Saudi Arabia's Energy Era - 80 Years

Safaniya ... curious symmetry

Safaniya ... curious symmetry

Safaniya poses an enigma to most

Safaniya is a model field both figuratively and literally. That it is a model of economic development is made clear. But behind the scenes there is an actual model field

FAR beneath the floor of the Arabian Gulf lies the Safaniya Field, the largest offshore oil reservoir ever discovered.

In 1939 Dick Kerr, an Arabian American Oil Company geophysicist, drew a speculative red arrow on a work map of northeast Saudi Arabia. Alongside it he wrote: “Possible high area offshore.” The freehand arrow pointed out into the Arabian Gulf past a hooked spit of white sand called Safaniya.

Kerr’s cryptic remark was actually an informed prediction about the strata that underlay the gulf. He was implying to fellow Aramco geologists that an oil-bearing structure might be found off Safaniya. Kerr was right. The “high area” is indeed there, as is the oil reservoir, thousands of feet down in the earth. It has, in fact, turned out to be the largest offshore oil reservoir ever discovered – the remarkable Safaniya Field, reports Saudi Aramco World.

Statistics on the Safaniya Field are appropriately arabesque; strings of zeros follow one another with a decorative flourish. Surveying them a writer resigned himself to dealing with the incomparable by warning readers that “Superlatives and the Saudi Arabian oil industry are inseparable.”

No one yet knows the exact size of the field, nor can anyone presently estimate the total volume of recoverable oil it contains. When it was first put in production in 1957, it flowed 50,000 barrels of crude oil a day from 18 wells. At the beginning of 1962 it possessed the facilities to handle 350,000 barrels a day (almost 128 million barrels a year) from 25 wells. This sevenfold increase had evolved in just four years and nine months.

However, Safaniya is much more than simply an array of impressive data.

Like that bemusing Victorian conceit, a fly in amber, this famous oil field provides absorbing study from almost any angle. For instance, it reveals the delicate complexity that is the distinguishing mark of international petroleum economics. The relationship between the drilling bit and the distant cash register is uniquely clear in the development of the Safaniya Field.

Viewed from another perspective it exhibits a curious symmetry, a harmony of process requirements and raw material characteristics. Refiners in western Europe and the Far East look upon Safaniya crude oil as a superlative charge stock for their processing units. Because of its peculiar properties, it is ideal for the manufacture of industrial fuel oil. And the demand for fuel oil as a source of industrial energy has been steadily increasing in the humming manufacturing centres of western Europe and Japan.

Yet an Aramco refining man ruefully recalls that he was disappointed with the type of oil that flowed to the surface when the discovery well was drilled in the Safaniya Field in 1951. The first tests showed that Safaniya crude had an API gravity rating of 27, an arbitrary index that indicated its high fuel oil content.

‘When they poked that first hole down,” the refining man said recently, “we were aghast at the gravity. As far as we were concerned, we wished that the company would just let it lie there. At that time fuel oil was a headache. We were up against a surplus in world markets.”

Someone has said that there are men who waken in the night and hear the clock of history striking the hour. They are sure their moment has come. Unfortunately, they do not know they have risen up from sleep an hour too soon. Like such unlucky men, Safaniya “awoke” from its subaqueous sleep too soon. But the wayward clock of history was to strike a second time for this extraordinary oil field.

One possible translation of the name Safaniya – “place where navigators meet” – suggests that this remote span of shore not far from the southern border of the Saudi Arabian-Kuwait Neutral Zone may once have been a lively nautical centre in the web of dhow routes that linked East and West.

But whatever the accuracy of this agreeable image, it is certain that by the end of the 1930’s the “sons of Sindbad” no longer foregathered there. By that time adventurers of a new sort had come to the sandy reaches of eastern Arabia. These men represented oil companies willing to take a long chance on the uncharted whims of buried geological strata, a risk they rationalised with sophisticated technology and careful organisation.

