Deep into Shell

Published on October 21, 2011

Global Studies director a specialist in history of oil giant

Bauer’s director of global studies, Tyler Priest, has been sought out by industry, government and the media for his expertise in the history of offshore oil.

Tyler Priest believes that the history of offshore oil begins with Shell.

Known as the unofficial historian of Shell in the United States, the director of Global Studies at the University of Houston’s C. T. Bauer College of Business recently gave the keynote address at the 75th anniversary of the oil giant’s Bellaire Research Center in the Houston suburb of Southside Place.

“Of all the labs that flourished during what has come to be known as the golden age of oil company E&P research, from the end of World War II to the 1980s, the BRC … was the first, the biggest and the best,” the Bauer professor told the audience at the September celebration.

Ironically, the landmark research lab is now a dinosaur. In 2008, Shell announced that it would close Bellaire and move its research operations to its Westhollow Technology Center and Woodcreek technology campus. The oil company said its Bellaire lease was to expire in 2010, and according to a 2008 story in the Houston Chronicle, the former geophysical processing plant wasn’t set up for high-tech computing.

“Shell and all the other companies have been downsizing their research for many years now,” says Priest, who in 1998 was hired to write the history of Shell in the United States. Shell never published Priest’s work, but his efforts were not lost. Encouraged by company retirees who felt invested in his project, the Montana native authored “The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America” (Texas A&M Press, 2007), which won the 2008 Geosciences in the Media Award from the Association of American Petroleum Geologists.

“I tried to humanize the history,” says Priest, who recently served as a senior policy analyst to the President’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. “It’s a study in how technology is developed in a large modern corporation by real people.  It took unique vision and commitment by many individuals and companies, but particularly by the people at Shell, the technological leader in geophysical and platform engineering. If I was going to tell the story of offshore, the place to start was with Shell.”

Priest, who came to Bauer in 2004 to head Global Studies, says that a new chapter remains to be written about Shell’s deep-water exploration since the ’90s. “It will include some of the history I helped draft as a staff member of the national oil spill commission,” Priest says, referring to the second chapter of the panel’s final report, documenting the history of offshore oil in the United States.

Calling the commission a “tremendous experience,” the history professor says: “It gathered together a high-caliber group of people from a range of disciplines and backgrounds working on trying to understand what happened … and what needed to be done going forward.”

At the height of the 2010 oil spill, Priest was much in demand as a media expert. But interest in the accident has since dissipated. “For most people living beyond the Gulf Coast, it lost some urgency,” he says. “After the well was capped, and when it became clear that the environmental damage wasn’t as severe as people thought it would be, it was like, ‘OK, let’s move on. We have a financial crisis to worry about now.’ ”

Priest is currently at work on a new book, “Deepwater Horizons: Managing Offshore Oil and Gas in the Gulf of Mexico,” to be published by The University of Georgia Press.

By Wendell Brock