In a case of nature and nurture,Thomas D. Barrow ’s career choice seems almost inevitable. Born Dec. 27, 1924, he was the grandson of an early-day California gold miner and the son of geologist parents.
Maybe an appreciation for things geological was woven into his DNA. Certainly a passion for the science and practice of petroleum geology was fostered throughout his childhood.
“Mom took me to run well samples at the age of eight,” he recalled.
On car trips, his parents “would talk geology the whole time.”
His father, L.T. Barrow, was Humble’s chief geologist (1929) and later chairman of the board (1937), retiring in 1955.
“Dad’s favorite activity was to drive to the scene of the latest blowout and ask the people there how and why it happened,” Barrow said. “I got a real appreciation for high pressure.”
His mother took him to Europe, always pointing out geological facts and features during their travels.
With this head start, Barrow forged ahead, earning a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering and a master’s in geology from the University of Texas at Austin and his Ph.D. from Stanford University.
Honing his management skills, Barrow became a triple threat – scientist, engineer, businessman.
The stage was set, and over the next four decades Barrow would be a player in some of the century’s major discoveries – Prudhoe Bay, offshore California, North Sea, Malaysia and East Texas.
An early example of Barrow’s “outside the box” approach to problems came while exploring offshore Santa Barbara, Calif.
Seismic “was not real helpful,” he said. From the surface, Barrow could see outcrops in the shallow waters “if we could just get down there and map them.”
Barrow hit upon the idea of using divers. As fortune would have it, Barrow had some geologist friends who were trained aqualung divers. He hired them on their days off, flew them to the coast and spent Saturdays and Sundays mapping the sea floor.
Equipped with balloons and sample bags, the divers swam compass traverses, noting the strike and dip of the outcrops and sending samples to the surface by balloon.
In a boat above, Barrow followed the divers’ bubbles and noted the locations using his skills as a U.S. Navy navigator (active duty 1943-46 and naval reserve 1946-61).
As a result, Humble developed a “decent set of maps” from Ventura to Point Conception – a “major advantage in competing for bids,” Barrow said. The area eventually produced one large field discovery and two smaller fields.
It was only one chapter in his very event-filled career.
♦ As vice president in charge of exploration for Exxon, Barrow said he “didn’t think much of the idea” of exploring for oil in frigid Alaskan waters. But when coastal maps showed “a big nose plunging off to the left,” Barrow revised his thinking.
“I recognized the possibilities,” he said, and the result was the first successful well in Prudhoe Bay.
♦ As a vice president at Esso, Barrow picked a location in Australia’s Bass Strait.
“It was too deep, they said.”
Barrow said that instead of building a platform he could bring a ship to the site and drill the well from a floater. His determination in the face of naysayers produced another success.
♦ Bidding for Exxon on North Sea areas in partnership with Shell, “I liked one prospect and the Shell representative didn’t. I finally said, ‘I feel differently than you – can we bid on this alone?’ The Shell rep said, ‘Are you kidding?’ I said I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t serious.”
His counterpart at Shell acquiesced to Barrow’s determination, and the debated prospect produced the first successful well in the British North Sea.
Well ... nobody’s perfect.
Asked about frustrations in his career, Barrow chuckled and said, “Give me a few minutes – You’re asking a man to remember his failures!
“We chased some ideas in eastern Oregon and Washington for a time,” he said. “We drilled one deep well; we got no shows.”
Yesterday, Today …
Barrow today finds himself in the position of connecting the dots that comprise his climb in the science and industry.
“It’s not the same as when I was growing up,” Barrow said, although “looking at today’s stock market, the industry seems pretty healthy.
“You can still make money ... (but) oil is going to be harder to find (and) you’re going into more expensive environments,” he said.
Advances in 3-D seismic and other techniques will aid the search, he said.
“Geology really hasn’t changed much, but you have more control today.”
If there’s one special thing about Barrow’s success, it is that he was never too specialized.
“I had a good background ... with an undergraduate degree in petroleum engineering,” he said. “I could translate science into management and dollars.
“I understood minerals management,” he said.
Kennecott “wouldn’t give me stock options, so I went out and bought a lot of stock,” he recalled. “I turned Kennecott around, and a few years later sold it to Sohio. I quadrupled my investment.”
… and Tomorrow
Thomas and Janice Barrow have shared the fruits of their success along the way.
The School of Earth Science at Stanford bears his name, and a scholarship fund honors his mother.
The Barrow Conference Room at the University of Texas at Austin celebrates his father’s career in name and photos.
Like his father, Barrow is a longtime supporter and contributor to AAPG and similar organizations.
“We have tried to spread our wealth in ways that make sense to us,” he said.
“It’s good to help the industry. We want to see that our knowledge – at least whatever isn’t too confidential – gets spread around.”