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Interview with: George Hirusaki
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: August 30, 2008
DG: Today is August 30, 2008. We are in the home of George Hirusaki who is being interviewed for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Mr. Hirasake?
GH: I am doing fine, thank you.
DG: We are going to talk about 2 things today. We are going to talk about the history of the Japanese in Houston, their contributions to the city, and we are going to talk about your personal life and your personal involvement with the City and your reflections and experiences in the City of Houston. Let’s begin with the Japanese. You are a bit of a historian about the Japanese in Houston beyond your own personal experience. What can you tell us about the influence, about the presence of the Japanese in Houston, Texas?
GH: Well, the Japanese settlers came to Houston about 100 years ago. Now, you are probably familiar with the Mykawa Road that is on 610 South. That was a settler that had a rice farm in a place called Irwin, I believe, and was a train station. Then, he was forming rice and there was an accident where he had a plow pulled by mules and he somehow fell off the plow and was run over by the plow. He had died. But because it was very popular with the local residents, they named the road after him and that is why we see the name Mykawa Road.
DG: Interesting. Why did the first Japanese come to Houston?
GH: The time that they came was when Japan was having difficult economic times. They were victorious in the Russia-Japanese War but this war was very expensive for them economically and there weren’t very many economic possibilities in Japan because the land had been already bought, it was crowded and there were seeking opportunities elsewhere. And so, this is why a number of settlers came to Texas and bought land, formed colonies and our ancestors are still here.
DG: How were they received?
GH: They were well received whenever they came to Texas. To give you some idea of the type of people that came, one very well-known settler to the Houston area is the Saibara family. Saibara was the president of a university and a member of the Japanese Diet and he came to Japan over 100 years ago and even brought a different strain of rice that was developed in Japan and it turned out to be much more productive here than the local rice. And so, not only that, he was the nucleus for a number of other families that settled in the Webster area, and his ancestors are still here in Houston today.
DG: So most of the early settlers were farmers, rice farmers?
GH: Yes. That was an opportunity that was available to them and also that Japanese have a very long history of rice farming. Even though Saibara was an educator and member of the Parliament, he came not for maybe himself farming but to lead groups of families to rice farm here in Texas.
DG: It is easy to think of people coming the West Coast, people coming to the East Coast, but Texas seems a little bit circuitous. Did the boats come to Galveston? Was the idea of coming to Texas planted in Japan or once they got to the States? Why Texas? Why Houston?
GH: Well, from Japan, they came to the West Coast – San Francisco, Seattle – but in California, there were discriminatory laws. You could not own land if you were an alien and because of that, if you wanted to buy land and form a farming colony, you had to go elsewhere. In Texas, the Japanese settlers were welcome and so this is why the settlers came to Texas.
DG: O.K., now, 100 years ago, that is 1908, and then we reached the time period about 15 years later when Japanese settlers were not welcome. Can you tell us about that period, the Exclusion Acts?
GH: There was already a lot of prejudice on the West Coast, as mentioned earlier, but then in 1924, that is whenever the Alien Exclusion Act took place and then that prohibited any further immigration from Japan. And so, after that, there was a decline of the colonies.
DG: It was also illegal at that time for a Japanese male to marry a woman who was not Japanese – is that true?
GH: Well, a lot of the settlers that came here may have come as a bachelor and then once they established themselves, they would have arranged marriages from Japan. And so, they may have been referred to as picture brides because they had only a photograph to go by and recommendations of their family. This is, for example, how the Kobayashis were wed. The elder Kobayashi married his wife who he had not seen until whenever they met. And their family also originally settled in the same settlement with the Saibara and their family is very successful and is here in the Houston area as well as throughout the U.S.
DG: At the time of the Exclusion Acts, how settled were the Japanese in the Houston area? What was sort of the state of the colony?
GH: There were several colonies in the Houston area. Besides the Saibara, there was . . . I cannot remember all of the names. Rather than trying to guess all of them, let me just say there were families here as well as to the west of here. My grandfather had come in 1906 to purchase the land and he bought the land in Orange County between Beaumont and Orange. And by 1924, it was quite a thriving colony. And a number of families had come through the Kishi colony and then settled. Some stayed to work and others started there, then went on to other places. And so, it was quite a successful venture at that time.
DG: And then, what happened to it in the subsequent years and, of course, 1924 was the Exclusion Act; 1929, the economy crashed – how would you describe that next decade or two for the Japanese in Texas?
