Podcasts and Interviews

A Q&A with CMS Alum, Dr. Shane Dunn

Operating as a geophysical consultant out of St. Petersburg, Dunn travels the world for some of the biggest, most technical projects on the planet

Written by Sean Beckwith, Web Content Developer for USF CMS

ST. PETERSBURG, FL – Dr. Shane Dunn, CMS Class of Fall 2016, has worked in the energy industry in multiple capacities, often as lead geologist or lead geophysicist.  With a vocation that has taken him all over the world, he has as many stories of adventure to tell as he has that of science.  His degree path was circuitous, working in industry between his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate – all of which he obtained from the University of South Florida.  He received a B.S. in Environmental Science from the Tampa campus, while his M.S. and Ph.D. were from the College of Marine Science, under the guidance of Dr. Albert Hine and Dr. Stan Locker.

“My education never started and it never stopped.  To this day, I still research heavily the geology of the various places I work and the advances in the technology – peer reviewed journals, textbooks… It hasn’t stopped.  And to remain relevant in my line of work, it cannot stop,” said Dunn in a recent interview that he graciously took a few hours out of his day to accommodate – time that could have been spent fishing, doing jiu jitsu or diving with his three boys.  Or, researching for his next globe-trotting expedition.

Shane Dunn enjoying time fishing with his three boys
Shane Dunn enjoying time fishing with his three boys

Dunn started his company, Epic Marine Geophysical, in 2010 after working for multiple geophysical consulting firms.  Although Dunn speaks of the perks and the high degree of freedom he enjoys working for himself, Dunn is quick to point out that every job he’s involved with is a team effort.  Often enormous and complex in scope, energy exploration and infrastructure projects are inherently team-oriented, employing specialized contractors and sub-contractors to perform the work.  “I have formed relationships with managers in various companies and when they need someone with my experience or skills, they plug me into their technical teams,” Dunn explained.

“I’m a kind of purist.  I’m interested in two things:  science and adventure, and not necessarily in that order.  I’m not interested in the business aspect of industry, project management, or the hassles of dealing with employees.  My goal is to remain in the technical domain and to stay out in the world doing things, rather than being restricted to the same desk, in the same office, in the same city….movement is essential.  So, working for myself, and continuing to expand my skillset has been a way for me to preserve my freedom and continue to be passionate about science,” said Dunn.

Q & A

Q  Tell me about one of your more memorable jobs, including some of the challenges and high notes.

Mozambique is an interesting place.  I first went there as part of a team to do seismic surveys.  I was lead acquisition geophysicist, and we conducted surveys in support of the development of a large gas field offshore the northern coast, in the Indian Ocean.

Mozambique is beautiful.  Its coastal beauty exceeds most of the Caribbean because it’s untouched.  They have this incredible, pristine coral ecosystem – huge reefs and quiet lagoons and beaches.  But, there is a massive gas field offshore, so what is the development of this resource going to look like? How do you manage that?  To some, mainly those in the West, the development of an oil and gas field in close proximity to pristine reefs would be controversial.  However, if you are a poverty-stricken country and you suddenly have this massive resource offshore, there is no controversy.  To me, it might be more controversial to leave the resource untapped and allow Mozambique to carry on in desperate poverty.  Of course, all this assumes responsible extraction of the gas and proper financial management of the profits by the government.  So there is definitely room for error and the outcome is by no means guaranteed to be a net positive for the people.

To further complicate things, the discovery of these large gas fields off the northern coast has spurned division amongst groups within Mozambique and attracted the attention of foreigners seeking to spread violence. The place has changed dramatically since 2014 when I first went there.  It’s sad to see what is happening to Mozambique.  In just a few years, it went from a very welcoming place with friendly people and high ecotourism potential to a fairly unsafe area that I’m in no hurry to go back to.  And that’s unfortunate, because I love the place. 

Q  Can you tell me about your role in the wind energy projects you’ve done with Orsted?

Orsted, is a European, state energy company based in Copenhagen. Orsted, formerly DONG, was the state oil company of Denmark, however, they have divested themselves of all of their hydrocarbon assets and are now strictly focused on renewables. The renewable market is much more robust in Europe, for several reasons. It gets some of its strength through subsidy, but it’s also rooted in environmental stewardship, land scarcity, taxes on hydrocarbons, and green legislation. Orsted is perhaps the world leader in offshore wind development and they are now very active in the Northeast U.S. Orsted hires geophysical service providers to acquire data in support their offshore construction operations.  These contractors might be U.S. companies, European companies, or there is even a Saint Petersburg based company, EGS Americas, which does a significant amount of offshore wind work. They hire me to accompany the various contractors offshore to provide technical oversight during the acquisition of these data sets.

At the moment, offshore wind farms are the busiest sector of renewable energy in the global ocean.  I could work exclusively in this arena, there’s that much opportunity right now.  The work I’m involved in is strictly related to identifying geologic hazards and providing detailed geologic and geophysical information to engineers who will select locations for wind turbines and design their structural support. They are very interested in the geology of the seabed, and down to about 100 meters below the seafloor.

