Oil “guru,” geologist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Johnson (Giannakopoulos), who initiated horizontal drilling, a new technique that has perfected fracking–invented by another Greek-American, George Mitchel– making possible the discovery of the Parshall oil field in North Dakota with oil reserves of 15 billion barrels, believes that in parts of the Aegean, southern and especially western Greece, there is oil in abundance waiting to be extracted. He pointed out that even Herodotus–more than 2,000 years ago–knew about the oil in Zakynthos!
In an interview with NEO magazine during one of his recent visits to New York, Johnson explained that in the ‘90s he tried to get drilling rights to the famous oil seep at Dragopsa, Epirus. But after years of trying to cut through the institutional inefficiency and corruption he finally gave up. His experience proves what we’ve known all along: that Greece isn’t an OPEC country because the various factions that vie for money and power behind the scene haven’t come to terms as to the division of kickbacks! The oil is still there, however, waiting to be taken out of the ground and exploited if the right people ever come to government and open the process without closing the eye to special interests. Mr. Johnson won’t be there, though, preferring the Florida calmness to going through the experience in Greece again. Like many others who tried to do business in Greece and got burnt, he is unwilling to try his luck and patience once more no matter what the potential benefits.
Having entered the ninth decade of a very productive life, Mr. Johnson, crystal-clear minded and sharp-witted as ever, tall and erect and with a natural nobleness in manners, is unstoppable. He just finished a book which comes as a sequel to his first book a few years ago in which he described his life and how he came as a geologist to be interested in oil and implement the horizontal drilling for which he has received numerous awards. In his new book, he talks, among other things, about good ideas that people might have and how to materialize them. It’s not going to be one more of those self-applauding books that tells you how to become rich and famous following the footsteps of the successful writers, but more of an eye-opener delving into Mr. Johnson’s own experience that brought him from a Greek American household of restaurant owners to be a leading figure in the American oil industry.
And unlike others, despite his huge professional and financial success, he has chosen to stay close to the Greek American community, helping and contributing generously in various causes.
Michael Johnson. a geologist and oilman who now lives in Denver, Colorado, was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his family numbering among the 100 or so Greeks living in the city. Growing up Greek in the segregated Tulsa at the time wasn’t easy and it was perhaps this experience that contributed to his inventive spirit and his ability to focus on his goals.
How was it growing up in Oklahoma? Did you feel you were discriminated against as a Greek American?
Yes. My mother never learned to speak English so she did not mix in the neighborhood where we lived. I felt like an outsider. Tulsa was totally segregated (schools, buses, neighborhoods, restaurants) until after WW II. We were a tiny minority. There were fewer than 30 Greek families, nearly all of whom Americanized their names.
Which part of Greece are your parents from? Have you visited their village and have you taken your children and grand children? If yes, what was the experience like?
Kandila, a village about 25 miles northeast of Tripoli, in Peloponnesus. I have a picture in my book of my father’s house (shack). I gave my interest in my mother’s home to one of my relatives who live there. A good lesson in living is for young people to go and experience village life and recognize the hardships that your grandparents went through so that they can prosper in America.
Tell us about your involvement in the Greek American community. I know you are a member in various organizations and you support many causes.
My wife and I support Orthodoxy and Hellenism. I am a member of the Board of Trustees of Leadership 100, FAITH, supporter of Hellenic College-Holy Cross, St. Nicholas Church at Ground Zero, St. Michaels Home for the Aged, Philoptochos and we are building a chapel addition to the Cathedral in Denver. I am an Archon recognizing our connection to Constantinople.
Although Greek Americans have been very successful individually, when it comes to collective causes we lag far behind other ethnic and religious groups. Why in your opinion is that and what can we do to change it?
I believe that we need to be more transparent and give full recognition to givers. We are characteristically frugal. The key to giving, and the most important thing in seeking donations to causes is, WHO DOES THE ASKING.
What’s going on with the price oil? Will it drop further?
The oil price has dropped significantly (from $90 to $30 dollars per barrel) and it’s dropped for several reasons. The main reason is that we have developed a new oil-finding technique in America – horizontal drilling. In the last eight years we have discovered two million barrels a day of new domestic oil production. That’s a big amount of oil. So instead of producing seven million barrels a day we now produce nine million barrels a day. In the U.S. we use a total of about 20 million barrels a day, mostly to fuel the 270 million cars that we own. Liquids from natural gas (LNG) account for another three million barrels. The eight million barrels remaining is imported from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia etc. When we went from seven to nine million barrels, we flooded the market and the oil price went down starting in 2014. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, could have prevented this drop in oil price. They produce 10 million barrels a day for the world market. If they had reduced that figure to eight, to make up for the two million that we are putting out, the price would have stayed the same.
Michael S. Johnson (Giannakopoulos)
Consulting petroleum geologist Michael S. Johnson is recognized for contributing to the landmark discovery of Parshall Field in North Dakota. His 68-year career in the Rocky Mountain region began with positions at Amerada Petroleum and Apache. Since launching his independent consulting firm in 1963, he has focused his exploration efforts in the Williston Basin. He has been involved in 15 other oil field discoveries in North Dakota, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Kansas.
Born in 1926 in Missouri to Greek immigrant parents, he became increasingly intrigued with the oil business after his family moved in 1931 to Tulsa, Oklahoma, already the world’s oil capital. He earned B.Sc. and M.S. degrees in geology from The Ohio State University.
