Medalist a World Geologist

Understanding Deserts in the North Sea

Why was Ken Glennie the head of Shell's turbidite research for less than five seconds?

How did he snare the very first master of science degree ever awarded by a Scottish university?

Why did Glennie plead ignorance when he was asked to become an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer?

What did he and his team find in the mountains of Oman?

And what was the origin of the book that became known as "Glennie's Bible," the essential reference on North Sea geology?

Perhaps the best way to find out is to go straight to the source.

Kenneth William Glennie of Ballater, Scotland, will accept the Sidney Powers Memorial Award, AAPG's most distinguished honor, at the Annual Convention in Calgary.

Here are some details of his career.

Pioneer in the Field

Glennie began his advanced studies with a firm career choice in mind.

"I thought I would become a civil engineer," he recalled, "after draining a duck pond on an uncle's farm."

That required at least a glancing knowledge of geology.

When an older student advised him to get geology out of the way quickly, Glennie picked up a couple of books on the subject.

He was hooked: "I got fascinated," he said.

A one-year scholarship from Shell allowed him to continue his university work, and he joined the company the next year.

"It was a case of who was offering jobs at the time," Glennie said. "I'd applied for a job with the British Colonial Geological Survey to go to British Guyana."

("It's probably a good thing I didn't need to do it," he noted.)

He wanted to complete his scholarship year more or less as pure research at Edinburgh University, where he'd earned his degree in geology.

"There was no master of science degree in any Scottish university until 1954. I had started the year's research on the understanding I'd get no degree out of it," he said.

But, by coincidence, the degree was introduced in Scotland after he began his post-graduate work.

"When I was at the writing-up stage, the degree was instituted. I was allowed to 'post date' my research for a year, and no one was able to beat me to it," he said.

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Why was Ken Glennie the head of Shell's turbidite research for less than five seconds?

How did he snare the very first master of science degree ever awarded by a Scottish university?

Why did Glennie plead ignorance when he was asked to become an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer?

What did he and his team find in the mountains of Oman?

And what was the origin of the book that became known as "Glennie's Bible," the essential reference on North Sea geology?

Perhaps the best way to find out is to go straight to the source.

Kenneth William Glennie of Ballater, Scotland, will accept the Sidney Powers Memorial Award, AAPG's most distinguished honor, at the Annual Convention in Calgary.

Here are some details of his career.

Pioneer in the Field

Glennie began his advanced studies with a firm career choice in mind.

"I thought I would become a civil engineer," he recalled, "after draining a duck pond on an uncle's farm."

That required at least a glancing knowledge of geology.

When an older student advised him to get geology out of the way quickly, Glennie picked up a couple of books on the subject.

He was hooked: "I got fascinated," he said.

A one-year scholarship from Shell allowed him to continue his university work, and he joined the company the next year.

"It was a case of who was offering jobs at the time," Glennie said. "I'd applied for a job with the British Colonial Geological Survey to go to British Guyana."

("It's probably a good thing I didn't need to do it," he noted.)

He wanted to complete his scholarship year more or less as pure research at Edinburgh University, where he'd earned his degree in geology.

"There was no master of science degree in any Scottish university until 1954. I had started the year's research on the understanding I'd get no degree out of it," he said.

But, by coincidence, the degree was introduced in Scotland after he began his post-graduate work.

"When I was at the writing-up stage, the degree was instituted. I was allowed to 'post date' my research for a year, and no one was able to beat me to it," he said.

After Glennie joined Shell in The Hague, he began work as a general field geologist supporting the company's exploration efforts.

It was an almost decade-long experience out of reach of any beginning petroleum geologist today.

First, he spent months collecting potential oil source rocks in Europe, at the very beginning of Shell's research in the subject.

He then conducted field work in New Zealand over the course of three years. After that he moved on to Shell Canada and led helicopter-supported teams in the Arctic region, as well as the Rockies of British Columbia.

Then he was off to Nepal.

"I was told to go and walk about in the Himalayan foothills," he said. "We had to walk, because there were no roads. This is what we called roving geology."

Shell's Just Deserts

After years in the field, Glennie's professional life changed because of a question taking shape on the other side of the world from Nepal.

"Shell had discovered a giant gas field in 1959, but didn't know it was a giant," he said. "By 1963, they were convinced it was a very large field."

A venture of Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil of New Jersey had drilled the discovery well in the huge Groningen gas field, Europe's largest, though no one knew it at the time.

Glennie said Shell originally estimated the field's natural gas reserves at 2.5 trillion cubic feet, but by 1963 the company projected Groningen could hold as much as 50 Tcf of gas.

The real number turned out to be more than 100 Tcf, he noted.

"But what was the reservoir rock? We knew its age, Permian -- about 260-270 million years old -- but we didn't know how it was deposited," he said.