This is an example of an industry that is very interested in atmospheric and oceanographic conditions and future changes.  The kind of things that people here at CMS study could be extremely important to the offshore wind industry.  These wind farms take a long time to build and they’re in place for a long time.  So, ideas about climate change, weather patterns, El Nino, and the general coupling of the ocean-atmosphere would be very important to these endeavors.  If you’re someone who studies the ocean or linkages between the atmosphere and the ocean on the decadal level, this a potential place to look for opportunities.

Q  How important have your degrees been to your career success?

If there was a degree that probably had the most significance, from a professional standpoint, it would be the Master’s degree.  While the Ph.D. is the pinnacle in academia, it is quite different in industry, where a Master’s degree can remove most, if not all, impediments to your progress.  So the Master’s was the most important degree from a professional standpoint.

After the Master’s, at some point in time, I realized there was a hole in my game.  My Master’s had been a very technical endeavor, focused primarily in data acquisition and processing techniques. Very heavy on method.  I was lacking the interpretation skills. A lot of data acquisition and processing can be learned on the job so to speak. The assessment, interpretation, and synthesis of geophysical data is the strong suit of academia. I became aware of this and my deficiencies and decided to return to school and pursue my Ph.D.

My goal in pursuing the Ph.D. was to broaden myself.  Most Ph.D. work tends to narrow one’s focus, but I wanted to broaden mine and cover as wide a swath of oceanography as I could.  The foundation of my research was seismic interpretation, oil and gas exploration data, but the information contained in that data spoke to a much larger story. One that integrated, ocean circulation, sedimentation, plate tectonics, climate and global sea level.

Q  What are the biggest risks associated with offshore drilling, and how might those risks factor into the future of oil and gas exploration?

First of all, we can put aside the idea that we’re running out of oil and gas.  We’re not running out of it.  Of course, on a long enough time scale, yes, we will run out of hydrocarbons.  But, the end is nowhere in sight.  I’m sure a lot of people are upset about that, such as those pushing green energy and those who are attributing most, if not all, of climate change to burning hydrocarbons. 

But there’s a lot of it, and it’s cheap.  There is so much right now, that oil companies have slowed exploration and reduced output in offshore fields. There are many offshore fields sitting untapped or have some of their wells out of production.  When oil is cheap, as it is now, industry will take advantage of the resources located on land; this scheme has been greatly enhanced by techniques such as fracking and horizontal drilling. Oversimplified, when gas is $2.50 a gallon, the energy companies will be utilizing those reserves that are cheapest to produce.  As the price approaches $4 a gallon, that’s when they’ll ramp up the deep water stuff and start to explore for even more difficult reserves. 

To your question of risk in offshore drilling. I am not the expert, but I can speak to some generalities on the subject. Risk, in offshore production, as is generally the case, is tied to uncertainty which is in turn related to complexity. You can’t overemphasize the complexity of the deep water environment or the engineering that oil and gas companies undertake in the whole offshore realm.  To be fair to them, it’s amazing that they do it with as little in the way of spills and environmental impact as they do.  I’m not taking oil and gas companies off the hook completely, but more on that in a second.

The risk of producing hydrocarbon in deep water is further compounded by simple accessibility. If things do go wrong, you have very limited access to the problem, as the problem is located under hundreds or perhaps thousands of meters of water. The deeper the water, the less accessible a problem situation becomes.  Those tasked with solving the problem are nearly entirely reliant on very sophisticated technologies, such as robotics in the form of ROV’s, and often untested methodologies. Of course, you have the extreme temperatures and pressures inherent to very deep water, the weather at the ocean’s surface which always complicates things, and many other contributing factors. However, do a little research and look up the number of wells that have been drilled offshore without incident and compare it to those causing significant impact to the ocean. I should qualify my previous statements about risk and the fact that drilling related environmental catastrophes are rare. This does not mean we can ignore it. In fact, rare events, often carry the biggest consequence. And, when it come to the rare event, we fall short in our predictive statistics and capacity to anticipate these things.

Oil companies definitely get a level of undeserved criticism, though.  Do they deserve criticism? Yes. Should they be monitored and regulated? Yes. But, the industry is often painted as uncaring and reckless. This has not been my experience in the industry. I personally have sat idle on offshore jobs for days while waiting for marine mammals to exit the area of operations. All the while, the operating company could be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars per day. I can also attest to oil companies mandating contractors to track all of the waste generated on a project, to include validating the landfill conditions where the material will end up. Try doing that in an underdeveloped country.

My point is not to defend the oil industry. In fact, I would like for my children to live in a world of nothing but sustainable clean energy. And I am hopefully contributing to that with my work in the field of offshore wind. However, as a scientist, I am in the business of facts and explaining the world as it is. And the fact is that we live in a market based economy, more or less, and right now we cannot meet the demands of that market, nor preserve any semblance of its vitality with purely renewable or so called green energy.  

Follow the links below to read more about some of the exciting projects Dr. Dunn has been a part of:

Hydrocarbon exploration offshore Peru, Trujillo Basin

Peru – Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full

Geologic Hazard Analysis for gas field offshore Mozambique

Mozambique Oil & Gas: Rovuma Offshore Area 1 Project – Overview

Offshore wind farms, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey. Orsted, formerly DONG Energy


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