Michael Forrest: A Career of Bright Spots

Sidney Powers Memorial Award

Michael C. Forrest has been in the industry for more than five decades, first with Shell and then with Maxus, so one could start at any number of points in discussing his impact on geology. Perhaps the best place, though, is the eight-year period that began in 1967 when, at Shell, Forrest recognized the relationship between seismic amplitudes and the presence of hydrocarbons. It was called “bright spots,” also known as “direct hydrocarbon indicators.”

Though he dismisses the title, Forrest is known as the “Father of Bright Spots.”

“’Bright spot’ in the late ‘60s,” Forrest said, “was an observation of a strong seismic reflection that corresponded to a closure and had down-dip conformance to structural contour that could be related to a possible hydrocarbon/water contact, with the assumption the velocity and density of a hydrocarbon sand would be lower than a water-bearing sand.”

Forrest now has another title to his name: this year’s Sidney Powers Memorial Award recipient – AAPG’s highest honor, given in recognition of distinguished and outstanding contributions to, or achievements in, petroleum geology.

“Unbelievable,” said Forrest about receiving the award. “It’s a great honor.”

A Bright Discovery

When asked about the seminal moments in his career, one might expect him to talk about DHI, but Forrest remembers something that happened ten years earlier.

“The biggest career change in my life was in 1959 when a Shell manager (name of BB Hughson, now deceased) transferred me from an onshore south Louisiana seismic crew to the Gulf of Mexico Marine Division,” he said.

Why was this moment so special?

“I learned how to interpret seismic data and relate to geology.”

Those from that era still loom large.

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Michael C. Forrest has been in the industry for more than five decades, first with Shell and then with Maxus, so one could start at any number of points in discussing his impact on geology. Perhaps the best place, though, is the eight-year period that began in 1967 when, at Shell, Forrest recognized the relationship between seismic amplitudes and the presence of hydrocarbons. It was called “bright spots,” also known as “direct hydrocarbon indicators.”

Though he dismisses the title, Forrest is known as the “Father of Bright Spots.”

“’Bright spot’ in the late ‘60s,” Forrest said, “was an observation of a strong seismic reflection that corresponded to a closure and had down-dip conformance to structural contour that could be related to a possible hydrocarbon/water contact, with the assumption the velocity and density of a hydrocarbon sand would be lower than a water-bearing sand.”

Forrest now has another title to his name: this year’s Sidney Powers Memorial Award recipient – AAPG’s highest honor, given in recognition of distinguished and outstanding contributions to, or achievements in, petroleum geology.

“Unbelievable,” said Forrest about receiving the award. “It’s a great honor.”

A Bright Discovery

When asked about the seminal moments in his career, one might expect him to talk about DHI, but Forrest remembers something that happened ten years earlier.

“The biggest career change in my life was in 1959 when a Shell manager (name of BB Hughson, now deceased) transferred me from an onshore south Louisiana seismic crew to the Gulf of Mexico Marine Division,” he said.

Why was this moment so special?

“I learned how to interpret seismic data and relate to geology.”

Those from that era still loom large.

“The Shell hero for most geophysicists was Billy Flowers (deceased) – he was (general manager of) geophysics for many years and ended his career as exploration and production vice president in the New Orleans division in 1985,” Forrest recalled.

Forrest is now one of those figures himself. In fact, past AAPG President Paul Weimer, who is currently the Bruce D. Benson Endowed Chair and director of the Energy and Minerals Applied Research Center for the Department of Geological Sciences of the University of Colorado in Boulder, said Forrest is one of the most influential geoscientists of his generation in the area of global exploration and development.

Forrest is flattered and wants to dial it back.

“Overstated,” he said.

“A major reason I am recognized for bright spots,” he said, returning to the subject from which nobody will untangle his name, “is my Shell Oil co-workers were very skeptical of identifying hydrocarbon bearing sands on seismic for several. At that time, seismic was used to make structure maps of the subsurface and using seismic amplitudes to identify gas and pays was a huge paradigm shift. The so-called ‘digital revolution’ in seismic processing in the late 1960s also was very important for measuring changes in amplitude. After Shell experts confirmed the petrophysics and Shell management committed to using bright spots to rank and risk exploration prospects, my co-workers gave me credit – and the story has continued and even enhanced during the past 50 years,” Forrest explained.

That, according to those who know the history, is because it’s true – hence the Powers Medal.

“I have been told others recognized shallow seismic amplitudes related to shallow gas (considered low priority) in the mid-1960s, but companies did not follow-up – and we know the Russians were using seismic to map gas zones in the ‘60s,” he added.

The major difference between the two approaches, Forrest explained, was the Shell staff made huge technical contributions, and management used bright spots to successfully bid on Gulf of Mexico prospects using probability risk analysis. The company was confident bright spots could identify both gas and oil pays.

“Some people thought bright spots were only related to gas pays. Incorrect, as oil has gas in solution (called GOR – gas/oil/ratio), called ‘associated gas’ during oil production,” he explained.

Bright Spots and High Spots

But his career – and this is important – was not just about bright spots. He has made it his business to both promote and fundraise for professional organizations, like AAPG. And he wants you to know he hasn’t done it alone. Of his entire career – his successes, his work with various organizations – he said it was the result of good teamwork.

He shuts out the bad news, the bad memories, so when he looks back on his career, he does not think of the ones that got away, the dry holes.

“All highs – a fun and rewarding career,” he answered when asked to chronicle the highs and lows of his long career.

For Forrest, it was the determination, the confidence in his work, and the benefit of working for a company where things like that were rewarded.

“Shell Offshore always had the reputation of being a geophysical driven company – I think we were always a step in front of the industry. During the late 1950s to 1990, Shell had its own seismic acquisition boats – we considered that an advantage until the contractors started getting data near similar quality, but especially at a lower cost. We also excelled at teamwork between geologists and geophysicists,” he said.

Forrest knows that nothing much happens in the profession without intellectual curiosity.

“My friends tell me I have a high interest in geophysics and geology – especially in reviewing and understanding data. Same as curiosity – very important.”

Of all the changes in the profession – and he’s seen many of them – he pinpoints one in particular.

“The biggest technical change in geophysics,” he said, “has been the huge advancements in seismic imaging – required in some difficult geology plays such as subsalt. But seismic interpretation to help understand geology is a very important key to successful exploration.”

There’s something else, too.

“All geoscientists have to deal with the oil price downturns and the cyclic business,” he added.

Geology First

Forrest is 84 now, so one could be forgiven for wondering how much longer he wants to do this. How much passion does he have left?

Enough to send an email the morning after the interview was completed to clear things up.

“Woke up this morning realizing I should have written a couple of paragraphs,” he said.

There is the ongoing relationship with the Rose & Associates DHI Consortium, which he has led for the past 18 years with associates Rocky Roden and Roger Holeywell, and its work regarding AVO technology – amplitude versus offset.

His message continued:

“The consortium has been very satisfying for Rocky, Roger and me as we have contributed to the understanding and improvement of the use of geophysical data integrated with geology to assess the risk on DHI prospects. I like to state ‘geology first’ and ‘it’s all about the rocks.’

A member of the SEG Foundation board, Forrest is also now helping to raise funds for Geoscientists Without Borders for an educational program for students and early professionals called “EVOLVE.”

“I still have energy, passion and ideas for geophysics, especially seismic interpretation,” said Forrest.