In 2019 there are so many oil and gas producing countries to work in some more volatile than others. In hindsight the odds would have been short on a return to Gabon a country which has grown to be stable oil producer despite periodic setbacks.
In January 2018 seven years had passed since my initial trip as a still wet behind the ears mud logger for Geolog International.
Never Look Back
When we fill our gas tanks, whether on the forecourts of Kuala Lumpur or Detroit, some of us have lost a connection, or never had one, to the people who live and work on the rigs where this fuel ultimately comes from.
2011 was a challenging time for the world. My friend, Peter and I found ourselves at Manchester airport on a typically overcast day. The powers that be had it in mind that we would go to Libya. As history shows, a revolution which spread from Algeria across many North African countries meant a different outcome.
A number of our colleagues from Tunisia and Egypt were met at checkpoints and stripped of their laptop,smartphones and other personal items. They were, of course, grateful to escape with their lives.
So after completing our basic drinking (sorry, basic training) on the land rigs of Romania and mountain villages of Southern Italy we were ready to take the flight to Africa.
Immediately, we were struck by the slow pace of customs, scramble for taxis and finding drinkable water and food at times proved a challenge. In the West we are used to seeing political powers come in and out of vogue over 5 year cycles. In Gabon the wheel of change moves slowly; the late President Omar Bongo ruled for more than four decades, at the end of which his son won a contested election.
It was amid investigations into Bongo family assets that we arrived at the shore side. Ready to board our 4 stroke Pirogue packed with rig workers, we would be spending 6 hours on the crocodile-infested Ogooue river and then (probably) 6 weeks in the Jungle.
That journey is recorded here:
The graveyard shift
Working night shift we rode from the workers camp at Midnight surrounded by French speakers. Although there was a language barrier, we bonded over hip-hop music.
Vast swathes of the Rainforest – ‘the lungs of the equator’ – had been cleared and converted into hard-packed red dirt. Wildlife was noticeably scarce with many monkeys, birds and Gorillas forced to move. Torrential downpours appeared like clockwork at 3pm each afternoon. Gabon sits on the equator where the convectional heating is at its maxima thus clouds are ever present and much to our disappointment, we did not get suntans!
Drilling was relatively straight forward through a layer cake Pre-Salt stratigraphy; Anguille claystones, several thousand bags of Ezanga salt later, a thin Black Vembo shale appeared before hitting the pay dirt in Gamba or Dentale Sandstones. This was development drilling – not the exploration that would come later on offshore trips.
Together we settled into a good routine, including a few anxious calls to the base both from ourselves and our families wondering when we were going to make it home. Our lodgings were at the workers camp- the rigsite was preserved for the management, MWD, Mud Engineers who were required to appear on 24/7 cover at the first sign of trouble.
Croissants in the Jungle
Mudlogging in Gabon circa 2011 paid about $30/day plus a basic salary but we gained invaluable experience being immersed in the rig operations. The Wellsite Geologist responsible for the asset would implore us to focus and rather than working our way through the 4th Season of The Wire we learned the art and science of Field Development.
It is still remarkable that all the hardware from satellites to Pain au chocolat; 90% of it transported on the river made it out there and worked!
With the enduring presence of one family at the helm Gabon is a relatively safe country with a stable fiscal regime and a fit, well-educated happy workforce who enjoy a relaxed approach to life. It enjoys some of the highest GDP figures in Africa. As oilfield workers from all corners of the world will recognise there was a prevailing attitude that whether Indonesian, Tunisia or British once at the rigsite we were all in it together.
By early 2012, after several thousand air-miles had expired, the occasional sketchy landing and nearly missing Christmas at home due to a snowstorm in Paris, our time in Gabon was coming to an end.
Chinese investment (Pre-Bitcoin!)
Before we draw a line under that initial experience we also saw first hand Renminbi investment pouring into the country. Addax, the Swiss Independent we were working for, was purchased by Petrochemical giant Sinopec for a staggering $7.24 Bn. Even in 2009 dollars that is a lot of Beanie Babies!
I remember the Chinese Geologists arriving in brand new coveralls to assess their purchase. The oil price was sitting around $100/bbl and a booming Chinese economy was seeking a suitable overseas home for large sums of capitol.
Clearly a shrewd investment, Gabon was the equivalent of a Toyota Hilux stable political order, established reserves and the promise of exciting exploration offshore. With the regimes changing all over north Africa it made sense for the Chinese to park their substantial stack of chips in Gabon developing infrastructure along with it.
As we departed Port Gentil for what I thought would be the last time tensions were rising between the Gabonese government and Operators. We soon learnt that the Bongo’s had nationalised the onshore field Obangue and Tsenngui under environmental charges. The reservoirs of 30% porosity fine grained sand that we had diligently bagged were now under state control.
Fast Forward to January 2018 and I was riding Premium Economy back to Libreville. The same dusty arrivals hall awaited along with the barrage of taxi drivers this time a car had been laid on…the customs team still wanted to check through every toiletry.
So Gabon has some parallels with the North Sea both a mature provinces with stable conditions for investment. Just a shame we don’t have the same tropical weather on The Forties. Production peaked in Gabon 13 years ago at 370,000 bbls per day. Today it hovers around 200,000 bbls/day with 70% of reserves held offshore.
Like the North Sea the 2015-2017 downturn hit hard in Gabon the signs of it were everywhere from my taxi driver John a former Petroleum Engineer tuned taxi driver.
Building the future
It is difficult to estimate how many petrodollars have flown out of the country but there were some encouraging signs; roads were in rather better repair and there was noticeable influx of workers from bordering Equatorial Guinea.
The Chinese investment story continues with the Ivory Coast now being its main focus while also extending loans into Senegal, Mali, Niger and Togo.
My perspective may have been warped by the fact that 7 years on I was now staying in comfortable hotels but the locals who I worked with on the rig had retained that energy and enthusiasm a drive to improve the country around them.
In a world where many look to invest in countries West Africa is growing at a massive rate. In Nigeria almost everyone is involved in the oil industry. The wheels of entrepreneurship are also spinning with more and more people getting online through smartphones.
Watch your step
I just hope together we can fix the roadside drainage channels before this Geologist turns an ankle.
An whether it is the flooded roads of Gabon or the mean streets of Aberdeen sometimes the best investment in health and happiness is a bicycle.
Mine’s a Regab!