Tako Koning is an experienced and a well-known Calgary-bound geoscientist, who after initially working as a mud logger with Continental Labs, worked for Texaco Canada Ltd., and soon became a team leader looking after northern Alberta. Tako subsequently became the project geologist for the Blue H-28 deep water drilling project which was drilled in the Orphan Basin, Newfoundland in 1979. The exploration well established a deepwater and drilling depth record at the time, and remains as one of the greatest technical success in the Canadian Frontier.
Tako is a long-time member of the CSEG now living in Angola,West Africa, but returns to Calgary every year, usually timing his visits to also attend the CSEG/CSPG Conventions. In the last three decades, Tako has been highly involved with professional societies, by way of presenting/publishing papers and volunteering from time to time. He is a member of CSPG, CSEG, APEGGA, AAPG, SPE, SEG, Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain, Geological Society of London, Houston Geological Society, and honorary life member of Nigerian Association of Petroleum Explorationists. Tako is the recipient of the 2007 SPE Regional Service Award for Africa Region, in recognition of his 'unwavering and diligent service to the SPE Angola Section for more than 10 years as publicity and program chairman'.
This interview was conducted by Michael Enachescu, CSEG Assistant Director, Communications and Satinder Chopra, Editor, RECORDER soon after the 2007 Joint CSPG/CSEG Convention. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Tako, let’s begin by asking you about your educational background and your work experience.
I was born in Holland in 1949. In 1954 my family emigrated to Canada and I grew up in Edmonton. People sometimes wonder where my name came from and I tell them I am Holland-born but Canada-raised. In 1971 I graduated with a B.Sc. in Geology from the University of Alberta. In 1974 I started studying part-time at the University of Calgary and obtained a B.A. in Economics in 1981. So in terms of education, I am very much an Albertan, although I am no longer all that much Albertan since I have spent so much of my career overseas.
After I graduated from high school, in order to pay for my university tuition, I spent two summers working in the sawmills and fighting forest fires in northern British Columbia, in the Houston – Smithers area. Then I worked for three summers in field parties prospecting in the north country. We were doing gold exploration in British Columbia, uranium exploration up in northern Saskatchewan and looking for gold, copper, silver, anything in the East Arm of Great Slave Lake.
After I graduated in 1971, I spent another long summer doing mining exploration and fighting the mosquitoes and black flies in the bush and I decided that was not going to be where I was going to spend the rest of my life. So I decided to try to get a job in the Calgary oil patch. It was difficult at that time to get jobs in Calgary because the oil prices were low and there wasn’t that much activity. But my aim was to get an office job where I could lead a more settled life style. I accepted the first job offer that I received, and that was with a small company called Continental Labs. They were Calgary-based and specialized in mudlogging. I really should have researched a little more the type of work that it involved since my aim was twofold: to get an office job and get an entry ticket into the oil patch. In fairness to them, they did mention that it would involve “some” office work, but in reality it turned out to be about two days in the office in two years. Anyway, I accepted their offer and within a week found myself sitting on a big off s h o re platform in the Grand Banks in Newfoundland and then spent the next two years mudlogging, mostly in Newfoundland. I also spent some long stretches in the middle of winter sitting on wells on the Tuktoyuktuk Peninsula north of Inuvik.
The job at that time with Continental was not as a geologist – the job title was mudlogger and basically I was running gas sniffers (gas chromatographs) and logging the drilling cutting samples. In those days, once you were on a rig as a mudlogger you could put in some long stretches of time before being relieved. I spent 62 days nonstop offshore in the winter of 1972 experiencing violent storms, perpetual fog, and massive crashing waves with heights of up to 25 meters. Never again would I put in a stretch like that. But there was some valuable experience that I acquired which I did not appreciate at that time. I learned a lot about drilling operations and I also learned about the rig culture – the chain-of-command and all of that. That proved very useful to me in later years when I would be on wellsites and representing the operator. The other thing I did not appreciate at that time when I was sitting on those Amoco wells on the Grand Banks, like Merganser-1, Jaeger-1, Osprey-1, Petrel-1 (all dry holes by the way), was that it was the start of a long relationship between the East Coast of Canada and myself. I had no idea at that time I would be intimately involved with the world record setting Blue H-28 well and other major drilling programs on the Grand Banks.
So in hindsight, even though the job with Continental Labs was not really a “geology job”, in actual fact it was excellent experience and I am still grateful for two of Continental’s managers, Rich Mercer and Sandy Pennington for hiring me. It also established in me a long and abiding interest in the oil activities on the East Coast and to this very day I always keep an eye on what is happening there. In fact, just to illustrate: next August I plan to attend the Central Atlantic Conjugate Margins Conference in Halifax and give a paper on Georges Bank, where I still have some relevant knowledge from years ago.
Was the money doing mudlogging good at that time?
The money was very good but it had to be good because working long stretches on a drilling platform on the Grand Banks or on a rig in the Arctic in the middle of winter are not easy places to work.
But then I started working for Texaco Canada Limited in Calgary 1974, initially as a junior geologist and then eventually I became a team leader covering northern Alberta. Then they expanded my area so that I was also project geologist for the Blue H-28 deep water drilling project which we drilled in 1979.
Did your experience as a mudlogger count for something when you were promoted to do exploration on the East Coast?
