The data from the well logs looked promising, and a restrained optimism began to build among small groups of specialists at the company’s north Houston campus, at its Georgetown venture office and aboard the drillship Deepwater Champion 120 miles off the coast of the South American nation of Guyana.
Kerry Moreland and a team of other ExxonMobil geoscientists had been tracking the progress of the Liza 1 well since crews started drilling in March.
“A small team worked more than a year designing and executing a plan that had now brought us to the brink of what could be a major discovery,” says Moreland, who began her career with the company in 2005 after graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a master’s degree in geophysics. “The suspense and excitement continued to grow by the hour as the drill bit approached the top of the predicted reservoir section.”
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While the team in Houston prepared to analyze the real-time results soon to come, Moreland boarded a flight to Guyana early the morning of Monday, May 4, to be at the well site the moment the first results came in.
“When I finally arrived in Georgetown, the drillers had just entered the reservoir section some 11,000 feet beneath the seabed,” Moreland says. “I was too excited to sleep, even for a few hours, and was at our helicopter base at dawn. By 9 a.m., I was aboard the ship.”
By this time the Exploration and Drilling teams in Houston, as well as those on the third floor of the small Guyana venture office felt they could be witnessing something big, as the well logs showed the intermittent presence of hydrocarbons within the target.
"We didn’t know at that point what we had, since we were drilling in and out of several sands,” says Jeff Simons, country manager, who transferred to Guyana in late 2014 from an assignment in Europe. “Drilling continued through the night, and on the morning of May 6, it became clear we’d found a column of hydrocarbons extending more than 295 feet. That’s big, really big.”
On board the Deepwater Champion, Moreland and the wellsite geologists had the benefit of something else that supported the significance of the find: the drill cuttings from the reservoir itself.
“We analyzed the rock fragments in a small lab on board the ship, both for rock type and for what we call ‘shows,’” Moreland says. “That analysis, along with the well logs acquired while drilling, suggested the potential for a significant volume of high-quality oil.”
The odds were against it. The Stabroek block that ExxonMobil acquired rights to explore from the Republic of Guyana is 6.6 million acres. Water depth at the site exceeds a mile. There had never been a well drilled anywhere on the block. The 22 wells drilled by other companies since the 1970s on the coastal shelf outside the southern boundaries of the block had all proved noncommercial.
“Geologically, the well was quite risky,” Moreland says, “with a low probability that it would turn out to be successful. It was a true frontier wildcat well.”
But she goes on to explain that the location of the Liza 1 well held particular interest for the explorers, since initial seismic data and geologic analysis of the region “suggested the presence of sediment fairways transporting sandstone reservoirs into the basin. In addition, oil and gas shows in previously drilled wells closer to the coast indicated a working hydrocarbon system potentially extending farther offshore into the Liza area.”
While ExxonMobil technical experts in the Exploration, Development and Upstream Research companies continue to analyze the well data and plan for potential future appraisal drilling, the largest 3-D seismic survey in the company’s history is now underway on the Stabroek block.
Two seismic vessels are acquiring data over approximately 6,500 square miles, an area comparable to the land mass of the Hawaiian Islands. The program includes two support ships that make sure that there’s no interference from other vessels in the area, as well as two supply boats making regular trips from Georgetown and Trinidad to bring food, equipment and supplies to crews.
With support from the Guyanese government, company teams mobilized this seismic program in about six weeks after the discovery, an extraordinary achievement. The Deepwater Champion finished drilling and moved off location June 20, and by mid-July all permits were in place and the seismic vessels began acquiring data.
In Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, there’s excitement and anticipation for what the discovery could ultimately mean for the country’s future. Guyana’s Minister for Governance and Spokesman for Natural Resources Raphael Trotman says that he and the other leaders of his nation view Liza as more than simply a discovery of oil.
“For many generations, we have always believed in the potential for the discovery of oil off our shores, and in our sovereign right to produce that oil,” he says. “By the same token, the Liza discovery has coincided with the election of a new government in Guyana and the upcoming 50-year anniversary of our country’s independence. So we are viewing this in more than simply economic terms: it has imbued a sense of responsibility, and a new spirit of hope and pride in our nation.”
Trotman goes on to say that if development were to occur, he views the relationship with ExxonMobil as similar to the forging of a long-term partnership. “ExxonMobil for us is more than just a company; it’s more like a trusted partner who is adding value to our association … a partner with whom we can share our vision.”
Jeff Simons remembers when the company started gearing up in earnest a few years ago for its commitment to drill the Liza 1 well. “The first team on the ground set up desks and phones in a suite that Queen Elizabeth had once used during her visit to the country in 1994,” Simons recalls. “Their equipment was basically a copy machine and a computer connection to Houston. Soon after I arrived, staffing grew to four employees, and we set up a transition office in a small space in an apartment building outside of town.”
By November 2014, with the start of Liza drilling drawing near, the core team and several additional employees moved to larger quarters on New Market Street in the center of the city, close to various government office and a new hotel. More specialists in drilling; geology; computer and telecommunications support; safety, health and environment; procurement; public and government affairs and other functions have since joined the staff, which now numbers about 20 employees and contractors.
“But even as the office has grown, we operate as a close-knit team, where everyone looks out for each other and helps get things done,” Simons says.
Technology and talent
Steve Greenlee, president of ExxonMobil Exploration Company, believes the success of the Liza 1 well is a fine example of ExxonMobil technology, experience and talent at work.
“We applied advanced seismic imaging and analysis; our global experience; and an integrated, well-planned approach by talented teams in Guyana and Houston to successfully overcome the uncertainties of a truly frontier well that will add valuable resources to ExxonMobil’s portfolio and create great value for the nation of Guyana,” he says.
The Liza 1 team
- Kerry Moreland, Guyana basin project manager
- Scott Dyksterhuis, lead Liza geoscientist
- Randy Perkey, lead block geoscientist
- Lisa Roehl, project manager during Liza’s drilling
- Brooke Harris, commercial advisor
- Linda Price, regional geoscientist
Liza 1 overview
- Discovery is in a challenging frontier, unproven basin
- Stabroek block is 6.6 million acres
- Water depth at the Liza 1 well is 5,719 feet
- Total well depth is 17,825 feet
- Reservoir found in sandstone is from the Upper Cretaceous period (~70 million years old)
Guyana at a glance
Population: 800,000, concentrated along the country’s coast.
Government: Multiparty democratic republic.
Area: 83,000 square miles, about the size of Idaho.
Economy: Agriculture, timber, fishing and mining.
Languages: English (official), Creole, Hindi, Urdu, Chinese, Amerindian dialects.
Climate: Tropical, with an average temperature of 81.5 degrees Fahrenheit
Flora: Approximately 80 percent of Guyana is tropical rainforest, much of it untouched.
Biodiversity: The country has 225 species of mammals, more than 300 species of reptiles and amphibians, 815 (and counting) species of birds, and more than 6,500 types of plants.