NrgEdge interviews Dr Mazlan Madon who is an independent geologist. He is also involve as a member of Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and Academy of Sciences Malaysia. A passionate geologist with vast experience, Dr Mazlan Madon is considered among the top Geology experts.
1) You are someone who has taken up many geologist position with Petronas over the years. Are you able to share with us what kept your passion burning in order for you to be in the industry for more than 30 years?
I consider the many positions that I was appointed to during my service with Petronas were merely following the “natural” course of a career progression, starting as a trainee geologist in 1984 to the penultimate technical position of “Custodian” in 2007. Since then I had held various Custodian positions within different parts of the organisation, doing slightly different things but essentially the same role. Whether one considers a span of 23 years to reach the “top” to be slow, ‘average’, or fast, is a different question altogether. I think, for me to have stayed in the same industry for more than 30 years is not unusual, especially in the oil/gas industry. A more interesting question that people often asked is what kept me going for so long in the same company. The simple answer is my passion for geology. It is fair to say that I care more about geology as a science than its application to oil/gas exploration, because in a way, passion for the science is more everlasting than one’s love for exploration (which tend to emulate the oil price).
2) During your years with Petronas, you wrote a book titled “Petroleum Geology and Resources of Malaysia” which was the main source of reference for the petroleum geologist within the region. What was the factor that inspired or influenced you to write this book?
To be clear, the book was a team effort, and was a deliberate initiative by the management of Petronas at the time, to share the knowledge gained through decades of oil exploration in the country, with not just the oil industry people but the public at large. So a team was assembled and headed by a project manager/chief editor, and I was lucky to be called in by my boss to work full-time on it, along with two other people. It was 1996, and I had just re-joined the company after finishing my PhD studies and I think the momentum helped, because there was an enormous amount of documents I had to go through in order to provide a balanced view of the geology of each basin or province in Malaysia, based on the knowledge at that time. I was also fully aware that as an author I also represent, in some way, a Petronas ‘view’ of the geological understanding at that time.
3) As we know, you are a member of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a body of experts established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Are you able to tell us more on this position?
The CLCS consists of 21 members elected every 5 years from among the nationals of countries (coastal State) that ratify the UNCLOS. So, I was nominated by the Malaysian government to serve in that commission, but I serve in my personal capacity. Members of CLCS are experts in either hydrography, geology or geophysics. Under article 76 of UNCLOS, a coastal State may submit to the CLCS particulars relating to the limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. The main role of the CLCS then is to consider the data and information submitted by the coastal State in the justification to extend its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.
4) The world is constantly evolving, and new technologies have been given birth in the recent years. What are the most impactful technologies you feel that had greatly aid geologists or explorers like yourself in terms of new field research and development?
There is no doubt that as far as the oil exploration/development is concerned, seismic technologies have contributed immensely to the success of the business. On the flip side, it could be argued that because seismic has been so successful as a body of technology, some managers became over-reliant on it while inadvertently neglecting the fact that a brilliant technology still requires competent humans to use it. Besides seismic, an overarching factor in the industries’ success is the rapid development of computers. I still remember using floppy disks on DOS-based PCs when I started in 1984 and when the internet was still at a very rudimentary stage. Look where we are now due to the power of computers.
5) With fewer oil companies investing in exploring new oil fields in the current oil price climate, do you think this is a short-sighted move? Also how do you see the market picking-up again in terms of new exploration projects in this region?
I think it is just a normal business practice to cut back on exploration when the oil price is low, but how high exploration is going to bounce back depends on our appetite for new ideas and new plays. Bear in mind, activity was already at a low level in the traditionally mature regions, not because of the oil price but due to the higher risks and unfavourable economics.
6) In the current low oil price climate, a lot of exploration projects have been put on-hold. This has inadvertent lowered the demand for new geology talents. What are the options available for those who are specialised in this discipline? Are their skills transferrable?
It is not entirely true, or wise to assume, that due to less exploration projects, there is lower demand for “new geology talents”. I would say, less exploration projects may see less need for that many operations geologists but the company would need to do more “research” to prepare for the next wave. In any case, new talents would not be put straight onto exploration projects because there is a lag time between a new talent coming in and when he/she is ready to be deployed to the projects.
7) In today’s world, everything is going digital, even learning. Digital learning for geologists in Oil & Gas is now possible with e-courses, live webinars and even virtual field trips! Do you think geologist today are adapting to these new platform effectively? What do you think are the possible barriers preventing these new learning technologies from flourishing further, if they are indeed effective learning methods?
I am not worried about young people adapting to new platform. But I am not sure that they are able to absorb all the knowledge that is made available to them, in a way that will make them more productive in their work, bearing in mind their already busy day-to-day work schedule. My guess is that most people will have some spare time for one or two ‘extra-curricular’ endeavours outside of their ‘normal’ work. If those courses are remotely relevant to their work, it would not be an effective learning tool.