GH: Well, they still stayed here but maybe I could describe a little bit about my own family because I know a lot more about our family history than I do of the other colonies. When my grandfather came here, he bought the land using investments from a number of investors from Japan. And then, he was fortunate to find oil on some of the land. This is what is now Orange Field. And then, he founded the Orange Petroleum Company to continue the petroleum development. He sold the Orange Petroleum Company and with the profits, he used this to repay the investors back in Japan. He also continued prospecting for oil and after that time, he purchased more land but unfortunately, no more oil was found. And then, he had mortgaged the rest of the property in order to buy additional land. And then, during the Depression, the bank had foreclosed on the mortgage and as a result, he lost ownership of the land. But nevertheless, the owners would allow my father to continue farming on the land and so we still had our homestead and he continued farming and raised us children.
DG: Now, I understand you had a pretty noteworthy visitor to the oil fields during that time, during the 1920s?
GH: Yes, my grandfather was from Nagaoka, Japan and that is also the same hometown as Admiral Yamamoto. Then, Yamamoto went to Harvard for his education and then in 1924, he was a naval attaché. And then, he came to visit my grandfather. We had some pictures of him in Orange Field sitting on top of an oil tank and seeing the oil derricks in the background. Then, when we went to visit Nagaoka, we went to visit the Yamamoto Memorial Museum and we saw the same picture with my grandfather in the picture and not only that, Yamamoto had signed my grandfather’s guest book and then it had the signature of Yamamoto at the time of the visit.
DG: A little piece of history for our area. Nobody knew who was visiting them at the time, I am sure. So that takes us up to that period. Now, when the Exclusion Acts were finally repealed, that was decades later, so how would you describe the development of the Japanese in the Houston area during that time, the next 20-30 years?
GH: Well, the Japanese settlers and their ancestors were now Japanese Americans, were assimilated into the community, went to school, went to form their businesses but the population did not grow very much because there was no more immigration. And then, World War II was a very severe trauma for the community. And fortunately, the Texas community did not have to be moved to relocation camps like on the West Coast. Only the head of the family had to go to Camp Kennedy near San Antonio and the rest of the family were able to stay. And so, the Japanese Texans fared much better than those of the West Coast.
DG: I want to expand on that a little bit. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the response of the American government was to put Japanese Americans in internment camps but you were just saying that in Texas, that wasn’t the fate for all the Japanese. Why do you think that was? Was it the relationships, the local relationships? Was it because it was in Texas and not close to the West Coast or East Coast? What was the experience of the Japanese in Houston during the war?
GH: I think it was a number of things. In Texas, the prejudice that existed on the West Coast did not exist in Texas because the numbers of the Japanese settlers was much smaller. And then, after Pearl Harbor, my grandfather and the head of the Orange Petroleum Company went to the FBI in Port Arthur and said that they were turning themselves in and they would take responsibility for the Japanese community; that said, “If you need us, here we are.” And so, they did not have to go looking for them. And then, the head of Orange Petroleum Company, since Orange Petroleum Company was owned by Japanese owners, he had to go back to Japan. The FBI decided that he was an enemy agent. My grandfather went to Camp Kennedy for a short time and then he was interviewed by an attorney and the question that the attorney asked my grandfather was that if the Emperor was to order you to bomb the Port Arthur refinery, would you do so? And his reply was that, “First of all, I would not know how to do it. I am a farmer and a business man and I do not know anything about explosives.” This would be very similar to if you were adoptive from your biological family to your adopted family and your biological parents were to tell you to harm your adoptive parents, I cannot do so. And so, the attorney decided that was an adequate answer and then let him go home.
DG: There must have been some hardships. I mean, there were hardships for everyone in the country with the shortages and the rationing and all but were there any instances, any stories that were told of prejudices, biases against the Japanese in Texas or in Houston?
GH: I wasn’t aware of prejudice. The war ended 1 year before I started school and then as a first grader and going to school right after the war, I did have some problems with kids buzzing their hand over my head and saying “Bomb Tokyo.” Well, that was all right but then some kids would point their finger at me and say, “You are a Jap,” and I would say, “No, I am a Japanese American. I was born in Beaumont.” Some would accept that answer but others insisted I was a Jap. And then, if they are going to insist that I am a Jap, they are saying I am the enemy. And I felt like I had no recourse but to fight because they are wanting me to be their enemy. But after just 1 or 2 fights, that settled it. We did not have any more trouble.
DG: Well, let’s pick up your story then. You were born in Beaumont. What are your earliest memories of growing up in Beaumont and particularly of the way you viewed Houston?
GH: Well, I grew up in Vidor. Vidor is between Beaumont and Orange. My father was a rice farmer. He continued farming rice after most of the settlers had left the area. And so, my early memories of living on the bank of a rice canal and seeing the rice fields and learning about agriculture as well as things like fluid flow because there is plenty of water and so you are controlling the flow of water all the time. I thought it was a beautiful place to live even though it was quite hot during the summers.
