Q&A: National Academy of Engineering Member John Lee
February 18, 2014
Toby Weber

Membership in the National Academy of Engineering is reserved for only the most accomplished engineers and represents the absolute pinnacle of the profession in the United States. The University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering is proud that ten active NAE members officially claim UH as their own. To celebrate National Engineers Week, we present the first in a series of Q&A’s with our National Academy members.

John Lee, Professor and Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair, is one of the most respected petroleum engineers in the world. He’s authored four best-selling petroleum engineering textbooks and was the lead engineer on the SEC’s re-write of rules for reporting petroleum reserves. Continue reading to learn more about Lee’s research, his time at the SEC, and his 2011 move to the Cullen College’s Petroleum Engineering Program.

Q: Why were you inducted into the NAE?
Lee: I’ve done a lot of work on reservoir descriptions in low-permeability gas reservoirs. Basically, this involves finding important properties that characterize the flow of gas that allow us to estimate well productivity and production over the full life of the well.

Q: You’re a widely recognized expert in this field. What’s gotten you so much attention?
Lee: There are a couple of things I’m most known for. The first is the textbooks that I’ve published with the Society of Petroleum Engineers, particularly the first one, which was put out in 1982. That was on well testing, which is a technique for looking at pressure versus time data for a well and using that to back into the reservoir description. I would say that first book was my big breakthrough, the way I became known to the industry. There was a lot of original work in that book, and not just a rehash of what others had done. It was also the first book in the SPE’s textbook series. I’ve written three more since then. The most recent one was published in December.

The second major reason for my recognition is my work with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, where I helped develop new rules that govern how companies report on their oil and gas reserves. That was in 2007 and 2008. The previous set of rules had been in place since 1978. They were very outdated and very rigid. They didn’t allow for changes in technology or markets or anything. We didn’t want that to happen again, so we tried to make the rules flexible enough that they would cover completely different kinds of resources and technologies that will emerge in the future. Things won’t stay way they are today. We wanted to make rules that could handle change.

Q: What was it like working with the SEC?
Lee: It was totally different than anything I’d ever done before. I lived in Washington D.C. for a year and a half. There were only two engineers there that I could talk to at all. The rest were accountants and lawyers, so I had to learn how to communicate with people in these different fields, how the federal bureaucracy works, and what matters in that environment.

Early in my time there, I had a big breakthrough that gave me credibility that I probably didn’t have at first. A lot of people probably thought of me as a guy from the sticks in Texas. But early on we had a hearing in front of the SEC commissioners. Everything team members were supposed to say was highly scripted and rehearsed, and I was scripted for only a marginal role. But after the introductions, the manager of the Corporation Finance Division of the SEC told the commissioners that they should just ask questions directly to me, and so, completely unscripted, the entire hour-long hearing was a dialog between members of the commission and me. So, in effect I had a conversation with all the commissioners, and it turned out quite well – they approved our request to revise the rules, given the evidence of how much that change was needed. From that point forward I had a lot of credibility with the SEC staff and commissioners. Our team did good work and we ended up winning the SEC’s Law and Policy Award in 2009.

Q: You’ve worked in the petroleum industry for more than 50 years. What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen?
Lee: In terms of the way people do their work, there’s the enormous impact of information technology. When I started, engineers didn’t have computers. Now, everyone has a laptop on his or her desk and there’s software to do all sorts of tasks. The productivity of engineers has changed enormously. I would say the typical engineer can probably handle at least an order of magnitude, and maybe two orders of magnitude, more work than engineers could when I started in the industry.

The second big change is the recent development of unconventional resources. Recovering petroleum from these formations, understanding their properties – these tasks are totally different from what the industry had been doing for decades in conventional resources.

Q: You’ve done a good bit of consulting work, but most of your career has been as a professor. First, why did you choose academia over industry? Second, why did you leave your long-time post at Texas A&M in 2011 to join the Cullen College’s fledgling Petroleum Engineering Program?
Lee: I decided to be a professor because it gives me the freedom to do more of the type of research I’m interested in. There’s also much more opportunity to lecture to students and to people in the industry and much more opportunity to write papers and books, which is something I like.

As far as joining UH, I came because it was a fledgling program. A&M has a great program, but it’s more or less in a steady state. There aren’t going to be many big changes there. Here, it’s all new, so there’s the opportunity to shape the program, help build it. That’s why I came.

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