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
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
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
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
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
“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,
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.
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,”
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
He’s ready for the follow-up.
“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,
“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
“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,”
As long as, one imagines, they don’t
spend too much time watching sports.