Among the more illustrious drilling contractors that have crashed and burned or have been swallowed up, such as Zapata, Reading & Bates, Offshore Company, Sedco-Forex, Pride, Global Marine, Santa Fe etc. there are a host of other smaller lesser known outfits who have disappeared over the years. One such is the little know, at least outside of South East Asia, Robray Offshore Drilling. I recently had an inquiry asking if I could direct them to an website that gave some history of this erstwhile Singaporean company but it predated the internet and there is precious little information available in the public domain. However, I worked for Robray for 25 years from its inception in 1974 and including the years when it was absorbed up by Norway’s Smedvig in 1986. It seems right to correct this lack of historical information about this small but pioneering company by at least a blog!
Robray was started and owned by Singaporean multi-millionaire Robin Loh who owned a shipping line, an airline, an IT company, a shipyard and more besides and had close connections to Pertamina’s then head Ibnu Sutowo, both of whom profited significantly from the relationship. Robin wanted to participate in the oil boom of the mid 1970’s and in partnership with Ray Williams, then Regional head of Reading and Bates, they formed Robray, placing a significant number of orders with National for drilling equipment for their planned fleet of drilling rigs. Initially they began with three heli-rigs that all worked in Indonesia while a sister company, Robin Shipyard, begin construction of the first two self-erecting tender assist barge rigs. Reading and Bates had pioneered the tender rig concept for development drilling off wellhead platforms and Ray Williams brought the concept to Robray as well as decimating his ex-company by stealing many of its regional management and rig crews. Before moving into Robin’s Robina House in Shenton Way the company began life in the Marco Polo Hotel. The conference room was the hotel lounge, renowned in Singapore for its Irish Coffee’s and the dresses worn by the waitresses!
The heli-rigs worked in Sumatra, Kalimantan and especially in Irian Jaya (Sorong) where Robin had family links. The rigs were eventually sold off, two to Indonesian contractor Medco/Apexindo and the other into Australia but they had served their purpose in getting the company started.
Meanwhile the first self-erecting tender rig, then called the HP Thrower after a founder member who had passed away but later re-named the Robray T-1, garnered a contract with Dubai Petroleum. Not long after the rig began work they had a major blow-out and the wellhead platform plus the rig’s derrick set were burnt to cinders. Robray quickly replaced the derrick set with that from under construction Robray T-2 (initially called Aquarius Star) thus gaining a reputation for fast action which it maintained throughout the life of the company. Replacement of T-2’s derrick set was made that much easier because Robin also owned manufacturer Pyramid Derrick who were in the yard next to Robray’s yard in Singapore. When Robray T-2 was completed it went to work off Balikpapan in Indonesia for Unocal.
Robray also built a platform rig, P-1, which was contracted to Esso Malaysia, and sat on the Tembungo platform off Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. When Malaysia introduced the PSC system Esso initially refused to play ball and shut down all its operations. P-1 was shut in for around one year, on standby rate and full crew, until Esso capitulated and agreed to Malaysia’s PSC terms. P-1 had become the cleanest and best kept rig in the world as the only action on board was chipping and painting.
By this time Ray Williams had retired and Jack Walters assumed the Presidency and the construction of the T-3 was underway. It also went to work for Unocal but in Thailand in 1980. A deal was also struck with Elf, in 1980, to build two more tender rigs, T-4 and T-5, for contracts in Gabon, won because by this time Robray had perfected the art of fast rig up/rig down operations that left their competition in the shade. Robray was the only company that was prepared to accept Elf’s limit on rig up times, which if memory serves me correctly was 12 days. By this time Robray had rig moves down to a fine art and averaged 5 days. Under the Elf contract Robray was paid full dayrate for 12 days irrespective of the time it took to complete the operation, which made it a lucrative contract.
Robray had by now established itself as the leading tender assist company, aided by the fact that their direct competition all operated less specialized and larger fleets that included more sexy jackups and floaters as well as their few tender rigs and their full focus was not always on keeping up with such a small market sector. In the spirit of that age Robray became known for being a “can do” company, something that probably is not appropriate in today’s health and safety dominated world and they also developed a reputation as a very efficient and professional drilling company albeit operating in a small sector of the industry. Tender barges were limited by environmental factors to shallow water and benign environments which meant operations were restricted to South East Asia, parts of West Africa, Egypt and the Arabian Gulf. It also limited the number of clients it could work for as they could only drill off wellhead platforms in shallow benign waters but these clients included Unocal (later Chevron), Total, ExxonMobil. Elf, Total, Shell and Petronas among others. Robray befitted from being a small company that was based in the region where most of its fleet worked and had a small and young management team capable of making quick decisions without reference to a headquarters in Texas.