DG: You spent some time in the rice fields, I am sure?
DG: What is that labor like?
GH: It is very hard. It is very hot and it is hard work but it is satisfying whenever you see the products of your labor.
DG: When you were a kid, what are your earliest memories of wanting to be when you grew up?
GH: I thought, at first, that I would like to be a farmer like my father. And then, I remember that when I was in high school, after I came home from school, I would go out to the field and tell them, “I’ll take over plowing until it gets dark,” and so, he could go on home. One day, I came home and then as I took over plowing, I told him, I said, “Papa, I think I want to go to Texas A&M and study agriculture.” And then, his face dropped and he said, “If you want to study agriculture, I can teach you everything you need to learn here on the farm.” Well, that sort of set me back to think about never even leaving the farm, not going to college, but the message he was trying to give me was that he had also told me many times that he would like to see one of us be a diplomat or a scientist. Well, I wasn’t very diplomatic but I did enjoy science and I think that was the message that he was trying to give me – he went to University of California at Davis and he studied horticulture – but I think what he really liked was engineering because he worked his way through school by surveying all over the state of California. And surveying is civil engineering. But what I now begin to understand is that engineers, Japanese engineers, would have a very difficult time to find employment in California at that time, or any Japanese professional would have had a difficult time at that time. And so, with horticulture, there were many Japanese farms throughout the United States and this would be a profession in which he could find demand. And so, this may have been why he chose horticulture. But yet, he was hoping to see one of us become a scientist or engineer. Chemistry was something that I found just like a hobby. Summers on the farm get to be quite boring but then I found a chemocraft set and also I found my father’s college chemistry books and I found out you could do all kinds of magic with chemicals. And then, I was doing organic synthesis before I ever took high school chemistry. I made things like TNT and I can still remember the orange crystals and even the smell of TNT at this time. And so, for me, science or chemistry became just a part of growing up because I did that for fun.
DG: Where did you go to school?
GH: I went to Vidor High School. And Vidor . . . my senior year, I signed up for trigonometry there were 2 of us from our whole high school that signed up for trigonometry. And so, I could not take trig until I went to college. And so, I went to Lamar University or, it was Lamar Tech, at the time. And got my undergraduate education. Having a bachelor of science from Lamar, I was able to go to Rice University and get a Ph.D.
DG: In what?
GH: In chemical engineering. And so, chemical engineering is a melding together of chemistry, and mathematics, and all the subjects that I very much enjoyed. Then, throughout my career of being able to use all of these 3 together and keep on . . . as I learn more, it is like putting more tools into your tool box
DG: When you were living in Vidor, going to school there, did you come to Houston often?
GH: Not very often at all. Houston was a long way away at the time, and about the only time I went to Houston before I went to high school was whenever we had a class trip, we went through Austin, San Antonio and back home.
DG: And how did people where you lived viewed Houston? Was it a place everybody wanted to go to work? Was it sort of the big city that nobody really wanted to go to? Where did Houston fit in to everybody’s view of the world?
GH: Well, when I was going to high school, Houston was the big city but I did not think so much about employment at that time. But, of course, when I went to get my undergraduate degree, then I was thinking about places for going to graduate school and Rice University was one of the obvious places I thought about because my mother and uncle went to universities in Texas but when they talked about the Rice Institute, they spoke with a different tone of voice, and so I knew that this was a place they had special respect for. And so, it was a place that I always had a fascination about and I was so pleased when I was able to go to graduate school there.
DG: Was it difficult to get in at that time? Did you have a sense that it would be tough to get in to Rice?
GH: I knew it must be tough to stay in because one of my classmates, as undergraduate, had flunked out of Rice and then he made all A’s at Lamar. And so, it was a special challenge for me. I graduated top of my class in chemical engineering and graduated with honors, so that I had no difficulty coming to Rice as a graduate student even though I was not qualified to come as an undergraduate student.
DG: So when you came to Rice, tell me about those first years. Where did you live? What was that early experience like?
GH: It was very mind expanding. I found out that all of the formulas that we used as an undergraduate, as a graduate student, we were learning just how they came about and we were the ones that should be developing the formulas instead of just using formulas developed by someone else and happened to be in a book. And so, it was just a sense of discovery.
As for where I lived, now that we have the graduate house on Bissonnett, that used to be the 1500 Bissonnett Apartments, and that is where I lived. And then, if you look at the back of the graduate house, there is a big oak tree that has a limb that goes across the fence to the synagogue parking lot. If I was late for class, I would toss my books on the other side of the fence, jump, catch the limb and then swing over that high fence and then take the shortcut through the parking lot and make my class on time. Now they have a fence and also a bus picks up the students. Things have changed.
