Highland Geology Limited | John Nicholson - Expanded CV
John Nicholson has led numerous teams exploring for oil and gas onshore and offshore
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Expanded CV


B.Sc. Geology, 1st Class Honours and Associate Royal School of Mines, Imperial College London 1965-1968
Ph.D. University of Cambridge 1968-1971


PESGB, American Association of Petroleum Geologists


Murchison Medal, Imperial College, 1965
Watts Medal, Imperial College, 1967
SMART award, Scottish Executive, 2002

John Nicholson has 41 years’ experience as a petroleum geologist, some 30 years in consulting (Highland Geology Limited, and before that co-founding the highly successful Midland Valley Exploration Limited) and 11 years with oil majors BP and Britoil. He has been a member of and led numerous teams which have been successful in drilling wildcats both onshore and offshore, working in Northwest Shelf of Australia, onshore Australia and Papua New Guinea; the Gulf Coast of the USA; the UK and Norwegian Northern, Central, Southern, Danish and Dutch North Sea; the English Channel and Southwestern Approaches basins, offshore Ireland; the UK Midlands and Dorset; in the Andes in Argentina, Bolivia and Colombia; in Russia; and in nearly all of the offshore and onshore basins of India.

Work in UK

Much of John’s career has been focussed on UK onshore and offshore exploration and development projects. Starting in 1976 he worked for BP Petroleum Development in Dyce, Aberdeen for three years, firstly as Area geologist for Western Approaches and English Channel; then on Southern North Sea concentrating on West Sole area and participating in the 48/7b-4 discovery. He worked on Clair field early exploration wells and headed the first BP development study of Wytch Farm.

He then moved to Eakring as head of onshore exploration from 1978 to 1980, leading the team developing Beckingham field, Bothamsall and Egmanton infill drilling, he led a comprehensive exploration review of the East Midlands basin followed by successful wildcats at Welton and Nettleham; the Kimmeridge-5 well; and represented BP in the hugely successful Wytch Farm Triassic exploration project, along with Dorset regional studies.

Moving to Britoil (then BNOC) in 1981 through 1984 he headed geological work in the Northern North Sea group, responsible for a development study and appraisal wells on 211/18a Don Field; extensive re-mapping and development studies for Britoil on 16/7a North Brae and West Brae; Thistle Field infill and satellite wells; 16/13 West Sleipner exploration work and the discovery of the gas-condensate reservoir with deeper drilling; Bruce Field evaluation work; and development of prospects in two UKCS license rounds. He headed an exploration special studies team, running regional Brent and Palaeocene structure mapping; an English Channel review; advice and training for regional teams; introduced risk factor method and Monte Carlo modeling for prospect evaluation; carried out a variety of management support projects, reserves reports, and was responsible for compilation of Britoil reserves data and prediction of likely discoveries.

Between 1984 and1996 he consulted as co-owner of Midland Valley Exploration Limited, again mainly focussed on North Sea and onshore UK. He formed the company along with Alan Gibbs, and by 1996 it had a staffing level of 15 expert geologists and programmers. MVE is now the World’s leading structural geology consultancy. John was joint Managing Director and led the Midland Valley team in petroleum geology project design, and in later stages its 2D software development and maintenance effort whilst Dr Gibbs focussed on the 3D design and development.

Working with Midland Valley Exploration he completed a 1-year project on the onshore UK basins petroleum geology and prospects, which was delivered to nearly 20 companies. A major Inner Moray Firth basin study followed, reviewing regional tectonics and prospect evaluation of some 40 blocks mapped at three structural horizons, this was delivered to 15 companies. For Croft Oil and partners he made a local review of the East Midlands basin, with recommendations for further action; and for Norwegian companies he wrote a regional study of the UK North Sea and western basins with recommendations for license acquisition strategy.

One highlight was a review of the development potential of North Sea oil and gas discoveries, presenting reserves estimates for the North Sea, using Aberdeen University AUPEC group’s economic models. The foreword was written by Alex Salmond. The conclusion that UK’s reserves were twice as large as the “Brown Book” official figures was widely reported in National radio and press including The Economist, and was presented at several international conferences.

In March 1996 he sold his interest in Midland Valley to the other partners, and formed his Highland Geology Limited independent exploration consultancy. After leaving MVE John made a study for Kerr McGee on their Danish North Sea license and then for Mobil North Sea Limited he made a 6-month evaluation of wells and assessment of the prospectivity of acreage in the vicinity of Beryl Field. Using a Landmark workstation and Seisworks 3D he mapped a significant new exploration play-type and prospect in the Quadrant 9 Tertiary.

