Bowen due Pioneer honor

Career Included ‘Rough Stuff’

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
J. Myles Bowen
J. Myles Bowen

It isn’t just that Myles Bowen never expected to win this year’s AAPG Pioneer Award; it’s that he never expected to be considered.

“I really feel that I hardly qualify,” he says, citing his shortcomings.

“Almost all of my work,” he says, “was ‘in house’ and my name appears above relatively few publications.”

Fortunately, the Pioneer Award cares more about vision than vitae. Specifically, it is given to longstanding AAPG members who have made significant contributions to the science of geology.

And to that extent, whether he agrees or not, Myles Bowen is the perfect choice.

His career began in 1954, when he joined Royal Dutch Shell and almost immediately was sent to Borneo – missing, he says, the usual Shell training.

“Being unmarried, I got all the rough assignments,” he recalled, “first of which was being in charge (solo) of 80-odd laborers on a ‘pitting/auguring’ survey, not speaking a word of Malay, the local language.”

It was basic survey work, but there were no maps, only a few air photos and plenty of something else.

“There were leeches,” he says, as well as shooting rapids and, he adds for emphasis, “more leeches!”

And how long did he endure that?

“Just over three years,” he said, “with only a four-week break.”

Lessons Learned

He then was sent to Venezuela, a place whose current political situation, he says, makes him want to weep. And even though his job there was frustrating (the government had already decided to nationalize the petroleum industry), Bowen said life – his personal life, anyway – was good. Mostly.

“The locals were great,” he said, “but my bosses were not.”

It was in the early 1960s, though, when Bowen began hitting his stride. He joined Shell’s exploration team in Nigeria, where his team had a remarkable run of good results.

Bowen, who enjoys talking about his career pre- and post-marriage, says his time in Venezuela had a unique brand of challenges.

“Still unmarried, so more rough stuff,” he says of the survey work he did.

“Very rough, drug runners and very unfriendly Indians.”

And, oh yeah, “Again, no maps!”

It was a time he said when his knowledge of hydrocarbons could be summed up in one word: “Nothing.”

But he learned. So much so, he says, “Our success ratio beat the appraisal boys.”

It was later in the decade, though, that Bowen made what many think is his mark on the profession.

“The prevailing view of our bosses in early 1969 was that most of the gas in the southern North Sea had been found and that no oil would be found in the north,” he recalled.

Bowen said his new staff in London, however, was not so pessimistic, so a big – and to some, surprising – decision was made.

“In the UK Third Round we decided to apply for a huge tilted fault block hundreds of miles north of the current activity in ‘impossibly deep water,’” he said.

What occurred? The Brent discovery, a 2.7-billion barrel field, largest in the UK sector of the North Sea.

The discovery, he said, as exciting as it was, had to be kept “tight” as the Fourth Round followed shortly after, which involved, for the first and last time, cash bids.

Shell bid £21 million for a Brent lookalike nearby – “causing consternation,” Bowen said, “because it left £13 million on the table.”

One Last Hurrah

Surprisingly, though, Brent wasn’t the most exciting experience in his life.

“The Brent discovery was one high point,” he says, adding he was actually on the rig at the time it came in, “but perhaps even more exciting was the Nelson discovery, when I was with Enterprise Oil and I had personally negotiated a 100 percent interest from three major companies.”

The story goes like this:

Bowen, who after nearly eight years in the UK found that his “life quality, unlike the job (and contrary to the proportions in Venezuela), was poor to lousy,” asked his bosses for a change.

He first went to Billiton, Shell’s metals subsidiary, but he said “it took some time to get used to what I rudely referred to as ‘Black and Decker’ drilling.”

He was then done with geology, he believed, and took early retirement.

Apparently, geology wasn’t done with him.

Margaret Thatcher came to her senses, he says, and decided against selling off British Gas – and that was when Bowen returned as exploration director of the new Enterprise Oil.

The rest of the story, of course, is history. (see related story, page 30)

When asked, Bowen says his career unfolded in four distinct chapters:

  • Field geologist.
  • Oil exploration management.
  • Metals/minerals exploration management.
  • Exploration management with a small oil independent.

It hasn't always been a smooth transition.

"Early in my Shell career geology and geophysics were separate departments and hardly spoke to each other," he said.

Perhaps, then, one of his best contributions to the industry is helping the conversation along.

"I spent some months with Shell Oil (Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma)," he said, "and learned that exploration was about seeking and finding hydrocarbons and that geophysics were just the best tools available; also that multi-disciplinary teams, given an area to work, was the best approach."

In 1996 he retired again (this time for good), settling in Devon on England's southwest coast with his wife, Margaret.

He has done some consulting since, but mostly these days he thinks about his hobbies, which include falconry, and his three daughters, Belinda, Joanna and Jenny.

As for geology, he has warm memories of it all – the fights with bosses, the maps, even the battles with leeches.

And it all led to the AAPG Pioneer Award. Like George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” maybe he just needed to be reminded.

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‘A nose for finding ...’

To David Scoffham, director of New Zealand Oil & Gas Ltd., Myles Bowen was more than just a shrewd and pragmatic geologist.

He was, according to his old friend, a true "pioneer."

Having worked with Bowen at Enterprise Oil, Scoffham said Bowen was "good at spotting business opportunities beyond the strict technical domain.

"He had a nose for finding oil and gas."

And Scoffham says there was a reason for this.

"Myles' long career in the international division of Shell took him to far-flung oil provinces such as Nigeria and Venezuela," Scoffham said, "so he had seen a lot before working in the UK."

As much as anything, Scoffham found Bowen friendly, good at delegating, open-minded and understanding of what Scoffham calls "the boundaries of dealmaking."

But only with those who came to the table ready to deal.

"He did not suffer fools readily and was never afraid to speak his mind to defend his beliefs," Scoffham recalled. "He could be 'crusty' at times!"

Persistent, too.

"Myles 'head-hunted' me from Shell to join Enterprise Oil … and persisted for a full year," he said. "This was probably the most difficult decision I ever made – a choice between two very good prospects."

The result?

"I did not regret my choice," he said. "In fact, it was a real privilege."

It wasn't long before Scoffham saw the brilliance of the man.

"I joined Enterprise Oil one-and-a-half years after Myles, when the company had been in existence for barely two years, but the Nelson opportunity had been spotted many months earlier," he said. "I then saw the concept being tested and refined to give us the confidence to make the bold business deals needed to make the Nelson story such a stunning success."

Calling Bowen the most reasonable, tolerant and realistic person with whom he's worked, Scoffham wants to thank and honor his crusty old friend.

"I owe much to Myles."


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