Well, it certainly helped me get the job with Texaco Canada because at that time they wanted to hire people who had some practical experience behind them. I had the two years experience with Continental so the first year with Texaco I was doing quite a bit of wellsite work in Alberta, using the experience I picked up with Continental Labs. But to go back to your question, yes, the two years on the rigs really got me the job with Texaco Canada. Also, it had sparked this interest for me in the East Coast so I was very happy to get involved in the Blue H-28 project.
That is a good clue for our young geoscience graduates.
Yes, for me working for a service company turned out to be a great entry opportunity. Indeed, with all of the service companies such Schlumberger, Halliburton and all such companies, eventually you reach a fork in the road and either you stay and make a career with them, which is absolutely satisfactory, or you can use that experience to get a job with one of the majors. And of course many people, after they got the job with the majors, then they went on with the smaller oil companies and got all those stock options, company cars and all that stuff and became, you know...
Yes, multi-millionaires! Now in my case, when I joined Texaco Canada, I was going to work for them for only 2 years. Texaco Canada was the subsidiary of Texaco Inc, based in New York. In the case of Texaco Canada, it was known to be fairly conservative and even a little stodgy. It was basically an oil refining and marketing company that happened to have a small oil and gas exploration and production department. When I joined, oil prices had taken a huge jump due to the Middle East war and OPEC curtailments. So business started to boom in Calgary and lots of my friends were quitting the majors to join the smaller junior companies. Many friends were getting company cars and memberships in the Petroleum Club and I was kind of a little envious of them and began thinking I would do the same thing. But what happened then was that I became involved in the Blue H-28 project. I thought, whoa, this is pretty interesting stuff! Previously with Texaco Canada, I was getting wells drilled for oil and gas in the Cardium or the Bluesky formations up in northern Alberta, but this enabled me to become involved in this really interesting, high impact frontier project and so I decided to stay with Texaco Canada, mainly because the project was so fascinating. Blue H-28 was a huge challenge since it was such a leading edge project. It also gave me some solid experience in geophysics, especially mapping out the prospect based on seismic data.
Then I also realized that if I stayed with Texaco Canada, I could transfer with them internationally since Texaco Inc had operations all over the world. From the time I was young, I was interested in working outside of Canada. My wife, Henrietta does not drive my career. On the other hand, she loves living overseas so I must confess that she has had some major influence on where I have worked. I could see that down the road maybe I could have the opportunity for getting a job with Texaco in places like Indonesia, the Middle East or Africa, so I thought, okay, I am going to stick around. So when I joined Texaco Canada in Calgary in 1974, I planned to work for them for just two years and I ended up working for them for almost 30 years, mostly overseas in Indonesia, Nigeria and Angola. In fact, since graduating from U of A in 1971, I have spent 22 years living overseas, mostly in Africa, something I never anticipated when I was a fresh out of university.
In 1980, soon after completion of the Blue H-28 project we moved to Sumatra, Indonesia and lived there for seven years. Our daughter was born there (our son was born in Calgary in 1978). Then I returned to Calgary in 1986 as Texaco Canada Resources’ Regional Manager – Frontier & Foreign Exploration and my team was instrumental in having Texaco farm-in to the multi-well Husky project in the Jean d’Arc Basin, so I was back working on East Coast projects again, including Texaco’s George Bank block, offshore Nova Scotia. Then in 1987 Imperial Oil/ Esso bought Texaco Canada but I stayed with Texaco as Vice President Exploration of the small remnant company, Texaco Canada Petroleum Inc. Then in 1992 I transferred to Lagos, Nigeria as Assistant Managing Director (Exploration) for Texaco Nigeria Limited and have lived and worked in Africa since that time.
You are aware that right now the focus of exploration on the East Coast is on the Orphan Basin and is based on a very substantial land sale held in 2003 and 2004? You are aware that there are major commitments up to six hundred million dollars? This was the highest amount ever promised for exploration anywhere in Canada.
$672,000,000 paid for 8 exploration blocks in 2003.
Even though for the past 12 years I have been living and working in Luanda, Angola, the reason why I am up-to-date on what is happening in places like offshore Newfoundland is because I receive information via email from sources such as electronic scout reports and I still get all of my magazines like Oil & Gas Journal, Upstream, etc. So even though I am sort of living “off the beaten path”, I still manage be up to date on most things. I also yearly take in the CSPG-CSEG joint conferences in Calgary and that way get caught up on events in Canada.
So sitting behind my laptop in Luanda, Angola in 2003, when I read in the electronic press about the size of the bonuses being paid for acreage in the Orphan Basin, I asked myself, “What the heck is going on?” I promptly sent an email to Michael since he is an old friend and he has been much immersed with the East Coast for a long time. So he gave me more background information on the new activity in the Orphan Basin. Eventually I learned via the press that the Eirik Raude semi-submersible rig was going to be drilling a well called Great Barasway F-66 for Chevron and its partners ExxonMobil, Imperial Oil and Shell Canada some 85 km east of the Blue H- 28 well in even deeper water than where Blue H-28 was drilled, like in excess of 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) of water.
2,350 meters of water.
Indeed. When it comes to water depths, I still relate more to feet. I think this is because of my age (premetric). So the news that was coming out was that Chevron et al would be drilling in 2,350 meters of water (which is 7,700 feet) and down to a drill depth of 7,400 meters (which is 24,500 feet). Needless to say, this was looking like an amazing project! The press was also mentioning figures like about $150 million to drill the well, so that was going to make it the most expensive well ever drilled in Canada. I was fascinated by the news since the closest control well would be the Blue H-28 that we had drilled almost 30 years before. In our case, we had drilled in 4,876 feet (1,486 meters) of water and we took the well down to over 20,000 feet (6,103 meters) drill depth and established the world record for the water depth drilled and also set the record for the deepest drilling ever done in Canada.
