. "That job allowed me to
get first hand knowledge of geology and to learn from men working
in the science."
But most importantly, those two early mentors displayed
a passion for geology that was "infectious," Sneider said, "and
I caught the bug.
"They were my models for how dedicated earth scientists
apply theory to the search for mineral wealth," he added. "They
instilled in me a great desire to learn about the earth -- without
my even realizing it."
'The Turning Point'
Following graduation from Rutgers, Sneider served
in the U.S. Army in Korea as a front line combat engineering officer.
When he returned home in 1953 he headed for the University of Wisconsin
to pursue his Ph.D. in economic geology and mining engineering with
the hope of working in mineral exploration.
How did a New Jersey boy wind up in Wisconsin?
Once again, Sneider thanks John Prucha, who had graduated
from the University of Wisconsin and encouraged Sneider to continue
his studies there.
It was uncommon in the 1950s for geology students
to pursue a Ph.D. -- and most who did went into teaching. Sneider,
however, knew he wanted to work in industry.
"All the professors I had that were the most knowledgeable
on applying the theory we learned had worked in industry prior to
teaching," he recalled. "That applied learning was far more interesting
to me than the pure academics."
In 1956 Sneider completed his degree and was ready
to take on the world. There was just one problem: The mining business
was at an all time low and jobs were scarce.
"I did have a job offer in South Africa," he said,
"but I had just married Ramona and I couldn't envision dragging
her off to Africa. Naturally I was very disappointed."
But once again fate, luck or whatever you want to
call it intervened.
"A classmate of mine, Ray Murray, had gone to work
for Shell Development in Houston the year before and he called to
tell me his boss Gus Archie was coming to Madison to recruit for
the company," Sneider said. "I figured, why not? If nothing else
I would get a free dinner."
Meeting Archie, he said, proved to be "the turning
point of my professional life -- it brought me to the petroleum
industry and was the beginning of one of the most important relationships
in my career. Gus Archie was my friend and mentor throughout my
17 years with Shell."
As a result of Archie's profound influence on his
life, Sneider has a strong sense of responsibility to mentor young
"I am always aware of my duty to give back to my
profession and work very hard to be a mentor to younger geologists.
"When word got out I would receive the Sidney Powers
Memorial Award I got calls and notes of congratulations from many
people, but the ones that touched me the most were from people who
mentioned how I had helped them with a problem along the way.
"I know how much I owe Archie and others for my success,
and I definitely want to give something back."
Indeed, several years ago Sneider established the
Gus Archie Fund within the AAPG Foundation, which provides four
grants annually to graduate students in petrophysics and development
Sneider challenges all practicing geologists to reach
out to younger geologists.
"Today everybody is working hard on short deadlines
and technology has isolated us," he said, "but we must remember
we can learn invaluable lessons from other people -- and the industry
will benefit greatly from the sharing of experience."
Ahead of His Time
Another of Sneider's lifelong philosophies is an
outgrowth of the strong mentors he was blessed with as a young professional:
Years before "multi-disciplinary teams" became an industry catch
phrase, Sneider was already a passionate advocate of the concept.
"In the military I was involved with my first multi-disciplinary
team," he said. "Our combat engineering company was made up of soldiers
with a variety of skills, so we could do a lot of different things,
from building bridges and roads to laying minefields to blowing
up bridges and roads. I saw the value of that team approach all
those years ago, and it was an important lesson in my life."
In his first assignment with Shell -- as a development
geologist in the huge Elk City Field in the Anadarko Basin -- Sneider
was allowed to recruit from both the company's geology and engineering
departments to help develop the reservoir characterization models
and a development program.
"Also, in the early years I worked on offshore lease
sales," he continued. "People from geology, geophysics, petrophysics
and engineering had a very short time to come up with bid prices,
recovery factors and other information for a sale, so we had to
work together. That experience reinforced the importance of crossing
"Today that's called a multi-discipline team approach,"
he smiled. "Back then it was just called good old common sense.
"It's easy to look back today and see that the team
approach was sensible, but it wasn't that simple," Sneider continued.
