Drilling the Limit

Drilling the Limit or,

Seria Town

When I first arrived in Brunei I thought the best way to understand the intersection of oil interests and conservation practices was to get my hands on policies, scientists and corporate officers who worked on the repurposed oil rig off the coast, Baram-8. Not untrue, but living and working with Bruneians reminded me of the daily power and necessity of oil for Bruneians; their national wealth and daily practice are dependent on this resource, and this in some ways dictates how conservation efforts occur. Specifically, they’re dependent on Shell Petroleum (locally designated as Brunei Shell Petroleum, or BSP). BSP supplies 350,000 barrels of oil and gas equivalent every day to nations in the region. Brunei is Booming and has yet to see its Bust. The Rigs to Reef program is one of many monuments to peak oil

Nodding Donkeys Dancing
Nodding Donkeys Dancing

When gas is less than 25 US cents a liter (cheaper than water), you can pretty much go wherever you want without financial consequence. I filled my car for around USD$6. There’s little financial incentive to invest in any other transport besides a car, and Brunei doesn’t have much effective public transit infrastructure to speak of to motivate people out of their cars. Each Bruneian has an average of two cars. When I first asked what there is to do in Brunei, my housemate said “Well…we usually just get in the car and start going.” Outside of oil, Brunei is still considered a developing economy with few midsize companies and diversified industries. Oil is intimately tied into the lives of Bruneians, and in many ways reified by the state. It builds cities. It funds schools. Shell’s practice of Corporate Social Responsibility has reformed the Bruneian state. 

Pipes past the Palms
Pipes past the Palms
I am trying so hard not to read nto the silimarities between the colors on Brunei and Shell's flags.
I am trying so hard not to read nto the silimarities between the colors on Brunei and Shell’s flags.
it's cheaper to drink gas than water here, excluding subsequent medical costs. that joke doesn't even apply to Bruneians, who pay B$1 (US$.70) for any medical service. INCLUDING HEART SURGERY.
it’s cheaper to drink gas than water here, excluding subsequent medical costs.
that joke doesn’t even apply to Bruneians, who pay B$1 (US$.70) for any medical service. INCLUDING HEART SURGERY.

Shell Builds Cities:

Seria, or Seria Town, is a small seaside town in the very south of Brunei Darussalam. It’s more commonly known as Brunei’s “Oil Town” as the main extraction and storage port for Shell Petroleum’s offshore operations. Shell, one of the seven oil and gas “supermajors” and the fourth largest company in the world, makes about US$19 billion in 2014 (though profits have dropped radically with slashed oil prices and abandoned projects in the Arctic) Seria and neighboring Kuala Belait are inhabited almost entirely by Shell employees, but Seria alone has barracks for Shell employees across the road from the Ghurka camp. It’s the regional training hub for Shell. Seria’s horizon is spotted with the sleepy-or-more-often-still heads of nodding donkeys, its rampant yellow and red.

My day there was perfectly pleasant, in the quiet way that things are pleasant in Brunei. I had this delicious fluffy egg roll and fought with my bank on the payphone. I wandered stationary stores and the hot swamp waters bordering the dunes, meandered past Shell’s barracks, and made my way to the Oil and Gas Discovery Center

The architecture in Brunei is really cool and all over the place.
The architecture in Brunei is really cool and all over the place.


Local Cemetery at sunset
Local Cemetery at sunset.
All hail the great teapot! [?]
All hail the great teapot! [?]

Shell Funds Schools:

I visited to get the feel of the town, see what kind of physical space a company this large can take in Brunei, and to visit the Oil and Gas Discover Center (OGDC) for local kids. Start ‘em young, I say. Shell opened the complex in 2002, which houses a exhibition room for kids to learn geology hands-on. Priorities for the OGDC, from a sign in the welcome center, include: generating interest in oil and gas industry, making science fun, demonstrating the application of sustainable development, and highlighting government’s aspiration in improving the tourism industry. The last one confuses me – is the center supposed to attract tourists? Is Brunei creating some strange genre of Oil Tourism? From my confusion I realized that was exactly what I was doing in Brunei. 

Golden Calf
Golden Calf
Build Your Own Pipeline. This little monster of a kid was swinging pipelines at the other kids...fight the symbolism.
Build Your Own Pipeline. This little monster of a kid was swinging pipelines at the other kids…fight the symbolism.
The Layout
The Layout
Viscocity Tests
Viscocity Tests

The OGDC is a pretty great experiential learning center. It takes you through the Big Bang and geological periods, the formation of the hydrocarbon and origins of oil. Displays demonstrate the meaning of viscosity and porousness and the assemblage of rigs. You can even Build Your Own Pipeline! This isn’t just a center for science education, its a center for extending Brunei’s history of excellence in oil and gas extraction: a history they don’t let you forget. 