How do you jump from exploring in northern Alberta into exploring in the Orphan Daisy in 1,500 meters of water? Like what was the experience that you had at that time – it should have been a fantastic leap of faith to move from drilling small pinnacle reefs in Western Canada into going in that kind of environment?
How do you jump from exploring in northern Alberta into exploring in the Orphan Daisy in 1,500 meters of water? Like what was the experience that you had at that time – it should have been a fantastic leap of faith to move from drilling small pinnacle reefs in Western Canada into going in that kind of environment?
Well it was a quantum leap of faith! When we conceived the project in 1974, the deepest water that had been drilled in was only 2,100 feet (640 meters). The prospect that we would recommend drilling was in almost 5,000 feet of water (1,500 meters), so we really had this feeling that this was a truly leading edge type project.
How, in the first place, did Texaco get into the Orphan Basin?
Okay, we had a little team back in 1974, so this is you know before you were even born.
Before most of us CSEG members were born.
Indeed. So back in 1974, we had a small team of geologists and geophysicist doing regional East Coast studies. The team’s geologists included Dave Vanderlee, Peter Bower, John Williams and the geophysicists included Trevor Bell and Rennie Reghenas. In those days, there was not a lot of well data for incorporating into the regional studies. This was pre- Hibernia time. The seismic data was old late 1960s vintage regional 2D data that showed some big bumps in parts of the Orphan Basin especially on land which was held by Shell. The block that was held by Shell was called the Gander Block and it covered a phenomenally large area of about 5.5 million acres. We thought that these bumps could be reefs. So we liked the block geologically and at the same time Shell wanted to farm it out, so that was what brought Texaco into the Orphan Basin.
You need to realize that in the mid 1970s the mindset of geologists and geophysicists was very much reef-oriented since that was where the big oil discoveries had been made in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. The major discoveries in places like Bonnie Glen, Wizard Lake, Swan Hills, had all been in Devonian reefs. Plus the West Pembina Nisku pinnacle reef play had come into being and was creating lots of excitement for the geologists and geophysicists. So looking at the scanty regional seismic that was available at that time, we thought the structures likely were massive reefs. Based on our regional geological work, we knew about the prolific Golden Lane- Reforma Lower Cretaceous reefs in Mexico. There were indications on seismic in the deep water off places like North Carolina that hinted that the reef trend extended northwards. So we just pulled the play up into Newfoundland! But I should point out that we had some indirect supporting evidence for the play. The Joides DSDP core hole drilled on Orphan Knoll intersected some Lower Cretaceous carbonate sands and limestones. In addition, samples dredged on the Flemish Pass contained some Lower Cretaceous foraminifera that were suggestive of a warm water, reefal environment.
So originally it was a reef play?
Yes, that was how we originally sold the play to our management – they went along with the concept. As I mentioned earlier, Texaco Canada was not a frontier exploration type of company – their focus was on low to moderate risk Western Canada exploration opportunities. So it really did take quite an effort to convince our executive management in our Toronto and New York offices to agree with the farm-in. We obtained their approval on the farm-in in about 1975 even though at that time the deepest water that had ever been drilled in was 2,100 feet (640 meters) of water by Shell in Gabon. The approval was conditional on us obtaining more partners since, needless to say, Texaco did not want to drill it 100% themselves. You can imagine the effort to convince some pretty conservative executives to agree to this project. We were telling them that we wanted to drill in 5,000 feet of water in “ iceberg alley” off Newfoundland down to a depth of 20,000 feet and they were looking at us saying, “Whoa, that’s pretty extreme stuff that you guys want to do!” So it really was a “sales job” to get the approval to go ahead with the project.
At that time we had exploration manager, Al Hanners, an American who had extensive experience worldwide with Texaco, both in the field and in our executive office in New York. He had lots of Middle East experience – Saudi Arabia – working the big stuff. I learned a lot from him as well as our Chief Geologist at that time, John Williams. Both were superb explorationists. In fact, of all the people I have worked with, I learned the most from Al in terms of geology, geophysics and exploration strategies. Al had worked at one time on Gahwar, which is the largest oil field in the world. Texaco was a partner in this oil field via its interest in Saudi Aramco. So in a way we thought the structures on the Gander Block were reefs but the seismic data was so poor that you could put almost any kind of interpretation to it. There was one structure on the Gander Block that had about 250,000 acres under closure. We called it the Gander structure. So Al said that in a way it looked like Gahwar. So if you are talking with your executive management in a place like Texaco’s office in New York where the executives had lots of Saudi Arabia experience and you mention a possible Gahwar somewhere out there on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, then ears prick up and you really catch their attention! There was another question that was often asked by not just the Texaco management but also by other companies when we were looking for partners to join exploring the block. The question was, “If you find oil, how on earth are you going to produce it out there in 5,000 feet of water with icebergs all over the place?” We would reply, “If the discovery is big enough, the technology will be developed to handle it.” That was our standard reply.
Which is the right way to think.
