Having spent over thirty years in the Oil & Gas Industry as a Geologist the opportunity has now arisen for me to return home to South Wales and develop a business idea I’ve been formulating for a while now.
There are some world-class exposures of Carboniferous, Triassic and Jurassic rocks together with abundant fossils and dinosaur footprints in the South Wales area and this combined with my broad experience of understanding how hydrocarbon reservoirs are deposited and structured has led me to identify the chance to guide those interested to learn more about the geology of South Wales.
Growing up in South Wales
Having been born and raised in South Wales and developing an interest in rocks and fossils from an early age I jumped at the chance to study geology at school. I was hooked.
Day-trips out with parents during those years made me aware of great exposures at Barry Island, Penarth, Llantwit Major amongst many others. I would close my eyes and try and imagine what the landscape looked like and what animals were walking/swimming around when the rock was formed. Was the rock deposited in a river or the sea or, was it deposited on land maybe in a desert or at the foot of a mountain? Were there any animals present at that time and was the climate hot, cold or the same as what we experience today? So many questions …….. I just wanted to learn more and get better at answering all those questions.
Going to University and first job
In the late 70’s it became clear what I had to do; I had to go to University to allow me to learn more. Success at school together with a great deal of influence from my cool geology teacher led me to Aberystwyth University to study Geology. Countless field trips in Wales, elsewhere in the UK and even in northern France along with the French, Swiss and Italian Alps were so stimulating to me.
University flew by and then it was time to find a job doing what I enjoyed. I chose the Oil & Gas industry as it appeared exciting, interesting and rewarding. I began as a mud logger working offshore in the North Sea describing the geology that the wells drilled. I found it stimulating working in such a dynamic industry.
I decided I wanted to return to University to specialise in Oil & Gas geology.
Post Graduate Life
I gained a place on a post-graduate degree at University of Aberdeen that trained students to work as geologists in Oil Companies. The course was superb and I really liked Aberdeen. I also studied together with many varying nationalities and I was massively influenced by their descriptions of their homelands.
Unfortunately for me when I graduated the industry was in the middle of one of the biggest down-turns in its history and jobs were hard to come by. I searched for related alternatives and together with my growing wanderlust I decided to give the Gold Mining industry in South Africa a try.
Living and working in South Africa
Although moving out of the UK for the first time was daunting it was also exhilarating. I accepted a job with Anglo-American in a large mining town in the Orange Free State (now known simply Free State) named Welkom.
Welkom is the second largest city in the Free State after Bloemfontein, the state capital. I was assigned to the Geology dept., of the Free State Geduld mine that was mining placer gold deposits at depths in excess of 2km from the 2.5 billion-year-old Witwatersrand Formation.
My role involved going underground four mornings a week to visit areas of the mine where the mining engineers were uncertain if their blasting was following the gold seams (reefs). These uncertainties were generally caused by the blast-face encountering of a fault that either displaced the reef downwards or upwards, and also how far the gold-reef was displaced.
Conditions underground were very harsh in that temperatures and humidity’s were high and numerous rock falls further adding to the danger. Some of the new areas being blasted (stopes) that I had to enter to make my measurements were extremely cramped often with the roof, or hanging-wall, being literally 10-20cm above me.
The work was repetitive and dangerous. I realised that I missed the Oil & Gas industry. I did some info digging (pre-Internet days) on the State Oil Co. of South Africa and discovered that they were based in Cape Town.
I sent a speculative application and was fortunate to be invited to an interview. That interview went well and I moved from the Free State to the Western Cape at Christmas 1989 and began working for Soekor on January 1st 1990 – a new job for a new decade!!
I spent the first 9 months working as a wellsite geologist on rigs offshore the southern coast of South Africa. All the wells I worked on were Exploration wells. Usually I was flown out to the rig a day or two before drilling into the reservoir. My job was to supervise the mud-loggers and quality control drilling operations as the rig drilled through the expected reservoir zone.
Generally, I was one of the first people to see if the well had discovered oil or gas. I also had to supervise any coring and wireline logging operations and be the main interface between the rig and Head Office back in Cape Town.
After being involved with about 6-8 wells as the wellsite geologist I moved to the Exploration Teams in Head Office to Cape Town. This was my idea as I wanted to be involved directly with identifying locations for new wells that I worked-up rather than be the wellsite geologist on other people’s wells.
I was assigned to an Exploration Team that was responsible for exploration of the Pletmos Basin directly offshore of the Garden Route scenic area circa 500km east of Cape Town.
My role involved interpreting the results from earlier wells (especially at which depths indications of oil & gas had been encountered, known as a Hydrocarbon Show) and then tying that information to seismic data. The seismic event relating to the Show was then followed into areas without any wells aiming to identify new structures where other (hopefully bigger) accumulations of oil & gas may be found. This really allowed me to use my visualisation skills and I loved doing it.
