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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The week started off ominously. Qatar, a member of OPEC since 1960, quit the organisation. Its reasoning made logical sense – Qatar produces very little crude, so to have a say in a cartel focused on crude was not in its interests, which lie in LNG – but it hinted at deep-seated tensions in OPEC that could undermine Saudi Arabia’s attempts to corral members. Qatar, under a Saudi-led blockade, was allied with Iran – and Saudi Arabia and Iran were not friends, to say the least. This, and other simmering divisions, coloured the picture as OPEC went into its last meeting for the year in Vienna.
Against all odds, OPEC and its NOPEC allies managed to come to an agreement. After a nervy start to the conference – where it looked like no consensus could be reached – OPEC+ announced that they would cut 1.2 mmb/d of crude oil production beginning January. Split between 800,000 b/d from OPEC members and 400,000 b/d from NOPEC, the supply deal contained a little bit of everything. It was sizable enough to placate the market (market analysts had predicted only a 800,000 b/d cut). It was not country-specific (beyond a casual mention by the Saudi Oil Minister that the Kingdom was aiming for a 500,000 b/d cut), a sly way of building in Iran’s natural decline in crude exports from American sanctions into the deal without having individual member commitments. And since the baseline for the output was October production levels, it represents pre-sanction Iranian volumes, which were 3.3 mmb/d according to OPEC – making the mathematics of the deal simpler.
Crude oil markets rallied in response. Brent climbed by 5%, breaking a long losing streak, as the market reacted to the move. But the deal doesn’t so much as solve the problem as it does kick the can further down the road. A review is scheduled for April; coincidentally (or not), American waivers granted to eight countries on the import of Iranian crude expire in May. By April, it should be clear whether those will continue, allowing OPEC+ to monitor the situation and the direction of Washington’s policy against Iran in a new American political environment post-midterm elections. If the waivers continue, then the deal might stick. If they don’t, then OPEC+ has time to react.
There are caveats as well. OPEC members, who are shouldering the bigger part of the burden, said there would be ‘special considerations’ for its members. Libya and Venezuela - both facing challenging production environments – received official exemptions from the new group-level quota. Nigeria, exempted in the last round, did not. Iran claims to have been given an exemption but OPEC says that Iran had agreed to a ‘symbolic cut’ – a situation of splitting hairs over language that ultimately have the same result. But more important will be adherence. The supply deals of the last 18 months have been unusual in the high adherence by OPEC members. Can it happen again this time? Russia – which is rumoured to be targeting a 228,000 b/d cut – has already said that it would take the country ‘months’ to get its production level down to the requested level. There might be similar inertia in other members of OPEC+. Meanwhile, American crude output is surging and there is a risk to OPEC+ that they will be displaced out of their established markets. For now, OPEC remains powerful enough to sway the market. How long it will remain that way?
Infographic: OPEC+ December Supply Deal
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 December 2018 – Brent: US$62/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
The Permian is in desperate need of pipelines. That much is true. There is so much shale liquids sloshing underneath the Permian formation in Texas and New Mexico, that even though it has already upended global crude market and turned the USA into the world’s largest crude producer, there is still so much of it trapped inland, unable to make the 800km journey to the Gulf Coast that would take them to the big wider world.
The stakes are high. Even though the US is poised to reach some 12 mmb/d of crude oil production next year – more than half of that coming from shale oil formations – it could be producing a lot more. This has already caused the Brent-WTI spread to widen to a constant US$10/b since mid-2018 – when the Permian’s pipeline bottlenecks first became critical – from an average of US$4/b prior to that. It is even more dramatic in the Permian itself, where crude is selling at a US$10-16/b discount to Houston WTI, with trends pointing to the spread going as wide as US$20/b soon. Estimates suggest that a record 3,722 wells were drilled in the Permian this year but never opened because the oil could not be brought to market. This is part of the reason why the US active rig count hasn’t increased as much as would have been expected when crude prices were trending towards US$80/b – there’s no point in drilling if you can’t sell.
Assistance is on the way. Between now and 2020, estimates suggest that some 2.6 mmb/d of pipeline capacity across several projects will come onstream, with an additional 1 mmb/d in the planning stages. Add this to the existing 3.1 mmb/d of takeaway capacity (and 300,000 b/d of local refining) and Permian shale oil output currently dammed away by a wall of fixed capacity could double in size when freed to make it to market.
And more pipelines keep getting announced. In the last two weeks, Jupiter Energy Group announced a 90-day open season seeking binding commitments for a planned 1 mmb/d, 1050km long Jupiter Pipeline – which could connect the Permian to all three of Texas’ deepwater ports, Houston, Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Plains All American is launching its 500,000 b/d Sunrise Pipeline, connecting the Permian to Cushing, Oklahoma. Wolf Midstream has also launched an open season, seeking interest for its 120,000 b/d Red Wolf Crude Connector branch, connecting to its existing terminal and infrastructure in Colorado City.
Current estimates suggest that Permian output numbered around 3.5 mmb/d in October. At maximum capacity, that’s still about 100,000 b/d of shale oil trapped inland. As planned pipelines come online over the next two years, that trickle could turn into a flood. Consider this. Even at the current maxing out of Permian infrastructure, the US is already on the cusp on 12 mmb/d crude production. By 2021, it could go as high as 15 mmb/d – crude prices, permitting, of course.
As recently reported in the WSJ; “For years, the companies behind the U.S. oil-and-gas boom, including Noble Energy Inc. and Whiting Petroleum Corp. have promised shareholders they have thousands of prospective wells they can drill profitably even at $40 a barrel. Some have even said they can generate returns on investment of 30%. But most shale drillers haven’t made much, if any, money at those prices. From 2012 to 2017, the 30 biggest shale producers lost more than $50 billion. Last year, when oil prices averaged about $50 a barrel, the group as a whole was barely in the black, with profits of about $1.7 billion, or roughly 1.3% of revenue, according to FactSet.”
The immense growth experienced in the Permian has consequences for the entire oil supply chain, from refining balances – shale oil is more suitable for lighter ends like gasoline, but the world is heading for a gasoline glut and is more interested in cracking gasoil for the IMO’s strict marine fuels sulphur levels coming up in 2020 – to geopolitics, by diminishing OPEC’s power and particularly Saudi Arabia’s role as a swing producer. For now, the walls keeping a Permian flood in are still standing. In two years, they won’t, with new pipeline infrastructure in place. And so the oil world has two years to prepare for the coming tsunami, but only if crude prices stay on course.
Recent Announced Permian Pipeline Projects