Time might have been ticking quietly above the eerie merging of land and sea at Safaniya, but 140 miles to the south and east the clank and gritty whir of rotary rigs filled the air with urgency. In 1938, the year before Dick Kerr made his prediction, an American drilling crew working near Dhahran tapped a layer of rock that yielded Saudi Arabia’s first commercial oil production. The oil-bearing rock was named the “Arab Zone.”

Aramco pushed ahead with its exploration of the vast concession area in Saudi Arabia. But within three years World War II curtailed both exploration and development.

After the war the world-wide search for new oil sources shifted into high gear. Techniques, some of which had been invented earlier, were rapidly developed to allow oil men to extend their search in bays, gulfs and territorial seas. As part of this “offshore” trend, Aramco turned its attention to the land that lay beneath the green-blue mantle of the Persian Gulf.

During 1949, in running seas that made the search hazardous, an exploration party initiated the pioneer seismograph programme in Saudi Arabian coastal and offshore waters. In Aramco’s archives there is a slightly blurred photograph of a wooden pier erected in 1950 at Safaniya. In the distant haze one can barely see a drilling tower looming above the water. On August 15, 1951, the rather ethereal-looking rig made extremely down-to-earth history by bringing in the first offshore oil field discovered in die Arabian Gulf.

Safaniya was unusual from the beginning. Nearly every well put into production in Saudi Arabia to that time had flowed from the oil-bearing Arab Zone rock strata. Safaniya was produced from the shallower Bahrain Zone.

This geological distinction was no substitute, however, for the hard-cash fact that the field came in with a fuel-oil crude at a time when that product was a glut on the market.

Fortunately, at the same moment Aramco refining men were shaking their heads over this seeming misfortune, distant events were shaping a major role for Safaniya crude in the post-World War II energy revolution.

Following the war, the great industrial nations of western Europe and the Far East began to replace war-damaged and obsolete plants and to plan new industry. Implicit in every blueprint being drawn was the need for increased energy.

By 1948 industrial expansion had gathered the momentum that would shortly revolutionise world energy consumption. It is a good year to take a close look at the consumption pattern of major energy fuels in western Europe. It was the third full year of peace following the war. Coal was still king, and the traditional basic fuel supplied 80 per cent of total energy consumption. Oil supplied only ten per cent, or a daily volume of 830,000 barrels.

However, a trend was shaping up on engineering drawing boards which would soon bring about a change. More and more industrial plants were being designed around energy systems that would utilise fuel oil. In 1949 – the same year that Aramco started its offshore exploration in the Arabian Gulf – the first slight change showed up in the pattern of fuel consumption. Coal dropped to 79 per cent of total energy consumed in western Europe, and fuel oil increased to 12 per cent, or 972,000 barrels a day.

By 1951, the year Safaniya was discovered, the trend was firm. Coal fell to 76 per cent, and oil climbed to 14 per cent, or 1,301,000 barrels a day.

Thus, thousands of miles from the Arabian Gulf, the future of the Safaniya Field was being determined.

Aramco, in accordance with the terms of its concession, went ahead with the careful development of the field. Between 1951 and 1954, 17 wells were drilled, but they were not produced. Then in 1954 the company made a critical decision based upon long-range studies. It was becoming clear that free world industrial expansion was going to be far greater than had been predicted in the somewhat pessimistic reports published immediately after the war.

The company decided to put Safaniya in production. But, such a move is complex and costly and demands much time for engineering and construction. In its annual review of operations for 1954, Aramco revealed that it had “developed plans for construction of facilities to place the Safaniya Field in production in 1957.”

Safaniya started production on schedule in mid-April 1957, coincident with the reopening of the Suez Canal. The company’s judgment was borne out by the continued rise of oil consumption in western Europe and the Far East. That year oil supplied 22 per cent of the total energy consumption of western Europe, or more than 2,500,000 barrels a day.

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