Unocal was an especially tough and demanding client to work for but they liked the job that T-3 was doing and called up Jack Walters and asked him if Robray would build four more tenders to work in Thailand. Much to many people’s chagrin Jack would only agree to build two thus allowing in new competition, Great Eastern Drilling, who built the other two rigs. Thus T-6 and T-7 came about and entered active service in 1982 and 1983 respectively. T-7 must hold the world’s record for the longest contract term as it worked for Unocal (and Chevron after the acquisition) for 30 years. The rig was scrapped in 2015 having only ever worked in Thailand and only for one client.
Earlier the company had sidetracked from the tender business into jackups, brought about when Robin purchased a jackup design (and the designer) from ETA for Robin Shipyard. While Robin Shipyard was building ETA Robco 300 jackups for India and China, Robray were themselves having two built of the same design but in Hitachi Zosen shipyard in Japan. The first, Ednastar, was completed in 1977 but did not go to work until the following year when it started up with Elf Oman before moving onto Total Iran and Total Abu Dhabi. The Iranian revolution put a stop to the Total contract and the rig was then sold off mysteriously to later emerge as the Yu Song in North Korea. It is now the COSL 935 and is working in China. The second, Ednarina, was sold after delivery to interests in Brazil but later also ended up in China as the Bohai IV. Robray never operated this rig.
Things were looking good by the early 80’s. By this time Jack Walters had gone and was replaced by Clyde Stephens, formerly with Unocal. But then came oil crisis of 1986 and like all drilling contractors Robray suffered financial difficulties with low rates for their rigs, loss of contracts and financing issues. T-4, by this time working in Egypt, was smuggled out of the country with creditors chasing it and Robin Loh had become disenchanted with the drilling industry and wanted out. Initially Clyde Stephens had seemingly reached an agreement for Foramer, a main competitor, to buy the company but Robin was not impressed with the offer and instructed Clyde to look at other options. Unocal had already suggested to Clyde that he should approach Smedvig in Norway, an ambitious contractor looking to expand, and a deal was struck very quickly. Although some of Smedvig’s operations people were not impressed with these “simple drilling machines” Smedvig-Robray turned into one of Smedvig’s best and most profitable purchases.
Meanwhile Robray narrowly escaped a tragedy in 1989. Typhoon Gay struck the Gulf of Thailand where it capsized the Unocal owned and Great Eastern operated drillship Seacrest with the loss of 97 lives. The T-4 and T-7 also were operating in the Gulf at the time. The T-7 was hit first, losing 7 of its 8 anchor lines and only hanging on, with the help of a workboat, from either crashing into the platform or heading into the unknown. T-4 was hit next and was not so fortunate, losing all 8 anchor lines and took off under wind and wave power heading towards Cambodia, leaving the drilling crew abandoned on the platform. The rig’s main crane, a 150 ton Favco, was ripped off the deck by the force of the wind and lost overboard and although a workboat was gamely trying to keep up, the rig was out of control and in danger of sinking through water pouring into the hole in the deck where the crane had been. The Senior Pusher, Axel Lutz, is credited with saving the rig by filling the hole in the deck with mattresses and putting out sea anchors to slow the rig down. Meanwhile the drilling crew still on the platform had to survive a day of no food and water, wondering if they would ever see their colleagues on the rig again. Eventually the rig was collared by the workboat and returned to Songhla and the drilling crew rescued but the Seacrest, hit after the other two, was not so fortunate. Robray had been lucky.
With the North Sea market flat Smedvig had Robray market their big North Sea semis into Asia Pacific, with some success. Both the West Delta and the West Alpha mobilized into the region for charters in Indonesia, Vietnam and China. They were quickly yanked back to Norway when the North Sea market improved but had helped Robray gain more exposure in the region outside of the tender sector.
Smedvig were always looking for expansion. Owner Peter Smedvig’s aim was to be one of the top three biggest drilling contractors in the world and they looked to increase their already dominant share in the tender market by buying or building more rigs. Robray had always failed to penetrate Brunei, a Shell stronghold and then dominated by Petrodrill as Shell’s favoured contractor. Smedvig acquired Petrodrill thus acquiring the Tiga Kali, a non-self-erecting barge which became the T-8 and the Pelaut, built in 1994, the first ever semi-tender assist rig that was the brain child of Petrodrill owner Foster Manning. Apart from now gaining entry into Brunei, Smedvig then financed Robray to develop the semi-tender concept by building a second improved unit, West Menang, in 1999 which also went to work for Shell. Since then six more semi-tenders have been built by the company in its various iterations and the concept has been repeated by the likes of Atlantica, PV Drilling and Energy Drilling, the latter company basically a Robray Mark II.
When Clyde Stephens moved on, ex Smedvig CEO Staale Roed took over and become an enthusiastic exponent of the tender market, so much so that years later, after he left Smedvig, he became involved with Energy Drilling where he joined many ex-Robray colleagues.