Yes indeed. So when Texaco Inc. approved Texaco Canada farming into the Gander Block, then we convinced Home Oil, Dome Petroleum, Hudson’s Bay Oil & Gas, and Petro-Canada to join in. So it was also quite gutsy for those companies to join in this project; after all we had no guarantees that we would be able to get the well drilled since drilling in such water depths had never been done before and certainly not in a place like offshore Newfoundland.
Just to settle a little bit here – you know how audacious that was to go ahead with that project. No one had yet discovered source rocks on the East Coast and there had not been any flow of oil anywhere.
Yes, that’s right
Yes, it seemed almost unbelievable to us when we got the go ahead with the project. We were extending the technology by almost 3,000 feet (900 meters) water depth and this was not being done in a nice benign environment like offshore Spain or Italy; this was in one of the most hostile offshore environments in the world!
What was your seismic coverage at that time?
We recorded about 1,800 km of 2400% CDP data in the summers of 1976 and 1977. Of course, this was before the advent of 3D seismic.
That was probably just before migration was implemented?
The seismic definitely was migrated data because I still remember the significant difference between the migrated and non-migrated data. I recall being involved with interpreting those lines and helping to settle on the final drill location – it was fascinating stuff. The data was a huge improvement over the seismic that had been shot in the 1960s. But the new data showed that the structures were no longer reefs but rather large horst blocks. So that was the end of reef play and the focus then was on an entirely different kind of play. However, by that time we had signed the deal and were committed and so the attitude was ’forward ever backward never‘.
Based on the new seismic, we realized that the Gander structure was huge. In fact, it was so big that we called it the Blue prospect, after the Blue whale, which is the largest mammal in the world. We could only venture to guess at the lithologies. You need to realize that the closest control well at that time was the BP Bonavista well, drilled in about 1974 and it was 150 km westwards from the well that we were proposing, the Blue H-28. We could see on the seismic that the regional Pre- Cretaceous unconformity had eroded off part of the crest of the structure and that there was a wedge of sediments on-lapping onto the crest of the structure, which was also eroded by what we called the Paleozoic unconformity. So our interpretation was that it was Cretaceous sediments on-lapping onto the core of the structure which was probably basement. Accordingly, we drilled not right on the crest of the structure but slightly down the flank because we wanted to evaluate this wedge of sediment and also to drill it near to the up-dip end of it. In April, 1979 the rig arrived in St. John’s – it was the Discover Seven Seas, which believe it or not is still around and is still drilling deepwater wells globally.
It is a drill ship.
Yes. After stocking up with supplies, drill pipe and the riser in St. John’s, the rig went over to the prospect and drilled the well in about four months time, absolutely problem- free. The operation was pretty well carried out entirely by Canadians – we didn’t need to bring in a lot of people from the States. Texaco Canada used its own people, Shell Canada provided some people, and so did Petro-Canada. So it was basically a joint effort by Calgary companies.
The formation tops come in within 5% of prediction indicating that the new seismic data was very good and that the geophysicists had done a great job on the velocity analysis, especially when you consider that the closest well was 150 km away. Within the wedge of sediments onlapping onto the structure, there were some reservoir-quality clastics, which we viewed as encouraging. There were some gas shows in the well but no oil shows. In addition, there were some indications of oil source rocks although they were too thin for significant hydrocarbon generation. After we had drilled through the wedge of sediments, we intersected the section which we predicted was likely basement, and based on paleontological work done on the cuttings, it turned out to be probable Carboniferous (Mississippian). Subsequent to that, paleontological work by others has indicated various revisions to the age of it, including possible Jurassic. However, we felt at that time that we had penetrated likely basement, mainly on the basis of the vitrinite reflectance since it took an astronomically large jump at the top of the unconformity.
You hit the previous non-conformity and then got into the old Paleozoic platform for more Paleozoic basement?
Exactly. The percent vitrinite reflectance averaged about 0.7 in the wedge of Cretaceous sediments and then increased immediately to 4.0 at the unconformity. The rocks beneath the unconformity were described as having experienced maturation equivalent to a coal with a meta-anthracite rank, so clearly that reduced its oil potential. But everyone had their own set of drill cuttings, including the Geological Survey of Canada and the Newfoundland government, so there were various partners with various interpretations of the data.
Shortly after returning to Calgary from Indonesia, I was invited by the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston, Texas to give a presentation about the Blue H-28 project because they planned to have a special session on world record setting deep water wells. I had been living in the Sumatra jungle for the past 6 ? years, so it took some time for me to get thinking again about the Orphan Basin and find all of the geological and geophysical data. But I viewed the writing and presenting of the paper as an excellent opportunity. I also convinced a few Texaco colleagues, like Doug Hibbs and Ralph Campbell to join as co-authors. I presented the paper in the Houston Astrodome in 1988 – that was where the OTC was held in those days.
But basically the Orphan Basin was forgotten after the Blue H- 28 well; the basin pretty well fell off everyone’s radar screens. It is kind of noteworthy that when I was writing the paper for the OTC, a few of my friends were kidding me about writing the paper asking, “What’s the point of writing a paper about a dry hole drilled almost ten years ago? You’re writing about ancient history!” I still recall replying to them, “But it is important that we publish some of that information. Maybe some day it will be useful to someone.”
No, to your credit, when the Orphan Basin was recently revived, this little paper that you talk about was an essential paper for all the exploration teams and for all the students that we have now in Memorial University in St. John’s. This is a compulsory reading for my graduate students who, by the way, love it.
