2021 SPE President Thomas A. Blasingame
Tom Blasingame will take office as 2021 SPE President during the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition to take place in October. He shares his views of the key challenges facing SPE and the industry and what his goals will be during his presidency.
Thomas A. (Tom) Blasingame will take office as 2021 SPE President during the virtual SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in October.
He is a professor of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University, where he began teaching as an undergraduate teaching assistant in 1982 after becoming a student in 1980. He joined the full-time staff as an assistant professor in 1991. He has graduated 72 MS and 16 PhD students since 1991 and has prepared approximately 170 technical articles.
He is the second SPE President to come from academia, both from Texas A&M; the first was John Calhoun in 1964.
Blasingame has been active in SPE since the early 1990s, serving in a wide variety of roles. He has chaired 20 conferences, 11 ATWs, three forums, and two SPE summits. He served on the SPE International Board of Directors as the Technical Director for Reservoir from 2015 to 2018.
He also served as a Distinguished Lecturer, was named a Distinguished Member, and received SPE’s highest honor, SPE Honorary Member. Other SPE honors include the Distinguished Service Award, Lester C. Uren Award, Distinguished Achievement Award for Petroleum Engineering Faculty, Anthony F. Lucas Gold Medal, DeGolyer Distinguished Service Medal, and the SPE Gulf Coast Distinguished Achievement Award for Petroleum Engineering Faculty.
Blasingame holds BS, MS, and PhD degrees in petroleum engineering from Texas A&M University.
What key issues will you emphasize as 2021 SPE President?
My goal as the 2021 SPE President is to symbolize encouragement and engagement, while also challenging every member to “increase their contribution” to SPE. I am not naïve, but I am sentimental; I know the power of encouragement and the value of character-driven leadership. My goal is to provide both.
Everyone has been asking me, what is your “theme?” My theme is “overall strategy”—survive/revive/thrive.
I have broken down the key issues as
- 2020–2021 Survive. Focus on what we have to do to survive.
- 2021–2022 Revive. Work to get back to normal.
- 2021–2022 Thrive. Do what we do best, and even better than before.
What do you identify as challenges for SPE members considering the market downturn resulting from the fall in oil price and COVID-19?
People want to work—we all want to get back to the tasks, projects, and activities that make us incredibly effective at providing safe, reliable, secure, and affordable energy to a world that needs it now more than ever. Despite the competing crises, the energy sector exceeded expectations on all fronts, including the discipline to limit supply, which is remarkable by any standard.
A post-COVID world will happen and people will travel again, entirely new business models will emerge (think domestic manufacturing), and perhaps most importantly, people will look to the basic industries of energy, agriculture, and manufacturing to provide energy, food, and products securely and with innovation. I predict less “choice” in some things, but much higher quality on most.
Our members need to understand that these competing crises are analogous to war. I know people hate that analogy, but we do have enemies: a global pandemic that will take more time to control than anyone thought; a global economic slowdown due to lack of consumption never seen before, and self-interest. We are at war with ourselves in some fashions—what was ain’t no more, and what will be is not yet evident. But there are absolutes—the world needs water, energy, food, manufactured goods, medicines, consumer goods, and services.
What changes do you see for SPE members as the industry addresses the global call for energy transition, climate change, and sustainability?
Sustainability. The math is pretty straightforward: a hydrocarbon-based economy is “sustainable” for the next 100 years or more. We have remaining approximately 50 years in oil and gas reserves at current consumption rates, and while we haven’t been particularly active in exploration this year, there is much more to discover, not to mention going global with the low-hanging (but expensive) fruits of unconventional oil and gas.
Energy Transition. About 20 years ago I gave a presentation at an SPE function where I proposed all the reasons I believed that we should “transition now.” I felt (and still feel) that our position as the primary energy provider is secure for the next 30–50 years, during which time renewables (including hydro) and nuclear energy would springboard and it would be a good idea to be at the front of this.
When I finished my presentation, someone in the audience shouted “traitor” and everyone had a good laugh. Let’s face it, the time has come to make a serious effort in energy transition.
We do not have a set of common skills that would make a petroleum engineer able to function as a solar cell designer, but that is not important. BTUs are BTUs, watts are watts. We need to engage with our brethren in the other energy disciplines. Although I can’t promise it will happen on my watch, you have my commitment to try.
Climate Change. I am absolutely unqualified to comment on climate change. However, given all the things we have done to this planet, I am sure it is not very happy with us. As an armchair geoscientist, I can assure everyone that Mother Nature always wins.
At almost 8 billion people on this planet with no serious signs of slowing, we (humans) are the “virus,” and there are only three options: host kills virus—the planet kills us, which is probable in my opinion; virus kills host—we kill the planet, which seems quite definite at this moment; or host and virus find a way to live in harmony, which is self-explanatory.
What do you identify as SPE’s role in guiding members in this downturn and in moving toward energy transition?
This downturn is the most difficult period in many of our lives. There has been nothing like it in history. Oil prices and activity collapsed and now we have a situation where any independent oil and gas company worth less than $1 billion is more likely to be bankrupt and cannibalized rather than find a path back to profitability.
