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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.


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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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Your Weekly Update: 8 - 12 October 2018

Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 8 October 2018 – Brent: US$84/b; WTI: US$74/b

  • Oil prices are retreating from recent highs as a rush of pronouncements to mollify the market over concerns of a supply crunch were issued
  • President Donald Trump continues to berate OPEC over high oil prices and the US State Department took the unusual step of issuing a demand to OPEC, requesting that it raise collective output by 1.4 mmb/d
  • Saudi Arabia responded by saying that it is fulfilling promises made to America to replace lost Iranian crude supplies, boosting its current output to 10.7 mmb/d and the ability to add another 1.3 mmb/d if needed; Iraq is also benefitting as it chalked a second consecutive month of exports exceeding 4 mmb/d
  • Russian production also rose to a record 11.356 mmb/d in September, raising worries about shrinking spare capacity in oil markets as producers up output; Russian Premier Vladimir Putin fired back at Trump’s tantrums, stating ‘Donald should look in the mirror’ when complaining about high oil prices
  • There continue to be varying responses to the looming American sanctions against Iran; the UAE – which usually talks tough but still accepts Iranian oil – appears to be taking steps to reduce its purchases, with Dubai imports of Iranian condensate dropping by half in September and customs officials at Fujairah now asking for certification of origins for oil tankers docking there
  • Meanwhile, despite overtures to reduce Iranian imports by India to qualify for mooted American waivers, India is planning to purchase some 9 million barrels of Iranian oil in November, with liftings past the US deadline of November 4
  • On another battlefront, China is sticking to its guns and shunning purchase of American crude over the boiling trade war, boosting its imports of West African crude to their highest level in seven years
  • American oil prices are also drawing strength after falling last week on swelling stockpiles as Hurricane Michael heads inland towards Florida after shutting down some 19% of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Surprisingly, despite prices being attractive, American drillers remain cautious over introducing new rigs; the active US rig count actually lost two sites last week – both oil rigs – a second week of decline in the US oil rig count
  • Crude price outlook: Evidence that OPEC+ is responding with increased supply should pressure prices downwards this week, but a longer term risk remains of US$100/b crude oil, especially if Saudi Arabia and Russia run out of capacity to turn their taps on. We see Brent trading in the US$81-83/b and WTI in the US$70-73/b range.


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Equinor will take over Chevron’s 40% operating interest in the UK’s Rosebank project, one of the largest undeveloped fields on the UK Continental Shelf, with potential volumes of some 300 million barrels recoverable
  • Equinor has also confirmed a boost in its Norwegian assets, with the Cape Vulture discovery adding some 50-70 million barrels of recoverable oil, doubling the remaining oil reserves at the aging Norne field
  • Savannah Petroleum has made a fifth discovery in Zomo-1 well, locating in the R3 portion of the R3/R4 Adaem Rift Basin area in southeast Nigeria
  • Chevron will be proceeding with drilling a test well at the Mississippi Canyon Block 607, hoping to add to the deepwater Ballymore discovery that it made in the same area last year
  • Saudi Arabia’s crown prince hopes to be able to resolve an impasse with Kuwait over the Khafji and Wafra fields in the Neutral Zone ‘soon’, an area along the border that has been undefined for near a hundred years, which could unlock up to 500,000 b/d of crude production

Downstream

  • Pakistan will be building a new oil refinery at its deepwater Gwadar port, part of an ‘oil city’ project that Saudi Aramco is expected to invest in
  • Saudi International Petrochemical Co (Sipchem) has acquired fellow Saudi Arabian firm Sahara Petrochemical in a deal worth US$2.2 billion
  • Vietnam’s Petrolimex wants to halt the US$5 billion, 200 kb/d Nam Van Phong refining and petrochemical project with Japan’s JXTG Holdings to ‘focus its resources on executing other projects’
  • ExxonMobil is considering a multi-billion dollar investment at its 592 kb/d Singapore refinery – the largest in its system – to meet demand for low sulphur shipping fuels as the IMO’s strict new rules on marine fuels starts in 2020
  • India is reducing the pump prices of gasoline and diesel by 2.50 rupees (US$0.03 per litre) to ease the pain of rising crude prices and a weak rupee; this includes a reduction in excise duty of 1.50 rupee per litre

Natural Gas/LNG

  • After PetroChina and Korea Gas gave their blessing last week, Shell and its remaining partners have given the go-ahead for Kitimat LNG project in Canada, bucking trends by sanctioning construction without having signed any long-term LNG sales deals
  • G3 Exploration has been given approval to proceed with the development of the Chengzhuang Block in Shanxi, splitting the estimated recoverable gas volumes of 176 bcf with its partner CNPC
  • Qatar Petroleum will continue to supply the United Arab Emirates with piped natural gas, shunning bringing ‘politics into commercial business’ as the standoff between Qatar against Saudi Arabia and its allies continues

Corporate

  • Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is insisting that Saudi Aramco’s planned IPO will go ahead by 2021, after the sale was put on hold by Aramco’s plan to purchase a controlling stake in SABIC
  • BP and Norway’s Aker BP have signed a new cooperation agreement to explore development and deployment of advanced technologies in their businesses
  • Ensco and Rowan Companies have agreed to a US12 billion merger that will create a global powerhouse offshore drilling company covering 82 rigs
October, 11 2018
The United States continues to increase production of lighter crude oil

monthly lower 48 states crude oil production

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production

As domestic production continues to increase, the average density of crude oil produced in the United States continues to become lighter. The average API gravity—a measure of a crude oil’s density where higher numbers mean lower density—of U.S. crude oil increased in 2017 and through the first six months of 2018. Crude oil production with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees grew by 310,000 barrels per day (b/d) to more than 4.6 million b/d in 2017. This increase represents 53% of total Lower 48 production in 2017, an increase from 50% in 2015, the earliest year for which EIA has oil production data by API gravity.

