Mohsen Achour: Tunisian by birth, Okie by choice

PHOTO: The Achour family, from left, includes Myriam, Monia, Mehdi, Mohsen and Maha.

By Gus Morgan

When Mohsen Achour arrived in Stillwater, Okla., in the early 80s, he found himself on the opposite side of the world, thousands of miles away from his home in Tunisia, a country renowned for its dreamy Mediterranean beaches.

The 19-year-old Tunisian hardly spoke any English — French and Arabic were his native languages. Even worse, there wasn't a beach in sight, merely rolling plains. This was Tornado Alley. 

It was a lot to absorb.  

"The first time I got to Oklahoma, I didn't think it was the United States of America," he said. "Because it was nothing like what I pictured. I thought it would be like California. That's the picture I had in mind." 

But to Mohsen, it was all part of a grand adventure. Embracing the challenges and foreign scenery before him, Mohsen remained focused on the opportunity at hand: a fully sponsored college education at Oklahoma State University.

How a scholarship changed his life

The Tunisian was in Stillwater to attend OSU on a full engineering “technology transfer” scholarship, a new offering from the U.S. government at the time, part of its effort to build strategic relations with Tunisia, a former French protectorate.

Mohsen started playing competitive soccer when he was10 years old. In college, he was a member of the Oklahoma State University soccer team and played semiprofessional soccer during the last four years of his soccer career, retiring when he was 38. He even coached OSU men's and women's soccer teams for a few years. This team picture from 1990 shows Mohsen, indicated by the arrow, with his OSU teammates. “I learned a lot of English from being on the team,” he said. 

While Mohsen was originally thinking of pursuing a career in finance and economics in France, the U.S. scholarship was for engineering.

But that didn't stop Mohsen, one of Tunisia's brightest high school students, from applying and receiving the scholarship.

“Going to the states was something new for everyone in Tunisia,” he said, noting that Tunisians typically attended college in Europe. “So it was an opportunity I could not miss.”

Thus, Mohsen pivoted to engineering, excited about the possibilities the field offered and the unique chance to study in America.

Mohsen thrived at OSU. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and mathematics in 1986; a master’s degree in chemical engineering and statistics in 1988; and a doctorate in chemical engineering and materials in 1992.

His studies put him on the path to a career in corrosion management and asset integrity, a challenging field well suited for chemical engineers.

A career battling corrosion

He was introduced to corrosion in the oil and gas industry during his doctoral program, which coincided with a three-year internship with Conoco in Ponca City. During this time, Mohsen participated in experimental studies and his doctoral research involved mathematical modeling of downhole corrosion in production systems containing carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.

After completing his doctorate, Mohsen returned to Tunisia, going to work in academia for nearly 12 years. Then in 2006, Mohsen decided to return to work for ConocoPhillips in Bartlesville, Okla.

"That was a big decision for me," he said, "I was doing quite well in Tunisia. I had a full professorship position and was very active in research."

Family played into his decision. Mohsen and his wife, Monia, had two young girls at the time, and he knew from his experience at OSU what opportunities America offered. He wanted the same for his children.

Mohsen during a video shoot for ConocoPhillips' corrosion labs in Bartlesville, Okla. The corrosion labs provide technical support to the company’s business units in the areas of corrosion management and asset integrity.

“Plus, I really loved working with the people at ConocoPhillips when I was doing my PhD.,” he said, “so I wanted to come back and work with them.” 

'Keeping the fluids inside the pipes'

Today, Mohsen is a corrosion and asset integrity engineer who excels at “keeping the fluids insides the pipes.”

“It sounds like a simple expression,” he said, “but it’s very challenging. Unfortunately, oil out of the ground always comes with corrosive species …. by the nature of our Operations, we will never get rid of corrosion. We can strive to eliminate corrosive species such as water, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide or bacteria, but we're never going to do that 100 percent.”

Each corrosion case is unique, Mohsen said. 

"Every system in the operation is different," he said. "Every well is different. Every pipeline is different. So the solution you are going to provide is always fit for purpose." 

