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How Oil’s Most Boring CEO Found Himself Atop 10 Billion Barrels

Pioneer had no idea it had the prime position in what might be the biggest oil patch in U.S. history.

In the fall of 2011, Tom Spalding, a slim geologist with salt-and-pepper hair, stood before the board of directors of Pioneer Natural Resources, an oil and gas exploration company, to make a presentation unlike any he’d made in his 14 years there.

Using two flatscreens in Pioneer’s suburban Dallas boardroom, Spalding, the company’s vice president for geoscience, walked directors through the results of weeks of research. He and his team had explored for undiscovered oil in horizontal shales deep within the Permian Basin, a vast rock formation beneath West Texas. They had analyzed seismic data and core samples of 7,000 company wells as well as information on decades-old wells archived at the University of Texas. “When we first did it, we couldn’t believe it,” Spalding recalls. “We had to go back to check our measurements.”