"When we went across organizational lines many managers got very
"I am gratified to note that many companies today
see the importance of bringing people from different disciplines
together to solve problems."
Hanging On To Success
When Sneider and Larry Meckel left Shell in 1974
to form Sneider and Meckel Associates, their idea was to form a
small multidisciplinary group to explore for hydrocarbons and offer
consulting services. The two had reached a point in their careers
where they were either going to have to make the jump to management
positions within Shell or look for other opportunities.
"We weren't really interested in managing people,"
Sneider said. "We both wanted to continue technical work."
Again, fate smiled. Not long after setting up their
new firm the Arab oil embargo hit the world, creating instant jobs
for geologists. Plus, the two didn't count on the enormous number
of ex-Shell alumni in the industry who would offer work.
"The 'Shell mafia,' as we call it, is still strong,"
he said, "even to this day. We all keep up communication, and that
networking really benefited Larry and I early in our business."
Through the 1970s Sneider and Meckel Associates was
involved in projects that resulted in the discovery of over a dozen
new fields, including the giant Elmsworth deep basin gas area of
western Canada in conjunction with Canadian Hunter Exploration.
In 1981 Sneider founded Robert M. Sneider Exploration.
Looking back, Sneider said the industry downturn of the 1980s actually
provided another opportunity.
"We had put together a talented team of people to
do exploration work," he said. "We didn't want to lose these people
during the downturn, so we went back to my roots and started acquiring
marginal producing properties and increasing production through
better reservoir recovery methods and application of reservoir characterization.
"Our acquisition program was more successful than
our exploration efforts because we viewed acquisitions like explorers,"
he continued. "We worked trends. We knew which fields were good
and why they were good. We learned which companies did things well
and they became our analogs.
"Today it seems like we were pretty smart, but in
reality all we were trying to do was hang on to our talented group
Words of Wisdom
Sneider's enthusiasm for his profession spilled over
into this private life as well. He and his wife, Ramona, have three
children and all of them have been involved in the petroleum industry.
"In the early days of my Shell years we moved around
a lot," Sneider said. "I know some children from other families
dreaded the moves, but we tried to make it an exciting adventure.
We would highlight the things we would see and do in the new place.
We went on lots of family field trips. Also, many exciting people
visited our home, so the children were exposed to that excitement
His son, John, is a geologist and partner in Robert
M. Sneider Exploration.
Sneider acknowledges the importance of AAPG to his
"The people you meet through AAPG are important contacts
and sources of knowledge," he said. "One of the first talks I ever
heard was by Michel T. Halbouty at a Houston Geological Society
luncheon. He was an inspiration, and through the years I have been
enriched by the professionals I have had the good fortune to meet
"Also, AAPG has been my source of continuing education
from the beginning," Sneider added, "and that was doubly important
since I came from a mining background and knew virtually nothing
about the petroleum business when I went to work at Shell.
"My commitment to learning through AAPG continues
He doesn't just learn; he teaches, too.
AAPG has provided a forum for Sneider to give back
to the industry, and he has taught many courses for AAPG and served
multiple stints as a distinguished lecturer.
"The courses I have taught have in large part been
my way of paying back the men who have helped me so much through
my life," he said. "People ask me why I tell people how I find hydrocarbons.
I tell them I think it's important to pass along that knowledge
for the greater good of society."
Reflecting on his career, Sneider has four pieces
of advice for young petroleum geologists:
- Learn the fundamentals.
- Expose yourself to people who have been successful at finding
- Spend time continuing to educate yourself.
- Give back to the industry that gives you so much.
"I agree with Michel T. Halbouty's remarks in the
December 2000 EXPLORER special issue ("A Century"), when he said,
'The heritage left us by the early petroleum geologists have been
ignored and practically forgotten. Those geologists should be remembered
not only for their achievements, but also for having been well-rounded,
true geologists who applied all facets of our science to their endeavors.
'Their methods and contributions should be dusted
off and restudied, and once again used as guideposts for our future