DG: For people who might be familiar with Rice now, how was it different back then?
GH: I think a lot of things still stayed the same. It has been a beautiful campus. It has been small but wonderful facilities and one thing that I have noticed is that there is not as many open spaces. Like, for example, the quadrangle is all filled in. Now, there were gaps in it at the time and also there are a lot more trees now than there used to be. The trees were much smaller and then, in a lot of places, there were no trees. But nowadays, you can go to lunch and go from different places with hardly having to go out in the sun. You could just stay in the shade of the trees. And so, it is a wonderful, beautiful place.
DG: What was the makeup of the student body back then? I am particularly curious about how many Asian, Japanese, Chinese, Asian students were there when you started there for your Ph.D. program.
GH: In the graduate program, there were still quite a few international students. Maybe not as much as they are right now because right now, we have more than half of our graduate classes or international students. But what I do recall was that our class went to Alfred’s in the Rice Village for lunch, and we had our whole chemical engineering class together. And then, the waitress came to me and said, “And where are you from?” My answer was “Texas.” Everybody laughed because I was the only Texan in the whole group. Everybody else, other parts of the United States and international countries. And so, it was still quite international among the graduate students. The undergraduates are mostly Americans but the graduate students have been very international.
GF: Were there any faculty back then that were particular notable, worth mentioning?
DG: Yes, I came to visit Ricky Kobayashi whenever I first came to Rice University because when I first told my father that, “I think I may want to go to Rice University,” and his reply was, “Go look up one of the Kobayashi boys. My father had visited with their father to discuss _____ culture from way back when. So, I looked up Ricki Kobayashi. He was in the Chemical Engineering department. And then, he encouraged me to sign up and I am very grateful to him. After I joined the faculty in 1993, we partnered together on a National Science Foundation Project using nuclear magnetic resonance.
DG: What was your thesis topic?
GH: My thesis was on fluid mechanics. At the time that I joined the University, Rice had just engaged with Baylor University on the Rice-Baylor Artificial Heart Project that Michael DeBakey was leading in Baylor and Dale Acres at Rice University and David Hellums was my thesis advisor. And so, we were going to work on the artificial heart project and then I always wanted to look at the hydrodynamics or flow of red blood cells but then I discovered that to look at the flow of red blood cells, we had to solve problems in three dimensions. At the time, the technology was not there to be able to solve fluid flow in there dimensions. And so, I decided that this is what I would like to do for my thesis topic. And so, I told my advisor, “This is what I like to do, to find a three-dimensional analog of the stream function.” He said, “Well, people have not been successful but if you would like to try it, go ahead. And so, that is what I did for my thesis. I was successful in doing that. My thesis was probably one of the shortest on the record of the department. It is only 54 pages long and yet, it won the award for the best Ph.D. engineering thesis that year.
DG: That’s neat. So when you graduated then with that thesis in hand, where did you go next?
GH: I went to Shell Development Company. Shell’s Exploration and Production Research Laboratory, that is on Bellaire close to Stella Link and only 5 minutes from here and only 10 minutes from Rice University, I thought in the beginning that because I could numerically solve fluid flow and three-dimensions, that the chemical process industry would be very interested. And so, I went to Emoryville which is across the Bay from San Francisco. They told me that, “With your skills, the oil and gas industry would be very much interested in being able to predict the fluid flow in the petroleum reservoirs and these reservoirs are huge. And then, it goes on for many years or decades. And then, some means are needed for predicting if you make some kind of decision to develop in a certain way, what is going to be the outcome? You can only produce it once. But if you could simulate it on a computer, you could simulate it many different scenarios and then compare the difference in areas to find out which one will be optimal. And so, there was a great demand to be able to do that. And so, my career started off with Shell in developing the three-dimensional compressible reservoir simulator.
DG: Why did you seek out Shell? Did you consider Exxon and Texaco and some of the others?
GH: Yes, I interviewed a number of companies and I had a total of 6 or 7 offers. Then I finally narrowed it down between Shell and Exxon. And Exxon had already the leaders in reservoir simulation technology. In fact, the professor who taught me numerical analysis had just retired from Exxon and taught numerical analysis at Rice in the math department. And this is where I learned a lot of how to go about solving the partial differential equations necessary for reservoir simulation. And so, they were not particularly impressed with my mathematical skills. Shell was the next largest company next to Exxon and they very much wanted to be able to develop reservoir simulators. They did not have the same kind of people and I felt like I could go there and have a big impact. And so, that is why I finally made my decision to go with Shell.
