“We have everything we need to make the Seychelles the next big oil province,” exclaims Eddy Belle, CEO of national oil company, PetroSeychelles. “We have source, reservoir and cap rocks and we have good structures. I feel positive that if we keep at it and continue exploring, we will be successful.
“I remember when I used to go to conferences with colleagues from Uganda, together promoting the potential of East Africa. All they had was some gravity data, but it was enough to finally convince Heritage and Tullow to take a look – and we know what happened then! We just have to be equally determined and persistent.”
Chemistry to Petroleum Geology
Until Amoco began to drill in the waters around the Seychelles in the early 1980s, Eddy had no thought of being a geologist; he was quite happy as a chemistry teacher. “As there were no tertiary level colleges in the Seychelles at the time, I had been sent on a British Council scholarship to Lancaster University in the UK, where I graduated with a degree in Chemistry, following it with a post-graduate teaching certificate before returning home to commence a teaching career.”
But when Amoco decided to test the extent of the continental crust beneath the Seychelles Plateau, the government realised that there were no Seychellois geologists in the country, so they looked to rectify the situation by rapidly training some locals. As Eddy had a first class honours science degree, he seemed an ideal candidate. “I was asked if I would like to study petroleum geology, and the idea interested me – but I was keen to do it somewhere where I would be able to actually see some rocks, other than the granite which surrounds me in the Seychelles. In 1985, with the help of a US Government scholarship, I went to the University of El Paso in Texas to take a masters degree in Petroleum Geology; since I knew nothing of the subject, I first did an intensive three-month introductory course in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had to work very hard, but I really enjoyed the course, and returned home two years later to join the newly-created Petroleum Office of the Seychelles. At the time, this consisted of just three people: an exploration geologist on loan from the Indian ONGC, a petroleum engineer who had worked with Amoco, and me.
“In 2012 the government created PetroSeychelles to be the national oil company with the remit to promote exploration in the country, and I was asked to head it up. Until then, Seychelles Petroleum Company had been the arm of the government overseeing the petroleum upstream sector, but as it also had shares in companies exploring offshore, it was in a difficult situation, so the new organisation was formed. It is still a very small company – only nine people including support staff – but we are the arm of the government that oversees oil exploration and, hopefully, eventually also production offshore the Seychelles.”
“Interest in the hydrocarbon potential of the waters of the southern Indian Ocean had started back in the 1950s and ‘60s with a series of research voyages,” Eddy continues. “Scientists realised that since the Seychelles Islands consisted of granite, which is of continental origin, rather than the oceanic volcanic material usually found at mid-ocean islands, there was a chance that the continental crust extended around the islands. And, as we all know, continental crust means the possibility of hydrocarbons.”
Oil companies had begun to look at exploring for oil in the Seychelles in the 1970s, when Mobil included the Seychelles Plateau in a regional survey which extended from East Africa to Sri Lanka, while Burmah Oil shot reconnaissance lines across the plateau in 1973. These found a block-faulted sequence overlain by flatlying sediments, comparable to a rift-drift succession, with the sedimentary section reaching at least 6 km in thickness. The Petroleum Mining Act was established in 1976, allowing companies to seek acreage, and a number of them shot seismic and other geophysical data, before Amoco took the plunge and drilled three wells in 1980 and ‘81.
“The Amoco wells did not find commercial hydrocarbons,” says Eddy, “but they did prove that a working hydrocarbon system was present in the Seychelles. However, since that time only one more well has been drilled in our territory, by Enterprise in 1995. It was testing the hypothesis that a thick pre-Tertiary sedimentary sequence would lie below thin Tertiary carbonate and volcanic layers, but what they found was two kilometres of carbonates underlain by a kilometre of volcanics, and they abandoned the well. VSP measurements indicated that there were indeed sedimentary rocks below the volcanics – but by that time Enterprise had moved on. Because we are relatively remote and everything has to be brought in to the islands, it is expensive to set up and to explore here, which is an issue we are looking at.”
In 2001, Eddy’s career took a surprising twist for a petroleum geologist; he was asked to become Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Tourism. “It seems an interesting jump, but actually, it was very logical, as it was basically another management role,” he explains. “Tourism is the main pillar of our economy, but the government felt that it was not performing as well as it could be doing. The Ministry asked me to set up a new tourist board for the country, on similar managerial lines as the Seychelles National Oil Company, the predecessor of PetroSeychelles, which I had successfully headed up for a number of years.
