Petroleum Engineering alumnus D. Nathan Meehan, Ph.D., (MS, 1976), was named to the National Academy of Engineering in recognition of technical and business innovation in the application of horizontal well technology for oil and gas production.
Meehan is president of CMG-Petroleum, director at Ignis H2, and senior technology advisor at Petro.ai. He serves Mewbourne College as a member of the college’s Board of Visitors.
We reached out to Meehan for more information about this award, his incredible career, and his words of wisdom for current students and recent graduates.
Interview with Nathan Meehan
You were inducted in recognition of your “technical and business innovation in the application of horizontal well technology for oil and gas production.” Can you elaborate on your work in this area of industry?
For most of my career, I worked on wells requiring hydraulic fracturing for optimal production. Even high-permeability offshore wells are often stimulated with small frac jobs. In a way, a frac job is a way of introducing a long, high-permeability pathway in a low-permeability reservoir. It turns out that horizontal wells also introduce such a pathway and combining hydraulic fracturing with horizontal wells opens access to huge volumes of rock that would otherwise be impossible to recover.
What does the recognition as a member of the National Academy of Engineering mean to you personally?
I had the chance to serve as President of the Society of Petroleum Engineers and received that Society’s highest award. These were the highlights of my professional career. To me, membership in the National Academy of Engineering is a higher recognition still. When I look at the other petroleum engineers who are members of the National Academy of Engineering, I see the technology and business leaders who have made tremendous impacts on our society and I am truly honored to join them.
Does membership change your standing in the industry – provide new opportunities or open new doors to you?
One of several things that National Academy of Engineering members are called on to do is testifying before Congress. I have been approached by multiple Universities to potentially join their faculties or at least collaborate in some way. Frankly I am thinking about moving away from my consulting work and trying to focus on things that will contribute more to society and to our profession.
Membership in the National Academy of Engineering is a lifetime achievement award of sorts. You have obviously already done many things in your career. What are your future goals in the industry?
I have been moving in the direction of improving oil and gas sustainability for quite a while. Our industry has greatly contributed to improving the lives of billions of people. For us to remain relevant over the long-term, we will need to decrease carbon emissions and work to remove carbon from the oceans and atmosphere. I am convinced that petroleum engineers can be valuable in this role and that horizontal wells will continue to play a role in improving sustainability.
Are there any members within the National Academy of Engineering that you admire?
Well, my Ph.D. advisor Roland Horne and other faulty members at Stanford University including Khalid Aziz, Lynn Orr, Andre Journel, Mark Zoback, and Amos Nur. My good friends Ganesh Thakur, John Lee, Larry Lake, Birol Dindoruk, Christine Ehlig-Economides, Lynn Arscott, Fernando Samaniego, Ali Dogru, Fikri Kuchuk, and Abbas Firoozabadi. This is a trick question, as the list of people I admire is really long!
What are some words you live by?
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. Ralp Waldo Emerson
Have you had any unique or exciting experiences in your work as a petroleum engineer?
I have had great opportunities to travel around the world and have been lucky to have my gf (as I refer to my wife of 46 years on social media) join me on many of them. Although we have been to many exotic places, we are opera fans and love to travel to operas in places from Kazakhstan to Belgium to Buenos Aires. Our favorite place to live was Hong Kong.
How have you seen your industry change during your career?
Absolutely. When I started as an engineer, we calculated the natural gas z-factor by looking up values on a chart. The computational approaches have had enormous changes. When I started, “deep water” was anything over 600 feet! Oil went from $3/barrel when I started college to $40/barrel a few years after I finished my master’s degree. We didn’t drill any significant number of horizontal wells until I had been working for more than 12 years, and now these are most of the wells being drilled.
Have you worked outside of the U.S.? What advice would you give to students or young professionals about an international career?