Some will say this is the way of the world. We, humanity, created all these economic systems. It was only a matter of time before we needed an upgrade.
Some also say that this is a US or North America or Western Europe mentality. True. But not only are these the primary centers of consumption (with east Asia noted), these are also the centers of technology development and innovation for the oil and gas industry. What happens in these places has a direct and significant impact globally and for the long term.
The uncertainty is in part related to our consumer society whose global population is increasing at about 1% per year. While this percentage is historically low, the magnitude of adding 80 million people per year is staggering. Unless we have a complete and total change in our economic and monetary systems, our (obvious) expectation is that each one of these people will want a roof over their heads, an iPhone, a laptop, internet, abundant food, clean water, and reliable energy.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that between 2018 and 2050 annual global energy consumption will increase as follows:
Oil (and other liquids) 0.6%
Natural gas 1.1%
Admittedly, these are government forecasts, but likely directionally correct unless we develop cold fusion or build some ginormous nuclear reactors into crack water into hydrogen and oxygen. The challenge lies in getting the cost to the range of what people are willing and able to sustainably pay for energy.
We, the SPE, need a seat at the table to address the energy transition, and frankly, we need to lead the discussion because we are the secure producers. EIA estimates for 2050 have global energy consumption at about 50% as oil and gas and a bit more than 25% as renewables.
Innovation in energy storage, including hydrogen, will occur and this will make renewables viable and perhaps oil and gas less attractive. This is not said to depress you, but to motivate you to find your niche—there will be more than enough work for everyone.
As a professor in petroleum engineering who has experienced previous industry downturns, do you think the current one differs in ways that will significantly change petroleum engineering programs? If so, in what ways? How might curricula be adapted?
In full disclosure, I had hoped to dodge this question, but it keeps reappearing every time I ignore it. The mantra is that there are always cycles in the petroleum industry (read: booms and busts [downturns])—and that “this one is different”—it may be the worst and it may last the longest. I believe that perception is true, but I also believe that when the world depends on an industry for more than 60% of its energy resources, that industry has an enormous responsibility to maintain and ensure its viability. If I had a wish that could be granted, it would be that we could be better integrated, but all resource industries suffer the demands of the consumers. Fortunately for us we have the equivalent of the population of Germany added every year (mostly in the developing world), and every one of those new inhabitants of this planet will want a developed-world lifestyle. I am not debating the morality (or sustainability) of that lifestyle, just the reality that it exists—and that it will drive consumption of energy, water, agriculture, manufacturing, technology, and services for centuries to come.
So how does this change petroleum engineering programs?
Education is a commodity. If someone can offer a better, more effective product than the traditional academic environment, that could become a standard. It won’t happen, but I thought it best to make the faculty aware that I am going to air our secrets. We have to evolve. Access to instant information (not knowledge) makes us have to continuously earn our role on the roster. We are essential, but we are not indispensable.
H.H. Kaveler said, “Nature played a mean trick on the human race when the evolutionary process failed to develop in the individual a capacity to inherit knowledge.” I don’t think that I have ever read a more concise statement for the reality of education—one cannot simply download knowledge; people must learn for themselves.
This takes us to the next generation of petroleum engineering education. One could argue that we simply gather up a few hundred of the best faculty from around the world and create the resources (papers, books, videos, examples, and problems) that would allow everyone who wanted to contribute to the body of knowledge and allow everyone who wanted to learn to enroll in this open education scenario.
But such a vision neglects learning styles, interpersonal exchanges, the serendipity of a problem posed that changes the state of the art in a given technical discipline, and so forth.
For all of the inefficiencies of the traditional academic enterprise, it is the best approach for learning, for interaction, and for innovation.
At approximately 410 SPE student chapters (with about 120 of these being petroleum engineering programs), one can easily argue we are ripe for downsizing. And yes, I can see the academics tearing up their JPTs or punching their computer screens, but this is reality and we must face it sooner or later. It is part of the evolutionary cycle (for example, where is “railroad engineering” today?).
We need to evolve into “energy engineering” or something along those lines. We need to expand and expose ourselves simultaneously to more depth in fundamentals and more breadth in energy resources. And yes, this is a conundrum, packing even more into an undergraduate degree because that is the currency of the energy resource industry. To simply throw up our hands and say we are not going to change is unacceptable.
To the last point, curricula need to evolve, but short of tenure, salary, and parking, faculty will defend their particular course(s) to the last drop of their blood. We need to understand what the industry wants and why, as well as what fundamental skills need to be enhanced and what needs to be given a fond farewell (e.g., engineering drafting?). Frankly, this is easy to achieve but will require faculty to put their absolutes (and egos) aside.
Do you foresee a shift in enrollment, perhaps a movement from petroleum engineering to other engineering disciplines (i.e., civil, mechanical, chemical, environmental, industrial/manufacturing, geological and geophysical, computer)?
Enrollments are shifting and have been for a while, but my crystal ball says that in the 2022–2024 time frame we will face a significant workforce shortage. It is reasonable to expect that, at present, enrollments will suffer, but ultimately we will be a (very) attractive destination for the rugged individualist who likes to get up early in the morning and change the world.
