The Oil Detectives

By assembling an experienced staff and coordinating affiliates, in just four years, Marcio Mello has built a service company that has no boundaries. Along with his Vice-President, Nilo Azambuja, they are ready to tackle some of the industry's toughest problems in the search for new oil and gas deposits.
This article appeared in Vol. 5, No. 4 - 2008


Dr. Nilo Azambuja recently retired from Petrobras after 31 years to become Vice-President of HRT. Nilo is an expert in stratigraphy and sedimentology, with a PhD from Imperial College, London, and has extensively studied the passive Atlantic margin and Brazilian Paleozoic basins. While at Petrobras, Dr. Azambuja was the head of basin modeling, Exploration Manager at the Research Center-CENPES, instructor of field work, and a professor of stratigraphy applied to petroleum systems. He is currently the President of AAPG Latin American Region. Photo: Tom Smith "We work much like a large city's crime scene investigation unit (CSI) made famous on many television shows," says Dr. Nilo Azambuja, Vice-President of High Resolution Technology and Petroleum (HRT). "A crime can be solved by these multidisciplinary units by finding a single drop of blood or getting DNA from a single hair left behind. In our business, a small detail can solve the most complex problem."  

"Petroleum exploration requires the same multidisciplinary approach," Nilo continues, "the need to integrate all the data available requires experts to go deep into each technology and requires a free exchange of ideas. Experienced geoscientists are necessary for these analyses to yield the most correct results."

Reducing Exploration Risk

Dr. Marcio Mello is President and founder of HRT, During his 24 years with Petrobras, he developed specialized studies regarding petroleum systems for sedimentary basins of Latin America and Africa and has published over 200 papers on the geology and geochemistry of these areas. He is also a professor of petroleum geochemistry and petroleum systems for several universities in Brazil. Dr. Mello was the founder and first (and current) President of the Brazilian Association of Petroleum Geologists and a past President of AAPG Latin America Region. Photo: Tom Smith "Oil companies are facing difficult challenges in finding new oil and gas deposits. Most frontier areas pose considerable risks with very high costs, whether in the deep or ultra-deep offshore plays, the Arctic, or the remote onshore basins that have little in the way of data," says Dr. Mello.  

"We have built a company that is knowledge-based," adds Nilo. "This is where our real strength lies. Many of our geoscientists have over 30 years of experience. Our second strong point is our Laboratory; we can get fast, accurate analyses using state of the art equipment. Finally, by fully integrating the skills necessary to do detailed basin modeling including geochemistry, biostratigraphy, seismic interpretation, structural geology, biology, oceanography, environmental licensing and monitoring, exploration risks can be reduced."  

"A good example is found in the recent pre-salt discoveries that I have been predicting since 2002," claims Dr. Mello. (In fact, since 2002, he has given more than 10 presentations and published several articles on the pre-salt potential earning him the nickname ‘Mr. Go DEEP'.) "Using our proprietary technology such as oil slick satellite detection associated with piston core surface geochemistry, oil and gas DNA analyses, and seismic reprocessing, allowed us to better understand the elements and processes that control giant and supergiant oil and gas deposits in this frontier. Interpretation of all data are put together to supply input for building a fully integrated 3-D compositional petroleum system basin model, for this and other frontier basins in Latin America and West Africa."

The importance of giving back

Field work is Nilo Azambuja’s first love. He is pictured here working in the Amazon basin. Photo: Nilo Azambuja While working for Petrobras, both Marcio and Nilo were given the education and working experience that would set them apart from many other working geoscientists.

"Some very positive developments for geoscientists were initiated by Petrobras in the 70s," says Nilo. "Carlos Walter (appointed Petrobras Director in 1979) was an outstanding Brazilian geologist instrumental in changing the way Petrobras geoscientists received training and education in petroleum geology. Both Marcio and I benefited from the programs he started. I went to London for my doctorate while Marcio attended Bristol. We both received a first rate education and Petrobras gave us varied assignments to round out our careers."  

"Furthering my education allowed my career to take off into new territories," says Nilo. "I had field experiences all over the world. I really believe you must see the rocks; you must have this experience to be a geologist."  

Another big part of Carlos's philosophy was to give back. "Marcio and I trained geologists in war torn Angola for 3 years, in addition to training Pemex, Ecopetrol and Venzuelan geoscientists," recalls Nilo. "Angola was a tough experience with curfews and the constant threat of violence, but we turned out some students that have very good positions with oil companies and with Sonangol."

