Jim Farnsworth’s connections to the College run deep

Jim Farnsworth

Photo by Mark Peterson

An executive in the energy industry and a geoscientist, Jim Farnsworth has spent his career searching the world for giant accumulations of oil and gas.  He is also an optimist, a believer in exploration, and an environmentalist whose career has taken him all over the world.  So when IU asked him to join the advisory board of the newly formed International Studies Program, he jumped at the chance. “I’ve always loved Bloomington,” he says, “I come back every chance I get.”

“I’ve been really lucky to work with people from a lot of different cultures and nationalities,” he says.  “The more people from different cultures I meet, the more I realize how similar people are.  Everyone has a common, strong desire to be respected and to make a better life for themselves and their family.  It doesn’t matter if it is Cairo, Moscow or someplace else – While I’ve loved the technological and business challenges, what really stuck with me is the people I got to meet.  For example, the people in Angola need and want our know-how and technical expertise to develop their resources – both human and energy.   It’s terrific to see the Angolans so excited and optimistic about their future and what’s going on in their country.”

Currently living in Texas and serving as the chief exploration officer for an oil exploration and production company called Cobalt International (the company takes its name from the dense cobalt blue of offshore deep waters), Farnsworth didn’t even study abroad during his undergrad years at IU.

“I really wish I had taken the time to study abroad.  But I was the youngest of four kids and I wanted to get out of school and begin my career. I made up for it later”, he says.  Not that life on the IU Bloomington campus was so bad during those years.  Cast your mind back to Bloomington in the mid-1970s. Farnsworth vividly remembers the excitement of going to a school that played in two national basketball championships.  “The town would just go crazy,” he says, laughing.  “I kind of took it for granted that this was how it was supposed to be.”

An East Coast native, Jim moved with his family to Kokomo at age 13 and chose IU in part for the in-state tuition.  He was always interested in sciences and history, was active in Scouting, spending summers camping, and hiking with his family. Majoring in Geological Sciences, then, came naturally to him. 

 “Even in my freshman year, we’d go on these weekend tramps through the woods with the Geology professors.  I remember thinking that this was a lot more fun than sitting inside in a chemistry lab, although I had to do a lot of that as well” he says.  One professor in particular stuck out in his mind: Lee Suttner, who taught Field Geology in the summer of 1975, at IU’s Judson Mean Geologic Field Station in Montana.  Suttner was demanding – even intimidating, Farnsworth says – but with an inquisitive way of thinking that was immensely appealing. “As a young undergrad, I obviously viewed him as something close to God. I’m now delighted to call him my friend”.

“That was one of the best summers of my life,” he said, explaining why he made a $50,000 donation last year to the Field Station’s capital campaign. “That experience helped to develop my brain and ways of thinking critically, and it gave me confidence that someday I too could be a good geoscientist.”  He earned his B.S. in Geological Sciences in 1979 and joined British Petroleum (better known as BP) in 1983.  His job at BP gave him the opportunity to travel the world and live in places like Alaska, Scotland and London.  He rose to become vice president of worldwide exploration and technology, then took early retirement in 2005 to form Cobalt with a small group of partners and investors.  Cobalt relies on an in-depth knowledge of the geology of deep water exploration areas, Farnsworth says, and is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Deepwater oil exploration is a demanding, costly and risky venture; with wells frequently costing a million dollars or more a day to drill.  Farnsworth approaches his job the way that Lee Suttner trained him in 1975: before you do anything with a rock hammer or a drill bit, stop and think in a very clear and disciplined way about what the results might be.  “He taught me to think: ‘From things you see on the surface and the other data you have at you have at your disposal, what might you find underneath?  What geologic outcomes are possible?  What’s most likely?  How might this have looked 150 million years ago?’ I still use the things I learned that summer every week.”