DG: They could have sent you anywhere and they sent you to Bellaire, Texas?
GH: Yes. This is where the simulation research was taking place.
DG: You know, with the retrospect of time, it is easy to connect to that time when you were a young boy worried about the fluid flow of water in the rice fields. Did you have a sense of that then, that you had sort of come full circle, that you have been able to take your desire in agronomy and put it to use in something that interested you?
GH: Well, I think at the experience that I had with things like watching fluid flow, that was a very valuable experience for me because you see cause and effect. Things happen for a reason. And then, whenever . . . it was just play at the time as a child but then you understand about how fluid flows, how things like erosion . . . all of this just added to, I guess you could say it is common sense. But it is not something I learned from the books. I learned about it from personal experience and then when I went to graduate school, then I could understand why it is that these things that I had experienced behaved the way that they did. Not only did I just understand how to behave, by understanding the mathematics and being able to use the computers, I could simulate or predict these very events. And so, this is why I said it was such a mind-expanding experience to go to graduate school and be able to learn how to do all of this.
DG: That's neat. So take us through the chronology now. You went to work at Shell in what year?
DG: So that next decade and a half was boom time for the oil and gas industry in Houston. I mean, it was the generator of a lot of the growth in the City. What was it like to be at Shell during that time working on the important things you were working on?
GH: Well, when I first began in 1967, it was not a boom time. The price of oil was very low. It was about $2.50 a barrel, so that we had to be very careful about managing our resources. And so, you wanted to do everything optimally and do the engineering the best that you could. And then, after a few years, then I took an operating assignment in Los Angeles and I was a reservoir engineer and section leader for the California reservoirs. And then, during this time is whenever the Arab Embargo came about and then, during this time, there were lines at service stations because there was now a shortage of petroleum to the United States. This is whenever the boom time started. And then, the industry and the world realized that we did not have a surplus and we needed to make the most of our resources, and instead of just recovering the _____ produce oil, that we should do enhanced oil recovery. Now what many people do not realize is that with conventional technology, you recover only like one-third of the oil and leave two-thirds behind -- and so, these old fields -- there is more oil still left behind than what has been already produced. So this was a realization during the 1970s and 1980s and the technology was being developed to try to recover more of the hydrocarbon rather than just skimming the easy to produce oil off the top. But then, the 1990s became a quite different time. In 1986, the price of oil plummeted. In the 1990s, it became even less than $10 a barrel. And so, all of these technologies that we were working on developing were no longer economic, so there was not interest in practicing this technology. It was during this time that I decided to take early retirement and go to Rice University and continue the research that I felt like at some point there would be a demand for it. And now, the time has come. There is a lot of demand for doing this research and it is no longer just research, it is now being put into practice. I think that there is a big demand for it worldwide.
DG: What about the actual experience? Was there a community of scientists? Did you have a sense that the oil and gas community in Houston was a group that saw its importance to the City’s economy? Did you hang out together? Was there competition between the companies? What was it like in terms of an experience during that time?
GH: Well, during the 1970s whenever ____ oil recovery became important, the companies were very secretive. They would not share information because they did not want to give away competitive advantage, but what I recall is going to consortium meetings at University of Texas. Bill Wade and Bob Schechter had a consortium of oil companies supporting research in enhanced oil recovery. And then, at that time that the companies would give advice to the University, advice that they would not give to the competitors, that this became a time of great information sharing. And then, by the companies working together with the University, there was just a great flourishing of scientific activity. And then, the science of things like microemulsions grew out of this petroleum technology and then it became just about like a science in its own. And so, nanotechnology is the big thing. Well, we were working on nanotechnology back then except it was self-nanotechnology. So that was a very exciting time. And then, there was a lot more exchange of information, sharing of information through professional societies and there was just a flourishing of knowledge in this area. But then, after the price of oil dropped in 1986, then everything just dwindled away so that if it was not economic, it was not going to be practiced and there was very little activity for nearly 20 years.
DG: Then you went back to Rice to teach. You started off teaching part-time?
