“Bill always demanded that I show him why a prospect couldn’t be great rather than why it wouldn’t work.”
That’s Jesse Sommer, one of this year’s Norman H. Foster Outstanding Explorer Award winners, talking about the lessons learned from his boss, Bill Armstrong, who is the other winner of this year’s Foster Award.
They both work for Denver-based Armstrong Oil and Gas – Armstrong is the founder and president – and the company culture encourages explorationists to not only ask the right questions but to find both the science and the art in the oil or gas play.
“I’ve always been a ‘treasure hunter’ at heart,” said Sommer, who grew up in Arizona. “I spent a lot of time following my dad around, who was an amateur prospector, looking for gold and other interesting rocks.”
Sommer said he eventually decided to make the search for those interesting rocks a career rather than just a hobby. His dream was just the first installment, though.
“When the mining industry fell into recession in late 1981, I switched to looking for oil and gas,” he said.
Sommer said he’s never stopped “treasure hunting.”
Alaska’s Pikka-Horseshoe Field
Speaking of treasure, for the company, there was no trove greater than the Pikka-Horseshoe Field on Alaska’s North Slope, which might eventually be the third largest hydrocarbon field ever discovered in the United States, behind only the Prudhoe Bay and East Texas fields.
And considering the guidelines for the Foster Award include the winners to have a discovery of a significant petroleum or mineral resources, Bill Armstrong laughs when asked about Pikka.
“It’s a big damn deal, Ha!” he said. “What we kicked off with our discovery of the Pikka Field has now turned into one of the hottest exploration plays in the world, with lots of running room. Certainly a unicorn of sorts: onshore, shallow, conventional, U.S., oil.”
He said, like all great exploration plays and discoveries that hit, there was some luck involved.
“A lot of great things have to happen, including a lot of good fortune. In the case of Pikka, we were in a really good basin with plenty of grass still on the playing field, despite industry attitude to the contrary,” Armstrong said.
It also helped because, to his mind, the North Slope of Alaska has been way underexplored, due to the domination of the basin by three majors, slow permitting, harsh conditions (cold and dark), environmental roadblocks, and long lead times – those, he said, were the negatives involved.
“The positives,” Armstrong explained, “include multiple conventional oil pays at shallow depths, thick ubiquitous mature source rocks (most fields are subtle stratigraphic traps that are difficult to see with older technologies where things could be missed), and very little well control beyond the borders of the giant fields of Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk and Alpine.”
To focus on the positives, Armstrong said, means “there is lots of room for good things to happen to you.”
When asked about the intangibles of exploration – the sense in one’s gut versus the science, he said it’s never just one or the other.
“This is such a great question. There is a truism in the oil business that 90 percent of the oil is found by 10 percent of the talent. That would certainly tilt the scale towards a high degree of art versus science as we all pretty much have access to the same science.”
Armstrong believes first and foremost all great discoveries come from the willingness of someone or some company to drill a well.
“I know it sounds trite, pick your cliche: you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t get run over by a train unless you stand on the tracks, you can’t score if you don’t shoot, likewise, you won’t find oil if you don’t drill wells,” he said.
Sommer mostly agrees.
“One of the most valuable things Bill taught me was to look for reasons to turn an idea or observation into a prospect rather than condemn it. Being curious and observant are two very important traits for explorationists. There are definitely times that a prospect ‘just feels right,’ but that feeling is usually a result of the science,” he said.
Armstrong thinks the industry these days might be a bit shell-shocked.
“Our industry is not drilling enough exploration wells, and way too many non-commercial unconventional wells,” he said.
“You can be sure of one thing: every well not drilled doesn’t find oil,” Armstrong added.
Sommer, too, said he looks for the little things when exploring – those things that stand out.
“For me, prospect ideas generally form while poring over data and doing regional analysis. It is usually a result of noticing something anomalous and asking what the significance might be,” he said.
Response to Receiving the Foster Award
The announcement of the Foster Award, for both of them, for all their confidence, took them by surprise.
“Receiving the Norman Foster is a tremendous honor,” said Sommer. “As a life-long explorationist, it is the AAPG award that resonates the most for me.”
With all the talented geoscientists in the AAPG, he said he recognizes the large role luck plays in exploration.
“To be singled out for this honor is truly humbling and gratifying,” he said, adding, “Few discoveries are the result of one person’s efforts and I have been fortunate to be part of such a great team at Armstrong.”
At the moment, Sommer said he’s retired from “showing up at the office every day, but I am still around when Bill needs me.”
When not at the office, he said he’s still out there “banging on rocks and prospecting for gold” – treasure hunting, of course.
Armstrong sees the long shadow of industry titans in the award.
“I have always watched with admiration previous Outstanding Explorer winners. I have had the privilege of knowing many of them: Clay Riddell, Bill Barrett, Mike Johnson, Susan Morrice, John Lockridge. I never in my wildest dreams thought that me and my intrepid ‘band of brothers’ would be acknowledged for such an award as we were busy keeping our heads down, working hard, having fun. There are lots of really talented people exploring around the world; being recognized for what we have done is humbling and a huge honor,” he said.
So, what’s next for Armstrong?
“I am reloading in Alaska.”
Something about those unicorns.