And living in Cape Town was so brilliant. It was probably the best place I’ve ever had the good fortune to live. The scenery around Cape Town is stunning, including areas as The Cape of Good Hope, the Cedarbug and the Klein Karoo.
Weekends away visiting stunning places was one of my favourite things. There are also some superb wine areas around Cape Town such as Constantia, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek. I also worked with a fantastic group of people in the Pletmos Team many of which remain friends to this day.
I could have stayed in South Africa for a long time, forever even. But this was at the time when Apartheid was being dismantled and when Nelson Mandela had been released from prison; the writing was on the wall as it was clear that under a new ANC government that Soekor would adopt an affirmative action staffing policy. With much regret, I started looking for a new job outside South Africa. I used trade journals to search for alternative jobs.
I applied for a job with the Geological Survey of Greenland (now GEUS) for a 3-year contract based in Copenhagen, Denmark. After a telephone interview, I was selected for the job. With a lot of sadness, at the start of 1993 I organised my affairs in Cape Town, said my goodbyes to best friends and departed South Africa.
Living and Working in Denmark (& Greenland)
Life in Copenhagen and Denmark is very different to that in South Africa. Whereas as in South Africa life was outdoors-centric in Denmark a very large part of your day-to-day life was spent indoors and in the city. Climate plays a huge part in that of-course.
The Danes pride themselves on maintaining a tastefully furnished home and much of their social life is spent entertaining at home.
I can honestly say that I found the Danish way of life unsettling and unfamiliar after almost 5 years of the outdoors-centric lifestyle in South Africa. I was so homesick for Cape Town the best part of a year.
My job in Denmark involved evaluating geological and seismic data offshore the south-west coast of Greenland. Greenland is an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark. Greenland aspires to have its own Oil & Gas industry to further claims for independence from Denmark.
This was done in the office in Copenhagen. Oil is present in Greenland; I have seen it and touched it with my own hands onshore west Greenland and the limited number of offshore oil and gas wells also have encountered hydrocarbon shows but as yet no significant accumulations have been found. Trips to Houston, America were also made to promote the prospectivity of Greenland to the international Oil & Gas industry at Trade Fairs.
Given the current restrictions to oil & gas exploration in arctic areas and the onset of peak demand for oil & gas it is probable that Greenland has missed the boat and that resources will remain in the ground.
I was blessed to go to West Greenland for 2 separate field seasons. The area of the Vaigat Channel and also Svartenhuk Halvo further to the north were the locations for both field seasons.
The first season (lasting 6 weeks, during summer 1994) involved assisting in acquiring land seismic data (using dynamite sources to generate the seismic waves) for later processing and interpretation back in Copenhagen.
A party of circa 20 people camped at the two separate locations of the Vaigat Channel and separately Svartenhuk Halvo; both areas were remote from any population meaning conditions were tough, leading to total self-reliance.
The second season (lasting 12 weeks in summer 1995) involved me being wellsite geologist for two boreholes (deploying continuous coring) sited on each one of the two separate seismic lines from the 1994 season.
I also supervised a young Danish geologist that was responsible for well site operations for two other shallow boreholes, a short helicopter flight away.
Greenland is unique and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to visit and to work with Inuit people. Only the coastal strip, a few kilometres wide, is ice-free and available for habitation; the total population of Greenland is less than 60,000. The vast majority of Greenland is under thick ice cover. In-fact, the centre of Greenland is depressed below mean sea level by the weight of the ice meaning that in section view Greenland has a shape like a saucer.
The most prolific iceberg generating glacier in the entire world is located at Ilulissat which was our operational base. The icebergs flow north along the Vaigat channel where currents take them north, around the top of Baffin Bay before flowing south towards Canada and Newfoundland. It is highly likely that the iceberg struck by The Titanic originated from the Ilullisat glacier.
The three years at The Geological Survey passed quickly. Although a permanent job was offered to me my desire was to return home to the UK with the intention of staying there for the remainder of my career. I found a job with a reputable Oil & Gas Geoscience consultancy known then as Robertson Research (now Fugro Geoscience) based in Llandudno, North Wales. It was great to return home to a familiar way of life and things.
Rollercoaster Years in the UK
At a very early point in my time in North Wales I met an Indonesian geologist who was on secondment from the Robertson office in Jakarta; little did I know that meeting her would change my life ….
Trips to Jakarta followed and discussions with management engineered a full-time job for her in the Llandudno office. We married in 1997. To be truthful I found living and working In North Wales slow and not to my liking; at that time, I wanted brighter lights so when a head hunter found a role with an Oil & Gas operator in Aberdeen (Marathon Oil UK) we both left Robertson and moved to Aberdeen.
