World-class training for the modern energy industry

Meet the Expert: 5 Minutes with Russell Davies

calendar June 27, 2024
Russell Davies

We sat down with Russell Davies ahead of his upcoming GeoLogica course – Structural Styles and Fault Characterization in Exploration and Production, Moab, Utah


What is your field and specialization?

I’m a structural geologist with over 30 years’ experience, working primarily in oil and gas after completing my PhD in structural geology from Texas A&M University.


How did you get into teaching?

It came about naturally. I started my career at Shell in Exploration and Development in New Orleans working the Gulf of Mexico. Three years in, I realized I wanted to get into more of a technology group. So, I left Shell and joined the structural geology technical team in a company called Arco in north Dallas. In the technology group at Arco, you were an in-house specialist and, as such, you were expected to apply your expertise to projects internally but also educate, so you were assigned a course to develop. One of the courses I developed was the Moab Fault Seal outcrop-based course I am teaching for GeoLogica. I started teaching it in the mid-90s and, when I left the company, after ARCO was bought by BP in 2000, I joined Rock Deformation Research, a small structural geology consulting company based in the UK and was able to take the course with me as I owned the IP and continued to offer the course. At Rock Deformation Research I started to develop more classroom courses, too, primarily with a fault seal focus. When I moved to Schlumberger, I worked with their training division and taught similar courses to clients worldwide.


What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Well, not the students! [wisecrack]

What do I like? Well, there are a couple of things I really like. When you’re teaching a training course, it can be a bit boring because, in a way, you’re teaching the same thing. So, I try to modify what I’m teaching a little bit each time. To do that, I take the reviews from previous courses, the sense of what worked and what didn’t work, how the students reacted and how smoothly it went as it forces you to stay on top of the field and the literature and things like that. You don’t want to be teaching the same course 20 years later – you’d be talking about 20-year-old concepts – science moves forward. For me, staying current and on top of recent developments is important and something I enjoy.  I try to stay dynamic and often modify the course on the fly depending on the group interest and questions.

The other aspect I particularly enjoy is mentoring. I didn’t appreciate how important it was when I was younger. When you are younger and building a career, you’re looking to see where you fit; you’re looking for openings; you’re trying to move forward in the race. As you get older, you realize there’s really nothing to build, so mentoring becomes extremely important. Not just in terms of teaching but also in terms of working with younger professionals. I have been very lucky in my career, but I think it’s quite difficult for somebody young now to get the kind of career I have had – to have the same opportunities in terms of research, field work, consulting services and working for major oil and gas companies, service companies and small consulting companies. So, I most enjoy mentoring, teaching and the transfer of knowledge.


Can you tell us about a favorite memory from fieldwork or field training? 

Well, I’ve run many, many courses in my time and done loads of field work – it can feel like a bit of a blur – but there are still lots of experiences I’ve had that are unique. I mean one of them was I had an opportunity to go on a field trip and camp in the desert in Oman, which was just amazing. Our fieldwork party consisted of about fifteen Westerners and fifteen Omanis, vehicles with drivers and a big food truck, and we just took off down the main road heading southwest and then turned north into the desert across the sand. I remember vehicles getting stuck in the sand and having to push them out. They put up a big tent that served as a dining hall and as a mosque for the Muslims to pray. And then you camped outside on cots that they brought in. Three days in we were eating tuna steaks and French fries in the middle of the desert – certainly a memorable experience!

On another occasion I remember a trip to Muddy River in Utah with Janok Bhattacharya and sitting there just eating lunch on a clear day. We got caught in a sudden rainstorm and I was on one side of the Canyon and Janok was on the other. I remember watching Janok across the canyon trying to get under a under a rock overhang to avoid the rain. But what he didn’t realize was that that there was a sort of mini waterfall that came through behind the rock. And when I saw him next, he was absolutely covered in mud!

With so many years and experience in the field I am not sure what triggered these two memories.

Source: Russell Davies


Tell us about your upcoming field course with GeoLogica?

Well, the focus of the course is faults, and it is designed for petroleum geologists or geoscientists, whether that’s geologists, geophysicists or reservoir engineers. Oftentimes in their work they’re trying to understand what controls the hydrocarbons staying in place. With hydrocarbons being lighter than water, they’ll just continue rising to the surface if nothing traps them, so they need something that stops their flow laterally and vertically with a seal (a layer of shale) that’s impermeable for all intents and purposes. Laterally and vertically, you need to have confinement from seal layers with a shape like an upside-down bowl. And if you don’t have that, you could have a fault which can then act as a barrier to lateral flow. So, a lot of the course talks about methods and techniques to evaluate that seal in the subsurface with a focus on fault seal.

