The Importance of Being Gradual

Leslie B. Magoon: Sidney Powers Memorial Award

The moment Leslie B. Magoon was told he had won the 2021 Sidney Powers Memorial Award, he was speechless.

“When Rick Fritz, president of AAPG, called to inform me, there was dead silence on my end and stunned amazement,” said Magoon, an industry veteran of more than five decades.

Presently a senior research geologist with the United States Geological Survey – he’s been with USGS for more than 30 years – Magoon simply never considered himself in the running for such a high honor. From a man who, along with Wallace G. Dow, compiled and edited “The Petroleum System: From Source To Trap” in 1994 – a seminal publication in the industry that is still used today, as well as someone who has successfully traversed the ups and downs of a profession since the mid ‘60s, both championing and challenging its precepts in places as diverse as the Rocky Mountains, Colombia, Cook Inlet, the North Slope and Malaysia, he shouldn’t have been surprised.

The only surprise is that it took this long.

Patience and the Petroleum System

Magoon graduated from the University of Oregon, with a bachelor’s in biology in 1964, and then in 1966 with a master’s in geology. Through the decades, he had a stellar career both in industry, associations and academia. His first job out of school was with Shell Oil Company. Within a few years he became the company’s lead investigator in the Ventura-Santa Barbara Basin source rock and migration study, the first investigation of its type in exploration for this company.

“In a way, I was a pioneer in this part of petroleum exploration and was very fortunate in being able to pursue it my entire career,” he said, attributing his good fortune to his studies in both biology and geology.

That pursuit and his willingness to consider aspects of petroleum geology not yet in the mainstream led him to appreciate the importance of patience.

“Consider that I formalized the basis of the petroleum system in 1981, but it took until the 1991 annual AAPG meeting before explorationists realized that we were talking and writing about something that was different from plays, prospects and basin analysis,” Magoon related.

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The moment Leslie B. Magoon was told he had won the 2021 Sidney Powers Memorial Award, he was speechless.

“When Rick Fritz, president of AAPG, called to inform me, there was dead silence on my end and stunned amazement,” said Magoon, an industry veteran of more than five decades.

Presently a senior research geologist with the United States Geological Survey – he’s been with USGS for more than 30 years – Magoon simply never considered himself in the running for such a high honor. From a man who, along with Wallace G. Dow, compiled and edited “The Petroleum System: From Source To Trap” in 1994 – a seminal publication in the industry that is still used today, as well as someone who has successfully traversed the ups and downs of a profession since the mid ‘60s, both championing and challenging its precepts in places as diverse as the Rocky Mountains, Colombia, Cook Inlet, the North Slope and Malaysia, he shouldn’t have been surprised.

The only surprise is that it took this long.

Patience and the Petroleum System

Magoon graduated from the University of Oregon, with a bachelor’s in biology in 1964, and then in 1966 with a master’s in geology. Through the decades, he had a stellar career both in industry, associations and academia. His first job out of school was with Shell Oil Company. Within a few years he became the company’s lead investigator in the Ventura-Santa Barbara Basin source rock and migration study, the first investigation of its type in exploration for this company.

“In a way, I was a pioneer in this part of petroleum exploration and was very fortunate in being able to pursue it my entire career,” he said, attributing his good fortune to his studies in both biology and geology.

That pursuit and his willingness to consider aspects of petroleum geology not yet in the mainstream led him to appreciate the importance of patience.

“Consider that I formalized the basis of the petroleum system in 1981, but it took until the 1991 annual AAPG meeting before explorationists realized that we were talking and writing about something that was different from plays, prospects and basin analysis,” Magoon related.

The culmination of that work became was unveiled in the AAPG Memoir 60, “The Petroleum System,” for which he and Dow received the R. H. Dott, Sr. Award. The book provides an integrated look at the processes of petroleum generation in active source rocks, migration and accumulation in traps.