Unfortunately, a downturn in the oil price began shortly after I commenced working with Marathon and I was let-go in 1999. That happened shortly after the birth of our son and after beginning a big financial commitment in the form of a house purchase. Not brilliant timing …. the Oil & Gas industry can be a hard beast; it’s great when the oil price is buoyant and stable but when it collapses there is little loyalty to staff.
In 2000 I found a job with the consultancy business segment of Schlumberger, the large multi-national oil & gas service provider, also in Aberdeen. I enjoyed that role and worked with some great people from all over the world. There is a theme here which is that I seem to enjoy my roles most when working with multi-national colleagues.
Unfortunately, the consultancy side of things for Schlumberger (of which I was part) did not flourish in Aberdeen and in 2003 the entire group was disbanded via natural wastage and redundancy. The oil industry being fickle again.
Overseas (again) – Malaysia & Brunei
It was obvious that the consultancy business for Schlumberger was not looking healthy and fortunately for me I pre-empted things by applying for other jobs. A head-hunter contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in working in Malaysia. I confirmed I would.
An interview with Petronas (State Oil Co. of Malaysia) was held in London in early 2003 and I was offered the job. So, for once I benefited from redundancy in that I received a redundancy payment having already arranged an alternative job to move to.
We (I, my wife and our 4-year-old son) relocated to Kuala Lumpur in summer 2003 to begin an initial 2-year initial contract with Petronas Carigali. Although not my first time in Southeast Asia (I had been to Indonesia a few times previously) it was my first time to live and work there. I really liked the Southeast Asian lifestyle, more especially the food. It also offered the chance for us to visit my wife’s family a lot more frequently.
At Petronas I was the Lead geologist tasked with preparing a Field Development Plan for the commercialisation of four small gas fields offshore the east coast of peninsula Malaysia. The role was demanding but exciting too. Geological models of the reservoirs were constructed using reservoir modelling software, reserves estimated and appraisal and development wells planned and drilled.
Although I liked living in Malaysia the offer of an extension to my contract did not come early; its difficult when contracting as you always have to think about your next job whilst still working on your exisiting job. I was encouraged by a colleague to apply to Shell in Brunei which I did.
I flew to Brunei for an interview and liked what I saw. I arrived back in Kuala Lumpur to find that an extension offer from Petronas was now provided. After a lot of jockeying I decided that the offer from Shell would be better for us a s a family and we moved to Brunei in summer 2005.
So began six fantastic years in Brunei. I initially worked as a contractor on the re-development of an old oil field, drilling six new infill wells aiming to extract missed pools of oil. Then I worked on a giant oilfield with over 1200 wells doing similar work on that field i.e. identifying locations for new wells to extract more oil.
In 2008 I was offered to convert from contractor to Shell staff. As I enjoyed working for Shell I jumped at the opportunity. I then began work on the appraisal of and development planning for a new Tight Gas discovery offshore Brunei. That was extremely interesting work and I deployed some leading edge workflows to successfully model that field. I stayed with that project for three years and moved-up to be the primary Geoscience focal point for the field. I am proud to say that the field is now successfully on production and is in-fact one of Brunei’s shining-light development.
I and my wife really enjoyed living in Brunei. Brunei has a more Indonesian feel to it than Malaysian in terms of food and culture, which suited us perfectly. We lived in a unique house on stilts (it rains a lot in Brunei!) in the jungle and less than 100m from the sea. Monkeys, Hornbills, Monitor Lizards and even Crocodiles visited our garden. The office was only 500m away so I could cycle to and from work. We were very happy there.
It was whilst based in Brunei that my thoughts started to turn to what I could do after my “career” in the oil & gas industry was over. Although working in the industry can be immensely rewarding both in terms of finances and experiences the industry is renowned for having relatively short longevity; there are very few people in employment over the age of 60 years still actively contributing.
Roughly at that time I was speaking to an Indonesian colleague of mine (also a Geologist), about what to do after our oil careers had come to an end. He threw-in to the conversation that he has sometimes thought that being based in Bali would be good and that he could make a modest income from taking tourists to see the geological features around the island of Bali, for a small charge. A light-bulb came on in my head as I knew that I wanted to eventually settle back in South Wales and that the area also had great geological outcrops too. Why not translate Bali to South Wales?
But that was a then an idea for the future, once retired from active employment in the oil industry. I hoped that would be in my late 50’s to early 60’s. But whilst I always had that hope I also had the knowledge that the oil industry is a hard task master.
The terms of an expatriate posting with Shell is that you have to move to a new posting in a different country every few years. After a total of six years in Brunei I had to move. Fortunately I found a job with Shell in Oman, seconded to Petroleum Development Oman, to essentially repeat what I had done with the Tight Gas field in Brunei, only on a bigger scale.
