The Adventures of Donald Rusk

Geologist Donald Rusks tells us about his 60-year career in the petroleum industry and his adventures in hydrocarbon exploration across the world.
This article appeared in Vol. 15, No. 1 - 2018


Who is Donald Rusk?

Geologist and global hydrocarbon explorer Donald Rusk. Photo credit: Jane Whaley. Geologist Donald Rusk has analysed petroleum prospects from over 170 basins in an amazing 67 countries, in the process helping to discover 18 commercial oil or gas fields. He tells about his 60-year career in exploration.

It is probably easier to ask Don Rusk where in the world he hasn’t looked for hydrocarbons than to ask him to list all the countries he has worked in during an oil industry career which has spanned six and a half decades. They circle the globe, from Greenland to Madagascar and from Morocco to Sumatra. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, geology wasn’t his first choice of career when he completed his national service in the US Navy in 1948.

“I wanted to be an architect. So I enrolled in the prestigious Illinois Institute of Technology, but although I liked the artistic aspect, I wasn’t sure it was the right job for me,” Don explains. “I considered engineering – and then I discovered the mystery of rocks, and the range of disciplines involved in studying them, and the opportunities for travel. So geology it was!”

Bitten by the Travel Bug

An enthusiastic skier since his student days, Don was actively skiing until well into his eighties. Photo credit: Don Rusk. Travel was always one of Don’s ambitions, so after obtaining his degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder, he decided against further study and took a job in Venezuela with Creole Petroleum, part of Standard Oil New Jersey (now Exxon). 

“I spent a lot of time in the jungle looking for outcrops; a difficult task, since most exposures were at the edge of streams or on the stream bed. Also, I ‘sat’ wells, logging the lithology of drill cuttings and oil shows,” he adds. “It was not only very good experience for a young geologist, it was essential preparation for my career; I was constantly learning new things. I worked a rota of seven weeks in the field, followed by a week in Caracas, where, of course, I had a wonderful time.”

Bitten by the travel bug, after three years in Venezuela Don resigned and headed for Europe, where he spent the next three years travelling from country to country – and skiing in the Alps. 

“I had a small job selling books and hiring people to sell them at US Army bases. This was consistent with my desire to travel and ongoing study of Europe (I speak a useful amount of Italian, French and Spanish). There wasn’t much money in book sales, but it enabled me to stay in Europe. Finally, after more than three years there, I decided it was time to go back to geology.”

The Point of No Return

Don with his wife, Dayle, and Larry Luebke, geologist; a longtime friend at Amoco in the early ’80s. Photo credit: Don Rusk. Because he had voluntarily quit his job in Venezuela he could not go back to work for Exxon. However, Exxon Exploration V.P. Bill Wallis suggested he contact Chris Dome, who was setting up a new international oil company, affiliated with Standard Oil Indiana (Amoco). Don went to see him, explained his work experience in Venezuela, and was offered the job. 

“I considered the offer for a week and then said yes; and the next thing I knew, I was on my way to Libya and the desert! Chris Dome was exceptional at leasing highly prospective concessions, including, for example, in Egypt, Iran, Trinidad and the UK North Sea. When BP bought Amoco in 1998 about 90% of Amoco production, at that time, came from fields which had been discovered under Dome’s watch"

He continues...

“Libya was a wonderful, flourishing place in 1958. King Idris was in charge, but the influence of the Italians, who had colonised the country, was also evident. It was a very open society and Tripoli was especially welcoming, with a wide range of nationalities living there. I spent six years in Libya and enjoyed life a lot, even though I was spending most of my time on well sites. In Tripoli there were several expat clubs along the beautiful coast, where I played tennis. If I had enough days off, I would fly to Rome.”

Political Challenges in Global Exploration

Don’s Libya assignment was followed by a transfer to Aden, Yemen, which was not as much fun! 

“At that time Yemen was a British Protectorate and there was active anti-British terrorism,” he explains. Mostly, we were doing geological and geophysical analysis for well recommendations. In the desert we often had to explain to well-armed tribesmen what we were doing and why! On a couple of occasions, the Amoco staff were invited to desert banquets by Yemeni Sheikhs and their guards, along with several Saudi princes. After 13 months in Yemen, in late 1965, I was quite pleased to be transferred to Sumatra, Indonesia.”