“For all us geologists, the recognition that plate tectonics evolved from an idea to a data-driven concept was substantial because it created a framework in which to place all our work,” he said, citing the gradual evolution of reflection seismic from single coverage to three-dimensional coverage. This occurred, primarily because computer technology was able to process all that data. As technology improved, the discipline of determining the actual age of a rock unit progressed from using paleontology and palynology to radioactive age dating.

Petroleum geochemistry started using spore coloration to determine thermal maturity, Rock-Eval pyrolysis and biomarkers, and these analytical techniques were also used to determine the richness and quality of organic matter needed to expel petroleum.

“All these disciplines feed into threedimensional computer modeling through time to better understand the kinematic development of a petroleum system,” said Magoon, who is a professor of basin and petroleum system modeling for Stanford University’s Industrial Affiliates Program – a program he helped develop and grow.

“Over the last 55 years of my career, all these disciplines evolved and were used in the petroleum system concept and method,” he added.

He discovered that the whole of the geology is in fact greater than the sum of its parts.

“In a very real way this explains why the petroleum system has caught on with our industry, because all these tools contributed to a better understanding of the oil and gas fluid system,” he added.

Along the way, he has been influenced by some of the heaviest hitters in the field, including Archie Hood, John Castano, Pete Rose, Marlan Downey and John T. Smith from their early days at Shell, though he wants it known there are too many people to mention who have impacted his career and life.

He does want to make special note of one, though: his coauthor.

“Wally (Dow) developed and published some of the concepts in his 1994 AAPG Bulletin article on the Williston Basin. Also, he recruited some of the speakers and papers for our AAPG session and contributed significantly to the writing of Memoir 60,” he said.

Beware of Black Holes

Magoon said, in thinking about he got to this point in his life, the mantra by which he lives it, and advice he might give, it would be this: “The first is the idea of gradualism, that is, when going off in a new direction, do it gradually so that your mind and body can adjust to the new stresses. Second concept is ‘Beware of the Black Hole,’ or stay away from activities or ideas that are addictive and compelling that will eventually run and ruin your life, such as drugs, sports, gambling and the like. In other words, a little goes a long way. Last, continually test yourself and others for the truth through as many different sources available.”

He’s ready for the follow-up.

Sports?

“My wife said the same thing – ‘sports?’” he laughed, clarifying that he meant the energy it takes to be a sports fan. “Watching and following sports can be a real time-sink or a black hole, as it never ends. Playing sports is another thing because it helps the body and soul.”

And, above all, he encourages professionals to keep asking questions, keep searching.

“Too often we think we know the answer, but with a little more research our data or belief can change significantly,” he said.

Throughout his career, he has emphasized the importance of petroleum geochemistry because, “It is used to identify each petroleum system and then map the geographic and stratigraphic extent of the system. One must remember that most geologists think only about rocks, but the application of the petroleum system concept and methodology requires a paradigm shift from rocks to fluid.”

Half a century in any one field gives one a unique vantage point.

“In my years being involved with the petroleum industry in Shell, U.S. Geological Survey and at Stanford University, I have seen many ups and downs. Presently, the industry seems to be in transition from petroleum to that of energy, because of climate change there is a need to move away from the greenhouse gases created by oil and gas,” he said.

He knows the transformation will take additional decades.

“The price of oil has held and the industry is resilient so it will continue to evolve as it has over the last five decades. There will always be a need for talented geoscientists in the petroleum industry,” Magoon added.

As long as, one imagines, they don’t spend too much time watching sports.

Comments (3)

Terrific mentor and role model
It is wonderful to see this recognition of Les Magoon, who is such a terrific mentor and role model.
9/13/2021 8:06:50 AM
The Importance of Being Gradual Leslie B. Magoon: Sidney Powers Memorial Award
Les was my supervisor for a few years back when he was getting the Petroleum System concept together. I remember working on some of his figures for the book. All that hard work is finally coming to fruition! No one more deserving than him. Great boss, great man, average tennis player. Jeff Bader
9/10/2021 2:52:44 AM
The Importance of Being GradualLeslie B. Magoon: Sidney Powers Memorial Award
Well done Les. Well deserved. Rhodri
9/9/2021 6:39:26 PM