How do you see the field of petroleum engineering changing in the near term? Long term? What is SPE’s role in supporting its members in this?
Where are my Ouija board and Magic 8-Ball when I need them? The truth is that in the near term (i.e., next 3–5 years), petroleum engineering needs to focus on a bit of a shakedown–probably not the right word, but it is the term we used in the Boy Scouts to describe the process where we eliminated everything except the essentials for a given task (e.g., not taking a 20-lb cot on a 70-mile hike). We need to distill the discipline into the essential elements that serve the upstream petroleum sector. In short, what is essential we must do better; what is not essential we must discard.
In the longer term, we need to invent, create, and adapt technologies which radically improve what we do, particularly in well completions and stimulations, reservoir and production engineering, and in facilities engineering. I am not ignoring drilling, but the truth is that drilling has evolved better (metallurgy, materials, processes) than any other discipline. One can hardly recognize the drilling discipline from even 25 years ago.
SPE must be the facilitator in the technology accelerator/incubator process. The specific technologies will evolve organically according to need and ability to create, but the SPE has a unique role as a mechanism for engagement, communication, dissemination, and networking for technology development.
Personally, I believe that this is one area where we have historically served the industry extremely well, but given the pace of evolution, we need to be seen as the primary facilitator in the technology incubation process.
What advice do you have for students and Young Professionals?
My advice for Young Professionals (YPs) and students is that it is my job and that of the vast horde of non-YPs to ask, “How can I help you?” I want to give credit where credit is due: Watching the YP programs evolve has been a surprise in my SPE career. I thought it would be an opportunity for networking, but I did not anticipate the YPs would become the engine of volunteerism and inspiration that they have. The YPs have evolved into one of the most active and productive volunteer blocks in the SPE.
I will be knocking on the YPs’ door shortly for advice, assistance, and motivation. Their energy and commitment are contagious.
How has your experience as a professor of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M and your extensive history as an SPE member prepared you to become SPE President?
While I am the most decorated person to ever serve in the role of SPE President and have more than 170 articles to my name, I have never felt more unprepared for anything in my life except parenting. I believe I have to earn each and every SPE member’s respect and confidence every day, and to do so, I promise to work myself (almost) to death in the role.
Have no doubts: I will say or do the wrong thing from time to time, but no one is more passionate about the mission of the SPE. What we do keeps the lights on, the population fed, and provides a level of security and comfort that only those of us on the front lines really appreciate.
As for being a professor, like all professors I talk too much and say too little, but I am absolutely passionate about the mission of education and the impact we have on an individual’s life aspirations and on society. In all honesty, I am a pretty lousy teacher, but in a moment of hubris, I will tell you that I am the best motivator I know. My goal as an educator is to get people to exceed their expectations. I hope I can do the same for the SPE.
This will be a year like none other. Very difficult decisions regarding the form and function of the SPE have been made and more are coming. I ask for your patience, your trust, and frankly, for your support. We will get through this.
This time of crises is the worst time in most of our careers, but we are a family—a very big and a very diverse family. We have to have each other’s back and we have to all share what we have. If you know someone “in transition,” I can assure you that there is nothing like not having a job to demotivate a person. Reach out to those you know are affected and seek out those you can help.
These are tough times, but we are strong, we are innovative, we are resilient, and believe it or not, what we do matters well beyond what we can see. I ask that each of you make a commitment to our industry. Many an innovation came from a downturn, but more importantly, many an opportunity was created in a crisis.
Fear of change can be debilitating and facing that fear is one of the most powerful attributes of being human. I once read that humans are the only animals who “self-limit” their capabilities. I’m not sure if it is accurate, but it inspires me to encourage you to exceed your limits and expectations, define your future and ours.
Any other thoughts you would like to share?
I want everyone reading this to understand that I did not want to be SPE President, which is significant to say because getting here is pretty painful. I prefer to walk alone; it’s my persona and it really is who I am. But here we are, in the middle of the worst simultaneous crises in our history.
I am here to do everything I can to serve and to lead the SPE, but I need your help. Our strength is the thousands of volunteers, young, old, and in between, who give selflessly to make tomorrow a better day for all. I am truly honored to stand and serve with and for all of you.
As motivation, I plagiarize (with modification) US President John F. Kennedy: Ask not what the SPE can do for you, but what you can do for the SPE.
- Write a paper—but please make it your very best work.
- Attend a meeting—virtual, physical, metaphysical; just get involved.
- Volunteer for a committee.
- Mentor someone or be mentored by someone.
As quotes go, I am reaching here, but as the character Scarlett O’Hara said in Gone With the Wind, “... tomorrow is another day!”
We will create a better tomorrow for our industry and our society. You have my solemn promise to do everything I can on my watch to do just that.
The journey begins.
Kaveler, H.H. 1949. “A Viewpoint on Petroleum Engineering Education.” Society of Petroleum Engineers.
US DOE 2019. “EIA projects nearly 50% increase in world energy usage by 2050, led by growth in Asia,” Today in Energy (US DOE), 24 Sep 2019.