A proactive approach makes all the difference

In an industry where safety is paramount, Mohsen's expertise helps the company prevent leaks, spills, premature failures, unplanned shutdowns and costly repairs — all threats to ConocoPhillips' financial well-being and reputation.

It's why Mohsen collaborates closely with Operations personnel to instill a proactive mindset when it comes to corrosion management and asset integrity. 

“We want to avoid operating in a reactive mode,” said Mohsen, a member of the Production Engineering & Assurance Team in Global Production. "The goal is to find failures before they find us. My interactions with Operations is the best part of my job. Solving issues in the field is what keeps me excited."

Mohsen overlooking the Mediterranean. 

Over the years, Mohsen has supported the company’s business units on numerous global projects, handling everything from corrosion control, to pipeline integrity reviews, to chemical management.

“I help the business units operate safely and cost effectively,” he said. “Everything I do on a daily basis is around helping the business units produce and transport our products to the end user safely by keeping the fluids inside the pipes.”

Major projects, major impacts

One of his most memorable projects involved corrosion-management work on the 357- kilometer Norpipe oil pipeline, which transports oil between Greater Ekofisk in the North Sea and the Teesside Oil Terminal in Great Britain. Mohsen was part of a team that brought a corrosion issue under control, preventing the replacement of a 50-kilometer section of the pipeline and the unnecessary shutdown of the Ekofisk production system.

"It sticks in my mind because we made a difference," he said. "We made our asset integrity program more robust. We also saved the company hundreds of millions of dollars."

In another big pipeline project, Mohsen worked on corrosion and metering issues involving the West Natuna Transportation System Indonesia pipeline, a 400-mile-long subsea conduit that delivers offshore gas to Singapore. During this project, Mohsen helped solve an issue with the accumulation of liquids and solids in the pipeline. Such work prevented the need for a multi-hundred-million-dollar project to retrofit a subsea pigging facility.

In Alaska, Mohsen has been helping the North Slope Asset Integrity team improve and maintain corrosion-control in the seawater injection system for the Kuparuk/Alpine fields.

"Approximately, we have to inject one barrel of water to get one barrel of oil out," he said. "The integrity of the seawater injection system is hence vital for Alaska to meet production target. Among other issues, we started getting corrosion from bacteria in such pipeline system. Just like when you don't brush your teeth for a long time, you get cavities. That's what happened with this system. But we're getting the corrosion under control again. We're almost there with a robust solution."

And he's been quite busy lately supporting the Lower 48 assets — including the Permian, Bakken, Eagle Ford and Rockies  with their corrosion and chemical management programs for asset integrity and cost-saving purposes.

All the while, he's constantly on watch for innovative solutions in the realm of corrosion management and asset integrity.

"I always strive to think outside the box," he said. "That's probably the academia in me. My innovation thinking is alive and well, and I'm always looking for ideas that can help our business units."

To keep ConocoPhillips engaged, influential and ahead within the industry, Mohsen has been very active with the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (as NACE fellow), the Society of Petroleum Engineers (as SPE Distinguished Lecturer), the American Petroleum Institute and the Pipeline Research Council International.

"I'm always looking for new ideas and what other people are doing," he said, "maybe cutting edge or emerging technologies we can adopt." 

Mohsen during field work in Kuparuk on Alaska's North Slope. The wind chill that day was -68 degrees Fahrenheit. 
White sandy beaches, muddy country roads

Having had all his college education in Stillwater and with re-joining ConocoPhillips in Bartlesville, Mohsen considers himself “Tunisian by birth and Okie by choice.”

“Almost to the day, I’ve spent half of my life in Tunisia and half in Oklahoma,” he said, “bouncing back and forth between the white sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and brown muddy country roads of Oklahoma. I've never picked up the cowboy accent, though.”

Looking back on his decision to go into engineering instead of finance, Mohsen said it was a wise choice.

“I enjoy it," he said, "and I’ve succeeded in it. I'm happy where I am. I see new things almost every day. It keeps me on my feet and challenged.”