Building the Foundation

After finishing his PhD in petroleum geochemistry at Bristol University, Marcio went back to Petrobras to form the best and most complete laboratory and petroleum system group in Latin America (of Petrobras/CEGEQ Center of Excellencein Geochemistry, Petrobras research center). With Marcio's leadership, more than 120 experts started to apply the petroleum system approach in most sedimentary basins of Latin America and West Africa. Support from this unit went to most of the Latin American National Oil companies, not only in oil and gas exploration, but in environmental issues as well.  

"The experience at Petrobras helped me build a knowledge base about active petroleum systems present in the Southern Hemisphere," says Marcio, "and serves as the foundation for starting my new companies".  

Taking risks

Marcio Mello working in the new HRT laboratories, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: HRT While Marcio's working experience provided him with a great wealth of knowledge on petroleum systems, it was his younger years that provided him with the spirit of adventure to start a new company.  

"I think that to be a guy that lived a life as a big fisherman and diver, all around the Rivers of the Amazon jungle, gave me experience of adventure without being afraid of risks", says Marcio. "When I started my early career at Petrobras I had worked some years as surface geologist, first at the Onshore Recôncavo Basin, and later on the oil rigs in Cumuruxatiba, Jequitinhonha and Campos Basin. In such environments a young geologist 22 years old could make a lot of hard decisions and fail. Very early in my professional life I was put in front of the most difficult decisions a geologist could face in the petroleum industry. There, I have learned to make decisions in less than a millisecond. I was wise and lucky enough to be the right person in the right place."  

Just as he established a leading geochemical facility for Petrobras, it did not take Dr. Mello long to make his presence felt outside the confines of the large, state owned company. Upon leaving Petrobras, he started three companies that would, in just four years, become the most complete group of laboratories in Latin America. Analytical Solutions (AS), Geochemical Solutions (GSI), and Petroleum and Environmental Geosciences (PEG) would employ 400 professionals in the cutting edge laboratories all over Brazil. He left GSI and sold interests in both other companies in 2003/2004.  

"After I sold interests in the other companies, I hit the road full speed," comments Marcio. "It took just four days, not years as with the other companies, to start a new oil and gas exploration and environmental services company of which I called High Resolution Technology and Petroleum (HRT). My goal was to create the best petroleum system expert consultant and oil service company around the South Atlantic realm."

Different Company and Leaders

Entering the 7th floor of a modern office building overlooking Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, you know you are entering the offices of a very different company. You take your shoes off and into the slippers at the doorway; geologists, geophysicists, and geochemists are working side by side on a white carpet overlooking the expansive beach. Displayed on the computer screens are seismic, geochemical sampling, and well data. Integration is the key here, putting the expertise together with the necessary data.  

A few steps past this large working area is Marcio's sparkling office, decorated with some of Brazil's finest amethyst geodes and quartz crystals. Anyone that has been to a talk or presentation given by Marcio Mello will know what I mean and meeting him in person at his office was no different. He is direct and to the point; he is a person that casts a different shadow than most of us. In his presentations, he involves you to think about what he is saying and makes his informative presentations interesting and enjoyable. Marcio's dynamic personality echoes his aggressive business practices, striving to do more than the competition.  

Nilo, second in charge, is unassuming, smiling and more than willing to share an experience or two. While Marcio may be managing the business side of things, Nilo is quietly managing a team of very experienced geoscientists. As recent head of the Basin Modeling group at the Petrobras Research Center, he is more than qualified to steer the HRT analysis teams.  

Both men are highly patriotic and would like to see Brazil's potential fully realized. To this end, HRT is pioneering new geochemical technologies that are applicable to a growing number of both explored and frontier areas in Latin America and Africa.  

"We are striving to make information readily available to our clients so they can have fast access to our data, wells, and seismic anywhere on their laptop," says Nilo. "This is just part of what we do. After all the data is assembled, the real detective work starts. To be creative, you need a lot of data and experience to build the basin models. Once a model is built, then we go back to the data to see what opportunities lay ahead. This can lead to ideas on where reservoirs can be filled, which may be the best blocks to bid on and drill."

"The integrated approach is the best way to reduce exploration risk, not only in frontier areas, but to resuscitate mature basins," adds Marcio. "We live by our motto ‘NO MORE DRY WELLS."


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