One problem with collecting data in the subsurface is resolution. We might collect well data, for instance, that’s at a high-enough resolution, but has no lateral information away from the well bore. Seismic data has lateral extent but doesn’t capture the higher resolution stratigraphy and structure. The nice thing about the field course around Moab, Utah, is that there are some very nice exposures of faults and associated deformation at a range of scales that are excellent analogs to the subsurface where the resolution is inadequate. You can look at the deformation along a fault, think about the processes that led to that formation, and then think about the tools that we have in the office to evaluate it in the subsurface. Seeing the formations in person allows you to consider the strengths and weaknesses of those tools and methods, because invariably they don’t capture exactly what’s there. What’s particularly nice about the faults near Moab is that there is enough displacement across the fault at a scale at which you would see those faults on seismic but here you get to touch them and you can see how wide they are, what the deformation mechanisms are and we also look at some of the geometries of how the faults connect together in a lateral sense. There are other areas around the planet that have some of those characteristics, but I know of no place that has all of them in one place. That’s one reason why geologists are falling over each other out there – it’s such a spectacular spot for learning about structural geology.

The fault seal field course around Moab is relevant for anybody thinking about those sealing characteristics and characterizing faults in the subsurface. Historically that would have meant petroleum geologists working for petroleum companies but in the last three to five years, I’ve also been applying it to CO2 containment and incorporate some of these concepts into the training.

In terms of the level of expertise, the people who get the most out of the course are those who’ve already asked the questions about fault seals. It’s probably more of an intermediate/advanced level course, although I do think that even somebody relatively junior would get something out of it – it would inform them of the key issues and things to think about.

I am not only teaching the outcrop-based training in Moab with GeoLogica but also offer classroom training on fault seal and can modify the courses to meet a company’s needs, which I have done frequently in the past.


Can you tell us a fact about yourself that most people might not know?

I guess one thing would be that I’m an immigrant to the United States. Even though I speak like an American and even though I’m very red, white and blue, my family immigrated to the United States when I was 11 from South Africa (like Elon Musk). As a kid I used to drink a lot of tea with milk and eat a lot of Marmite on toast and sardine sandwiches (not together) – something that the other kids in school used to tease me about! I also took speech lessons because I had a lisp. I remember telling the teacher, ‘I want to speak like a real American!’ So, sure enough, I changed my accent and that helped me integrate more fully.  It took me about 40 years before I ever went back to SA, and I’ve only been back once since moving in 1969. I don’t have strong ties to SA; we moved to Ohio to begin with, so I’d say I’m more Midwestern American than anything else.


What would you say is the biggest challenge to the oil and gas sector at the moment?

I mean, they seem to be doing quite well, right? If anything, they’re probably not being challenged enough. All the major oil and gas companies are doing well, Saudi Arabia’s doing extremely well. The reality is that we’re still tied to oil and gas and will be for a long time.

Public pressure to reduce our reliance on carbon energy sources is important. But there is a tendency to think that we would move very quickly – that we can just turn it off and immediately shift to something else. Well, if you want to see a huge crash of world economies and mass starvation then sure let’s do that . . . but I certainly do not. With that said, if anything, big oil isn’t being challenged enough. Companies are still given too many opportunities to drill in places that they shouldn’t, in areas which should be protected to maintain some areas of wilderness. Oil and gas companies are too often protected from lobbyists. But, at the same time, they have given me my career and I’m very bullish about oil and gas – we can’t just ‘turn off the spigot’.

I don’t even think we should stop exploration. A few years ago, companies talked about doing only development (i.e. no more exploration). Well, look at Germany – from a security perspective alone, you have to have your own energy sources. And oil and gas, for the moment, has to be your main energy source.

However, we’re probably not moving fast enough and there are too many people who dismiss the threat of global warming/climate change. But I don’t know what the answers are. Personally, I don’t think that there’s a huge threat to the oil and gas sector, as such, because there is still a need for us to keep producing the stuff!


What would be your advice for junior geoscientists joining the industry in 2024?

It’s a difficult question because the field has changed so much – not because geologists and geoscientists are changing it, but because of the way new technology is being driven by AI. It’s a shame. I’ve been lucky to spend as much time as I have looking at rocks in the field for research and also teaching. And I think that is important. I would suggest young geoscientists continue as best they can to maintain geology fundamentals, whether that’s structural geology, sedimentology, petrophysics, whatever it might be, because there’s a tendency to lean too much on the technology. There’s a tendency to sit in front of a computer and let the computer generate results – to think that AI or machine learning is a solution now for everything. I have seen corporate managers pushing technology because they see it as the future, and professionals who don’t fully understand what the technology is, what it does, what it is good for, what it isn’t good for, resulting in poor or unnecessary solutions using the wrong tool for the problem. That is the trap you get into. I would often see professionals relying on software to generate results but couldn’t tell the result was wrong. Sometimes the results would be orders of magnitude off. The problem is that they’d lost the fundamentals. So, the one suggestion I would make is don’t lose track of the fundamentals. If you don’t have the fundamentals, you’re going to train the AI incorrectly and it’s going to give you the wrong results. So, while AI and machine learning are very powerful tools, you’ve just got to be careful.

And, finally, take any opportunity you can to get back into the field. I admit this can be difficult because many companies aren’t as willing to invest in training as they used to but take it if you can.