GH: I started teaching part-time in 1977, and when I was a graduate student, I found the experience as a graduate student so mind-expanding, I said wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to do this for a career? But then, I thought it was presumptuous to say so as a student so I waited for about 5 years, then I went to visit Tom Leland who was the department chair at the time and told him my intention, that I would like to become faculty someday though I wanted to continue working a few more years in industry. And so, in 1977, I was asked to be part-time faculty and lecture on flow through porous media. This is what I was practicing working for Shell. And so, I taught part-time from 1977 to 1993 and in 1993, I took early retirement and became full-time faculty. The technologies that I had been working on for oil recovery, since there was no more interest in oil recovery, there was quite a bit of interest in cleaning up superfund sites. Chlorinated solvents such as dry cleaning fluids, degreasing fluids that have seeped into the ground water was a serious problem and there were a number of superfund sites all over the United States. And so, I partnered with Clarence Miller and also Gary Pope at University of Texas and we worked on using the same technology we were using for enhanced oil recovery to clean up aquifers. And then, some of the ideas that we had for oil recovery, then we could test out on cleaning up aquifers. And then, we had developed a process using surfactants for removing chlorinated solvents from the aquifers but using foam as mobility control in order to get better sweep of the heterogeneous aquifer. Every time that we applied that, we recovered more contaminant than we thought was even originally there. And so, it turned out to be very successful and this could be tested in a fairly short time period with much less experience than in oil recovery.
DG: So you have been through a period when the price of oil was low and then it went up and then it went low again and now it is up again. So, I mean, you can see it is cyclical. From your viewpoint within the research community, what does the future hold? What is on the horizon?
GH: Well, I think that the demand has finally caught up with the supply so that we no longer have a large surplus that has been had historically because if you go all the way back to the 1930s whenever the East Texas field was discovered, it flooded the market and the price of oil dropped to something – I think it was about like under 30 cents a barrel. And so, at this time, the Texas Railroad Commission determined what they called allowables – that is the amount of production that each of the operators were allowed to produce so they would not just flood the market, so that this Texas Railroad Commission did not control how much that you could produce. And so, this was not really too different than OPEC. OPEC wanted to avoid having surplus flooding the market so as to maintain the price but then, in 1986, they felt like they were losing the market share by all the alternative sources of energy such as the Canadian tar sands, the oil shales in Colorado. And then, rather than losing the market share, they thought if they could flood the market with all this abundant oil, they could shut out the competition so that when they dropped the price of crude oil to, it went down as low as $10 a barrel, then many enhanced oil recovery projects as well as the oil shale became uneconomic so that that was put on hold. Nevertheless, the Canadians kept on producing the tar sands or they call it the oil sands. This is bitumen or tar that hardly flows at ambient temperature but you have to heat it up in order to get it to flow. And then, they continued even though that they could hardly meet the operating expenses because the price of oil was so low. They hung in there and now, it is very highly profitable. There is as much hydrocarbon as bitumen as in Canada as there is oil in Saudi Arabia. And so, it is a tremendous resource. And the same thing with oil shale in Colorado. The United States has probably the largest resource of oil shale in the world but it is a resource rather than reserves because it is being piloted right now but it is not commercially being produced. I should add that back in 1975, I was supervisor of the Thermal Recovery Research Group at Shell’s Bellaire Research Center and among the projects was a Canadian tar sands. We were doing our first pilot in the Peace River and also we were working on a pilot for oil shale production. And both of those projects were discontinued because they were saying in the case of oil shale that there is no way for us to make a profit. It is not going to be profitable until the price of oil gets to be $40 a barrel. And so, they shut it down. But now that I think it is profitable, then we will be seeing oil shale production and we already see there are like one million barrels a day of the bitumen or the upgraded hydrocarbon from the bitumen that is being imported to the United States now.
DG: What about the methane hydrates? Is that something that is commercially viable in the near future?
GH: Methane hydrates is something that not many people know about but it could be our next new energy source. There are more hydrocarbon and methane hydrates than all of the oil, gas and coal combined but the methane hydrates is oftentimes not very concentrated. It is distributed all along the coast of the continent and under the permafrost. And if you were to look along the sea floor, you will see many places where methane is just venting up to the sea floor and just you can see plumes of natural gas that is going up into the water column and finally dissolving. And if you look near the source at the ocean floor, you can see methane hydrates that are accumulating there but that is only where it is leaking out. Now where the large quantity is, is beneath the ocean floor and where that accumulates in larger quantities and possibly in higher concentrations. There are some places off the coast of Japan where they found concentrations as high as 80% of the floor space, and Japan is expecting to start producing it commercially maybe by 2017. But it is so expensive to do experiments in 1 kilometer of water that they do the testing by going to the Canadian Arctic and then drilling underneath the permafrost where there is methane hydrate, and they do the production tests there in the Canadian Arctic. And they have done 2 production tests – the first by thermostimulation and the latest test that they did this Spring was just by depressurization. The test was only for 6 days but they showed that yes you can just depressurize and produce methane from methane hydrates. Many other countries are quite interested -- other countries that have a need to depend on imported energy, this becomes very important. India is now finding more oil and gas but they are very much interested in commercializing methane hydrates. And then, China, Taiwan, Korea, in addition to Japan, United States, Canada, and Germany – there are many countries that are quite interested in methane hydrates. So I think it may be another decade or so before it becomes commercial but I believe that we will be seeing it happen.