When Glennie returned to the Shell home base he began taking a few new courses, "as usual." One involved the study of turbidites, which he'd observed in New Zealand and Canada.

"I had attended a lecture on this subject, and I disagreed with the lecturer," he recalled. "He had the currents going the wrong way.

"A senior geologist who had just retired was sitting in, and he recommended that I go into research and take over the turbidite program from him."

Glennie prepared to give up field work for research, and turned to leading Shell's work on turbidites.

Or, not.

"The day I reported for duty, knowing that I would be working with turbidites, I was told that it had all changed," he explained. "They said, 'From now on you're the desert expert, and you better learn damn fast.'"

Shell knew Groningen production came from sandstone, most likely the remains of an ancient desert. Shell just didn't know much about desert environments.

"I was told to go off and, essentially, to find out what made deserts tick," Glennie said. "I started this in Libya, on 12 weeks of field work."

The investigation took him to Qatar, India and Oman, and into a study of ancient deserts in Germany and the United Kingdom.

That desert work began to point in an odd direction.

"We knew the reservoir was a dune sand and the sediments were all dipping towards the west. The wind was blowing from east to west," he said, "which means if you want to find more dune sands, you go downwind.

"That headed straight toward the North Sea," he added.

Up to then, the industry had thought production from the North Sea was possible, but not likely.

Shell and others began plotting new exploration -- mostly in search of gas, Glennie noted.

"I didn't know what oil was until I'd almost completed my 18 years of sedimentology work," he said.

When Glennie brought his desert research home, he found North Sea exploration at the hush-hush stage.

"It was so secret at the time, I could tell everything I knew to the people at Shell who were starting to work on the North Sea, but I got absolutely nothing back," he said.

Soon, he was a world-class expert on North Sea-style desert environments, and AAPG invited him to lecture on the subject.

That brought an unexpected response from Glennie, who had yet to see Shell's reports on North Sea exploration.

"It wasn't until 1970, when I was asked to go on one of the AAPG Distinguished Lecturer tours on the North Sea sediments, that I said, 'I know nothing about them,'" he recalled.

His expertise came from studies of the ancient deserts in Europe and modern deserts in Libya and the Middle East, not from North Sea work.

"I'd been stuck with the deserts. Then I discovered that they were quoting me right and left" in internal reports about North Sea geology, he said.

More Brilliant Theories

Glennie's next assignment took him back to Oman, and into a key chapter of his life.

"I led a team mapping the Oman Mountains," he said. "In all the work previous to that, everyone had thought that all the rocks were deposited where they currently were found."

But a new theory proposed they came from elsewhere (were thrust into place), and Glennie soon agreed.

"The reason for going back to Oman was that the head of Shell's global exploration had been on a field trip to Oman in the 1960s," Glennie said.

Oman's productive area included pillow lavas, serpentinite and radiolarian chert, associated with deepwater limestones forming below the compensation depth for carbonates.

The Shell exploration chief wondered, did that combination always signal the nearby presence of hydrocarbons?

As with so many insightful and brilliant exploration theories, the answer was, "No."

"It didn't take us long to decide it was almost certainly not the case. It was pure chance," Glennie said.

The Oman mountain study did pay off in another way -- for Oman, which had to eliminate one-third of the country as exploration acreage in 1970.

"I recommended that they get rid of the mountains' acreage, and that's not been proven wrong since," he said. "I'm still working, off and on, on those mountains in Oman."

That Classic Volume

Why the Powers Medal?

Glennie reckons his desert sediments research and Oman mountains work got AAPG's attention, along with one other contribution to the industry.

"In 1981, a meeting was called and I was asked to represent Shell, to see if we could provide courses for smaller oil companies in the London area, or anywhere else in Britain, essentially," he said.

Glennie suggested a course on North Sea petroleum geology and put together a team of lecturers from the industry.

"Initially, we found we were getting over 100 for each course, doing it twice a year. We had to turn them away at the doors almost, because it was so popular," he said.

As an overview, Glennie put together the course notes, edited them and found a publisher.

That became his classic introduction to the petroleum geology of the North Sea, titled (hold on to your hat) "Petroleum Geology of the North Sea," now in its fourth edition.

"I'm told people often refer to it as the Glennie Bible or the North Sea Bible," he said. "It's been very valuable to everyone, I think."

Looking back, Glennie tied his favorite moments to the countries he visited.

"I like New Zealand, because they're a down-to-earth crowd. That's where I cut my geological teeth, if you like. And the Canadian Rockies and Arctic were fantastic," Glennie said.

"The Oman mountains have certainly been a major event in my life. I've been going back there for the past 15 years or so. I'm still fascinated with it," he added.

Glennie's nomination for the Powers Medal described him as a man of scientific flair, a geology "guru" and arguably the world's first petroleum sedimentologist.

And even now, at 79, an enthusiastic research student of petroleum geology.

There's no higher recommendation.

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