John Blum: What lies beneath - Energy Factor
Behind the energy

John Blum: What lies beneath

I love the outdoors. Whether I’m on a camping trip in the heat of the Texas summer or standing on the deck of a research vessel north of the Arctic Circle—I’m just happy to be outside. When I was a kid in Michigan, I’d stare onto the expanse of the Great Lakes, mesmerized by their majesty and size, wondering what mysteries lay at their bottom.

It was natural I fell in love with the ocean.

The open sea is a waiting adventure, and what lies beneath it is mostly a mystery. For six years I explored it as a research assistant at Scripps Institution of Oceanography while working on degrees at UC San Diego. That’s when I found out about technology that could help solve some of our oceans’ mysteries. I fed off the thrill of exploration and discovery.

It may not seem like an obvious jump from oceanography to working for ExxonMobil. But it made sense to me. I liked that the company was global and I could continue exploring the world. I liked that it was committed to technology and research, helping to meet energy challenges for years down the road.

Oceanography plays a vital role in that. As we search for oil and gas in deeper water and more remote areas, gaining an understanding of what the seafloor looks like and how the ocean behaves around it is an important part in finding and extracting energy.

With that knowledge, we can not only be more sure of what lies beneath the seafloor in terms of energy, but we can understand what is beneath the waves to better plan for safe, responsible operations. All of these data points give us a clearer picture of the environment we’re operating in and allow us to work carefully and precisely, mitigating the impact of our work while capitalizing on new ways of exploring.

I’ve seen this care and precision firsthand in my work with ExxonMobil. As a research geophysicist I’ve explored the Black Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve collected, collated and analyzed data to map and visualize in detail what those environments are like. That understanding is instrumental to our exploration efforts and the foundation that our production teams build from when planning future operations.

I also work with cutting-edge research teams at universities and other companies developing technology as disparate as autonomous underwater robotics and ocean acoustics. Breakthroughs in these fields are allowing us to explore in new ways – at a higher resolution, at a lower cost and over a larger area – with less environmental impact.

Improving our data-gathering capabilities is critical to understanding how the ocean behaves, how it’s changing and how to image beneath it to search for energy. We have to be able to look at huge areas over long periods of time to safely and effectively operate in an ever-changing environment.

So I’m often indoors, at my desk, reviewing all of the latest technology and gadgets that can help us do that. Then recommending where we should invest our time and resources. The hardest part of my job is making that decision and choosing between all of the innovative options.

But there’s nothing I like more than being out on a ship at sea, working with a team of engineers, the captain, the crew, the seemingly endless ocean and a problem to solve. Everyone brings their expertise and has a role to play. We are explorers.

It’s that spirit of exploration that drives me, and it doesn’t stop at work. My friends and I are endurance bicycle riders, mostly off the beaten path: trails and long-abandoned logging roads. We look at sources like satellite imagery and old maps to find routes through the wilderness. Despite my love of technology, we don’t use a GPS. That would be too easy. Too known. We want our eyes looking about us, not at a screen.

Sometimes the maps are wrong; sometimes we reach an impassable obstacle. Figuring out how to get around or over those obstacles is part of the fun. That’s true of my work, as well. My job is to anticipate and plan for the challenges of finding energy beneath the waves. Solving problems is part of the adventure.