DG: I want to go back and fill in about the Japanese in Houston. Tell us about the Japanese American Citizens League.
GH: The Japanese American Citizens League was founded in the 1920s and initially on the West Coast because during that time, there was quite a bit of prejudice against the Japanese and Japanese Americans. And so, this was formed as a civil rights organization. And then, during World War II after Pearl Harbor, then the JACL was very important as an organization to represent the rights of the Japanese – the first generation as well as the Japanese Americans. And then, since World War II, they have been very active in seeing that what happened to the Japanese American community during World War II does not happen to other communities. For example, one of the things that they were very active in was in the apology that the federal government made to the Japanese Americans for the internment and to say that this was not right. And so, the federal government apologized to the Japanese Americans that were sent to internment camps. So the Japanese American community faces very little discrimination today about the . . . one of the interests of the JACL is seeing that it does not happen to other minority groups.
DG: And what is its presence in Houston?
GH: We have the Japanese American citizen League Houston Chapter which is we are a fairly small organization but we meet every few months, try to do it every couple of months, and represent the Japanese American community in Houston.
DG: The Exclusion Acts were eventually repealed and there has been a great influx of new Japanese, Chinese, Asian national immigration -- immigration is a very hot topic in this country. How would you describe the current climate as it relates to the Japanese community in Houston?
GH: The Japanese community in Houston is quite small compared to the Asian community in Houston. In fact, it is so small that in some of the demographic surveys of the cultures in Houston, the Japanese community was not even mentioned because it was such a small sampling compared to the very large Chinese and Vietnamese community here in Houston. So we are present but our numbers are quite small.
DG: You mentioned almost 100 years ago, the influx of a new strain of rice. There have been some other contributions no doubt. How would you describe the contributions of the Japanese to Houston’s growth?
GH: The families that settled in the Webster area have contributed in many ways. Their families were large -- the Saibaras, Kobayashi, and Kagawa families had many children and their children . . . one of the things that the families emphasized was education. And so, the descendents of the first generation went on to get higher education and contribute in many different ways in their various professions.
DG: What do you see for the future of Houston, of this city and in particular, the Japanese in Houston either from your viewpoint as being involved in the JACL or at Rice University or just your involvement in other activities?
GH: Well, Houston, I think, will continue to thrive as the energy center of the world. It seems to be just increasing its focus in that area. And then, we are going to be dependent on . . . society has to depend on energy to keep it going. The energy that Houston has been focused more on is oil and gas. Even though we do not have the surplus of oil and gas as we had in the past, this is something that is still abundant but is now much harder to recover than the . . . we have already picked the low hanging fruit. Now we need to get the more challenging material that is still left on the ground in the reservoirs where we know that it is present. In addition, we have to go into more challenging environments like deeper water because now the new developments are in water about like 1 mile deep. And so, it is very deep water. And then, the final reservoir may be something about like 4 miles below the sea floor from the sea surface. So, it is extreme depths. These conditions require very large investments. To produce something like that, one billion dollars is not adequate. You need several billion dollars to develop some of these fields. And so, this is high risk and it requires making use of the latest technology, and if you do not do your planning right, then you are going to lose money big time. So it is going to require very advanced technology.
DG: In your work, you have traveled around the world, you have traveled around the country. When people ask you about Houston, how do you describe Houston to other people?
GH: Houston is a very rapidly growing city and it is a good place to live. We do not have the space restrictions of some places like San Francisco, so the cost of living in Houston is low. We have the energy industry here in Houston. During the late 1980s and 1990s, the energy industry took a setback but now, there is a big demand for energy and the industry is thriving. We have good universities. We have one of the top medical centers in the world. There are many things going for Houston and I think it is a wonderful place to live.
DG: What is your personal favorite thing about living here?
GH: I think one of the things that I like about living here is proximity to the water. When I was a graduate student, a couple of us built a small sailboat from a kit and then during the summers, we would go sailing in Galveston Bay which is only like 45 minutes from here. And then, soon after I graduated and was working, then I discovered sailboat racing. I bought an International 470 which is one of the Olympus class sailboats. Then a few years later, I bought a second one to try to stay state-of-the-art and the old one is getting worn out. One time when I was sailing the 470 which I thought was a quite fast boat, one of my friends came zipping past me on a Windsurfer. I thought up to that time that Windsurfer was just a toy and nothing serious but here I am in an Olympus class boat and someone going past me in a Windsurfer – I decided that this must be serious – I am going to have to learn about it. And since that time, I have been windsurfing since like 1980. So I no longer sail the 470 because as a professor, I do not have time to keep it maintained and then having a crew to race it during the weekend races but windsurfing I can still do whenever I have just a few hours time and the maintenance is quite low. So I still enjoy doing that.
