The History and the Future of Discovery Thinking

More than 20 years ago, Charles Sternbach found himself on the edge of his seat in a conference room where a handful of geologists were sharing fascinating stories about their discoveries, once thought to be out of reach. And, he walked away knowing one thing: These stories, and many more, must continue to be told.

Full of passion for exploration, challenges to be overcome and unique combinations of science, creativity and determination that made the seemingly impossible possible, these stories were awe-inspiring, Sternbach recalled. And so began his mission to keep them alive and to keep them coming in a forum he would eventually bring to AAPG called Discovery Thinking.

“The essence of Discovery Thinking is allowing individuals who made discoveries to tell their own personal stories, as they have the intimate knowledge and can share the difficulties and technical and business issues and not get lost in the numbers and in the science,” said past AAPG President Sternbach. “By sharing the stories of their success, they inspire and celebrate the potential in all of us.”

The 2019 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition marked an important anniversary of Sternbach’s efforts, as it was exactly 11 years ago that he launched Discovery Thinking at the same convention center in San Antonio – only in a much smaller conference room back then.

Since its 2008 launch, each Discovery Thinking forum has seen an average of 500 attendees – much of the time in a standing-room-only capacity – totaling approximately 10,000 attendees. In the 21 forums held at both ACE and ICE to date, 119 geoscientists have shared their stories, which no doubt have had a ripple effect around the world.

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More than 20 years ago, Charles Sternbach found himself on the edge of his seat in a conference room where a handful of geologists were sharing fascinating stories about their discoveries, once thought to be out of reach. And, he walked away knowing one thing: These stories, and many more, must continue to be told.

Full of passion for exploration, challenges to be overcome and unique combinations of science, creativity and determination that made the seemingly impossible possible, these stories were awe-inspiring, Sternbach recalled. And so began his mission to keep them alive and to keep them coming in a forum he would eventually bring to AAPG called Discovery Thinking.

“The essence of Discovery Thinking is allowing individuals who made discoveries to tell their own personal stories, as they have the intimate knowledge and can share the difficulties and technical and business issues and not get lost in the numbers and in the science,” said past AAPG President Sternbach. “By sharing the stories of their success, they inspire and celebrate the potential in all of us.”

The 2019 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition marked an important anniversary of Sternbach’s efforts, as it was exactly 11 years ago that he launched Discovery Thinking at the same convention center in San Antonio – only in a much smaller conference room back then.

Since its 2008 launch, each Discovery Thinking forum has seen an average of 500 attendees – much of the time in a standing-room-only capacity – totaling approximately 10,000 attendees. In the 21 forums held at both ACE and ICE to date, 119 geoscientists have shared their stories, which no doubt have had a ripple effect around the world.

Sternbach expressed gratitude to Discovery Thinking co-chairs, including Halbouty Award winner Ed Dolly, AAPG past presidents Paul Weimer, Ted Beaumont and others. “We set out more than a decade ago to celebrate 100 who made a difference for the AAPG Centenary. We continue to exceed that goal,” Sternbach said.

Each story told has been no less than riveting in its own way over the years, and the Discovery Thinking forums benefit current and future explorers. “The explorer holds up a prospect alongside an enviable field, weighing similarities and differences, and finally must decide – using all available information and intuition – to risk capital, to drill, and with luck, to discover a new analog for the next explorer,” he said.

ACE 2019

Following the theme of “Pioneering Discoveries, Driving Prosperity,” the 2019 ACE Discovery Thinking forum brought four oil-finders to the podium to not only discuss their landmark discoveries, but to share how the discoveries have transformed the countries in which they were found.

Maria Guedez, manager of Guyana for Exxon Mobil, shared how new discoveries of 7 Bboe will make Guyana, a country of 750,000 inhabitants, one of the wealthiest countries per capita in the Western Hemisphere, bringing infrastructure and prosperity to the region.

Susan Morrice, cofounder and chairperson of Belize Natural Energy, explained how she found first oil in Belize after the majors had walked away after 50 dry holes. A share of the surplus is being given back to the community for education and the advancement of local citizens – a community and social responsibility effort that has earned many awards.

Bill Fairhurst of the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology and president of Riverford Exploration discussed how discoveries in the ever-prolific Permian Basin not only benefit the United States, but how new technology and unconventional techniques help other countries leverage their own resources. Discoveries in the Permian Basin are becoming a great prosperity lever for countries looking to leapfrog ahead in the development of their own unconventional resources, he explained.

Carlos Macellari, director of exploration and development for Tecpetrol, shared how the Neuquen Basin is a shining example of the technology transfer that is bringing prosperity to Argentina from the first successful unconventional play outside North America. He explained how one of the keys to success has been the Argentine government and regulations that have aided energy development.

“Each speaker and their colleagues overcame significant business, technical and professional challenges,” Sternbach said. “As technology advances and younger geoscientists enter our profession, these forums provide a venue for explorers to see the personal side of success and what has been called the ‘art of exploration.’”

Giant Discoveries Memoir

Looking to the future, Sternbach and co-editors Bob Merrill (AAPG Editor) and John Dolson plan to publish an AAPG memoir that will highlight the philosophy of exploration, stories from remarkable careers, professional insights, colorful anecdotes and lessons learned on the path to success – all pertaining to giant fields and the wakening of sleeping giants from 2010-2020.

“We are seeing a resurgence in giant discoveries, and isn’t that wonderful? Because of enhanced seismic imaging, better understanding of petroleum systems, horizontal drilling and unconventional resources, this is a very exciting time for giants. They help with the ecosystem of fields of all sizes,” he said.

Many who present in the 2020 and 2021 ACE Discovery Thinking forums will be included in the memoir, one in a series of AAPG memoirs started by the late Michel T. Halbouty. But Sternbach is still on the hunt for additional stories and welcomes fellow geoscientists to contact him.

Sharing stories is an important way to enhance exploration creativity and climb the experiential learning curve quickly is to learn from firsthand accounts from those who have succeeded on that journey and to immerse in the study of analog fields, Sternbach said.

“That is why the Discovery Thinking Forum continues to provide opportunities for AAPG and its members. I believe it is a strategic advantage for AAPG,” he added. “Geologists are problem solvers and integrators. In the community of geophysicists, engineers and financiers, geologists integrate case studies that advance the success of all.”

Charles Sternbach thanks the Discovery Thinking presenters and their teams for generously sharing their stories, many of which are posted at searchanddiscovery.com, under the tab “Special Collections,” or by visiting: www.searchanddiscovery.com/specialcollections/discoverythinking.

Anyone with stories to share about giant fields can contact Charles Sternbach at or Bob Merrill at .

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