Myles Bowen was renowned for his uncanny ability to find large oil and gas deposits, a talent which led to a huge expansion of North Sea drilling and transformed the energy sector in Britain.
The successful hunt for an oilfield requires academic geological expertise allied to a capacity to analyse data from seismic profiling of rock far beneath the sea bed. But technical skill only goes so far. Like panning for gold, exploration is an uncertain art in which some individuals, blessed with a combination of luck, instinct, adventure and judgment, seem to hit the jackpot time after time. Bowen was one such figure.
His run of success was most notable in, but not limited to, the North Sea, where in 1969 he began working as exploration manager of Shell Expro in Britain. The southern basin gas fields of the North Sea had been discovered and the prevailing view was that there would be no oil in the more northerly zones. Bowen and his team disagreed.
When typically prospecting for new oil or gas fields, energy companies send shock waves into the sea bed, measuring seismic reflections to build up a profile of rock strata many thousands of feet down towards the Earth’s core. Today hundreds of such “seismic profiles” might be assembled in powerful computers to generate 3-D images of potential oilfields; yet as he scrutinised the northern North Sea for opportunities, Bowen had just a handful on which to make his judgment.
The oil explorer’s ideal target is a sandstone layer, called a reservoir, which acts as a sponge for oil and is capped by an impervious seal – usually a layer of shale – to form a “trap”. The rock’s age and the structure of the potential trap are crucial. Three kilometres beneath the water is considered a promising depth, ideal for animal and vegetable matter from millennia gone by to be – in industry jargon – “cooked” into oil by the prevailing pressures and temperatures.
As Bowen scrutinised his seismic maps, taken of an area 150 miles to the north of established North Sea fields, he discerned a huge fault far beneath the sea bed. But there were significant problems. He could not tell if there was a reservoir in the fault, nor — if there was — whether it was sealed, or even the age of the rock. Yet he and his team concluded that if there was an oilfield, it would be vast.
The evidence was tenuous, and enthusiasm was further dampened by engineers who reported that seas in the area were so rough that oil rigs would barely be able to operate even if there was something to extract. Yet Bowen, who had a particular knack for communicating the hunches of explorers in the field to the money men at head office, convinced Shell to apply for the area in the third North Sea licensing round.
Duly awarded drilling rights, Shell began drilling in June 1971; the 2.7 billion barrels of oil it discovered there became known as the Brent oilfield; and the Brent province, as the nearby area was to be called, would become one of Britain’s most important energy assets. At the time, however, Shell managed to keep the vast find a secret, and so, at the fourth round of North Sea licensing, which involved cash bids for prospecting blocks, the company managed to avoid a bidding war.
Even so, to avoid any unwelcome surprises, it made a huge £21 million bid for an area near Brent. The next highest bid was £8 million, and Shell’s determination to claim the area caused a sensation. This was only heightened when the first well sunk into this “Golden Block” was dry, having been drilled into a small unfilled fault block. A second well, however, proved that the excitement had been justified.
The discovery of oil and gas in the Brent reservoirs proved a major geological find. Despite its harsh conditions, the area saw something of a black gold rush, and within the next few years half of all Britain’s North Sea deposits were discovered.
John Myles Bowen, always known as Myles, was born on a farm in Kent on August 23 1928. He was educated at Sherborne, before doing National Service in the Army in 1946. Commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1947, he accepted a place at Lincoln College, Oxford, the following year, initially to study Forestry. He soon switched to Geology, graduating with a First in 1951. He then went to Edinburgh, where in 1954 he completed a PhD on the carboniferous stratigraphy of the English/Scottish borderlands.
He joined Royal Dutch Shell that year and was immediately sent to Borneo, missing the usual Shell training, to run a field party mapping the jungle using air photographs for a large local pit-digging and auguring team. In three years he had only four weeks’ leave, but none the less managed to notch up the first recorded ascent of the Eastern Plateau of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in the Malay Archipelago.
He was then sent for two years to Venezuela, on another mapping project, where he had to contend with unfriendly natives and even unfriendlier drug runners. Then, in 1960, he was assigned to Slochteren-2, a well in the Netherlands which turned out to be the discovery well for the giant Groningen gas field, a find so vast that it ultimately led to the gasification of European households.
Bowen’s next assignment took him on a married posting with his wife, Margaret, to Nigeria, where successful exploration wells were being drilled every few weeks, before heading back to Venezuela for six years, as exploration manager.
He returned to Britain in 1969, beginning his golden run with the Auk field in the Central North Sea, before striking it big with Brent. Bowen suggested that all Shell’s discoveries be named after seabirds, and Cormorant, Dunlin, Fulmar, Tern and Penguin all followed.
In 1977, looking for a change, he was posted to Billiton, a Shell metals subsidiary, expanding the company’s metals exploration effort from six to 22 countries.
He retired from Shell in 1982. At that time Margaret Thatcher decided that the state-owned Gas Council, later British Gas, should withdraw from the oil business. Its North Sea oil assets were thus on the point of being sold when Peter Walker, the Energy Minister, suggested using them to float a new company. Mrs Thatcher agreed, declaring: “It will be called Enterprise Oil.”
Bowen was appointed exploration director for the fledgling company, and over the next five years succeeded in expanding its acreage, reserves, production and exploration activity, multiplying its market capitalisation fivefold so that, at one point, Enterprise Oil reached number 35 in the FT 100 index.
A key part of Enterprise’s expansion came in 1988, when it re-examined an area of the North Sea that other companies, including Shell, had rejected as dry. Under Bowen’s leadership, Enterprise’s geologists reassessed the data, and realised that the previous drilling attempts had proved unsuccessful only because they had hit a small dry gap between into two parallel oil-rich channels.
The area – known as block 22/11 – was shared with three other companies: Conoco, Britoil and Chevron. Bowen began negotiations, independently and in secret, with each of the three, offering to swap properties that Enterprise owned for their interests in 22/11. In a tactical coup, he brought all three deals to a conclusion simultaneously, so that Enterprise dramatically acquired 100 per cent of block 22/11 (eventually named Nelson) on a single day. The field, with reserves of 500 million barrels, proved highly profitable.
Bowen’s international team at Enterprise subsequently participated in three major discoveries in southern Italy, then considered extremely unfashionable in the oil industry. Monti Alpi, Tempa Rossa and Cerro Falcone proved to be among the largest onshore oilfields ever found in Europe, and helped bring Bowen’s personal tally of oil discovered to approximately 7.5 billion barrels — enough to meet the entire oil consumption of the United States for more than a year.
He finally retired in 1992, moving to a smallholding in South Devon from where he pursued his hobbies of sailing and recreational motorcycling . As a younger man he had once participated in a Manx TT race; after an accident he stopped racing and took up mountaineering instead.
He was appointed OBE in 1977.
Myles Bowen was honoured with the Outstanding Achievement Medal of the Geological Society in 1992 and, in 2011, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ Pioneer award.
He married, in 1961, Margaret Guthrie, who survives him with their three daughters.
Myles Bowen, born August 23 1928, died June 16 2013