Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 24
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  • STEPHEN A. HOLDITCH 1946-2019


    STEPHEN ALLEN HOLDITCH, a towering figure in petroleum engineering and the oil and gas industry, died August 9, 2019, at the age of 72. He devoted more than four decades of service to the nation.

    He was born near Corsicana, Texas, on October 20, 1946, to Damon and Margie (née Stephens) Holditch. His father’s career in oil and gas meant that Steve moved several times. He lived in San Antonio for the first 3 years of high school and then graduated from Richardson High School in 1965. He attended Texas A&M University (TAMU), where he became a member of the Corps of Cadets and earned his bachelor of science degree (1969), master of science degree (1970), and PhD (1976), all in petroleum engineering. When he got his PhD he left his job at Shell Oil, where he designed large hydraulic fracture treatments to stimulate production from deep, low-permeability, geopressured gas reservoirs in South Texas, to accept appointment as an assistant professor at his alma mater.

    In 1977, while still on the TAMU faculty, he formed S.A. Holditch & Associates, with a focus on analysis of low-permeability gas reservoirs and the design of hydraulic fracture treatments. He became a recognized expert in the areas of tight gas reservoirs, coalbed methane, shale gas reservoirs, and the design of hydraulic fracture treatments, and his consulting company became known globally for its ability to solve the most difficult petroleum engineering problems. It was acquired by Schlumberger in 1997 and Steve was designated a Schlumberger fellow for his many valuable technical contributions and his work to advance understanding of low-permeability sandstones, tight shales, and coalbed methane.

    At TAMU he was promoted to head of the Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering (2004–12) and director of the Energy Institute (2011–13). After his term as department chair, he was named a Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) Distinguished Research Professor. He retired in 2013.

    During his tenure he supervised more than 100 MS and PhD students, taught 97 courses, and served on more than 175 graduate committees. He was a popular and very effective teacher, and the endowment of the Petroleum Engineering Department grew thanks to significant support from former students. In 2012 an endowed chair was created to honor him by many of his former students, and within months of his passing two other former students established the Stephen Holditch ’69 Endowed Scholarship in his honor.

    Steve was invited to serve on many private and government organizations, and throughout his life undertook concurrent assignments and tasks outside of his employment. He was president of the Academy of Medicine, Engineering, & Science of Texas (TAMEST), a member of the NAE Finance Committee, member of the National Petroleum Council, and board member and chair for the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America.

    In recognition of his leadership abilities and integrity, he was appointed president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) in 2002. He served on a number of SPE committees and on the SPE Foundation board of trustees, and was also president of the AIME board of trustees.

    Steve was a global expert on hydraulic fracturing whose work resulted in a better understanding of fracture conductivity, the role of proppants, and methods to determine properties of induced fractures. His enormous contributions to the field of hydraulic fracturing and unconventional resources are reported in his 279 publications, which include journal articles as well as several books that are widely used as reference materials.1 To cite just two of his impactful peer-reviewed articles, his resource triangle concept published in 2010 became a standard in the work, publications, and presentations of others.2 And he enhanced understanding of emerging US gas shales with a 2012 paper reporting a technical and economic study of completion techniques.3 His contributions to a better understanding of coal-seam reservoirs opened the way for expanded development of this resource worldwide.4

    His work was recognized with numerous honors. He was inducted into the NAE in 1995, at the age of 49. He received some of SPE’s highest technical awards: the Lester C. Uren Award (1994), John Franklin Carll Award (1999), and Anthony F. Lucas Gold Medal (2005). In 2006 he was named an SPE honorary member and in 2014 SPE honored him for his life-time achievements with the Legends of Hydraulic Fracturing Award. He was named a Texas A&M Distinguished Alumnus in 2014, and in 2016 inducted into the Corps of Cadets Hall of Honor, a distinction of which he was very proud. In 2020 SPE established the Stephen A. Holditch Visionary Leadership Award to recognize individuals that, like Steve, have devoted significant time, effort, thought, and action and demonstrated exceptional visionary leadership resulting in a lasting and momentous impact for SPE and/or the oil and gas industry.

    Throughout his long and productive life, Steve Holditch was known as “a straight shooter” and recognized not only for his technical knowledge but also his wide-ranging intelligence, integrity, vision, and engaging leadership qualities. Colleagues, friends, and students enjoyed being around him as he mixed technical knowledge with homespun wit and was a source of encouragement, support, wise counsel, and knowledge. Stories abound of his warmth, commanding presence, expectations of excellence, and creative vision. For my part, I was truly impressed by his wisdom and sincere dedication to serving the nation when I traveled with him to Washington, DC, to talk to congressional leaders about the importance of academic research support for the future of US energy independence.

    Steve was a season ticket holder for a variety of Texas A&M sports throughout the years, but Fightin’ Texas Aggie Football and Kyle Field were closest to his heart. He retained a lifelong devotion to his alma mater and loved giving back to the university he credited for much of his success. He encouraged all his students to “Always remember the Aggie Code of Honor.”

    Steve is survived by his wife of 48 years, Ann (née Friddle), of College Station; daughters Katie Holditch (Loyd Rowe III), of The Woodlands, and Abbie Walsh (Kenn), of College Station; and five grandchildren, who were the lights of his life.

    1 Notable examples are Unconventional Oil and Gas Resources Handbook: Evaluation and Development, with YZ Ma (Elsevier/Gulf Professional Publishing, 2015); and Tight Gas Reservoirs, with J Spivey and JY Wang (SPE, 2020).
    2 Martin SO, Holditch SA, Ayers WB, McVay DA. 2010. PRISE validates resource triangle concept. SPE Economics & Management 2(01):51–60.
    3 Agrawal A, Wei Y, Holditch SA. 2012. A technical and economic study of completion techniques in five emerging US gas shales: A Woodford shale example. SPE Drilling & Completion 27(01):39–49.
    4 Holditch SA, Ely JW, Carter RH, Semmelbeck ME. 1988. Coal-seam Stimulation Manual. Topical report, January 1987–December 1988. Washington: US Department of Energy. Also Holditch SA. 1993. Completion methods in coal-seam reservoirs. Journal of Petroleum Technology 45(03):270–76. 

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