It’s nice to hear that! By the way, the papers that you (Michael) published in 1987 and 1988 on the Jean d’Arc Basin were required reading for the explorationists on my team with Texaco Canada when we embarked on the farm-in offshore Newfoundland with Husky. But to continue, as I mentioned, from the time that Blue H-28 was drilled until 2003, a period of 24 years, the basin was essentially forgotten. Certainly from my perspective, during those years I was focused on the challenges of living and working in Indonesia, Nigeria and Angola. I was certainly not thinking about the Orphan Basin. However, I was sitting behind my computer screen in Luanda, Angola where I read about the land sale in 2003 where companies paid an amazing $672 million for acreage in the Orphan Basin. I said to myself, “Whoa, there is life again in Orphan Basin!”
So then I found my old 35 mm slides of my Blue H-28 presentation and converted them into PowerPoint since Blue H-28 was once again topical! In 2005, I presented the paper to the CSPG International Division and in 2006, I presented it at the CSPG – CSEG – CWLS Joint Convention.
But with Blue H-28 there is a lesson in all of this. As geologists and geophysicists we often drill dry holes. It is the nature of the work that we do. And sometimes people can give us a rough time over this, reminding us that we have drilled another duster. Or people can kid us about wells that we sometimes claim to be a geological success, for example a well where the tops came in on forecast and also the reservoir but no oil or gas, so the well is clearly an economic failure. However, it is important for people to realize that even with a dry hole, in many cases you are still adding value for the company and for the basin. In the case of Blue H-28, we lost money. However, we also set a foundation for more exploration in the basin and that is supported by Chevron and its partners going ahead and drilling the Great Barasway well. Even though it is now reported to be a dry hole, it adds another piece to the puzzle, which could lead to a discovery in the Orphan Basin someday down the road.
I want you to contrast the level of technology between now and the time that Blue H-28 was drilled. For me, as an explorationist, my major question today is – by having all these new technologies at hand, are we becoming better explorers, do we drill enough wells, do we dare enough the way we dared in the past? Is technology really helping us and I am talking off-shore? On-shore obviously it’s a different story, but it seems that with more technology we see more risks associated with drilling in this kind of environment, and as a result we have only two exploration wells drilled per year now in Newfoundland and Labrador. And at that kind of rate, you will never find big discoveries.
I agree. You also have to realize that there is one other aspect that happened at that time which had a major influence on exploration activity. The federal government was very encouraging of frontier exploration taking place and they set up the Petroleum Incentive Program (PIP) and wells were being drilled on the basis of what was then called ’PIP’s grants‘.
So you were the beneficiary of this?
Yes, the Blue H-28 partnership benefited from it. If I recall correctly, it was like drilling with 5 cents on the dollar so the net cost for the partnership was minimal. I believe that this same program also existed when Hibernia was drilled and discovered. To me that was a very successful government policy in order to encourage exploration in the frontier areas. You need to view this from the perspective of the mid to late 1970s. The first oil shock – dramatic price increases – occurred in 1973. Ottawa recognized that it had a major nation-wide problem with oil production eventually declining in Western Canada and knowing little about the possible petroleum resources in the frontiers. There was a reluctance to depend on oil imports from the politically volatile Middle East. Accordingly, they came out with that program and I think looking backwards, it was a good program.
I say it is a very controversial program as you well know. I think most of Albertans have a different opinion about that but when you turn the table and talk on behalf of people in Atlantic Canada, I will say this program had a fantastic impact and as a result we have now 400,000 barrels a day produced from those waters and about 500 million cubic feet per day from Nova Scotia.
I agree. I should point out that the PIP’s program did not take away from the risk of drilling Blue H-28, especially the technical risk, since the drilling in such water depths and in such an inhospitable environment had never ever been done.
There are many wells on the East Coast that would never have been drilled without that kind of incentives. However, presently we are witnessing a fantastic increase in the oil price, yes? And at the same time we see little exploration being done in Atlantic Canada. Obviously, nowadays we have much more technology available, we have 3D seismic, we have AVO, we have pre-stack migration, we have the entire gamut of technologies, and everybody applies this technology before they drill. However, on the East Coast we are not all that successful. So how many wells a year should be drilled – because you will drill dry holes, no doubt about it, but you learn from each one, as you said.
So what needs to be done to encourage more exploration, more drilling?
I wish I had an easy answer.
There is another aspect to all of this. In a place like the Canadian East Coast, you are also competing with exploration funds that can easily go elsewhere, like Angola or other basins overseas. Angola’s oil story is phenomenal. About 10 years ago, Angola was producing about 700,000 barrels per day and now it is close to 2.0 million barrels per day. Production will likely be up at 2.5 million barrels of oil by 2012. That certainly exceeds the track record for the East Coast. So why is that? Well, a lot of it is because of Angola’s petroleum geology, which is world class. The ancestral Congo River during the Tertiary provided a huge fan consisting of unconsolidated, highly porous turbidite sands interspersed between prolific source rocks. The channels are very thick and there is highly distinctive differential compaction along the flanks of the channels, which is very conducive to being mapped out by seismic. The seismic imaging capabilities in the Lower Congo Basin are amazing – you can readily identify oil/water contacts, gas/oil contacts and gas caps. In the Angola off s h o re it all comes together in terms of the geology and geophysics. The exploration drilling success rate is over 85%. It is a pure geophysical play and that’s why in Angola we have this biblical expression ’honor your geophysicists‘. Of course, you need the drillers to get the wells down and you need the geologists to unravel the geology, but it is the geophysicists with their fabulous seismic which finds the oil fields.