“I really enjoyed that job, as I am very passionate about my country,” he adds. “I come from Takamaka, which is a beach area on the main island of Mahe, but because the Seychellois population is so small – less than 90,000 – everyone seems to know everyone else. People communicate with one another – you can’t sit in a bus without striking up a conversation with the person beside you. It is a real racial melting pot, with people having African, European, Indian and Chinese backgrounds, but everyone gets on together and treats each other with respect and we have no racial or religious tensions. In addition, we have a lovely safe climate, with no cyclones or other traumatic weather conditions, 115 beautiful and primarily uninhabited islands, wonderful beaches and scenery – and no dangerous snakes or spiders!
“We promote the Seychelles as a high-end destination, giving the visitor an experience not to be found elsewhere,” Eddy explains with passion. “We don’t want mass tourism, which would put pressure on our fragile ecosystems, so it is important that our tourism is sustainable. For example, we limit the number of hotel beds allowed on each island, and don’t want to develop beyond these limits – but we do like to encourage our visitors to discover new areas, and maybe spend a little extra money during their travels. We have become a favourite holiday spot for royalty, celebrities and politicians, as we value their privacy – and do not tolerate the paparazzi.
“So my spell in the tourism ministry was a fascinating break from the oil industry. I was looking at different issues, but faced similar managerial, growth and promotional challenges. After four years I had successfully set up the new Seychelles Tourist Board and felt I had accomplished my mission, so I returned to my old job in the petroleum sector in 2005.”
This proved to be a very timely move, as after a ten-year lull during which no acreage was held, interest in the potential of the Seychelles was developing. US company Petroquest International took a concession in that year, followed by Dubaibased East African Petroleum, a subsidiary of Black Marlin Energy, in late 2008.
“Much of this renewed interest was sparked by geochemical work, particularly by Chris Machette Downes,” Eddy explains. “In Houston he found the original 1980s cores obtained by Amoco, and he discovered that they still had hydrocarbons in them, which he could correlate to the natural seepages found in a number of areas of the Seychelles (see GEO ExPro, Vol. 4, No. 5). There is a very positive story about sources and the potential for oil as well as gas here. Petroquest has since been taken over by WHL Energy and East African Petroleum by Afren, and both these companies are undertaking seismic surveys at the moment and are planning to move into the drilling phase in 2014 or 2015, showing their level of commitment to the region.”
Eddy thinks that new technology, particularly in the seismic arena, could prove to be the key needed to unlock the geology of the region. “Fugro undertook a survey in the Seychelles EEZ in 2010–2011, and more recently, in August last year in fact, the Japanese company JOGMEC signed an agreement to conduct geological and geophysical surveys in order to evaluate further the hydrocarbon potential of the region. The thick carbonate and volcanic layers absorb seismic waves, preventing the underlying pre-Tertiary sediments from being clearly imaged, but new seismic techniques such as long offset streamers and low frequency recording, plus developments in data processing, mean that we can now begin to visualise these underlying sediments where hydrocarbons are thought to be trapped.”
Since his basic geology degree, Eddy has not had much time for “seeing rocks”, and most of his subsequent training has been in the field of management. This has included stints in the US and in Norway, where he spent time with Farouk al-Kasim, a previous GEO ExPro profilee (Vol. 8, No. 3). “We have very good ties with Norway,” he explains, “and would like to emulate their methods and set up a Petroleum Trust if we find oil. This is not exactly because we need to build a huge, sustainable infrastructure, but because we want to ensure that some revenue is kept aside for future generations.”
National Monuments and Conservation
Eddy enjoys the international travel that comes with his work promoting the Seychelles, admitting that living on a small island can be a bit claustrophobic if you cannot occasionally escape. But he is always pleased to return home, often taking a break from geology to explore some of the many old monuments to be found on the islands.
“I have always been very interested in the history and nature of these islands; I was previously Chairman of the National Monuments Board and am currently Treasurer of the Island Conservation Society”, he says. “I think it is very important that we ensure the unique systems of the Seychelles remain unchanged and protected, and I also think that a country must preserve both its cultural and natural heritage. In addition, people visit our country to enjoy these things and don’t want them to change, so we must make sure we protect them.
“While my career path hasn’t been straightforward, it is strange how one thing has led to another and everything I have done has proved relevant. Take, for example, my early teaching training and experience. This taught me many things which have contributed to success in my later work, including presentation skills and how to plan, as well as the importance of psychology when dealing with a variety of people. It proved an unusual but invaluable foundation for my managerial tasks.
“My life has been good and interesting, as I have managed to do so many things,” Eddy concludes. “I feel very lucky.”