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Sneider: A Star on the Team

A Multi-Disciplinary Disciple

Houston geologist Robert Sneider and British poet John Donne share a basic philosophy: No man is an island entire of itself. It's the people that make a difference along the way.

Looking back over his long and successful career as a geologist and oil finder, AAPG's 2001 Sidney Powers Medalist is acutely aware of -- and thankful for -- the many mentors and colleagues who have influenced him throughout his journey.

Amazingly, Sneider didn't even know what geology was really all about when he switched majors from engineering his junior year in college, on the basis of a mineralogy class he crashed with his roommate.

Still, he has had a profound impact on his profession.

"I was born and raised in a seaside resort in New Jersey," Sneider said. "We had plenty of sand, but no rocks. I had no clue what geologists did, but I saw the excitement and enthusiasm of the students and instructors in that mineralogy class and I guess I was infected -- It was so different from my engineering studies."

There were just 12 undergraduate and graduate students in the geology department and six full time professors, he added -- "an enormous contrast from the engineering school where there were hundreds of students and very little one-on-one instruction.

"I decided geology was for me."

Learning From the Masters

Indeed, from that inauspicious beginning Bob Sneider has become a leader in his field -- and it would be difficult to find anyone with more enthusiasm and love for his life's work.

For his contributions to geology he is receiving AAPG's highest honor, the Sidney Powers Memorial Award, taking his place among the ranks of legendary geologists who have elevated and enhanced the profession.

Of course, jumping majors was not an easy decision. In the late 1940s money was hard to find, and Sneider was attending Rutgers University on an engineering scholarship. When he changed majors he knew he would have to get a job to help support himself.

And that turned out to be one of his first lucky breaks.

"My mineralogy professor and one of my first mentors, John Prucha, arranged for me to work with Dr. Benjamin Leonard at the U.S. Geological Survey at Princeton University, which is just a few miles from Rutgers," Sneider said. "That job allowed me to get first hand knowledge of geology and to learn from men working in the science."

But most importantly, those two early mentors displayed a passion for geology that was "infectious," Sneider said, "and I caught the bug.

"They were my models for how dedicated earth scientists apply theory to the search for mineral wealth," he added. "They instilled in me a great desire to learn about the earth -- without my even realizing it."

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Houston geologist Robert Sneider and British poet John Donne share a basic philosophy: No man is an island entire of itself. It's the people that make a difference along the way.

Looking back over his long and successful career as a geologist and oil finder, AAPG's 2001 Sidney Powers Medalist is acutely aware of -- and thankful for -- the many mentors and colleagues who have influenced him throughout his journey.

Amazingly, Sneider didn't even know what geology was really all about when he switched majors from engineering his junior year in college, on the basis of a mineralogy class he crashed with his roommate.

Still, he has had a profound impact on his profession.

"I was born and raised in a seaside resort in New Jersey," Sneider said. "We had plenty of sand, but no rocks. I had no clue what geologists did, but I saw the excitement and enthusiasm of the students and instructors in that mineralogy class and I guess I was infected -- It was so different from my engineering studies."

There were just 12 undergraduate and graduate students in the geology department and six full time professors, he added -- "an enormous contrast from the engineering school where there were hundreds of students and very little one-on-one instruction.

"I decided geology was for me."

Learning From the Masters

Indeed, from that inauspicious beginning Bob Sneider has become a leader in his field -- and it would be difficult to find anyone with more enthusiasm and love for his life's work.

For his contributions to geology he is receiving AAPG's highest honor, the Sidney Powers Memorial Award, taking his place among the ranks of legendary geologists who have elevated and enhanced the profession.

Of course, jumping majors was not an easy decision. In the late 1940s money was hard to find, and Sneider was attending Rutgers University on an engineering scholarship. When he changed majors he knew he would have to get a job to help support himself.

And that turned out to be one of his first lucky breaks.