API gravity is measured as the inverse of the density of a petroleum liquid relative to water. The higher the API gravity, the lower the density of the petroleum liquid, meaning lighter oils have higher API gravities. The increase in light crude oil production is the result of the growth in crude oil production from tight formations enabled by improvements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

Along with sulfur content, API gravity determines the type of processing needed to refine crude oil into fuel and other petroleum products, all of which factor into refineries’ profits. Overall U.S. refining capacity is geared toward a diverse range of crude oil inputs, so it can be uneconomic to run some refineries solely on light crude oil. Conversely, it is impossible to run some refineries on heavy crude oil without producing significant quantities of low-valued heavy products such as residual fuel.

selected regions' crude oil production

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production

API gravity can differ greatly by production area. For example, oil produced in Texas—the largest crude oil-producing state—has a relatively broad distribution of API gravities with most production ranging from 30 to 50 degrees API. However, crude oil with API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees accounted for the largest share of Texas production, at 55%, in 2017. This category was also the fastest growing, reaching 1.9 million b/d, driven by increasing production in the tight oil plays of the Permian and Eagle Ford.

Oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken formation also tends to be less dense and lighter. About 90% of North Dakota’s 2017 crude oil production had an API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees. The oil coming from the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) tends to be more dense and heavier. More than 34% of the crude oil produced in the GOM in 2017 had an API gravity of lower than 30 degrees and 65% had an API gravity of 30 to 40 degrees.

imported and domestic crude oil by API gravity

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production and Monthly Imports Report

In contrast to the increasing production of light crude oil in the United States, imported crude oil continues to be heavier. In 2017, 7.6 million b/d (96%) of imported crude oil had an API gravity of 40 or below, compared with 4.2 million b/d (48%) of domestic production.

EIA collects API gravity production data by state in the monthly crude oil and natural gas production report as well as crude oil quality by company level imports to better inform analysis of refinery inputs and utilization, crude oil trade, and regional crude oil pricing. API gravity is also projected to continue changing: EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2018 Reference case projects that U.S. oil production from tight formations will continue to increase in the coming decades.

October, 10 2018
In RAPID Succession

Less than two weeks ago, the VLCC Navarin arrived at Tanjung Pengerang, at the southern end of Peninsular Malaysia. It was carrying two million barrels of crude oil, split equally between Saudi Arab Medium and Iraqi Basra Light grades.

Its destination? 

The RAPID refinery in Johor. An equal joint partnership between Malaysia’s Petronas and Saudi Aramco whose 300 kb/d mega refinery is nearing completion. Once questioned for its economic viability, RAPID is now scheduled to start up in early 2019, entering a market that is still booming and in demand of the higher quality, Euro IV and Euro V level fuels RAPID will produce.

Beyond fuel products, RAPID will also have massive petrochemical capacity. Meant to come on online at a later date, RAPID will have a collective capacity of some 7.7 million tons per annum of differentiated and specialty chemicals, including 3 mtpa of propylene. To be completed in stages, Petronas nonetheless projects that it will add some 3.3 million tons of petrochemicals to the Asia market by the end of next year. That’s blockbuster numbers, and it will elevate Petronas’ stature in downstream, bringing more international appeal to a refining network previously focused mainly on Malaysia. For its partner Saudi Aramco, RAPID is part of a multi-pronged strategy of investing mega refineries in key parts of the world, to diversify its business and ensure demand for its crude flows as it edges towards an IPO.

RAPID won’t be alone. Vietnam’s second refinery – the 200 kb/d Nghi Son – has finally started up this year after multiple delays. And in the same timeframe as RAPID, the Zhejiang refinery by Rongsheng Petro Chemical and the Dalian refinery by Hengli Petrochemical in China are both due to start up. At 400 kb/d each, that could add 1.1 mmb/d of new refining capacity in Asia within 1H19. And there’s more coming. Hengli’s Pulau Muara Besar project in Brunei is also aiming for a 2019 start, potentially adding another 175 kb/d of capacity. And just like RAPID, each of these new or recent projects has substantial petrochemical capacity planned.

That’s okay for now, since demand remains strong. But the danger is that this could all unravel. With American sanctions on Iran due to kick in November, even existing refineries are fleeing from contributing to Tehran in favour of other crude grades. The new refineries will be entering a tight market that could become even tighter. RAPID can rely on Saudi Arabia and Nghi Son can depend on Kuwait, both the Chinese projects are having to scramble to find alternate supplies for their designed diet of heavy sour crude. This race to find supplies has already sent Brent prices to four-year highs, and most in the industry are already predicting that crude oil prices will rise to US$100/b by the year’s end. At prices like this, demand destruction begins and the current massive growth – fuelled by cheap oil prices – could come to an end. The market can rapidly change again, and by the end of this decade, Asia could be swirling with far more oil products that it can handle.

Upcoming and recent Asia refineries:

  • Nghi Son (Vietnam): 200 kb/d crude capacity, 700,000 tpa petrochemicals
  • RAPID (Malaysia): 300 kb/d crude capacity, 7.7 mtpa petrochemicals
  • Zhejiang (China): 400 kb/d crude capacity, 10 mtpa petrochemicals
  • Dalian (China): 400 kb/d crude capacity, 8 mtpa petrochemicals
  • Pulau Muara Besar (Brunei): 175 kb/d crude capacity, 3.5 mtpa petrochemicals
October, 10 2018