Accordingly, the big multi-nationals will say – “We can drill that well in deep water Nova Scotia, but we also have a chance to drill a well in Angola in the deepwater. So where are we going to drill it?” As everyone knows, the flow of investment dollars goes very quickly everywhere. So it is the opportunities elsewhere which the East Coast explorationists are competing with. One does hear the arguments that Canada is a politically stable country and that it’s not like West Africa where there are all those problems. But in a country like Angola, although they went through 27 years of civil war, the war didn’t affect the oil industry because the oil is entirely offshore. Angola has had the same government for over 30 years and they seldom change the terms of the oil contracts. So even though some people will view a place like Angola as being perhaps unstable, in actual fact it has been very stable and that also helps attract the exploration dollars.
You retired from Chevron Texaco or just Texaco?
By that time it was ChevronTexaco. I was 53 years old when I retired – I was able to do that since I had worked for them for almost 30 years.
So you left when Texaco was taken over by Chevron?
Yes, the purchase took place in about 2001 and then I stayed to the end of 2002 to help finish various programs in Angola.
So ever since you have been based in Angola?
Yes, for various reasons my wife and I stayed in Angola. We hope to stay there for another year and then are considering moving back to Calgary.
So I was going to ask you what was the reason that you chose Angola? Not any other country, not Nigeria, or any other country in Europe or elsewhere?
Well, what happened was in 1992 the oil industry got slow in Calgary. I can’t remember what the underlying factors, perhaps oil prices had tanked for a while, but it was one of those times when a lot of companies were laying off, you know one company lays off, then the next one, it is this herd mentality that sometimes happens in Calgary. Texaco suggested to me that maybe it would be a good idea for me to go overseas because they could make better use of me outside of Canada than in Calgary. So there are those times when you run into those forks in the road, it happens to all of us. Decision time! Texaco offered me a good management job in Houston that had lots of moving-up-the-ladder potential. The other offer was the position of Exploration Director in Lagos, Nigeria. Quite a contrast! My initial reaction about Lagos was that it would not be an easy place to live and work – a population of 15 million people and lots of problems.
So I over the dinner table that night, I informed my little family that we had two choices: Houston or Lagos. My wife’s immediate response was, “Africa – that sounds really interesting!” My kids were aged 13 and 11 at that time and to my surprise they said, “Yes, Africa, that should be fun. But if Trixie can not go, we are not going.” It was obvious that they were enchanted with the idea of going to a country where they could see elephants, giraffes, and lions, but the dilemma for them was that we had a little Jack Russell terrier called Trixie and if the dog could not come with us to Nigeria, they were not coming along. So the next day I called up the Nigeria embassy in Ottawa, asked if we could take little Trixie with us, and they assured me there was no problem with it. So that evening I announced to the kids that the dog could join us and so shortly thereafter we were Lagos-bound. That was in 1992 and I have worked nonstop in Africa since that time.
We spent 3 years in Lagos and had an extremely interesting time. Nigeria, despite its problems, is a fascinating country and we made lots of good friends there, Nigerians and expatriates.
In 1995 we wanted to get our kids back to Canada so they could complete their high school years in Calgary. I was able to obtain a Development Manager position in Luanda, Angola with Texaco. Due to the civil war, the conditions in Luanda were very rough, so all of the expatriates worked on a rotational basis. Accordingly, I worked in Luanda for four weeks and then had four weeks off in Calgary. I did this for four years and I flew approximately 50 times across the Atlantic. Then the job was residentialized and my wife joined me in Luanda. By that time my kids were capable of being on their own with my son attending McGill University in Montreal and my daughter studying at the University of Calgary.
After I retired from ChevronTexaco, we decided to stay longer in Angola. We much like the country despite all of the problems related to the war and even though it is not the easiest of places to live. Within a month of retiring, I had two jobs. The first was with a humanitarian / aid NGO (non governmental organization) called Yme Foundation and the other was with Tullow Oil. All my life I had wanted to do some kind of aid /development work but I could not since I was tied up with my career with Texaco. So that was the reason I joined up with Yme .
Yme is a technical NGO from Norway that is involved with water projects in southern Africa including Angola. With Yme, I am their Residential Representative in Luanda and I mainly interface with the government and donors. On occasions I also go into the field and review our projects. We have a small rig and we drill water wells (drinking water) in the province of Cabinda, which is located between Congo Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the case of Tullow Oil, they are Irish in origin and they hired me to act as their advisor and identify oil and gas investment opportunities for them in Angola. So I am ’retired‘ but really am not retired at all, and I have been working in Angola on that basis for the past 4 ? years. I spend about 60% of my time on Tullow and 40% on the Yme water projects, and I do some other volunteer work. The Yme work I do on a voluntary basis – money is not so important for me at this stage of my life.
Tell us about some of your experiences in Angola.
You mean from the standpoint of …?
Well you are in a different country that most of us know little about, so apart from work, what can you can tell us?
Well, for me it is kind of a life of contrasts because of the dual work functions – oil and water. But I somehow manage it. Along with the Tullow work, I also am on the organizing committees of the local Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) and also the Society of Petrophysicists & Well Log Analysts (SPWLA). So that keeps me busy. We also run a fund raising campaign whereby we have raised about $100,000 to buy mosquito nets for the poor people h e re who cannot afford them. Malaria is rife in Angola so this is a grassroots project – all we do is raise money to buy nets and then we donate them to the local population – there are no administrative costs involved with it.