"My mineralogy professor and one of my first mentors, John Prucha, arranged for me to work with Dr. Benjamin Leonard at the U.S. Geological Survey at Princeton University, which is just a few miles from Rutgers," Sneider said. "That job allowed me to get first hand knowledge of geology and to learn from men working in the science."

But most importantly, those two early mentors displayed a passion for geology that was "infectious," Sneider said, "and I caught the bug.

"They were my models for how dedicated earth scientists apply theory to the search for mineral wealth," he added. "They instilled in me a great desire to learn about the earth -- without my even realizing it."

'The Turning Point'

Following graduation from Rutgers, Sneider served in the U.S. Army in Korea as a front line combat engineering officer. When he returned home in 1953 he headed for the University of Wisconsin to pursue his Ph.D. in economic geology and mining engineering with the hope of working in mineral exploration.

How did a New Jersey boy wind up in Wisconsin?

Once again, Sneider thanks John Prucha, who had graduated from the University of Wisconsin and encouraged Sneider to continue his studies there.

It was uncommon in the 1950s for geology students to pursue a Ph.D. -- and most who did went into teaching. Sneider, however, knew he wanted to work in industry.

"All the professors I had that were the most knowledgeable on applying the theory we learned had worked in industry prior to teaching," he recalled. "That applied learning was far more interesting to me than the pure academics."

In 1956 Sneider completed his degree and was ready to take on the world. There was just one problem: The mining business was at an all time low and jobs were scarce.

"I did have a job offer in South Africa," he said, "but I had just married Ramona and I couldn't envision dragging her off to Africa. Naturally I was very disappointed."

But once again fate, luck or whatever you want to call it intervened.

"A classmate of mine, Ray Murray, had gone to work for Shell Development in Houston the year before and he called to tell me his boss Gus Archie was coming to Madison to recruit for the company," Sneider said. "I figured, why not? If nothing else I would get a free dinner."

Meeting Archie, he said, proved to be "the turning point of my professional life -- it brought me to the petroleum industry and was the beginning of one of the most important relationships in my career. Gus Archie was my friend and mentor throughout my 17 years with Shell."

As a result of Archie's profound influence on his life, Sneider has a strong sense of responsibility to mentor young geologists.

"I am always aware of my duty to give back to my profession and work very hard to be a mentor to younger geologists.

"When word got out I would receive the Sidney Powers Memorial Award I got calls and notes of congratulations from many people, but the ones that touched me the most were from people who mentioned how I had helped them with a problem along the way.

"I know how much I owe Archie and others for my success, and I definitely want to give something back."

Indeed, several years ago Sneider established the Gus Archie Fund within the AAPG Foundation, which provides four grants annually to graduate students in petrophysics and development geology.

Sneider challenges all practicing geologists to reach out to younger geologists.

"Today everybody is working hard on short deadlines and technology has isolated us," he said, "but we must remember we can learn invaluable lessons from other people -- and the industry will benefit greatly from the sharing of experience."

Ahead of His Time

Another of Sneider's lifelong philosophies is an outgrowth of the strong mentors he was blessed with as a young professional: Years before "multi-disciplinary teams" became an industry catch phrase, Sneider was already a passionate advocate of the concept.

"In the military I was involved with my first multi-disciplinary team," he said. "Our combat engineering company was made up of soldiers with a variety of skills, so we could do a lot of different things, from building bridges and roads to laying minefields to blowing up bridges and roads. I saw the value of that team approach all those years ago, and it was an important lesson in my life."

In his first assignment with Shell -- as a development geologist in the huge Elk City Field in the Anadarko Basin -- Sneider was allowed to recruit from both the company's geology and engineering departments to help develop the reservoir characterization models and a development program.

"Also, in the early years I worked on offshore lease sales," he continued. "People from geology, geophysics, petrophysics and engineering had a very short time to come up with bid prices, recovery factors and other information for a sale, so we had to work together. That experience reinforced the importance of crossing professional boundaries.

"Today that's called a multi-discipline team approach," he smiled. "Back then it was just called good old common sense.

