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Houston Chronicle: Energy industry shows creative side when naming prospects

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
May 21, 2007, 12:37AM

More than a decade ago, Chevron Corp. exploration geologist Mike Bingham named a Gulf of Mexico oil prospect after Jack Hamburg, his mentor during his time at Tenneco Oil Co. in the 1980s.

Little did he know, a deepwater well test completed in 2006 would reveal that the Jack oil field five miles below the water’s surface could be the biggest find in North America since Alaska’s North Slope in 1968.

“We were naming prospects after mentors, and I thought of him,” Bingham said. “My part was really tiny.”

However, the moniker could last for decades as Chevron continues evaluating the field 270 miles southeast of New Orleans. If Chevron and its partners sanction development of the field — meaning billions of dollars are committed to build an oil platform linked to wells — the platform and the field will be called “Jack.”

Such is the possible outcome when any earth scientist names a prospect he or she has identified. A name also could end up marking a less-than-spectacular find.

But assigning names is one of the few times in the serious business of finding oil and gas that energy scientists can let loose with a little whimsy.

“It’s always fun,” said Alexandra Herger, Royal Dutch Shell’s manager for new ventures in the Gulf. “If you get to name a prospect and that prospect is drilled and there’s a discovery, your name is on that platform.

“It’s pretty amazing to think your idea you developed from seismic data becomes that huge piece of steel,” she said.

Added security

Assigning a name comes early in the process of finding oil and gas. A company scientist identifies a prospect in an area known as a block for which the federal government puts up for bid in annual lease sales.

The winning bidders get leases on blocks and can begin more detailed study of how much oil and gas they have. Later, if a platform is built on the field it adopts the name.

Dave Meyer, a staff geologist with Chevron in Houston, said assigning a name adds security in a city packed with competitors who may be eyeing the same blocks. Geologists have no worries about eavesdroppers in packed restaurants at lunchtime if they are caught talking about Tahiti.

But if they say “Green Canyon 640,” which pinpoints the location of the field on a map, competitors could be tipped off to a block worth a bid.

“It’s really all about security,” Meyer said. “It’s like a housing market. There’s not a lot of property out there, but everybody wants it.”

Each year, geologists at companies that aim to bid on leases generally come up with a theme for prospect names. Past themes are evident from blocks named for Colorado ski towns, mountains, Zodiac signs, fish, figures from Greek or Roman mythology, planets, colleges and even different kinds of peppers.

One cluster off the Texas coast are blocks with a clear Star Trek theme, called Klingon, Bones, Vulcan and Enterprise. Movie monsters include King Kong and Rodan. Shakespeare is represented with Brutus and Caesar. The softer side of oil emerges with Ladybug and Magnolia.

Others, like the mentor theme Bingham participated in, are less obvious.

“The one I liked was Mexican foods,” Herger said of several Shell blocks named for munchies like Chimichanga and Enchilada.

Anadarko Petroleum Corp.’s geologists chose a theme of explorers when the company leaped into the deepwater game and bid on offshore leases in the 1990s.

One of those prospects, dubbed Marco Polo, turned into a 120,000-barrel-a-day field with a platform that allows other nearby discoveries known as the K2 complex to go online as well.

And yes, K2 is named for the world’s second-largest mountain.

Arnold Rodriguez, Anadarko’s project geophysical adviser for the K2 development, said the company continued its explorer theme in naming a later prospect for the Mongolian warrior and conqueror Genghis Khan.

Shell did the same thing with Deimos near the company’s Mars platform. Deimos is the smaller and outermost of Mars’ two moons.

Few name changes

Some companies also link fundraisers for charities to the ability to name a prospect. A Chevron employee bid $500 to the company’s United Way campaign and won the right to name a block. She named it Dawn Marie, after her daughter. Devon Energy, Anadarko and others have done the same.

Names usually stick even though prospects and discoveries may repeatedly change hands through company mergers, acquisitions or asset sales.

Of several prospects BP named for rock bands years ago, Blind Faith ended up with Chevron while Nirvana was abandoned. And Chevron inherited islands from Texaco and Unocal including Tahiti, the platform to be installed this summer.

“Once a name is attached to it for a certain period of time, people don’t want to cause confusion down the road, so they keep the same name,” said Jeff Oslund, Brazil exploration manager for Anadarko.

However, sometimes there is overlap. The Gulf has two Neptunes — BHP Billiton’s field and the company’s first stand-alone oil production platform; and Anadarko’s platform gained through its acquisition of Kerr-McGee Corp. last year.

“There are a couple of Atlas prospects in the Gulf as well,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes the themes are the same in various shops, and Neptune is one of them.”

Naming no-no

Companies are generally careful to avoid names that are trademarks or otherwise potentially problematic.

Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Mica project started as Mickey because the shape of the salt structure between the water’s surface and oil and gas resembles the Disney rodent’s ears. In 1999, the Walt Disney Co. voiced copyright concerns, so Exxon renamed it Mica.

Shell also named some of its earliest projects after cartoon characters, but it ended up having to pay a fee to license the names of Rocky, Bullwinkle and Popeye. The company has since steered clear of trademarks.

Meyer said the possibility that a name could be mispronounced prompted his team to avoid it one year when the theme focused on South Dakota cities. Sturgis made the grade, while Bear Butte didn’t. A geologist noted that sometimes the city is pronounced “bare butt.”

“We scrapped that name,” Meyer said with a laugh.

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