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Shell Offshore Innovation Subject of Bauer professor’s award-winning book work spans a decade of research

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The world’s largest professional geological society is honoring Tyler Priest, C. T. Bauer College of Business professor and director of Global Studies, for a book that represents nearly a decade of research on the ins and outs of Shell Oil Co.’s upstream oil business.

Priest has received the 2007 Geosciences in the Media award from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists for his recently published book, “The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America.”

The award is given annually to recognize a journalistic work that contributes to the public understanding of geology, energy resources or the technology of oil and gas exploration. Priest will accept the honor in April at the AAPG annual meeting in San Antonio. “I spent many years conducting oral history interviews and research,” he said. “This award is nice recognition for all that work.”

The work began in 1998, when the president of Shell Oil commissioned Priest and UH oil historian Joseph Pratt to write a history of the U.S. company. As a business historian researching offshore oil and gas, Priest jumped at the opportunity to chronicle what he calls the “undisputed leader” in that field. Corporate reorganization at Shell kept that study from being published, but, along the way, Priest connected with retirees from the company who became excited about a book focusing on Shell’s offshore business. “Offshore technology is one of the most vital but least analyzed chapters in the history of the oil industry,” Priest said. “Most of the innovation took place in the United States, where Shell Oil was out front every step of the way.” Shell pioneered many of the early moves offshore and continues to lead the way into deepwater, Priest said, adding that for decades, the company dominated the Gulf of Mexico, developing more oil and gas fields there than any other firm.

“I wanted to answer the question: What made Shell so special?” he said. “There are many overlapping explanations, but the vision of top management, the imagination of the technical staff, and the remarkable interplay between the two were crucial.” Published this summer by Texas A&M University Press, the book quickly garnered attention from the Shell retirees who lived the history he wrote about. It also impressed many scientists and geologists, which Priest hadn’t anticipated.

“I expected the audience for this book to be business historians and historically minded people in the oil business. I didn’t expect it to receive this kind of recognition from the scientific community,” he said. “However, the book does make a case that the science and strategy of petroleum exploration was a compelling and underappreciated part of the offshore story.”

The balance of history and science appealed to the AAPG advisory council, which selected Priest’s book for the association’s annual award.

“We felt it was successful not only in portraying accurately what the exploration business is all about but also in humanizing it,” said Peter Rose, member of the advisory council and a former AAPG president. “This is not a book about a big company — it’s a book about the people working in a big company.”

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