Brunei burst onto the international oil scene in 1929 with the discovery of its first major commercial oil field in 1926 in a Shell Group survey (Shell operated further north in Brunei since 1899). Shell’s father company was founded to develop a Sumatran oilfield in 1890, and they continued north to tap more reserves before Brunei was Brunei. After a slight dip in production during the Second World War when the Japanese occupied the productive Seria Field, Shell continued to develop an intense corporate infrastructure. They trained specialized firefighters, designed helicopters, built housing units for employees, and, of course, explored the South China Sea. On April 15th 1975, Shell’s local Brunei branch formally established a joint venture with Brunei’s Government.

"Why yes we love Brunei"
“Why yes we love Brunei”
"The local environment is simply stunning old chum."
“The local environment is simply stunning old chum.”
"And the locals! So welcoming! So Enthusiastic!"
“And the locals! So welcoming! So Enthusiastic!”

After near-shore production peaked in 1957, Shell pursued offshore exploration to great success. While rigs typically sat around 13 km in the exploration/exploitation of the 1970s, Shell was looking over 100km offshore by 2009. This has turned rig construction into a challenge for liveability as much as extractive capacity. People spend months living on these rigs. Shell will spend decades building these rigs – that’s how long the payout timeline is once they’re online. Oil rigs have great views of long horizons.

The Billionth Barrel Monument
The Billionth Barrel Monument

There is Literally a Monument to Oil:

Oil and gas fuel (heh) the sultan’s wealth, in turn subsidizing rice to keep everyone fed, home development to keep everyone housed, etc. In 1991, the 28th sultan commemorated this relationship with the Billionth Barrel Monument, celebrating the ~billionth barrel~ of oil pulled from Brunei since Seria’s first well was tapped in 1929 some 300-odd m away from the monument’s base. The arcs symbolizes the flow of crude oil from the earth to the surface and from multiple sources. There are 6 arcs, one for each decade of production and exploration, supporting the national seal as “the production of oil provides prosperity to the people and the country.”

Drilling the Limit:

There is a cycle of exploration, understanding, and exploitation. A rationalized understanding of space or a mechanistic approach to ecology enables the manipulation of that system. More benign than oil extraction, even population ecologists can “balance” natural systems by turning population dynamics into equations, moving or destroying the bodies that offset “ecological harmony.” Humans have to be careful about how we insert ourselves in systems we think we understand within a scientific paradigm we made up. What was upsetting about the OGDC is how one-sided the exhibits were, promoting science and technology that has real environmental and human impacts in the name of contemporary comforts. Much of the OGDC exhibit focussed, instead, on narratives of exploration.

Marine exploration, especially at the depths oil companies currently pursue, is considered one of the final frontiers. To date, we have explored less than 5% of the ocean. (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/exploration.html) There are entertaining parallels between out treatment of space and ocean exploration. Scuba divers, our astronauts, and NOAA, our NASA. Marine and space exploration rely on technology to explore inhospitable ecologies. Scuba divers develop technology to go deeper, probe caves and exploit shipwrecks. Shell’s technologies, too, have to go deeper more efficiently for their money. Brunei Shell Petroleum is the winner of multiple “Drilling the Limit” awards (How is that a good or discrete name for this award?) and continues to spearhead Shell’s technological development with their Snake Drill (How is that a good or not funny name for this drill?). While many scuba divers perpetuate their own exploration narratives to “unlock the mysteries of the ocean”, some times for exploitation, Shell operates on a totally different scale. 

The face of corporate social responsibility. "We profit off of the destruction of the planet! Here, have a tree!"
The face of corporate social responsibility. “We profit off of the destruction of the planet! Here, have a tree!”

BSP’s efforts to “give back” focus on informational campaigns to prevent traffic accidents, tree replanting, and educational programs for Brunei’s youth. Only on their website do they mention the “Life Beneath the Platforms” Study, part of which was to sink decommissioned rigs like Baram-8, the rig I’ve been visiting this past month. While images of marine life serve as the backdrop for Shell’s promotional materials for its community outreach programs at OGDC, there is no longterm program for marine conservation outside of the unmonitored rigs sitting at 18 meters. We’ll get more into this later.

It just kind of blows my mind the way Shell covers its ass. It throws millions of dollars a year into traffic accident signage (Wear a Seatbelt, Safe Driving, etc.), because those cars wouldn’t be moving towards anything without oil extraction. Perhaps they’ve also subsidized artificial reefs because – I think it follows – humans wouldn’t feel the need to effectively subsidize coral growth had there been no anthropogenic change in ocean temperatures to provoke coral bleaching. 

2015-10-28 18.04.08

Seria-sly, it was a great day.



n.b. I based my research off of the presentations in the OGDC and the BSP history page.

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