His noteworthy and fulfilling career encompasses interests in several oil fields, culminating in his contribution to the discovery of North Dakota’s Parshall Field. One of America’s largest oil fields, Parshall extends over six million acres with producible reserves exceeding fifteen billion barrels.
His honors include Explorer of the Year awards from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists.
Why didn’t they do that?
Because number one they wanted to help China, who is a big importer of their oil, and Saudi Arabia is a big importer of their goods. So if the price went down it would help the Chinese economy. Number two and three, they wanted to cause economic hardship to Russia and Iran, now considered to be adversaries. And four, let’s see if you Americans can produce your new oil at the present lower price of 40 dollars per barrel instead of 90– and we can’t. For the U.S., the price has to be $60, which is why drilling activity in the U.S. has dropped dramatically.
Many people don’t realize that oil sells at different prices depending on quality. What you see in The Wall Street Journal is the benchmark price for oil based on the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI), a high quality 45 degree gravity crude oil, one of the best in America. There is oil in America that presently goes for less than $29 a barrel, but it is low grade with a lot of sulphur. So, the price of oil varies. In North Dakota we are getting about $35 dollars per barrel, five dollars below WTI.
To answer the original question, oil price is rising. It has gone from $30 to $40 dollars and will be $50 dollars per barrel or higher by the end of the year and up to $80 dollars per barrel in less than four years. Oil is the lifeblood of the world’s economy. It will be the major energy source for the next 25 years or longer. The Middle Eastern countries need $70 to $80 dollar per barrel oil in order to sustain their economies. There will be turmoil if that does not happen.
Were you one of the fracking technique inventors?
No, the fracking technique was perfected by George Mitchell, a Greek-American, from Houston, at the Barnett gas field in the Fort Worth area. I initiated the horizontal drilling technique in a new area in North Dakota and it was my idea that it would work there. We ended up helping to discover Parshall oil field, covering six million acres, with oil reserves of 15 billion barrels.
How does that work?
We drill vertically 9,000 feet and then turn the drill to go horizontally in the rock layer that contains the oil, maybe only 10 feet thick, that’s all. One mile down, two miles sideways. Now, that’s real, amazing technology! I got some awards using that technology…
What about the environmental concerns, people are protesting that fracking is bad for the environment and it produces earthquakes.
That’s a bunch of nonsense, really. What is happening is that waste water is being injected into water disposal wells that slicken the fractures of the rocks in the subsurface causing minor earthquakes with an intensity of 1 to 3. Maybe a few are higher. Fracking has nothing to do with it. Fracking has been going on and used in completing oil and gas wells since 1947. Were it not for fracking Parshall oil field and George Mitchell’s Barnett field would not exist nor would some 10,000 other oil and gas fields in the U.S. Fracking should be strictly regulated by the States and they should be attentive to the damage that could be done. We have numerous safeguards of protecting the environment from fracking techniques.
What about the reports with the abundance of oil in the Aegean Sea. Is there truth in that?
The oil potential in Greece has been recognized since the time of Herodotus, who in about 400 B.C. described the oil seeps on the island of Zakynthos. Other indications of oil exist in Greece. Neighboring Albania produces 18 thousand barrels of oil per day, so Greece is in oil country. However, Greece produces only 1,000 barrels per day from Prinos, its only commercial oil field that is located in the northern Aegean Sea. It has produced 120 million barrels with remaining reserves of some 40 million barrels. The Aegean Sea has great additional oil potential.
So, there is oil there…
I think western Greece has a lot of potential, also. Mostly in Epirus, east of the city of Egoumenitsa. I have visited the famous oil seep at Dragopsa. We have a lookalike to western Greece in the states of Utah and Wyoming where we have 200 million barrel oil fields. These fields are already productive and geologically are very similar to the geologic setting in western Greece. That’s why I went to Greece in the mid ‘90s trying to get a concession in Epirus. We worked with DEP, the Greek National Oil Company. I had the backing of a large independent Denver-based oil company. We spent four to five years negotiating and gathering data with the cooperation of DEP. However, government red tape and “the “fakello” (the envelope – kick back) is what caused failure.
The offshore Ionian Sea and the north offshore of Crete also have potential. Greece has already done detailed seismic that is available for review and in 2015 Prime Minister Samaras began plans for offering concessions but the government change caused cancellation. The potential still exists though.
Are you telling me that bankrupt and cash-strapped Greece sits on vast but unexploited oil reserves?
Absolutely! You just need to get the government to get rid of the corruption. People are afraid to go to Greece.
Are you thinking of resuming your effort to extract oil there if things get better?
I would rather relax in Florida.
Your thoughts on the US electoral policies of the day?
I am a Republican like most oil business people. I like conservative policy. I believe that the federal government has exceeded the powers delegated to it by the Constitution. I think that in industry, and in health and education issues, the States can do a better job than the politicians in Washington D.C.
A message you would like to send to young Greek Americans making or about to make their first steps in career or professional life?
Whatever success I have had I attribute to my watchwords-perseverance and tenacity. If you have a good idea, don’t ever give up. You have the good fortune of living in the greatest country in the world giving you many freedoms one of the best being entrepreneurship. A good education opens a lot of doors.