Interview with Dr. Fred Dupriest
By: Reza Ghasemi and J. Tanner Wachsman
What inspired you to teach after working in industry for more than 30 years?
By the time [my wife and I] retired from ExxonMobil in Houston, we had already spent five years renovating a 90 year old house in Southside, not far from the campus. It was originally what you would call a hobby house, as my wife and I both like heavy renovation work. The more weekends we spent in College Station, the more we simply found we enjoyed it here. So when we retired we moved here without any plans to teach.
My personal plan was to continue to spend my spare time working with the professional societies to try and change many common drilling practices that I’m concerned with. For instance, I have strong feelings about the need for drilling practices to be more deterministic and physics-based, and less driven by personal experience or analysis of historical data.
When I was contacted about an opening to teach, I saw it as another avenue through which I might be able to influence the industry and shape the way people think. A&M is simply the premier program in the world, and the opportunity to use that as a platform for change was too seductive to pass up. As a practicing professor and retired professional, I do not do research. However, I encourage graduate students to come and talk to me. As chief engineer, I was involved in shaping ExxonMobil’s research and in working with senior technical leaders in the service industry on new concepts that spanned most of what we do in drilling.
What is the craziest thing you did while in school?
When I was here, there wasn’t anything west of the railroad tracks except two chicken houses way out in a field. I would run at night down the dirt roads out there. One night a campus cop pulled up behind me, got out, and pulled out his gun. I obviously thought I was in trouble. Instead he checked to ensure there was a cartridge in the chamber and that it was fully loaded. Then he handed the gun to me and said, “go chase down that skunk over there and shoot it.” I could see something moving in the grass about 100 feet away by the chicken houses, so I ran out through the field shooting at the skunk. I grew up hunting, but always thought hand guns were useless. I was right and the skunk is probably still laughing. Anyway, times have certainly changed. I also never remember locking a dorm door or needing ID to write a check.
If you had not gone on to be a drilling engineer at Exxon Mobil, what career would you choose?
My experience living in different cultures and travelling internationally has had a strong influence on my interests. I would not have thought of it when I was young, but knowing what I do now I would teach history or social anthropology.
As a drilling engineer, did your career ever affect you and your family?
The simple answer is yes, but then I don’t know what conclusions to draw from that. Do you want your life to be easy? Or if you spend your life avoiding things that are hard, what do you become? My wife is a pharmacist and even worked in Saudi Arabia. I think we are both proud of what we have done in our lives. I can recall one five month period of 14 hour days without so much a weekend day off. But at the same time I was managing the installation of a facility that would create wealth for a very poor country that would build schools, infrastructure, health services and opportunity. What we do in our industry is important. There is no question that my family has paid a high price at times, but we have also always had a sense of the larger things that we were doing with our lives.
“Death to optimization and empiricism!” What do you mean by this and how should young petroleum engineers use this advice?
I made this the theme of a talk to the general session of the 2013 ATCE and summaries were published in several journals. From the response, I think it resonated with many people. Optimization is a process in which we identify the risks associated with a change to improve performance (weight on bit, production drawdown, etc.). We then make that change until the pain from the increasing risk exceeds the gain. On the surface, this makes sense. The problem is that we tend to just accept the risk as we find them, rather than re-engineer those risks before we do our optimization.
For example, in drilling, we want to raise mud weight to stabilize the hole, but the industry will not do this because they fear the risk of differential sticking. In 2004, we developed and implemented physics-based practices that eliminated the risk of differential sticking entirely so that there would be no risk in raising mud weight (MW). You would call that re-engineering the risk before you optimize. The industry still strongly resists raising MW based on stochastic analysis of conditions that lead to sticking in the past.
We should be concerned anytime we make a recommendation based on stochastic analysis of prior practices, if we do not have a deterministic understanding of why the data says what it does.
This is just as true in reservoir engineering as it is in drilling or production. Big Data is enabling people to draw conclusions without actually understanding how the thing really works. That is not all bad, but you cannot get a new practice by studying data created by old practices, alone. Just make sure you re-engineer your risks with a deterministic understanding of how things really work before you optimize.
Are there any situations that cannot be described by physics based models, situations that need “best practices”?
Very little. Our challenge is not a technical or scientific challenge. Our challenge is people and organizational dynamics. Our engineers have to learn how to operate in a way that gets our technology in the hole, which ultimately comes down to the people and those relationships. In the end, 80-90% of what we do every day is based on a standard practice. We hope that 20-10% of the time we do things differently.
For example we do borehole stability analysis right now with some pretty complex models. But in the field the people do not run those models and they will not necessarily believe those answers. We need something they can see in order to make a real time decision in the actual field. So we taught our field personnel to look at the shape and character of carvings on the shaker to figure out the stress state and the amount by which they might need to raise the mud weight. Those are the challenges in what we call “getting the technology in the hole.” At the university level you are taught the physics of how things work, but as an operation engineer you have to figure out how to actually use your knowledge in operations. If you can become good at that, you will differentiate yourself from the industry, and there is great opportunity right now to operationalize new physics-based practices. I would say the industries physics are about 10-15 years ahead of its field best practices; that is just as true in production as it is in drilling.
Have you ever thought about writing a book about your experiences?
Not really about my experiences, but the operational practices that I think the industry should have, yeah. And I just finished working with a group to do that. It is not a book, but a new chapter in the next edition of the IADC Drilling Manual. This is the bible for rig site personnel, and we’re including about 50
pages of new practices. We are not going to talk about the practice until we talk about the physics behind it first. The reality is that engineers are also not being taught physics-based drilling practices, except at A&M, so I think it may end up being a good reference for the industry’s experienced engineers as well.
What suggestions would you give to young professionals to be successful?
Ask a lot of questions. I know this sounds trivial, but it is actually quite profound.
Your personal integrity is everything. Never do anything your instincts tell you is wrong.
Understand your company’s base expectations of you, and achieve them. If you don’t know what they are, just ask.
Have a 1 year and 5 year plan, and ensure your boss knows what it is. But, you are responsible for you.
Do not just learn best practices; learn the underlying physics. Understand how things work.
Re-engineer what is “normal”, not just what’s “broken”. Everybody fixes what is “broken”. There is more actual opportunity to change performance by changing “best practices” than in reacting to random bad events. Fix “what’s normal” not just “what’s broken”. You will differentiate yourself from others.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I ran distances until I was 30 and developed an Achilles problem; then I cycled until I developed a knee problem; then I played tennis until I tore two rotator cuffs; then I motorcycled 47 states and Canada until I developed a wrist problem with in my throttle hand, and then I canoed until I was too old to put my heavy Mohawk on the roof rack anymore. So I think I’ve finally figured it out. Exercise is bad. So I quit doing that.
My wife and I both enjoy heavy home renovation and our current 90 year old house has been almost a complete rebuild. That is by far our biggest hobby. But I can’t say that it’s much better than exercise. We’ve averaged about $2,000 per year in emergency room fees for the last 5 years.
Mr. Fred Dupriest is currently a Professor of Engineering Practice at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX. Mr. Dupriest previously served as Chief Drilling Engineer at ExxonMobil.