8) As we know, you came out with publications throughout your career. For now, you have retired, hence, will you continue publishing geology related publications to aid/educate other geology enthusiast?
Unlike a manager who loses his power and privileges upon retirement, a scientist never truly retires. When I retired, they took away my company laptop, but I could still write. I consider writing technical articles as one of the two most important tasks for a scientist. The other one is reading. Writing is the best way to articulate one’s thoughts and understanding of a particular subject in the vast field of geoscience. It is erroneous to think that a geologist who happens to work in oil and gas must write only on petroleum geology. A musician does not have to just play the blues. So, yes I will do my best to continue to write and publish articles of interest.
9) As an industry expert, you have had considerable experience as a geologist/geoscientist. For someone who’s just beginning their career in the industry, what advice can you give him or her? Do you feel that youths today have more opportunities to nurture their passion and what life lessons are you able to share with them?
I don’t consider myself an industry expert, but a geology or geosciences expert, maybe. So my only advice would be: to be honest in what you do, seek knowledge as truth, not half-truths, and not because your boss wants to hear it, but because you need to understand it yourself. Yes, young people are given ample opportunities, but they take too much time to decide what part of geoscience they like, before they can move forward in their career. Geoscience is a vast subject, with many inter-related sub-disciplines and topics. The problem in the way our industry has developed is to steer young people to want to do a very small part of geoscience, without wanting to or make it necessary to have a broader knowledge of the science. The result is a so-called ‘specialist’ but ironically with very little depth in understanding and lacking a broader appreciation of the scientific implications.
10) May I know what was the book you wrote that gained recognition? Are you able to elaborate more about this recognition and book? Do you think that the new generation can contribute in future?
It was not a book I wrote. In 2017, the AAPG, as part of its 100th year celebration, wanted to publish a book, “The Heritage of the Petroleum Geologist” which is a sequel to its 2002 publication of the same name, which had honoured 43 “pioneering and notable geologists” for their contribution to the profession. So, what AAPG did was to invite another 58 “accomplished and distinguished” geologists to make the total number of honourees 101, symbolic of 100 for the centennial celebrations plus 1 additional individual “to symbolize the passing of our deep heritage to the next generation of energy-finders”. Like all the other honorees, I was asked to contribute two pages of my “achievements, disappointments, anecdotes, advice” for the next generation, and was lucky to be chosen as one of the 101 honorees at the AAPG Convention 2017 in Houston last April.
Of course, the new (meaning younger) generation can contribute, but they must do it with sincerity, honesty and passion. I was once young too, and came into geology by chance, like many geologists I know. In order to make meaningful contribution, people often say, we must be “passionate” about our work. The word “passionate” has been used a lot by managers during my time when they were trying to motivate the youngsters. But passion takes time to develop, and you cannot fake it. You have to first “like” what you’re doing, before you can be “passionate” about it. When you are young, you wouldn’t know where the career would take you, until you are really deep into the subject and develop a kind of “passion”. You cannot be passionate if you don’t know enough about the subject or the work that you’re doing.
By “contribution”, I take that you mean contribution to geology, as a science and as a profession. The new generation can contribute to the science of geology by learning as much as they could, mainly by themselves, through reading and writing. After all, scientific knowledge grows from the ideas generated and written by scientists for people to read. Knowledge not shared is not knowledge. Attending conferences, making presentations, and writing technical papers are all part of the contribution to scientific knowledge but not all of it. For the geological profession, the new generation should join a scientific organization or geological society where they can interact with their peers as well as with other scientists and even students to share experiences and learn from them. These can be done in many ways, from organizing seminars, workshops, field trips to formal training sessions. Nowadays, there seem to be a lack of interest in joining scientific societies, like the Geological Society, for geologists, when especially in the petroleum industry wherein the perception is that all the knowledge and training are available within the industry or company and so joining a scientific society does not bring any benefit. I think this perception and attitude need to change. Contribution to geology and to the geological profession is not, and should not be, limited to making money for the oil companies, but also for the benefit of society at large.
11) With your intention to do a forum discussion, how will you work with us in terms of moderating those discussion at our NrgGuru section?
As I understand it, NrgGuru is a platform for users to ask questions relating to the oil and gas industry. In that regard, I will try to answer mainly questions that relate to my own knowledge and experiences, and leave other questions for other experts.
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On 10 December 2021, if all goes to plan Royal Dutch Shell will become just Shell. The energy supermajor will move its headquarters from The Hague in The Netherlands to London, UK. At least three-quarters of the company’s shareholders must vote in favour of the change at the upcoming general meeting, which has been sold by Shell as a means of simplifying its corporate structure and better return value to shareholders, as well as be ‘better positioned to seize opportunities and play a leading role in the energy transition’. In doing so, it will no longer meet Dutch conditions for ‘royal’ designation, dropping a moniker that has defined the company through decades of evolution since 1907.