Back to the Jungle

"...but this time with elephants and monkeys. And each month, after 20 days in the large jungle camp, all Amoco staff had ten days of quality living in fascinating Singapore.” 

Lake Toba, Indonesia: a tropical respite from the arid heats of the desert. Don enjoyed his work in Sumatra, although it was very challenging, as he explains:

“There were no outcrops, and in addition moving seismic equipment and drilling rigs was extremely difficult. On the other hand, our camp was very good: adequate living, eating and working facilities for all expatriate and local staff.

Our database for mapping prospects was basically regional maps and well data. Fortunately, we were able trade for many Caltex wells, because Caltex concessions, with six or seven oil fields, surrounded the Amoco blocks. However, after five dry holes, Amoco left Sumatra. It turned out to be too soon; within several years, four oil field discoveries were made in the area we left.

One of the best things about this posting was access to travel throughout South East Asia: I visited Cambodia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand.”

The Green, Green Grass of Home

Don working with geological maps in his home office. Photo credit: Don Rusk. Having spent a year in London working on North Sea block evaluations and gas field reservoir studies, Don finally returned to the US, as a senior staff geologist in Amoco’s Chicago office. But the urge to travel had not disappeared, and by 1975 Don was back in London, heading up a New Ventures team, “this time with a wife and two babies in tow!” In this role he planned and managed exploration operations, projects, and new ventures in seven countries, covering large licences. He was supervising a professional staff of 16 geoscientists.

“We successfully doubled Amoco’s activity in the region in two years, moving into low key but ultimately successful areas like Ireland, Greenland and Italy. But there was still time for enjoyment; every year we went skiing in Austria, always meeting old friends.”

Don continued working in New Ventures when he returned to Chicago in mid-1978. In 1981, he and the rest of the New Ventures team were transferred to Houston, which is still his home. “This was an exciting time to be in New Ventures,” he tells me...

“Amoco assembled a number of top, experienced geologists for the team and together we worked on some interesting projects, usually at the request of the Amoco Board of Directors. One project the Board requested was: ‘What country, with excellent oil potential and where we can acquire licences, will give us good returns over a number of years?’ Our answer was Libya, since a previous project had been to rank all the countries and the basins of the world, and Libya and Russia had come up top. I also led a team which produced a major report on the petroleum geology and plate reconstruction of the Western Tethys.”

Time to Call it a Day

By the late 1980s, however, the industry was going through a bad time. “The first layoffs were in 1986, and it was unfortunate,” Don says. “Often it seemed that the quiet people who did their jobs without making much fuss were the ones who were laid off.” Finally, in Dec.1989, after 31 years with Amoco – and with an offer to supervise a major petroleum study on Libya – Don decided to “take the package and retire.”

A Lifetime Expert on the Geology of Libya

Don with his wife, Dayle. Photo credit: Don Rusk. Masera Corp., an established producer of petroleum reports, funded the Libya report and provided Don and his staff with access to a huge amount of data. The study, published in 1992, included a comprehensive text and more than 200 enclosures, charts and appendices. It was very successful, selling about 35 copies (at $95,000 each!) and is still considered by many to be the definitive study on the petroleum potential of Libya.

“This gave me a reputation as a Libya expert.” He explains, “I returned to the country a number of times up until 2005, as a consultant on exploration projects, evaluations and block selection for several companies. I am fond of Libya, and it is so sad to see the state it is in now. I am sure in time things will improve, but it will take years.”

Global Geological Consultancy

Having been a consultant now for nearly 28 years, Don has worked on E&P projects in many countries in addition to Libya, including:

  • Algeria
  • Ecuador
  • France
  • Hungary
  • Jordan
  • Liberia
  • Malta
  • Mozambique
  • Morocco
  • Sierra Leone
  • Syria
  • and Turkey.

He has also undertaken general studies of Africa and the Circum-Mediterranean, including co-authoring a major evaluation and regional study of the nine basins offshore southern Tanzania, Madagascar, Mozambique and Comoros; a region he has visited several times since his first trip there in the ’80s.

“I appreciate the way they do business there – it’s similar to the Arab ‘style’,” he explains. “The first time you meet, there is no business talk; you just chat about the country and pass the time of day, and that can happen for a few meetings, before you get down to business.”


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