November 2014

The last barrel

Ebola outbreak prompts mixed response from West African operators

Kurt Abraham / World Oil



Over many decades, one of the E&P industry’s greatest concerns has been the threat posed to workers by accidents or disease in remote locations. Frequently, survival of a worker in the field—seriously injured or exposed to deadly disease—can hinge on the rapidity with which that person can be airlifted to a site that has adequate medical care, an often-expensive exercise.

Interestingly, the leading cause of death of field workers is accidents in motor vehicles, with heart attacks not far behind. Nevertheless, the range of diseases/illnesses that workers can be exposed to in these remote locations—but not limited to—includes malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, typhoid fever, cholera, AIDS, tuberculosis, polio, and the Ebola virus.

Ebola has grabbed the headlines over the last several months, resulting in thousands of deaths while endangering the economies of several countries, and prompting some Western nations to issue travel bans to, and from, West Africa while also implementing provisional quarantine procedures. The hardest-hit countries have been Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, although small Ebola pockets have occurred in Senegal and Nigeria. The latter two, as of late October, had eradicated their Ebola cases through a combination of treatment and meticulous contact-tracing.

Beyond Nigeria, the level of upstream work in West Africa has been growing. Thus, the Ebola outbreak is of great concern to operators, although their responses to the situation are quite diverse.

Exxon Mobil takes no chances. The most definitive, cautious approach has been taken by Exxon Mobil, which has operations in Nigeria and Liberia, and has prohibited some employees from traveling to the countries directly affected. In addition, the company has delayed the planned start in late 2014 of its first exploration well offshore Liberia. During a press conference last month, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson commented, “We had some drilling plans for blocks offshore West Africa in Liberia. We are having to look at when it would be prudent to resume operations there, because you do have to have shore-based support.”

Exxon Mobil’s response in Liberia also affects Calgary-based Canadian Overseas Petroleum. The Canadian firm is a 17% partner in Block 13, where, in April 2013, Exxon Mobil acquired an 83% interest and operatorship. Exxon Mobil has reported no disruption to its operations in Nigeria.

African Petroleum’s situation. London independent African Petroleum would appear to be vulnerable to the outbreak, since it has licenses in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Yet, fortuitously, it has not planned any significant exploration activity in either country until second-half 2015. During late 2014, the company has been assessing the prospectivity of Block SL-03, offshore Sierra Leone, and Blocks LB-08 and LB-09, offshore Liberia.

Nevertheless, African Petroleum has monitored the outbreak and taken precautionary measures, said the firm’s V.P. for Environment, Mori Diane. “In Liberia, 14 out of 15 counties report active cases; in Sierra Leone, all of the administrative districts report incidences of the disease,” noted Diane. “The situation raises three main concerns: 1) the safety of our employees; 2) the continuity of operations; and 3) the provision of support to halt the outbreak in its tracks.”

Furthermore, African Petroleum has taken measures to protect its employees, said Diane. “There have been no incidences of EVD (Ebola Virus Disease) within the workforce. Our offices in Freetown and Monrovia have been temporarily shut, and local staff is encouraged to work off-site. All non-essential travel has been halted until further notice. We will continue to fulfill our contractual commitments.” The company is also providing support to ongoing Ebola relief efforts in both countries.

Other companies. In addition, we heard from Chevron, which has a concession to drill offshore Liberia. The company said, it “is closely monitoring the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease. We continue to support the efforts of authorities to contain the EVD outbreak in Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, while implementing precautionary measures within our operations. The company’s highest priority remains the safety of its employees, contractors and the people living in areas of our operations. As a preventive measure, we elected to relocate some of our staff in Liberia to remote work sites, where they will continue to support our Liberian operations. In Nigeria, we have guidelines and procedures in place to safeguard the well-being of our workforce.”

We also heard from Shell, which has operations in Nigeria, as well as several African countries not affected by the outbreak. Shell said, “The health and well-being of our staff is our top priority. Since the outbreak in West Africa began, we have been running health awareness campaigns with our staff and contractors, and are monitoring the situation very closely. Our operations in Nigeria have continued as normal.”

From a spokeswoman at Hess Corp., which has operations in Ghana and Equatorial Guinea, we received this statement: “As of today (Nov. 2), there have been no reported cases of Ebola in Equatorial Guinea or Ghana, which are the two West African countries where Hess has operations. We are monitoring the situation closely, and taking the necessary precautions to protect the health and safety of our people, both in-country and for Hess travelers.”

The response from UK independent Tullow Oil was to the point. Asked if the Ebola outbreak has hampered its upstream work in Guinea, a company spokesman replied, “No, it hasn’t.”

Anadarko Petroleum, which holds Block LB-10 offshore Liberia, did not reply. However, its operations appear to be proceeding, as the firm’s third-quarter report noted that it completed drilling two wells in Block LB-10. The company did say, on its Facebook page, that it has contributed $100,000 to support UNICEF’s work in support of the country’s Ebola response. wo-box_blue.gif

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Kurt Abraham
World Oil
Kurt Abraham
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