With the Yme water projects, I’ve had some interesting times especially out in the field. I first traveled with them in rural Cabinda in February, 2003, which was just after Angola’s 27 year civil war had ended, and the situation was still a little tense up there, especially since there was still another small faction which was continuing to fight for the independence of Cabinda. We would travel around the province in a pickup truck with no security, no radios, no nothing. I found it quite worrisome since previous to that with Texaco if I traveled anywhere outside of Luanda, we had all sorts of big oil company security coverage. A big contrast! With the Yme projects, it is typical fieldwork in a developing country, so you are out in the heat and on terrible roads, and accommodations are so-so. With our rig, we look for water reservoirs close to villages that have no clean water. In the more populated areas, the shallow water at a depth of 2 to 3 meters is invariably polluted, so you need to drill down to about 40 meters to drill into the clean reservoirs. In those cases, we install a submersible pump linked into a small generator and the water is pumped into a series of off-take points in the village.
Do they have enough electricity to run the water?
No, there is no electricity there so that is why we need to have the generator.
Because they don’t have clean water, I’m not surprised there is also no electricity.
Yes indeed. Angola is a developing country and it went through that horrible civil war. The infrastructure is still in bad shape, so nothing there compares to what you have over here in Calgary.
You also install hand pumps?
We do those too. In some cases, we help the local people dig water wells to a depth of up to 10 meters, then we case off the well but leave the bottom open (kind of like an open bottom-hole completion in oil wells) and we put a hand pump on the top. Yme has a website at www.yme.no which describes the technicalities of the water projects. For me it has been a good learning experience. Even though I am 57, I am still learning new stuff via Yme. If I came back to Calgary I wouldn’t mind taking a course at University of Calgary in hydrogeology. In actual fact, as a geoscientist, you are applying the same skill sets whether you are looking for oil or water. Basically you are looking for good reservoirs with good flow capacity and you need to bring them onto production at reasonable costs. Also, you are involved in managing people, budgets and reaching specified goals; so basically being involved in managing an NGO or an oil exploration program is the same – it requires the same skill sets.
When doing a water project, this is not something you can read about before you go in an area? Right now you can start writing papers on Cabinda you know, why not? The way you react is to get things on paper.
We’ll see. Writing and presenting the papers takes a lot of time. It is quite interesting to be here in Calgary at this time and compare Calgary and Luanda. Luanda is going through a boom similar to what is being experienced here in Calgary. Luanda is going through a post-war economic recovery and then there is the increased oil revenue. Basically both Luanda and Calgary have petroleum driven economies (“petroeconomies”), for better or for worse. Luanda has got 4 ? million people and Calgary has a population close to 1 million people. Due to expanding oil and gas activities and production coupled with the high oil prices, both cities have super- robust economies. However, they both suffer from problems like big traffic jams (traffic is now terrible in Luanda). Also, it creates a high level of inflation. So in a place like Luanda where there is still much poverty, the ever increasing costs make it tough on most of the people, even though there is more employment. An ordinary two-bedroom apartment with reliable water, electricity and security will rent for US$ 4,000 per month. The cost of housing keeps increasing, like it has been doing in Calgary for the past few years. Lot of people are moving into both cities, straining the infrastructures. In Luanda we frequently experience lengthy electricity blackouts so then we are entirely dependent on private generators for power.
Now I just want to ask you one m o re question here – obviously we started our discussion with oil from basins and it would be nice to close it with oil from basins. As an experienced explorationist you have seen many basins, many success stories and also many set backs. What do you advise the young generation of explorationists, especially geophysicists?
In this business, I still see lots of opportunities out there. I think the most important thing is to define early on what you want to do with your life. For example, what are your ambitions? Is it to be a geophysicist or geologist with a focus on technical abilities, or to become a manager, or to form your own oil company, or to work globally? When I look at my career in the 36 years since I graduated, I have done pretty much what I have always hoped to do.
So I think with a young geophysicist, he or she should focus on deciding what they want to do and once they have decided on that, then they should align themselves behind that and get the training and the experience necessary to achieve that ambition.
How do you do these things? Well you get it through the work experience and then through on-the-job training or participating in the technical associations, like the CSEG, SEG and the others. I have always been a ’joiner‘ so I belong to many of the professional societies and associations including the CSEG, SEG, CSPG, AAPG, Houston Geological Society, and the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain. I am also a member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE). The SPE has a great monthly magazine that is very useful for geoscientists involved in oil field development geophysics or geology. I am a also a member of the Geological Society in London- in fact about three years ago I had published a paper of mine in one of their special publications. The paper was about oil accumulations in crystalline basement, a subject I became interested in twenty years ago when I worked on an oil field in Sumatra that produced oil out of fractured granite. So here I am, 57 years old and still publishing papers, which I think is not too bad, eh?
Since I remain interested in what is happening in Alberta, and also am interested in professional ethics and such subjects, I am still a member of APEGGA; I am a P. Geol., even though it is kind of expensive to belong, but you don’t have to mention that ...
We should mention it.
