The decade of the 1960s was both hectic and productive in the international petroleum industry. During those years, I worked for three oil and gas companies: Shell; the state-owned Corporacion Venezolana de Petróleo, or CVP; and Philips Petroleum Corporation. The geographical locations were diverse: surface exploration in western Venezuela; the Maracaibo oilfields and Caracas; The Hague, in the Netherlands; Balikpapan, Indonesia; Bartlesville, Okla.; and Lafayette, La.
Married at the start of the decade, the time I spent time in Holland with Shell also served as a wonderful, yearlong honeymoon. During the ‘60s, we experienced idyllic, happy times, exciting travel, life-threatening adventures and several career transitions.
One of my most fruitful experiences took place in 1965 to ‘67 in Maracaibo, when I had the opportunity to work with a four-man team from the Institut Français du Pétrole, known as IFP – the French Petroleum Institute. They had been sent to Venezuela to conduct regional geological studies in support of the newly created CVP.
In 1963, I worked for Shell in Venezuela when Indonesian president Sukarno decided to expel from the country all British and Dutch personnel of PT Shell Indonesia. This was part of his so-called “Konfrontasi,” an undeclared war by Sukarno against Great Britain and the newly created state of Malaysia. Violent events took place mostly in Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo, where Shell had developed some 40,000 barrels per day of oil production, which was sent to its refinery in Balikpapan. As a result, the whole operation was at risk.
Shell moved rapidly to replace the expelled staff with employees from other nationalities. I was asked to go to Balikpapan as senior production geologist, under very favorable conditions of remuneration. This was an assignment full of adventures and excitement.
After two years of an extremely risky, but otherwise incident-free stay in Indonesia, I returned to Shell Venezuela in 1965.
Back in Venezuela, CVP Director Fernando Delon contacted me to ask me to join the company as exploration manager. Although not as lucrative as the job I already had, this position would allow me to play a more prominent role. I had been magnificently treated by Shell, but I felt that I could be more useful to the newborn national oil company than to the well-established corporation that would do as well without me.
Building an Oil Company
I joined CVP in mid-1965 with the tasks of structuring a geological and geophysical team capable of evaluating the areas the government had assigned to CVP.
To recommend new drilling locations and help create a plan for the optimum development of the existing oil fields.
CVP’s senior management had mostly been recruited from government ranks. Efrain Barberii, a respected petroleum engineer with a long academic career, led the exploration and production division. The team included two or three veteran geologists and a group of about 10 younger geologists and reservoir engineers, who were enthusiastic but short on experience. My counterpart as production manager was Richard Corrie, a petroleum engineer who had also been lured away from Shell. Both he and I were 32 years old, had a slight physical resemblance and, for a while, our new colleagues at CVP kept calling me by his name and him by mine. Since we came from the ranks of a multinational oil company, both of our arrivals aroused both expectation and some jealousy among the existing CVP staff.
Delon explained in detail to me the main objectives of the new company. CVP, he said, was a component of a five-point strategic plan formulated by the Venezuelan petroleum minister, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo.
This plan included:
- Creation of OPEC
- Increasing the Venezuelan government’s take from oil income
- A national policy to replace concessions with service contracts
- Stabilization of oil prices
- Creation of a Venezuelan state oil company – CVP – designed to take over management of the industry once nationalization took place
The task ahead was substantial while the means at my disposal seemed scarce. As an employee of Shell, I had had plenty of human and financial support to do my job, but CVP was a small state oil company starting from scratch. Money was limited and decision-making processes were slow. CVP’s personnel rules, modeled after government policies, made it difficult to hire high-quality and highly-paid technical personnel. Asking support from multinational oil companies was out of the question, since we could hardly rely on assistance from organizations we were trying to replace.
Clearly, we needed to find help from international independent organizations. Once we started exploring the alternatives, the French Petroleum Institute quickly became one of our main targets.
Their representative, Jean Rochet, came to Maracaibo to see us in 1965. I described our needs – essentially, the training of our young geologists and engineers and, even more urgently, IFP’s technical support on the ground. We rapidly came to terms on a program that included both of these components.
As agreed by CVP and IFP, the program had three main objectives:
The first required the Institute to put in place a technical team of four members: a senior geologist, a subsurface geology specialist, a geophysicist and a reservoir engineer. They were meant to interact with Venezuelan staff in a “grupo mixto” or “mixed group” that would conduct integrated evaluations of three main Venezuelan geological basin in order to define oil prospects them: Maracaibo, Falcón and Barinas.
The Maracaibo basin was extremely well explored, and thousands of existing wells provided many subsurface control points. These data were largely available to us but needed evaluation and interpretation since the future strategy by the Venezuelan government would include offering new acreage under the mechanism of service contracts in the southern portion of Lake Maracaibo.
The evaluation work on the Falcón basin would pay particular attention to the offshore area around the Paraguana Peninsula, adjacent to the Gulf of Venezuela.
Work to be done on the Barinas basin would include evaluations in the areas near the Sinco and Silvestre oilfields and the Guanarito stratigraphic play.
The second objective was to send some of our young Venezuelan engineers and geologists to the IFP headquarters to be trained in their specialties. As I remember, Pablo and Mariela Stredel, Elias Zambrano, Mary Brock and Roberto Velasco were sent for that purpose to the Institute’s offices in Rueil Malmaison, a suburb of Paris.