He worked on the Dutch North Sea for Clyde Petroleum Limited, The Hague, resolving interpretation problems in the Rotliegende fields of the P/2 block in the Broad Fourteens Basin. Section balancing critical sections and traverses led to revised fault models and substantially modified field maps, improved volumetrics estimates, and new views on prospectivity of the adjoining acreage. Also he provided structural review of Q/4 block, and advice on P/12 block.

From around 2000 to 2008, for Norwest Energy as Exploration Advisor he evaluated a series of North Sea farmin offers and mapped major packages of assets, including a gas field, making key input to a formal bid subsequently made. He reviewed a number of other Southern North Sea and Central North Sea gas fields offered for purchase, on which bids were made. He made a major contribution to farming out the 48/1b-2c Norwest equity, re-mapping the 3D seismic and presenting structure maps to over 20 companies, successfully engaging two Indian companies after visiting Bombay. He made a major contribution to selection of the drilling location for the subsequent “Cobra” gas well.

In the onshore UK he led Norwest’s exploration technical effort and made successful presentation of work to DBERR with subsequent award to Norwest and partners of two onshore Wessex Basin blocks, taking sole responsibility for regional review, mapping, and work programme design. This award led to the first onshore UK use of airborne gravity gradiometry, and to several high-resolution gravity field programmes, which he participated in.

Most recently, contract prospect development and regional review work by John has been a primary input for the award of an East Midlands UK 14th Round onshore block to a client, in December 2015. He has also carried out a 2-year study of Isle of Wight prospectivity, which is a 2015 report offered for sale, its proprietary to Highland Geology and is detailed on this site. The report is based on Kingdom maps for half a dozen horizons, it also reviews the released maps and exploration record of previous operators, and details some recent ground visits. It uses around a hundred licensed seismic lines and all the released wells, we present options for further work and we recommend policy for future exploration.

Work in Australia

For the Geological Survey of Western Australia, Perth, during 1972 and 1973 John mapped dam sites in the planning and construction stages in the south and northwest of Western Australia, publishing some Records on dam site projects. South Dandalup dam is still standing!

John’s first work as a petroleum geologist was in Australia, for BP in Melbourne between 1973 and 1976 when he carried out regional review of Northwest Shelf basins, gas field reserves studies, exploration prospect evaluations; review work in the Bass Strait and Perth basin for acreage acquisition; planned and led helicopter-supported sedimentological field work in western Papua New Guinea, Olsobip-Oksapmin and Strickland valley areas.

From late 2004 through 2010 John was Exploration Advisor to Norwest Energy, Perth WA explorer. His role was to recommend exploration policy and he completed many project evaluations and mapping exercises with Kingdom software in the North Sea, Australia and India, creating licence application strategy in India’s NELP V, VI and in the UK and Australian recent Rounds, and playing a major role advising Norwest’s Delhi office. As noted above, he was the key figure in introducing these first Indian companies into North Sea exploration acreage.

He alerted the Company to the appreciable shale gas potential in the North Perth Basin, and Norwest is entirely focussed now on shale gas there. He also worked on Timor Sea for Norwest Energy, mapping and assisting in the successful farm-outs of the AC/P32 licence, and mapped and wrote the prospect evaluations for several Norwest blocks in Perth Basin.

He consulted in 2009 for Tata Petrodyne entering Australia offshore, he reviewed and recommended a block which they successfully applied for.

He continues to visit Australia regularly, and has driven much of its coastline and interior in 4WDs.

Work in India

John has visited India nearly twenty times. His most recent overseas contract in India was in Noida, Delhi for Jubilant Energy where he was Senior Asset Manager. The company drilled a gas discovery well in Tripura, NE India, in 2011, new models were proposed by John using his Depthcon structure interpretation software and it was shown to be a potentially very large trap (not small as had been thought), follow-up locations were recommended and these are successful wells. John had responsibility for mapping and prospect evaluation in five onshore blocks in Tripura, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh, including the key in-house role in structure mapping for the complex, multi-reservoir Kharsang Field. A series of successful oil development step-out wells in Kharsang was proposed after re-mapping the field 3D data, and production has seen a significant boost. John recommended and planned airborne gravity gradiometry for two very large blocks in Manipur, this has been successfully flown. He provided training to some 6 geologists and key support for drilling department and petroleum engineering; and he evaluated blocks offered in the NELP 9 licence round.