Oh, you can mention it, it’s fine by me. I cannot recall exactly but I think membership in APEGGA now costs $250. I sort of wince when I write the cheque because I live overseas and the only benefit I receive now is the monthly magazine. But for me it is still worth it. Consequently, I would encourage young geophysicists to join these organizations because they can learn how geophysicists do their work in Canada and globally. The professional organizations all have their annual conventions or conferences that are always good learning experiences and great opportunities for networking and meeting people from all over the world.
In my case, I do not just join these organizations, but I really participate by writing papers from time-to-time and I have also given over 50 presentations on petroleum geology, geophysics, exploration activities, etc. at conferences in places like Calgary, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, San Diego, Jakarta, Bali, Lagos, Luanda, and London. To me the conferences are outstanding events to learn, to network, to socialize, and to meet old friends. To me it is the best combination that you can be learning and having a great time in an interesting location. Unbeatable!
So I am an unabashed supporter of the professional societies and I like to contribute towards them. With the CSPG, in 1987 Brent Snyder and I started up the Visiting Petroleum Geologist program where we arranged for experienced geologists to visit universities throughout Canada. We ran it for some five years so in 1992 I was happy to receive a Tracks Award for that effort. In 1995 the Nigerian Association of Petroleum Explorationists awarded me with Honorary Life Membership because in the three years I lived in Nigeria I was much involved with the universities there, mainly by giving lectures on petroleum geology and economics and working with students. Furthermore, to my surprise I just received notice in June that the Society of Petroleum Engineers is giving me the 2007 Regional Service Award for the Africa Region. This is because for the past ten years I have been Publicity Chairperson and Programs Chairperson for the Angola section of the SPE. I did this in order to keep the SPE active in Angola during the war and now during peace.
When I started in the oil patch in 1971, I still remember that people were saying the oil business is a sunset industry. I still remember distinctly during one of the downturns there was this saying in Calgary, “Will the last person leaving Calgary please turn off the lights.” Well, here we are 36 years later and the place is booming.
It will continue to boom...
There are opportunities not just here in Calgary but also in other parts of the world. Young geophysicists, geologists and engineers can also apply their expertise- if they want – into not just the oil industry but into environmental geophysics or geology, into hydrogeology, or mining or whatever – there is a world of opportunities out there.
I noticed you are not a member of EAGE, even though you are very close to Europe so...
Yes, I guess I just haven’t got around to it. You know, it all takes time to keep up these memberships, time for writing cheques to keep up the annual memberships...
Let me ask you one final last question. How do you look back on your life and career in a more philosophical sense? Is it with a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment or something else?
Yes, I look back on it with great satisfaction because it has given me a global perspective that I wouldn’t have gotten if I had spent my entire career here in Calgary. I think maybe from a financial standpoint of view I might have done better if I had stayed here because I could have gotten involved with some of these up-and-coming smaller companies, but the route I have chosen has given me a wonderful global perspective of the geology of the different countries, the application of seismic in different sedimentary basins, and the contractual / business complexities of different countries. In addition, living overseas has given me an on-the-ground appreciation of the world from a cultural standpoint of view.
For example, I know and understand how Indonesians live because I have spent a lot of time in Jakarta – I understand the problems and the challenges that these people face. Because I have lived a long time in Africa, I am very sympathetic and understanding with Africans because I know what circumstances are like to live in Africa, the challenges that the average African faces every day. Most Africans lives are phenomenally tough because of all the problems related to minimal medical help, security issues, no electricity, a lack of facilities and infrastructure and everything that we take for granted here in Canada.
It makes me appreciate Canada more than most Canadians. I am staying in a downtown hotel right now, I go to my kitchen sink and I turn on the tap and drink the water. I wouldn’t think of doing that in Africa – there the majority of Africans don’t have access to clean water. Accordingly, regarding my career, no regrets whatsoever. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to do what I have done. However, I am not finished yet. I hope to continue in Africa for maybe another year or two. Part of it depends on health issues. As long as I am in good shape, no problems, but if I were to run into serious health problems then it would be time to leave since due to the long civil war, it just doesn’t have the medical infrastructure like we have over here. If I can get another job in one more country between now and the time I really retire, then I would go for it!
That should be still in Africa or somewhere else?
You recall I mentioned the importance of focusing on your life’s ambitions? Africa continues to fascinate me. My wife loves Africa and she teaches English and is involved with volunteer work, and so between the two of us, we have decided that if we do move to another country, it is going to be in Africa. I know many companies and a lot of people who I have met through business or via networking at conferences and technical societies. So if my employment situation were to come to an end in Angola, I would pick up the phone or start emailing and start checking out other opportunities but it would be in Africa. Either with an oil company or with an NGO focused on water.
Now we will see you every spring. You return for the conventions as migratory birds coming to Calgary. Do you still consider Calgary home?
Definitely yes. We’ve kept the same house up in Rosedale that we bought when we married 30 years ago. We’ve only lived in it for about ten years, all the rest of the time it is rented out. We also own 240 aces of beautiful wilderness land in the foothills near Water Valley, which is northwest of Cochrane. I love to go there and relax when I am back here. We still have many old friends here, also some relatives in Calgary and many relatives in other parts of the province, so definitely this is still home. So I come back here every year for 3 or 4 weeks, usually at the time of the convention, and then I’m gone again back to Africa.
Tako thank you very much for giving us this opportunity of sitting down and chatting with you. We appreciate it.
Thank you also. It has been a real pleasure to bring up those memories about the Blue H-28 project – the drama of it all. Thanks also for allowing me to talk a little about my career, which has brought me to many fascinating places in the world.