What's your field and specialisation?
My PhD was originally in palaeontology, but I spent decades in the petroleum industry where I specialized in stratigraphy, a little bit in carbonates, but mainly siliciclastic stratigraphy, siliciclastic facies and sedimentology.
Tell us a bit about your teaching journey.
I've been teaching since I was in grad school in the 80s, so you know, that kind of dates me! I taught for a year at Clemson University in South Carolina, then occasionally at the Kansas survey, but when I got to Exxon, they just threw me into teaching since I was an experienced hire. I taught many classroom and field courses at Exxon every year for 26 years. I can't even tell you how many I taught.
I really like the Exxon approach to teaching: you’d give a presentation or lecture, then present a data set to work as an exercise to emphasize the direct business application of those concepts. I think that approach to teaching is particularly valuable, so that's the way I teach now.
What is your favourite memory from fieldwork or field training?
Well, I have a strong memory of my very last bit of fieldwork before I left the Kansas survey. I was just learning the first principles of sequence stratigraphy and what incised valleys were. There was an outcrop that I'd been to a couple times with one of my colleagues – it was just a metre-thick marine shale. I was also working in the subsurface in that area and I was using the principles of sequence stratigraphy to show that there were limestone beds that were truncated by sandstone-filled incised valley. I called up my colleague and told him that we needed to go back to the outcrop because there had to be a soil there – the valley interfluve should have a soil or some evidence of subaerial exposure. He really laid into me because we had already been to the outcrop and it had been a pretty hellacious outcrop to get to. It was also the middle of August in Kansas so it was very hot. I told him I was going anyway, and he came along not wanting me to go alone. It was a long slog down the middle of the stream through lots of brush and stuff, and we turned the corner and looked at the outcrop and we both immediately saw the paleosol! The lesson there is that you don't see things that you're not looking for. The more models you have in your mind and the more open you are to alternative interpretations, the better you're going to be at making observations. It's really important to continue to read the literature, and continue to learn new models because they suggest observations you might not have thought to make.
Describing core, which is one of my specialties, isn't just about a methodical engineering-type approach. To record the sedimentary structures you have to have an open mind. You have to be open to seeing things and to making observations that you might not otherwise have thought to make. And, as you describe core, you should constantly be testing alternative models of what you think is the depositional and stratigraphic architecture and how can you use that to make a prediction of what you should see next. But to do that, you have to have in your mind a vast toolkit of depositional and stratigraphic models, and the larger that toolkit is, the better you'll be at your job.
(Image: One of Howard's favourite outcrops - An incision in the Castlegate Sandstone in Tusher Canyon, Utah)
Tell us about your upcoming course with GeoLogica – what is it about and who is it for?
My course is for any geoscientist or engineer who needs to know something about clastic facies and the implications for reservoir architecture. I start from a very basic level, assuming essentially no knowledge about how clastic facies work. From that basic level, we move on pretty quickly into how you can make observations and subsurface predictions.
The course focuses on making observations in core, so I go through all the depositional environments, including contourites, and all the standard depositional settings, and we look at a lot of core photos. We'll progress through all of the different environments with an emphasis on making interpretations from core, and using those interpretations to make predictions about what's happening in the subsurface.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that most people don't know
When I was in grad school, I had a fellowship for my master's and PhD, but I ran out of funding because it was taking me too long and so I had to get a job. The job I took on was measuring and analyzing kidney stones, and so I've measured, analyzed and photographed thousands and thousands of kidney stones!
What is the biggest challenge facing the sector today from your perspective?
I think the biggest challenge today is the global impact of burning hydrocarbons. I think we absolutely need to switch away from petroleum, but I don't see it happening in the next few decades. There are steps we can take to get us to a transition and one of those steps is being more efficient at finding hydrocarbons that burn cleaner. I think there's still a place for petroleum but I think we have to have our eyes open about the impact on the world, and we also have to have our eyes open to what the alternatives are and what we can do to solve that problem.
What would be your advice to geoscientists who are just starting their careers?
Well, it's an entirely different economic environment than when I entered the petroleum industry. The environment today from a business perspective and from a world perspective is so different; it’s much more challenging.
But putting that aside, my advice is don't stop learning. I knew so many people working in petroleum whose depositional or structural models dated back to their last days in grad school. And you know you can't do that if you want to be good. You need to keep up with the literature, and you need to find a way to discriminate the literature so you know what's worth looking at. You need to keep learning all the time and keep your mind open to new concepts and new ideas. It's great to learn new things from new projects – every time you're in a new project, you learn new things – but you have to do more than that, and there's just no alternative to reading the literature.
But it is also important to get out into the field and go on field trips. Sometimes even going to the same outcrops but with a new person with new perspectives can open your eyes. There are always new interpretations of classic outcrops. One of my professors used to say that the best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks, and I think that is absolutely true!
Give us your best/worst geology joke?
So there was a guide at the museum who was taking people through the exhibit on the dinosaurs. And throughout his talk, he kept saying that the dinosaurs died 65 million and two years ago.
At the end I asked him, “Why are you saying 65,000,002 years ago? How can you be so sure?”
He replied, “Well when I got my training I was told the dinosaurs died out 65,000,000 years ago… but that was two years ago!
Introduction to Clastic Facies by Howard Feldman will be running from 30 October - 02 November 2023.