Monday, January 30, 2023 Jan 30, 2023
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Publications

The Woman With the Map

You’ve probably never heard of Katherine Brewer—or her company, Geomap—unless you’re pumping billions of dollars of natural gas out of North Texas. And she’d like to keep it that way.
By Trey Garrison |
GUSHER: As the CEO of Geomap, Brewer prefers to let her maps speak for her.
portrait by Misty Keasler

Growing up, one of the few ways young Katherine Brewer (née Peppard) got to spend time with her father was at his elbow, helping him keep his small business afloat. Vernon Peppard, a geologist, founded a geologic subsurface mapping service in 1959 called Geomap Company. Subsurface mapping is critical in energy exploration for obvious reasons: if you want to dig for something, you have to know where to dig. The ground talks to people who know its language.

In the early ’60s, a typical Saturday afternoon in the Peppard home near Love Field would find Brewer and her siblings working an assembly line at the dining room table. The company hired housewives and single women to draft its maps, a practice then unheard of. The Peppard children stacked and stapled pages of a training manual for the women. Client files were kept on 3-by-5 index cards. The pile was smaller than a deck of cards. The eldest child, Brewer had her hand in everything.

Maybe later that day, the kids would pile into Dad’s car and drive over to Love Field. Watching planes take off and land was about the only entertainment the family could afford at the time. Afterward, they’d stop by the post office, where Vernon Peppard would hope to find more map orders for his team of draftswomen.

Seeing her father open doors for women at a time when the oil business was a boys-only club, watching him struggle to convince major oil companies that they could “outsource” their geological mapping, Brewer could never have imagined that one day her father would turn over the keys to the whole operation to her. Today, at 51, Brewer might be the most quietly influential executive in the energy business. Hers is a business built on the acquisition, analysis, and confidential dissemination of highly technical geologic information. She runs it a lot like the CIA. And all across the country, and especially here in North Texas, people are getting rich by drilling where Katherine Brewer tells them to.

MAPPING: The lateVernon Peppard (below) was a pioneer on a number of fronts when he started Geomap in 1959. He hired women for technical positions back when the oil business was the exclusive province of men.
photography courtesy of Geomap

If you haven’t heard of Brewer—in other words, if you aren’t in the oil and gas business—you’ve probably heard about her firm’s biggest business in North Texas: the Barnett Shale play, natural gas fields that run across 7,000 square miles through Tarrant, Wise, Johnson, Parker, and Dallas counties and beyond. In that Mississippi-age sedentary reserve may sit 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas potential, enough to become the nation’s largest producer of gas. New drilling techniques, coupled with rising natural gas prices, have made the Barnett Shale an area of intense interest. Ranchers, landowners, even simple homeowners are leasing their land to drillers for upwards of $3,000 per acre per month. And then come the royalties if the wells produce, sometimes as much as 25 percent of what comes out of the ground. More than 4,000 producing wells have popped up in the Barnett Shale since 1999, today producing about 1.4 billion cubic feet per day, or 2.5 percent of all natural gas produced in the United States.

Geomap charts it all, showing where the growth has been and where it will be. Wells appear in red. The company creates maps that show what looks like an ever-expanding wine stain on a white tablecloth. Clients subscribe to various gas and oil plays across the country, getting new maps every 120 days. By the latest estimate, the Barnett Shale play  means more than $2 billion a year in economic impact to North Texas.

“It’s an exciting time to have something like this happening right in our own backyard,” Brewer says with a bit of understatement.

She and her brother Alan Peppard, a senior advisor for Geomap in addition to his gig as a society columnist for the Dallas Morning News, welcome a visitor into the company’s conference room on a fall afternoon. With an accent that still has a touch of her West Texas roots and the patience of a professional tutor, Brewer explains how the family business works. The lesson starts with a primer on geologic history and winds through the basic of fossil fuel formation, measurement, and extraction techniques.

But while she’ll talk at length and in detail about the process of geologic mapping, she’s tight-lipped about Geomap. She won’t discuss revenues or profits. She’s reluctant to disclose how many employees she has. She politely demurs at mentioning any clients by name.

Brewer will only say, “We have coverage essentially any place in the country where there are hydrocarbon reserves. Most of the majors and many of the independents and others are our clients.” That’s it.

Geomap gathers data from friends, clients, business partners, state agencies, and, in large measure, from public records provided by the U.S. government. In a sense, the raw data is stuff most anyone with a little know-how could acquire. Geomap brings experience to that data. And privacy.

“We collate the data in a comprehensive way and add our own objective analysis to it. People subscribe to our information because they know we provide a truly objective look,” she says. “We’re also dealing with people’s proprietary information, and if they are going to trust us with it, we are going to keep that trust.”

FLYING HIGH: The youngest of the four Peppard children, Alan is a senior advisor to the firm.
photography courtesy of Geomap

The job of keeping that trust has changed since Brewer’s father started the company and everything existed on paper. Today at Geomap, computer drawing and high-tech databases have replaced the old draft tables and index cards. State-mandated well logs for every drill have supplemented Geomap’s diverse array of intelligence sources. The company operates out of four offices: Dallas, Houston, Midland, and the Plano headquarters Vernon Peppard built in the early 1980s.

As the company continues its traditional petroleum field mapping, it also looks to map new shale fields both nearby in Texas and Arkansas, as well as northward, in Montana and Colorado.

“My father couldn’t have imagined what we’re pursuing now,” Brewer says. “As long as prices support it, this is where a lot of activity is going to be.”

And she’s in luck. The U.S. Energy Information Administration is predicting natural gas prices to hover at just below $9 per thousand cubic feet. The rule of thumb is that shale extraction becomes profitable when gas is above about $5. That means landowners getting lease and royalty checks in the mail for decades to come, hungry energy companies looking for the next place to dig. And Brewer’s company sits perched on the cusp of it all.

“The interest in the Barnett Shale brings us object elation,” she says. “It’s the largest gas play in the United States. It’s just a few miles to the west of us. It’s couldn’t be more of a right place, right time for us.”

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