The end for Robray came in 2006 when Seadrill acquired Smedvig and the Robray name disappeared forever. Seadrill later sold most of its tender rig division to Malaysian company SapuraKencana in 2013.
But Robray lives on through the many close knit ex-Robray personnel still with SapuraKencana and with Energy Drilling. As part of the Robray “family” we all were fiercely protective of the tender market and as was always said “Once a tender hand always a tender hand”. It was quite a ride. RIP 1974-2006.
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After the OPEC+ club met on September 1st, and confirmed that it would be sticking to its plan of increasing its crude supply by 400,000 b/d a month through December, China made a rather unusual announcement. It announced that it was going to release some crude oil from its strategic petroleum reserves, selling it to domestic refiners that were grappling with crude’s heady price rise over 2021. The release of strategic oil reserves isn’t news in itself. What is news is that the usually secretive China did it and did it publicly.
And it did it to send a message to OPEC+: attempts to create artificial scarcity to maintain crude prices will not be tolerated. China has a right to feel that way. Even though great strides have been made to ease the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide, the virus is still exerting major effects on the global economy. Not least a massive ripple through the health of global supply chains that has seen the price of almost everything – plastics, semiconductors, agricultural commodity, lumber, steel – spike due to supply issues. In some cases, the prices of raw materials are at historic highs. Crude oil is still nowhere near its peak of above US$100/b, but it is high enough to be concerning, especially since it is happening within a major inflationary environment. And for a manufacturing-heavy economy like China, that matters. That matters a lot. So China’s National Food and Strategic Reserves announced that it would be releasing some of the country’s crude stocks to ‘better stabilise domestic market supply and demand, and effectively guarantee the country’s energy security’, a month after the country’s producer price inflation – ie. the cost of manufacturing – hit a 13-year high.
China made good on that promise, releasing 7.38 million barrels from its stockpile to domestic bidders on September 24 with more tranches expected. This was the first ever recorded release from China’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR), which began back in 2009 in serendipitous response to crude oil prices exceeding the US$100/b mark for the first time in 2008. But curiously, it may not have been the first ever release. So secretive is the SPR that China does not reveal the size of the reserve, although analysts have estimated it at some 300-400 million barrels with total capacity of 500 million barrels using satellite imaging. It has been speculated that batches of crude from the SPR have been released before on the quiet. But this is the first time China has gone public. Compared to the country’s overall oil consumption, 7.38 million barrels is small, almost tiny. And even if additional supplies are released, it will not make a major impact on China’s oil balances. But the message is what is important.
It is a message that China is not alone in sending. US President Joe Biden has already called on OPEC+ to accelerate its supply easing plans, given indications that the crude glut built up over 2020 has been all but erased. It is a notion that would be supported by some OPEC+ members – Russia, Mexico, the UAE – but so far, the discipline advocated by Saudi Arabia has held. The US too has attempted to release of its own crude reserve stocks – the largest in the world with a capacity of 727 million barrels – but this was also in response to the devastating impact of Hurricane Ida. India, China’s closest analogue to size and stage, has been complaining too. As a major oil importer and with a shakier economic situation, India is particularly sensitive to oil price swings. US$70/b is way above what New Delhi is comfortable with. But since India’s appeals to OPEC+ have fallen on deaf ears, it is attempting domestic directives instead. India’s state refiners have been ordered to reduce crude purchases from the Middle East, but with supply tight, there aren’t many other people to buy from. India has also been selling oil from its strategic reserve – officially stated to be for clearing space to lease storage capacity to refiners – although since India is more transparent about these announcements, the announcement isn’t as surprising.
Will it work? At least immediately, no. Crude prices did come under pressure in the wake of China’s announcement, but then recovered with Brent hitting US$75/b. But the fact that China timed the announcement of the September 24 auction to coincide with peak global trading time and with a lot of details (again an unusual move) shows that Beijing is serious about wielding its strategic reserves as weapons. If not to moderate crude prices, then to at least stabilise it. But this is a war of attrition. China may very well have a planned schedule to release more crude reserves over 2021 and 2022 if prices remain high, but its supplies are finite. And they will have to eventually be replenished, possibly at an even higher cost if the attempt to quell crude price inflation fails. Thus far, the details of the SPR release hint that this is a tentative dip in the pool: the volume of 7.38 million barrels was far lower than the 35-70 million barrels predicted by some market participants. And because successful bidders can lift the oil up to December 10, it seems unlikely that a second auction for 2021 is in concrete plans at this point.
But, at the very least, the message has been sent. Beijing has a tool that it can wield if crude prices get out of hand, and it is not afraid to use it. The first step might have been small, and it is a giant leap in what mechanics are available to influence crude prices. And as history has proven, China can be very quick to scale up and very single-minded in its approach. Over to you, OPEC+.
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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