GEO ExPro

South East Asia Hydrocarbon Exploration

Andy Wight talks about the key hydrocarbon exploration & discoveries during his career in South East Asia
This article appeared in Vol. 15, No. 3 - 2018

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Introducing Geologist Andy Wight

  • Exploration geologist Andy Wight. Photo credit: Andy Wight.

“The good thing about geology is that it’s not really like a job. It’s so enjoyable. In my career I had a lot of fun, met a lot of interesting people and saw some wonderful places.”. Andy Wight, Exploration Geologist.

Which makes it surprising to hear that when Andy first went to Bristol University, he was intending to study chemistry. “In the first year I chose geology as a subsidiary subject, mostly because I was good at geography. However, after a day spent in the chemistry lab in my first term, titrating horribly toxic substances, the following morning’s geology class was a field trip down the Avon Gorge. It was a lovely sunny day, spent chipping away at rocks, and then we went for a cider afterwards. I thought “this beats chemistry!”

Moving for Geology to Indonesia

Having rather drifted into the oil industry because that was where most of the geology jobs seemed to be, Andy spent several years working in Europe, first in Italy as a mudlogger, otherwise mostly in the UK, including helping delineate the Morecambe and Wytch Farm fields and working on Buchan in the North Sea. He was always interested in travelling further afield, however, so when in 1979 a job as an exploration geologist in Indonesia came up, he jumped at the opportunity.

Andy’s carbonate experience shows on his climbs around the massive cliffs of the wonderful Ordesa Gorge in the Spanish Pyrenees. Photo credit: Andy Wight. Andy and his wife had previously had a vacation trip to India, but this was the first time they had been to the Far East. “We weren’t sure what to expect,” he says. “On landing, our first impression was how hot it was! But when we arrived at our house with two very tiny children we discovered that all the ladies of the company had got together and filled the fridge with food, which was a really lovely welcome.” The company, IIAPCO, at that time was very much an old-style ‘family’.

This positive initial impression was backed up by the experience of living in Jakarta. “Before we went out my wife, Gill, had said ‘only a couple of years’, but when we returned from our first annual leave, it just felt like home. It was amazing!” Jakarta was home to the Wight family for the next 24 years.

“We had a good life there, which was successful partly because we had to make our own entertainment,” Andy says. “We spent a lot of our free time at the sports club, where each section – rugby, sailing, hockey, squash etc. – had to organise an annual show: themed nights, comedy nights, that sort of thing. It was great fun. Gill and I got into Scottish country dancing and through that met up with other clubs throughout the region, making lots of friends, many of whom we still see. Gill improved so much she actually ran teams and won medals at the annual St. Andrews ‘Highland Gathering’.”

Exciting Hydrocarbon Discoveries in South East Asia

Andy Wight with Don Todd, founder of IIAPCO and originator of the first offshore PSC. Photo credit: Andy Wight. However, his work looking for oil and gas with his many inspiring colleagues was at the root of Andy’s love of South East Asia. “When I first arrived we were working on the SE Sumatra Offshore block, just off Jakarta, which the legendary Don Todd had obtained in 1966 ,” Andy explains. “Although Don had left by the time we arrived in Jakarta, I interviewed him for SEAPEX years later when he was in his late 80s; it was a fascinating story.”

American geologist Don (now in his 90s) was the first to realise the potential offshore Indonesia, entering the country in the early ’60s with a hunch that pre-war onshore production indicated offshore oil. In 1966 he signed the world’s first offshore Production Sharing Contract, for an area covering a large part of the Java Sea: 123,000 km2 – almost the size of England! His small company, IIAPCO, shot a single seismic line across the basin, revealing a thick sedimentary section. The majors took notice, many soon taking blocks in Indonesia – but it was Todd and his partners who, in 1969, made the first discovery offshore Indonesia, coming on production a year later: an amazing feat.

Jakarta ISCI Sports Club, Indonesia. Photo credit: Andy Wight. “IIAPCO’s block covered the Asri and Sunda Basins in the Java Sea. When I joined in 1979 we only had about seven fields and three rigs operating, but over the next few years we made some exciting discoveries,” Andy continues. “One of my worst professional moments occurred not long after I started. The project was to delineate a sub-commercial find on a structure with four wells with fluvial sandstone reservoirs, with apparently straight-line correlations – but which I contoured as discrete point bars with an upside location based on a meandering fluvial system. My then boss reviewed my extensive report, insisted that sand contouring had to show concentric rings, rather than the irregular thicknesses typically found in point bars – and literally threw my precious report in the bin! My mentor, a great explorationist called John Wilson, encouraged me to recover from this setback. My work was not wasted, as it later contributed to a new point bar discovery, the first successful stratigraphic trap deliberately drilled in the Sunda Basin.

“It was an exciting period. The oil price rose dramatically from $3 to $15/b and lots of old prospects were being exhumed (literally)! Everything turned out differently from how we had expected – our success was a combination of luck and… luck! On one occasion an annual meeting was due and the ‘big cheese’, Dorman L. Commons, was due to visit. We had ten rigs running constantly and needed to find some prospects quickly. With structural prospects dwindling fast, we were under pressure to identify some ‘subtle plays’ to show him. Interpreting the reservoir sequence as transitional marine, I identified from the mapped patterns of highs and thicknesses what I thought was a coastline with mouth bars and beaches at right-angles to each other. To show my ideas at the meeting, using old-fashioned ‘View-Graphs’ I superimposed reservoir maps with thicknesses highlighted in blue onto structure maps with highs, conventionally shown in yellow. What do you get when you add blue and yellow? Green – which of course indicates oil! We identified a number of well locations – and discovered the Yvonne ‘B’ Field. This was all on poor-quality, widely spaced 2D seismic, but even when 3D was shot a few years later, the thick coal/shale sequence over the reservoir masked the underlying structure, making it impossible to image the sands.”

