"I was always looking for a deal where I could get some slice of the pie.”
That's AAPG Emeritus Member Terry Mather, this year's Norman H. Foster Outstanding Explorer Award winner, talking about motivation, talking about his life in exploration (specifically wildcatting), talking about the excitement, and talking about – at times – the letdown, where there wasn't a slice of the pie.
Terry Mather doesn't like talking about himself. Many of this year's AAPG award winners share that trait. In Mather's case, he said, "I like flying under the radar,” an attitude that comes, generally, out of his own modesty, but specifically and perhaps more importantly, from years of respect for his investors, who have not wanted their upcoming projects bandied about in self-glorification or idle gossip.
But he will tell you this.
"It's been a fun, exciting career. I'm retired now.”
And then admission.
Other than its effect on his portfolio, "I don't really worry about oil prices.”
Perhaps not, but he once told a magazine reporter in 1991 that he was a wildcatter.
And once a wildcatter, always a wildcatter.
While Mather's career has been long and successful, finding active plays in both Kansas and Colorado, he is perhaps best known for his work in western Idaho and eastern Oregon, plays – and he exhales when he talks about it – that took almost half a lifetime to come to fruition.
"This was such a wild wildcat,” he said of the Idaho project, "but on the other hand, I started working on it in 1983, and finally got it drilled successfully in 2010.”
He laughs about it now, especially the ten years he took off from the project, but you can still hear the exhaustion in his voice when the topic comes up.
"I mean, here's a state with no production, yet the geology seemed to set it up that there was good reason to think there was active hydrocarbons. Turns out that was the case.”
Mindset of a Wildcatter
In retrospect, it still seems daunting to him.
"Trying to convince somebody to drill in a virgin state in a virgin basin – that was a real challenge.”
But it worked.
Jack Eells, his partner at the time, commented, "How many explorers can lay claim to opening a new basin, let alone a new state? When was the last?”
The whole notion of motivation for Mather is not something he spends much time on, but he'll take a crack at a question about the mindset of being a geologist, being a wildcatter.
"I'll tell you, it's tough to define. You have to have the enthusiasm,” he said, obviously, but added, "You have to focus on your strength, and by that I mean knowledge of the geological details, depositional models, structural models, and you have to listen carefully to your trusted peers and the contributions they make and their criticisms.”
And this. Always this.
"Of course you have to be very, very careful about checking and re-checking the data to make sure you have it all and have it right.”
Only then comes the selling, the cajoling and the marketing, which is also an art form.
"You have to have the ability to deliver your project to all audiences. Some audiences are very technically oriented, some are pretty naive.”
He saw early on the difference between working for a company – the prejudices, layers of bureaucracy one needs to overcome in a large corporate setting where everyone has an opinion before the exploration begins – and the freedom of being on your own, pursuing the plays for which you have a passion and not having to worry about, for example, project size.
"The cool thing about being an independent is being able to have the freedom to explore, without the encumbrances (of a corporate set up). If you can convince a small investor, and you can go find four or five wells – 100,000 to 500,000 barrels – you're absolutely thrilled. The corporations, they could not care less about a project that size, but that much oil, or gas, represents a huge – huge –financial plus.”
Love of the Chase
He said there wasn't a master plan when he graduated with a doctorate from the University of Colorado, other than that he knew he liked the oil business. He worked for six years with Shell Oil Company where he prepared stratigraphic studies in the Rockies, prospect generation in Illinois, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, as well as being one of the first to apply stratigraphic geophysical analysis to plays. Along the way, he was responsible for supervision and prospect generation leading to the discovery of significant hydrocarbons in the Green River Basin and western Montana, and was part of a select team who founded High Plains Exploration, where he originated and sold a major, high-potential frontier play. Then, along with Eells, he founded Lariat Exploration, where they made significant discoveries in Kansas and the D-J Basin. In addition, he has had a 20-year association with Thomasson Partner Associates, headed by past AAPG President M. Ray Thomasson.
Why did he leave Shell to go out on his own?
"I didn't get to do a lot of exploration there,” he said.
As for the award: "I tip my hat to all contributors to the project including others unmentioned. Also to the AAPG Executive Committee and Advisory Council who saw fit to grant me this honored distinction, you have my heartfelt thanks.”
When he looks back at his career, while admitting he's "loved the chase,” it was the whole process, the journey that he cherishes.
"That's why when you drill a dry hole, it's devastating.”