Billions of barrels to his credit

He is the doyen of petroleum geologists. For newcomers, it suffices to say that his name is associated with many of the North Sea’s major play concept discoveries totaling several billion barrels of recoverable oil.
This article appeared in Vol. 1, No. 3 - 2004


Richard Hardman, geologist by profession, explorationist by heart, has built a successful carrieer in international exploration over the past 40 years. His thirst for finding ever more oil and gas has led him to a multitude of geological and cultural environments, and he has left lasting impressions on colleagues in countries like Libya, Kuwait, Colombia and Norway. In the UK, his career encompasses almost the whole of the exploration history of the North Sea.

A world class source rock

Richard Hardman CBE, geologist, explorationist and winner of the 2003 William Smith medal. 5 of his 10 early years with BP were in Colombia doing field mapping. "I understood quickly that there are two types of geologists in the field; on one hand the geologists looking for physical facts and on the other hand the mental observers. Guess which category I am in! I believe the key is to build models in your mind that you can take advantage of in other situations."

Richard’s great good fortune was to be engaged in exploration of a basin which had a world class source rock, the Kimmeridge Clay, connected to large structures in which highly productive reservoir rocks were present.

"My North Sea career was from 1969 to 1998," says Richard. "In order to have a successful career as an explorationist one needs to become associated with a basin when it is still immature but which over the course of time yields prolific reserves of hydrocarbons. The North Sea is one such basin. In 1969, before any commercial fields had been discovered, there was, however, no certainty whether this would be the case."

These days Richard Hardman is engaged part time as technical director with FX Energy, primarily involved in exploration in Poland. FX Energy has production in Nevada, but has also obtained licenses in Poland. He was brought in to assist with exploration based on his knowledge of the southern gas fields in the North Sea and is working on the palaeogeography of the Zechstein. The Faeroe Islands is another target area for FX Energy.

Hierarchy is the enemy of exploration

Richard’s unique ability to analyse data and to think differently, always questioning conventional geological thinking, has resulted in his name being associated with many of the North Sea’s major new play concept discoveries, including the 1,050 million barrel Valhall Field (Norway), the South Arne Field (Denmark); the Hutton and NW Hutton fields (UK); the 500 million barrel Scott Field (UK) in the Central North Sea and the very subtle traps seen in the Fife, Fergus and Flora fields.

When we get on to the topics of exploration and discoveries, Richard quickly grabs pen and paper for a ‘back of the envelope’ description of his ideas and ‘mental models’. "One of my themes is knowledge transfer. It is surprising how often existing knowledge is not used. I believe transfer of knowledge takes place through people. The important point is to let people apply their mental models in new environments."

Richard offers this as his own explanation for being successful: "Enthusiasm and a determination to take as optimistic a view as possible. At the race track the way to win is by backing the winner. No one knows who is going to win and so you must back all the horses that are likely to win. The same is true for exploration". Many oil companies have a risk adverse culture. In Amerada it was considered correct to take risk. The result is that the company became the third largest producer in the UK," says Richard modestly.

Nevertheless he is very cautious of taking all the credit himself. "Several of the exploration projects I have been involved in that turned out to be successes like the Scott and Flora fields have been follow-ups of discoveries made by other companies," he says, "but often with a new mental model introduced."

"It’s important to create a permissive environment. Hierarchy is the enemy of exploration. Team members need to be encouraged to express their viewpoints. As a manager I used to organize "discussion group dinners". Typically we had 10 minutes presentations on specific topics, but the important point was to get all team members to express their frank viewpoints on issues that were important to them."

"Age and experience coupled with youth and brilliance is what you want".

The William Smith Medal

Last year Richard received the prestigious William Smith Medal by The Geological Society, which is given each year for the highest achievement in applied geology, or according to the bylaws, "for excellence in contributions to applied and economic aspects of the science". The medal was first awarded in 1977, and it commemorates the 'father of stratigraphy', William Smith, who in 1815 completed "the map that changed the world".

Sir Mark Moody Stuart, former Shell Chairman, said when Richard was awarded the Medal: "Richard Hardman has spent a whole career enthusiastically linking geological insights to petroleum exploration, achieving through his boundless drive and energy, exploration results that have benefited industry and academia even more than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. After 10 years learning the ropes at BP, Richard became from 1969 one of the most conspicuous figures in North Sea oil and gas exploration with Amoco, and latterly Amerada Hess."

To this, Richard replied: "Oil and gas exploration is an industry vital to the wellbeing of the Western world. Too often it is pilloried; and too little is it praised. As one who has played a small part in the efforts that have seen this country self-sufficient in oil and gas the medal is accepted, as a token of regard for an industry in which I have spent my working life."