As introduction to India in 2003 he worked as Technical advisor to Directorate General of Hydrocarbons, Delhi, India, in license round NELP 3. Review led to some 20+ blocks being short-listed for offer, including Saurashtra basin, Krishna-Godavari, Kerala, Tripura, Mizoram, Pranhita, Himalayan foothills, Ganges Valley, west Bengal, Vindhyan basin, and Cambay basin. He was invited back for NELP 4 and made reviews of 24 blocks short-listed for inclusion in that acreage round, offering play concepts and technical descriptions for the information dockets on each block. He visited LARGE, the geophysical contractor in Moscow, at request of DGH and assisted in interpretation of 20,000 km of new deepwater seismic shot off west coast of India. Areas reviewed include Andaman Islands, Assam, Cauvery and Palar basins, Chambal valley, Narmada-Tapti basins, Cambay basin, Rajasthan Miajlar sub-basin, Bombay High, and Laccadive Ridge.

He published an independent report for Industry on the petroleum geology of the blocks offered in NELP 4, with DGH approval, and advised three companies on application policy in the Round. In licence round NELPs 5 and 6 he made block evaluations for Norwest Energy and recommended bidding strategy, with Indian partners.

In 2004 he was in Hyderabad, for a project with AlphaGeo (India) Ltd, review of large Oil India blocks in Himalayan foothills and onshore Mahanadi basin.

Work in South America

He’s worked in Argentina a number of times, and in Colombia. A study was carried out in 1998 for Pluspetrol S.A. in Buenos Aires, reviewing aspects of the structural geology of the southern sub-Andean fold belt of Bolivia to assist their exploration and development drilling programme. During late 1998 he worked with Pluspetrol again, using 3-D data in the Yacuiba block on the Argentina-Bolivia border as part of a team mapping prospects for gas in the frontal triangle zone of the sub-Andes; and during 2001 he consulted for them on the geology of south-central Bolivia in the Entre Rios block.

He first visited Colombia to give training on MVE software. In 1996 for Petrobras, Bogota, he made a study interpreting seven long regional seismic sections across the Tunja, Lanceros, and Laguna de Toto areas of the Eastern Cordillera, depth-converted and advised on structural development and prospects for drilling programme; and presented plays at a workshop. For Ecopetrol he also gave an advanced course in thrust tectonics.

He authored and sold a successful report on petroleum geology of northern Argentina for Industry, making numerous visits in this connection.

Training courses

In the mid 1980s to late 1990s he designed and presented around 20 introductory and advanced training courses and workshops in structural geology for teams in Texas, Argentina, Canada, Austria, Norway, United Kingdom, and Germany.

Over the past 3 years John has completed and continues to develop and expand an innovative course “Creative Exploration for Geologists and Geophysicists”. This is designed to encourage creative thinking in exploration, its not just a cookbook like so many courses are: its built around the software DepthCon for visualizing structure formation and geometry confirmation using seismic images. Its purpose is to give recently graduated explorationists the requisite skills and confidence to recognise, evaluate and argue for new licence block acquisitions and farm-in projects. It is almost entirely self-generated, including many photos and case histories from various basins, and it includes the software for trap modeling written by John. Its modular and can be bought either as a PDF set or taught directly. It is available on request.

Published commercial software

John has had a long association with structure balancing software development. For Midland Valley Exploration Limited, between 1993-96 he headed the development of the 2-D “Move on Fault” PC and UNIX software, which became “EzeMove” and these programs were running on over 100 user sites. He also contributed to MVE’s £500,000 Thermie “3DMove” structure restoration project, funded by EU, between 1992 and 1996.

He later designed and wrote most of the Highland Geology “DepthCon2000” VB6 section balance program, which runs with seismic bitmap images. Introduced commercially in 1999 “DepthCon” is a utility for depth conversion and structural restoration, purchasers have included Geological Survey of Germany, Hannover; IFP, Paris; University of Potsdam; University of Rio de Janeiro; Granby Enterprises Limited; Shell Canada Limited, Calgary, Alberta; Intesa S.A., PdVSA, Caracas, Venezuela; Geological Survey of Canada, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; Geological Survey of Norway. 1998, and now updated it’s a deliverable for the course.

In 2001 Highland Geology Limited won a Scottish Enterprise SMART award worth £45,000 for its TraceInterpreter project proposal, to write intelligent software for interpreting seismic profiles and satellite images. He designed and managed production of this C# advanced image processing package, completed in 2002 and used subsequently in many consulting projects for Highland Geology.