I have and in many places. I recall my first visit to Ukraine was in Odessa trying to connect Middle Eastern and Russian oil companies for a project. My first chance to see many countries was as an SPE Distinguished Lecturer. If a young professional wants to really see the world, he or she should gain broad academic exposure and in-depth expertise in at least one area. It may seem difficult to see the world if you are working for an independent drilling in the Permian, but it can happen. If you are certain that is the direction you want, the largest independents and major oil companies have greater opportunities.
How did your education at the University of Oklahoma prepare you for a career?
One year after I finished my degree, I was shocked by how much that I had done in class was actually used in practice. I consider my OU education to have been very practical, especially having come from a Physics degree as an undergraduate.
Was there a particular class, concept, or professor in your degree program that really stuck with you?
Henry Crichlow taught reservoir simulation and reservoir engineering classes, in which we built simplified reservoir models and went through water influx calculations in depth. These really provided insights that I still reflect on.
What advice do you have for our current students?
Make sure you get to know your fellow students — they will ultimately be your peers.
Your professors can also be lifelong friends.
Make the most of summer internships.
Learn to identify and solve complex problems.
What inspires you most about your work?
The ability to help provide safe, clean, affordable energy that improves people’s lives.
If there are one or two things that have made you successful in your career, what would they be?
A loving and supporting spouse, and a desire to learn.
Was there a moment you can remember that led you to choose your major or your career?
Absolutely. As an undergraduate Physics major, I was accepted into law school, med school and others. A Schlumberger recruiter sought me out even though I hadn’t signed up for an interview. The following plant trip convinced me that (a) I wanted to get into the oil and gas industry, and (b) it probably wasn’t as a wireline engineer. That led me to petroleum engineering at OU where my father had gone to school many years earlier. Another “moment” was when, as Regional Engineer, I recognized my upward potential might be limited and I got the inspiration to do a Ph.D. That was a great decision in my life.
In 2019 we celebrated the centennial anniversary of Petroleum Engineering: A Century of Unlimited Energy at OU. What does “unlimited energy” mean to you?
To me, this phrase brings to mind my grandchildren! I see them and am amazed at their energy and enthusiasm. It is the creativity and enthusiasm of the rising generation that ultimately drives unlimited energy and I want to help that group to succeed.
D. Nathan Meehan, Ph.D. is president of CMG Petroleum Consulting, an energy advisory firm founded in 2001; senior technology advisor for Petro.ai, a leading oilfield data analytics firm; and a non-executive director of Ignis H2, a geothermal energy company. He was formerly president of Gaffney, Cline & Associates, and a senior executive at Baker Hughes. He served as the 2016 president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. Previously he was vice president of engineering for Occidental Oil & Gas, and general manager of exploration & production services for Union Pacific Resources. He is a Member of the National Academy of Engineering.
Meehan holds a bachelor’s in physics from the Georgia Institute of Technology, a master’s in petroleum engineering from the University of Oklahoma, and a Ph.D. in petroleum engineering from Stanford University. With more than 45 years of industry experience, he served as chairman of the board for the CMG Reservoir Simulation Foundation and twice as a director of the Computer Modelling Group, Ltd., as Director of Vanyoganeft Oil Company in Nizhnyvartosk, Russia, as director of Pinnacle Technologies, Inc., twice as a director of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, and as a director of JOA Oil & Gas BV. He is an SPE Distinguished Member and the recipient of SPE’s Lester C. Uren Award for Distinguished Achievement in Petroleum Engineering, the Degolyer Distinguished Service Medal the SPE Public Service Award and has been named an SPE Honorary Member – the Society’s highest award. He received the World Oil Lifetime Achievement Award and Petroleum Economist magazine’s Legacy Award. He serves on the boards of the University of Oklahoma Board of Visitors for the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, the University of Texas, St. Frances University petroleum engineering departments, and the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Sciences. He is an appointed member of the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission, has served on the National Petroleum Council, and is a widely published author. Meehan is a licensed professional engineer in four states.
He and his wife live in Spring, Texas, and have six children and ten grandchildren. He raises bees and claims to be “the greatest BBQ cook of our generation.”