The third objective was to structure a strong Regional Studies Division – a task that called for the infusion of a working atmosphere in which individuals would pool their resources in order to obtain optimum group results.
The team from IFP arrived in Maracaibo in mid- to late-1965 with their families and consisted of a leader, Michel Latreille, a geologist specialized in surface geology and regional studies; Bernard Duval, subsurface geologist; Bernard Coffinières, geophysicist; and L. Granier, reservoir engineer.
At Work and Play
The team from the Institute stayed in Maracaibo from September 1965 to January 1968. During this period CVP contracted some 1,400 kilometers of seismic surveys in Lake Maracaibo and about 500 kilometers of seismic data concentrated in the Caipe prospect in the Barinas basin. New data were to be evaluated by the mixed French-Venezuelan study group under the guidance of the experienced members from IFP. Integrated geological/geophysical evaluations were conducted for offshore Falcón, the Barinas basin, the deeper oil prospects of southern Lake Maracaibo and the Gulf of Venezuela. The team helped to identify 12 wildcats in Barinas, the Eastern Venezuelan basin and Lake Maracaibo. This resulted in six discoveries of new fields or pools and also contributed to the planning of a stepout drilling campaign that led to the drilling of a dozen wells, most of which were successful.
In particular, the work of the team led to the discovery of the Caipe oilfield in the Barinas basin. Geophysicist Coffinières was able to map a fault pattern in the Tertiary rocks similar to the one in the existing oilfields. Although the structural position of the prospect was not the most favorable, the analogies with existing oilfields were sufficient for us to decide to go ahead and drill an exploratory well. As a result, the new Caipe oilfield was found. According to a study titled “Re-exploratory Results in the Caipe Field, Barinas-Apure Basin, Venezuela,” by E. Chacín and P. Alvarez, by 2006 the Caipe oilfield had produced some 60 million barrels of 27-degree-API oil, with remaining reserves of about 100 million barrels, both in the original Tertiary intervals and in older Cretaceous reservoirs identified by deeper exploration drilling during the 1990s.
In November and December of 1966, I paid a visit to the headquarters of the Institute in Paris and to the Hassi Messaoud oilfield in Algeria. A highlight of this visit was my meeting with the legendary Swiss petroleum geologist Daniel Trümpy, who was already in his 70s. We met in his Paris office at 9 a.m., and I found him ailing with a broken rib. To battle the pain, he brought a bottle of Armagnac out of his desk drawer, took a long sip and passed it on to me. After a couple of drinks, I found out I could speak pretty good French. That night I was his guest for a memorable dinner at the venerable restaurant Fouquet’s, on the Champs-Elysées, together with his friend, the famous pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
While in Algiers I was treated to a large dinner at my hotel and saw, at a remote table, dining alone . . . Marcello Mastroianni. For a moment, I thought the great actor would get up and ask for my autograph.
The results of our joint work in the Gulf of Venezuela and in the Orinoco heavy oil belt (this last study mostly done at the Ministry of Petroleum headquarters by our geologists Daisy Perez, Hugo Sorondo and Hugo Velarde, together with the Ministry’s geologist Jose A. Galavis) were presented in the VII World Petroleum Congress in Mexico City in April 1967. Our work on the Maracaibo basin was presented to the IV Venezuelan Geological Congress in 1970.
The Human Factor
Bernard Duval says he and his wife Francine left a part of their hearts in Venezuela, particularly in Maracaibo. Although they would go on to visit and work in many other places, their life in Maracaibo left them with a lasting desire to return. The success of their mission, he has said, was made possible by the strong support received by CVP’s management and, particularly, by the cordial quality of the young Venezuelans they worked with. A spirit of trust and cooperation was rapidly established among them. Bernard specially remembers the friendly assistance received from Alberto Barnola, one of the more experienced geologists of the Venezuelan group, from geologist Hugo Velarde, from Carlos Alcantara and from reservoir engineer Ulises Ramírez. He waxes nostalgic about how they came to feel like true members of the CVP organization.
In addition to those mentioned above, Bernard also fondly remembers other members of the group, including Enrique Vasquez, Hely Bravo Conde, Pablo Stredel and Daisy Perez de Mejías. In addition to their geological work and teaching, they emphasized training in the techniques of integrated geological evaluation, the craft of the art of petroleum exploration.
The members of the mission had time to interact with some of the well-known Venezuelan geologists from other companies and institutions such as Gustavo Feo Codecido, the famed professor Clemente Gonzalez de Juana, Alirio and Cecilia Bellizia, Lourdes and Gonzalo Gamero and others. They left a valuable legacy of both outstanding work and human kindness. Together with their families, they blended with the locals, gave generously of themselves and left with happy memories.
Wallace Pratt famously said that “where oil is first found is in the minds of men.” Thinking of our Maracaibo experience, I think it would be fair to add “and in their hearts”.
(Historical Highlights is an EXPLORER series that focuses on the history of petroleum exploration and production. Topics broadly related to our work in the geosciences, the critical advances of science and technology, the key discoveries and the saints and sinners among our colleagues are all welcome. Narratives that illuminate the E&P process or its context in geopolitics and energy economics are encouraged. If you have such a story or know someone who does, please contact Matt Silverman, the series editor, at [email protected].)