His dedication to geology is certainly confirmed by his colleagues and friends of many years. "He is extremely creative and enthusiastic. He is unconventional and like a firework to work with," says one colleague of Richard.

The use of improved knowledge

The young Richard Hardman spent 3 years at Oxford. He graduated in 1959 and went directly to the oil industry.

"After narrowly missing a First, I decided I was better fitted for a career in practical rather than theoretical geology. Some tempting Ph.D. projects were dangled in front of me but in the end I took the less glamorous option of joining BP. For a time faced with the humdrum life as a geologist at the bottom of the career ladder I thought that perhaps I had made a mistake. After a posting to the new exploration province of Libya came the realization that perhaps the Ph.D. option would have involved a similar amount of what is today known as grunt work."

Being introduced to geology in the late 1950’s, Richard has been in a favourite position to follow the rapid development in geological sciences through four decades.

"When I was a geology student continental drift and plate tectonics was not yet an accepted theory. In those days the job of the geologist was primarily to describe rocks. The continental drift theory made it possible to understand and explain local geology in a regional setting. Without this realization many of the exploration successes would not have happened over the years that I have followed the industry," Richard says.

"Let us take an example from the North Sea. The Forties Sands, the reservoirs for the giant Forties Field with reserves of 2.2 billion barrels of oil, were shed off the East Shetland Platform. In turn it was uplifted as the African Plate and European Plates separated. This we did not know at the time the Forties Field was discovered. Today, however, we are looking for reservoirs in sands derived from both Greenland and the East Shetland Platform west of Shetland. I believe some of the Norwegian fields that have been most recently discovered also have sand sources to the west. So the theory of Plate Tectonics is used everyday. Still, it is not possible to prove that a field has been discovered purely as a result of the theory."

Dumping of sand

"Another area where development in geoscience has been critical for the oil industry is our understanding of the distribution of sand in sedimentary basins. Traditional thinking said that sediments changed from sand to mud when you moved from near shore to deeper water. These days we know a lot more about the distribution of sedimentary material, which is helping us with the development of depositional models and our prospecting job".

"Some years ago a flume box and a fast camera were developed in which turbidite flows could be replicated and matched to surface outcrops. This understanding has proved very beneficial. Today exploration takes place for sands dumped at the foot of slopes. This is in part the explanation for the successes in the Deep Water Gulf of Mexico where sand thicknesses have been found which were never dreamed of."

"This type of improved geoscientific understanding through laboratory experiments and field work combined with the improved mapping with 3D seismic has been vital for exploration success. It is also an interesting observation that today we have a much better knowledge and understanding of the geology relevant for petroleum exploration in offshore areas than onshore, simply because marine 3D seismic is so much cheaper than land seismic."

"On the other hand you have areas like geochemistry where it is difficult to say that the investments have been justified," says Richard.

"At the time that geochemistry was all the fashion, I happened to hear a paper which showed statistically that geochemistry had never paid for itself in terms of hydrocarbons found. I have found out nothing over the years that would make me change my mind. Further, there are two fields I am ashamed of not finding that were found by those who ignored the geochemical evidence, namely Beatrice in the Inner Moray Firth and Priannou in offshore Greece. Geochemistry also predicted that all the hydrocarbons found West of Shetland would be gas. Now we know better."

A driving force

It is clear that Richard Hardman feels at home in the historic surroundings of the Geological Society. Among fellow members, pictures and sculptures of famous geologist like Murchison and Smith and bookshelves filled with both historical and modern geology, he enthusiastically talks about the importance of the Society for the industry and the community at large.

Richard is dedicated to the societies, and in particular to the Geological Society in Burlington house at Piccadilly. Founded in 1807, it is the oldest geological society in the world. Hardman has served as President of the Geological Society as well as the chairman of the Petroleum Society of Great Britain and President of the European Region of AAPG Europe.

Richard’s reforming zeal has, according to his acquaintances, transformed the Geological Society through several key positions over the years. He has also been chairman of several influential committees both in science and its application, and he has organised many landmark conferences.

Beyond petroleum

Our conversation is interrupted by the ring tone of Richard’s mobile phone followed by an engaged discussion with a contact involved in the planning of a seminar on the technical and political aspects of alternative energy sources.

"Life is a great gift. My philosophy is to enjoy life. That does not mean that we should not help our fellow humans. I am not the type of person who likes to go on a cruise and be passive. I want to be positively engaged, also on vacation." says Richard, just back from a "fascinating" field trip in the Caucasus – "a great opportunity to build new mental models." 

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