DG: Just a few more questions, Sir. I wanted to ask you the value of Houston’s universities as research centers, the money that it brings to the economy, the important finds that happen here in Houston either at Rice or some of the things that have happened – can you give us an overview of not just within your own department but the function of the research that takes place at Rice University, the importance of the research that takes place at Rice University?
GH: I think that the university is very important for the economy of the entire region because it is through the new discoveries that new enterprises spring up. And then, something that is very clear to see is like the medical research and then the Medical Center. There is close synergism between the university and the Medical Center. This results in new technology, improved medical treatment so that I think that is very obvious. And the same thing with the universities and the oil and gas industries and this is where my experience . . . this is the biggest single industry in Houston and then having the universities here, it is so much easier for the people working with the companies to visit the local university than to have to travel across the ocean or across the country to collaborate with the researcher. And so, it adds a great opportunity to have it right here. And also, by having a university right here, that the graduates discover that we have our homegrown industry here. There are many opportunities for employment just in their backyard. There are so many students that when they come to Rice, I find that they say they do not want to work in the oil and gas industry, they want to be bio or nano, but then when you see them graduate, how many of the graduates are going to work in the oil and gas industry. So there is quite an opportunity with the present local industry that is here.
DG: It may be an unfair question but can you put a dollar figure on the amount of research that takes place here on the budgets either within your own department or at the university?
GH: I don’t know what the numbers would be but research is a very important part of the university community and we do not think of it so much in terms of just dollars but research is what attracts the great minds. If you want to have good professors, you can attract them by giving them research opportunities and not only that, a place like Rice, the undergraduates have opportunity to do undergraduate research. I have undergraduates working in my laboratory, working with the graduate students and our staff people and having their own research projects so they can sample what it is like to have a profession in research.
DG: Interesting. There may not be an easy answer for this question either but can you connect the dots to research that has been done at Rice University or by yourself to maybe something that the average person could understand? Was there a breakthrough? Was there a discovery? Was there a process that you can directly attribute to a commercial value?
GH: Well, let’s talk about enhanced oil recovery. This is my present passion because I worked on enhanced oil recovery since the 1970s. And then, I saw there was a big need for enhanced oil recovery in the 1970s and 1980s because as I mentioned, with conventional technology, you recover only like one-third of the oil and you leave two-thirds behind. And so that there was a great demand for it. But after the price of oil dropped in 1986, there was no longer an interest in it. Maybe I should say that with some reservation because carbon dioxide still continued to be used in West Texas because the pipelines were already in place and the infrastructure was there and then you could use the CO2 over and over again so that continued. But using surfactants for increasing oil recovery in watered out fields came practically to a stop. But this technology, as I mentioned earlier, we kept on practicing in cleaning up chlorinated solvents from superfund sites. And then, in 2002, the Department of Energy sponsored research that we did at the universities, at Rice and University of Texas. In 1995, we formed a consortium of companies that are supporting research. With the Department of Energy, now this consortium of companies and with individual company grants as well as a national oil company, we are doing quite a bit of research in surfactant and its oil recovery. And so, by using this technology, our goal is that instead of recovering only like one-third of the oil, hopefully we can recover up to half of the original oil in place. If we can do this, then it means that of all the oil that has been produced in these old reservoirs, we can produce again nearly half as much. And so, if we could to this, then it is a great resource for our nation and for the world. I think that maybe this time, this technology will finally be put to use.
DG: And it is happening down on South Main at Rice University.
GH: Yes. It is happening at South Main at Rice University, University of Houston, University of Texas, and universities throughout our country and the world. It is now a very international subject because United States no longer dominates oil production, so the international oil companies may control only like 10% of the oil production in the world. The oil production is dominated by the national oil companies such as like Saudi Aramco. And so, now when you go to professional meetings, it is not just in the United States. The professional meetings are all over the world. This year, I have already been to Edinburg, Vancouver, Victoria. In October, I will be going to Abu Dhabi and in December, I will be going to Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. And so, it is now a very international community because the resources are distributed throughout the world and now the technology is also distributed throughout the world.
DG: But you said earlier that Houston is still a center for the industry. In what regard?
GH: There is no other single location in the world that has a concentration of oil and gas companies as in Houston. And so, we probably have the single largest population of scientists and engineers related to the production of oil and gas.
DG: I see. Great. Is there anything else you were hoping to say that I was not smart enough to ask you?
GH: I think that covers it.
DG: Great. Thank you very much for your time.
GH: You are welcome.