But why this and why now?
There is a complex web of reasons why, some internal and some external but the ultimate reason boils down to improving growth sustainability. Royal Dutch Shell was born through the merger of Shell Transport and Trading Company (based in the UK) and Royal Dutch (based in The Netherlands) in 1907, with both companies engaging in exploration activities ranging from seashells to crude oil. Unified across international borders, Royal Dutch Shell emerged as Europe’s answer to John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire, as the race to exploit oil (and later natural gas) reserves spilled out over the world. Along the way, Royal Dutch Shell chalked up a number of achievements including establishing the iconic Brent field in the North Sea to striking the first commercial oil in Nigeria. Unlike Standard Oil which was dissolved into 34 smaller companies in 1911, Royal Dutch Shell remained intact, operating as two entities until 2005, when they were finally combined in a dual-nationality structure: incorporated in the UK, but residing in the Netherlands. This managed to satisfy the national claims both countries make on the supermajor, second only to ExxonMobil in revenue and profits but proved to be costly to maintain. In 2020, fellow Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever also ditched its dual structure, opting to be based fully out of the City of London. In that sense, Shell is following the direction of the wind, as forces in its (soon to be former) home country turn sour.
There is a specific grievance that Royal Dutch Shell has with the Dutch government, the 15% dividend tax collected for Dutch-domiciled companies. It is the reason why Unilever abandoned Rotterdam and is now the reason why Shell is abandoning The Hague. And this point is particularly existentialist for Shell, since its share prices has been battered in recent years following the industry downturn since 2015, the global pandemic and being in the crosshairs of climate change activists as an emblem of why the world’s average temperatures are going haywire. The latter has already caused the largest Dutch state pension fund ABP to stop investing in fossil fuels, thereby divesting itself of Royal Dutch Shell. This was largely a symbolic move, but as religious figures will know, symbols themselves carry much power. To combat this, Shell has done two things. First, it has positioned itself to be at the forefront of energy transition, announcing ambitious emissions reductions plans in line with its European counterparts to become carbon neutral by 2050. Second, it is looking to bump up its dividend payouts after slashing them through the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and accelerating share buybacks to remain the bluest of blue-chip stocks. But then, earlier this year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s emissions targets were ‘not ambitious enough’, ordering a stricter aim within a tighter timeframe. And the 15% dividend tax remains – even though Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government has been attempting to scrap it, with (it is presumed) some lobbying from Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever.
As simplistic it is to think that Shell is leaving for London believes the citizens of the Netherlands has turned its back on the company, the ultimate reason was the dividend tax. Reportedly, CEO Ben van Buerden called up Mark Rutte on Sunday informing him of the planned move. Rutte’s reaction, it is said was of dismay. And he embarked on a last-ditch effort to persuade Royal Dutch Shell to change its mind, by immediately lobbying his government’s coalition partners to back an abolition of the dividend tax. The reaction was perhaps not what he expected, with left-wing and green parties calling Shell’s threat ‘blackmail’. With democracy drawing a line, Shell decided to walk; or at least present an exit plan endorsed by its Board to be voted by shareholders. Many in the Netherlands see Shell’s exit and the loss of the moniker Royal Dutch – as a blow to national pride, especially since the country has been basking in the glow of expanded reputation as a result of post-Brexit migration of financial activities to Amsterdam from London. The UK, on the other hand, sees Shell’s decision and Unilever’s – as an endorsement of the country’s post-Brexit potential.
The move, if passed and in its initial stages, will be mainly structural, transferring the tax residence of Shell to London. Just ten top executives including van Buerden and CFO Jessica Uhl will be making the move to London. Three major arms – Projects and Technology, Global Upstream and Integrated Gas and Renewable Energies – will remain in The Hague. As will Shell’s massive physical reach on Dutch soil: the huge integrated refinery in Pernis, the biofuels hub in Rotterdam, the country’s first offshore wind farm and the mammoth Porthos carbon capture project that will funnel emissions from Rotterdam to be stored in empty North Sea gas fields. And Shell’s troubles with activists will still continue. British climate change activists are as, if not more aggressive as their Dutch counterpart, this being the country where Extinction Rebellion was born. Perhaps more of a threat is activist investor Third Point, which recently acquired a chunk of Shell shares and has been advocating splitting the company into two – a legacy business for fossil fuels and a futures-focused business for renewables.
So Shell’s business remains, even though its address has changed. In the grand scheme of things, never mind the small matter of Dutch national pride – Royal Dutch Shell’s roadmap to remain an investment icon and a major driver of energy transition will continue in its current form. This is a quibble about money or rather, tax – that will have little to no impact on Shell’s operations or on its ambitions. Royal Dutch Shell is poised to become just Shell. Different name and a different house, but the same contents. Unless, of course, Queen Elizabeth II decides to provide royal assent, in which case, Shell might one day become Royal British Shell.
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