"It's easy to look back today and see that the team approach was sensible, but it wasn't that simple," Sneider continued. "When we went across organizational lines many managers got very uncomfortable.

"I am gratified to note that many companies today see the importance of bringing people from different disciplines together to solve problems."

Hanging On To Success

When Sneider and Larry Meckel left Shell in 1974 to form Sneider and Meckel Associates, their idea was to form a small multidisciplinary group to explore for hydrocarbons and offer consulting services. The two had reached a point in their careers where they were either going to have to make the jump to management positions within Shell or look for other opportunities.

"We weren't really interested in managing people," Sneider said. "We both wanted to continue technical work."

Again, fate smiled. Not long after setting up their new firm the Arab oil embargo hit the world, creating instant jobs for geologists. Plus, the two didn't count on the enormous number of ex-Shell alumni in the industry who would offer work.

"The 'Shell mafia,' as we call it, is still strong," he said, "even to this day. We all keep up communication, and that networking really benefited Larry and I early in our business."

Through the 1970s Sneider and Meckel Associates was involved in projects that resulted in the discovery of over a dozen new fields, including the giant Elmsworth deep basin gas area of western Canada in conjunction with Canadian Hunter Exploration.

In 1981 Sneider founded Robert M. Sneider Exploration. Looking back, Sneider said the industry downturn of the 1980s actually provided another opportunity.

"We had put together a talented team of people to do exploration work," he said. "We didn't want to lose these people during the downturn, so we went back to my roots and started acquiring marginal producing properties and increasing production through better reservoir recovery methods and application of reservoir characterization.

"Our acquisition program was more successful than our exploration efforts because we viewed acquisitions like explorers," he continued. "We worked trends. We knew which fields were good and why they were good. We learned which companies did things well and they became our analogs.

"Today it seems like we were pretty smart, but in reality all we were trying to do was hang on to our talented group of professionals."

Words of Wisdom

Sneider's enthusiasm for his profession spilled over into this private life as well. He and his wife, Ramona, have three children and all of them have been involved in the petroleum industry.

"In the early days of my Shell years we moved around a lot," Sneider said. "I know some children from other families dreaded the moves, but we tried to make it an exciting adventure. We would highlight the things we would see and do in the new place. We went on lots of family field trips. Also, many exciting people visited our home, so the children were exposed to that excitement and knowledge."

His son, John, is a geologist and partner in Robert M. Sneider Exploration.

Sneider acknowledges the importance of AAPG to his career.

"The people you meet through AAPG are important contacts and sources of knowledge," he said. "One of the first talks I ever heard was by Michel T. Halbouty at a Houston Geological Society luncheon. He was an inspiration, and through the years I have been enriched by the professionals I have had the good fortune to meet through AAPG.

"Also, AAPG has been my source of continuing education from the beginning," Sneider added, "and that was doubly important since I came from a mining background and knew virtually nothing about the petroleum business when I went to work at Shell.

"My commitment to learning through AAPG continues today."

He doesn't just learn; he teaches, too.

AAPG has provided a forum for Sneider to give back to the industry, and he has taught many courses for AAPG and served multiple stints as a distinguished lecturer.

"The courses I have taught have in large part been my way of paying back the men who have helped me so much through my life," he said. "People ask me why I tell people how I find hydrocarbons. I tell them I think it's important to pass along that knowledge for the greater good of society."

Reflecting on his career, Sneider has four pieces of advice for young petroleum geologists:

  • Learn the fundamentals.
  • Expose yourself to people who have been successful at finding hydrocarbons.
  • Spend time continuing to educate yourself.
  • Give back to the industry that gives you so much.

"I agree with Michel T. Halbouty's remarks in the December 2000 EXPLORER special issue ("A Century"), when he said, 'The heritage left us by the early petroleum geologists have been ignored and practically forgotten. Those geologists should be remembered not only for their achievements, but also for having been well-rounded, true geologists who applied all facets of our science to their endeavors.

'Their methods and contributions should be dusted off and restudied, and once again used as guideposts for our future thinking.'"

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