My job there was to assist in the commercialisation of a newly discovered deeply buried and very hot Tight Gas field, but this time onshore. The entire team was newly compiled from a whole range of Shell Operating units; I worked alongside Brazilians, Venezuelans, Russians, Canadians and Europeans.
A large number of those expatriates are experts in fracture stimulation, better known as Fracking. I worked closely with those frack engineers to construct geological models that helped them develop the gas locked-up in the very hard reservoir rock. I learned a lot.
Further south of the Tight Gas field we were working on in the desert of Central Oman the reservoir rocks of the gas field are exposed at surface. This provided the opportunity to travel to centre of Oman to study the rocks at first hand.
Aspects to study were to gauge how the size of the various units of the reservoir and how they connect to each other. This effort aimed to estimate how many wells would be needed to drain the deeply-buried reservoir if it was configured in the same way as the outcrops in Central Oman.
I subsequently led 3-4 trips to the outcrops to show team members and management how the reservoir is likely configured and the challenges this would present to drainage. Organising these trips to a remote area took a lot of planning and responsibility on my part but was very rewarding.
After working on this Tight Gas field for close to 4 years I had taken the field from the late Exploration stage to early Production. I desired a change and in early 2015 Shell/PDO management transferred me to one of Oman’s most difficult yet prolific oil fields. The reservoir was thin and highly over-pressured which presented huge challenges when planning and then drilling wells.
The beginning of a new era
Beginning in 2015 the oil price began to drop. In the past if the oil price began to drop OPEC would agree to cut production thereby increasing demand and thence increase prices. However, that strategy changed significantly in 2015 when the long-standing King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah, died and was succeed by King Salman. His son, Mohammed bin Salman, was nominated as the Crown Prince, and has been the driving force in Saudi since 2015.
It is Crown Prince Salmans goal to reduce Saudi Arabia dependence on oil, yet to regain market share from the newly emerging shale-oil revolution primarily in America. To that end his strategy was to not cut production as oil prices began to fall so that oil prices would stabilize at a price at which shale-oil fields would be uneconomic. This would leave oil importing countries to source their oil imports from the country with the largest oil reserves, Saudi Arabia.
The strategy hasn’t worked however; the US shale–oil industry has evolved to make itself economic at lower and lower oil prices and even Saudi Arabia is feeling the negative effects of prolonged low oil prices. It is now trying to sell shares in the state oil company, Saudi Aramco to gain alternative income for the Kingdom. Now, the Kingdom of Saudi is agreeing to cuts in production to try to maintain oil prices at a level that benefits the Kingdom whilst still attempting to cut the US Shale-oil industry out of the market. A fine balancing act.
The prolonged down-turn in oil prices has had a huge impact on those that work in industry. In my case I was offered a one-year extension in 2015 rather than the two-year extension I was hoping for. This meant that I would have to find an alternative job inside Shell just as Shell was laying staff off. It is sad to say that I was not successful in finding an alternative job in the internal job-rounds.
As a consequence, I and my family were re-patriated to the UK (to our home in South Wales) in late 2016 when my one-year extension completed and joined the Shell Uk pay-roll. I was kept on for a few months when I was allowed to participate in further job rounds but when no new roles materialised I was made redundant from Shell in spring 2017.
I was sad about leaving Shell; I enjoyed working for Shell as it is a multinational company with good working environments and great people. I really hoped to obtain one more overseas 4-year posting (between 2017 and 2021) that would have taken me to the age of 59. I was then intending to retire and to consider establishing my GeoTours business idea.
So now at the age of 56 I have the chance to initiate South Wales GeoTours four-years earlier than I had planned. My logic is that I have experience of leading field trips where I have explained to groups the Plate Tectonic setting of the geology, how the rocks were formed (on land or under water) and the effects of tectonics on structuring the rocks (folding and faulting). This also builds on my 30-year plus experience of developing reservoirs for oil & gas production, together with my enjoyment of visualisation.
Now is the time to start working for myself; a degree of disillusionment with working for big companies where I am just one staff member to deploy and discard with little control is also a factor. The likelihood of finding Corporate employment at the age of 56 is unlikely. Self-employment that allows me to be based in beautiful South Wales whilst also using my skills in a profitable manner to help support the tourism industry in the area I love.
Relevant Reference Books to this Article
Geological History of Greenland; Four billion years of Earth evolution. Niels Henriksen. Geological Survey of Denmark & Greenland (GEUS), 2005.
The Geology and Hydrocarbon Resources of Negara Brunei Darussalam. S.T. Sandal. Brunei Shell Petroleum SDN BHD. 1996
Omans Geological Heritage. Michael Hughes Clarke. Petroleum Development Oman. 2006Follow me on :