A legacy of innovation and inspiration: Bob Burton

by Jan Hester

Spirit Award Winner Graphic

Over a career that has spanned more than four decades, Senior Engineering Fellow Bob Burton has made a significant impact on ConocoPhillips’ global operations through his work in the field of completions, determining if wells are commercially viable and preparing them for production. ConocoPhillips recently recognized Bob’s distinguished career and contributions with a 2019 SPIRIT Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Listen to Bob Burton's Audio Edge podcast interview.

Bob has built a legacy of technical innovation and knowledge sharing inside and outside the company. He has authored or coauthored more than 50 technical papers and made numerous presentations at industry conferences, workshops and forums. His technical awards, within ConocoPhillips and the broader industry, are many. Throughout his career, he has used his knowledge and experience in completion and production engineering to advance major projects around the globe.

"Over 40 years I’ve been able to do a lot of interesting and fun things. In Ventura, I was fortunate to be able to design some of the top-producing gas wells in California. In Dubai, I worked on the first horizontal and multilateral wells and developed well survey accuracy and collision avoidance methods that improved drilling safety and operational efficiency.”

Bob and his son at the Houston Astros home game
Baseball fans Bob and his son Tim enjoy a Houston Astros home game.

As part of the Global Wells group, Bob worked with a team to develop the Heidrun field offshore Norway, working to improve sand control completion designs that increased field production rates from 30,000 to over 50,000 barrels per day per well. “These designs allowed us to ramp up production from the field faster than would have been possible otherwise. Later, in Indonesia, the use of subsea wells allowed us to eliminate production platforms and economically develop a series of small gas fields.” 

Along the way, Bob and his colleagues identified a challenge — and a solution.

"We realized that well completion design and evaluation hadn’t been taught very effectively at the university level. Over time we devised a training program to teach people the theoretical subject matter, predictive methods and operational techniques we had learned through years of practical experience.”

Bob Burton and his wife riding segways in Galveston, Tx
Bob and Doris on a Segway tour of Galveston, Texas

When it comes to teaching, Bob says field work is invaluable.

“Completions is a lot like an apprentice system. You learn by having somebody show you what works, how it gets done and then doing it yourself. We teach basic courses to make people aware of key issues affecting their wells and then move into more-detailed training relating to a business unit’s needs. A basic tenet of this training is that you can calculate things on a computer, but there’s no substitute for going out and successfully doing jobs in the field.”

Bob teaches or leads several workshops per year on the design, execution and evaluation of well completions. These topics have been taught to hundreds of ConocoPhillips employees throughout the last 20-plus years.

“A lot of people have come through the classes, and we have driven a number of positive changes over time. In fields around the world, we are using better completion techniques to reduce well counts and get more out of our wells. That’s where the training work pays off.”

Bob and his wife Doris, a retired intensive care nurse who volunteers her time and skills to help others, have two sons. One is married and living in El Paso, and the younger is finishing law school in San Antonio. When he’s not traveling for business, Bob and Doris enjoy visiting her family in Canada, as well as traveling to other, more exotic destinations. “We’ve gone on a number of great trips, from photo safaris in Africa to elephant treks in Thailand to sailing trips in the Mediterranean. And because we lived in England, we still have friends there and enjoy visiting them.”

Elwood, Bob and Jake at New Orleans’ House of Blues.
From left, Elwood, Bob and Jake at New Orleans’ House of Blues

Both are enthusiastic cyclists and have taken bike tours through the Dordogne area of southern France, as well as in England and Tuscany in Italy. Bob is also an avid reader. He enjoys “pretty much everything but mostly history, from the Greeks and Romans to the American Civil War, the world wars and the Cold War.”

As for winning the Lifetime Achievement Award, he’s pleased but modest.

“It means a lot. It’s quite an honor and I certainly appreciate it. It’s not the Nobel Prize, but it’s pretty doggone good.”