New Ventures in SE Asia

The Wight household in their home in Kuningan, Java, Indonesia. Photo credit: Andy Wight. With MAXUS (IIAPCO’s parent company), Andy was involved in new venture studies covering over 20 basins and 46 blocks throughout Indonesia and South East Asia. One of his favourite trips was a field reconnaissance of Aru Island, south-west of Irian Jaya (now West Papua). “We spent two days surveying the island, with two teams and helicopters, looking for seeps,” he explains. “When we first landed the local villagers arrived and, since it was a Sunday, insisted we came to church with them – quite an experience! There was a pulpit shaped like a ship’s prow, covered in huge shells, and a little band, playing didgeridoos! There were also kangaroos leaping around the airstrip, 4m-long saltwater crocodiles in the rivers – and literally hundreds of sharks in the sea! It was a fascinating place.”

In 1989 MAXUS asked Andy to transfer to Dallas, but feeling well settled with his family in Jakarta, he turned that down and joined Sceptre, which had a couple of blocks in Kalimantan and Sumatra, later working for Petrocorp Indonesia, in the same areas, before re-joining Maxus in 1993. “In 1987 IIAPCO had decided to review the Asri Basin, which lies immediately north of the Sunda Basin, but which after seven dry holes, had no indications of hydrocarbons. Due largely to the persistence of geologist Harlan Friestad, the play was kept alive and when the Intan-1 well was proposed, it was supported by CEO Charlie Blackburn, on the basis that although very risky, it could have the largest reserves.

“The well was a huge success and together with the even larger discovery at Widuri-1, these two fields transformed the company with the addition of around another billion barrels of oil. That year, I was fortunate to be reporting these finds to Dallas HQ where I met CEO Charlie Blackburn himself. Years later, after I had left Maxus, Charlie remembered me favourably from annual MAXUS exploration meetings in Dallas and his recommendation led to my return to the company as Chief Geologist. This meant I was able to see how all my earlier discoveries had developed, which was an unusually lucky opportunity.”

Maxus was eventually taken over by YPF, then in 1999 by REPSOL, and Andy and his wife moved to Kuala Lumpur, before being transferred to the head office in Madrid, where he began working on Libya. “That was fun – I had done field work for my PhD in Libya,” he says, “but eventually I wheedled my way back into the South East Asia team, because I felt there was plenty more I wanted to look at.” On retiring, Andy returned to Kuala Lumpur as a consultant with Mitra Energy, evaluating opportunities for new ventures throughout South East Asia, finally leaving in 2014 “when virtually all exploration worldwide ground to a halt”.

Tales of Adventure

Two birds with one stone: Andy’s interests in sailing and volcanoes coming together in the Greek Cyclades islands. Photo credit: Andy Wight. Andy has lots of tales from his adventures in exploration: like the time early in his career in Italy, when one afternoon he took his wife to visit the rig, only to find it deserted, the mud pits empty and all the warning lights flashing, indicating an imminent blow-out; or when during his PhD he got caught in Libya, in the middle of the Sahara during the 1969 coup, and drove through 33 road blocks with his fossil samples hidden in the wheel arches.

There were also riots in Jakarta. “Our newly created New Ventures group, headed up by talented geologist Roger Wall and a team including the irrepressible Handoko Djuanda, had made successes in the East Java Sea and onshore Sumatra in the early 90s. However, in the 1998 Jakarta riots I was in a meeting with Roger when fires started appearing round the city. We suspected the army was behind it for political reasons,” he explains. On another occasion, his office block in the Jakarta Stock Exchange was bombed; it was a tense time. “Indonesians are wonderful people, often misunderstood but you have to treat them according to their culture: they are hard-working, very pragmatic, and they don’t like being dictated to unnecessarily. We trained many of them as wellsite geologists and they became very skilled; many of them are still good friends.”

Andy has had a few non-professional hairy moments through one of his favourite pastimes – climbing mountains, particularly volcanoes. In Jakarta he jointly founded ‘JavaLava’, a group dedicated to climbing with like-minded people. “On one occasion we reached the top of Gunung Semeru and were looking down into the crater when it erupted, and we got rained on by a shower of breccia – luckily, the main blast went the opposite way. My wife Gill and I still love travelling; we’ve just come back from Costa Rica and last year we went to Oman where I did the Balcony Walk in Jebel Akhdar.”

Hydrocarbon Potential for SE Asia

The Wight family home in Kuningan, Java, Indonesia. Photo credit: Andy Wight. Where next in the search for oil and gas in South East Asia? “That’s a question I always ask myself,” Andy replies. “When reviewing outlying areas you think ‘is there a previously undiscovered new source rock or reservoir, or a different type of structure’? I have discovered that small structures (usually a killer for management approval) are not always bad; for example, a tiny prospect I identified, initially undrilled due to its small size (2.4 km2), has now produced over 50 MMbo. For Indonesia generally, the eastern islands are still underexplored, with low drilling and seismic densities. I always wanted to look further at a particular island where there’s shallow oil production but also a potentially large structure play at a deeper level.

“So the answer is: there will always be something we haven’t thought of. It may not be a whole new basin, but there’s still potential out there in several other South East Asian countries, but,” he quipped, “If I tell you where, I’d have to kill you!”

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