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John Myles Bowen 1928-2013 - long version

The death has been announced of John Myles Bowen OBE at his home near Newton Abbot, Devon, England at the age of 84 from cancer. Myles, as he was universally known, was a true pioneer in the early days of oil exploration of the North Sea, having been Exploration Director for Shell Expro in the 1970’s and been partly responsible for that company’s remarkable run of discoveries His success started with Auk in the Central North Sea, then the giant Brent field in 1971 in the far north of the North Sea, then Cormorant, at that time the most expensive block ever bid for in the UK North Sea, and Dunlin, Tern and Penguin all in the north near Brent and Fulmar in the Central North Sea.

It was Myles’ suggestion to name the Shell discoveries after seabirds. Myles’ long career saw him triumph a second time in the 1980’s with his new company Enterprise Oil finding the Nelson oilfield in the central North Sea after a characteristically swashbuckling set of oil company deals secured a 100% interest in the prospect for Enterprise. He will be remembered by many explorationists as an inspirational leader, a famous oilfinder and an astute businessman.

Born on a farm in Kent in 1928 he was called up to the army in 1946, commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1947 and accepted in Lincoln College Oxford in 1948, firstly to study forestry but quickly switching to study Geology, gaining a First Class honours degree in 1951. He then went to Edinburgh to gain his PhD studying the Carboniferous stratigraphy of the English/Scottish borderlands in 1954.

He joined Royal Dutch Shell in 1954 and was sent immediately to Borneo, missing the usual Shell training, to run a field party mapping the jungle without any maps but some air photographs and a large local pit-digging and auguring team. He was in Borneo for three years with only four weeks leave but did manage to find time to make the first ascent of the Eastern Plateau of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in the Malay Archipelago.

Myles was then sent on another mapping project to Venezuela for two years where he had to contend with unfriendly Indians, drug runners and again no maps. In 1960 he was then assigned to “well sit” a well in the NE Netherlands, Slochteren-2, which turned out to be the discovery well for the giant Groningen gas field, the discovery which ultimately led to the gasification of European households. His next assignment took him on a married posting with his wife Margaret to Nigeria with Shell where his company was drilling successful exploration wells every few weeks. His next job was back to Venezuela as Exploration Manager for six years.

In 1969 he was assigned to the UK as the Exploration manager of Shell Expro where he and his staff enjoyed a remarkable, and to many, surprising, run of success. The southern North Sea gas basin fields had been discovered but the prevailing view amongst his bosses was that there would be no oil in the northern part of the North Sea. His staff, however, were more optimistic, and recognised a very large tilted fault block on what seems now poor quality seismic data far to the north of any previous activity. They applied for and were awarded the block in the 3rd UK licensing round and it was drilled in June 1971 to make the giant Brent oilfield discovery (2.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil) and set the scene for the UK 4th round of licensing.

This round involved cash bids for blocks in the UK for the first and (in public) last time. Shell had kept the discovery of oil at Brent a secret from the Industry and so it caused quite a sensation when they bid £21 million for a block near Brent where the next highest bid was £8 million. Myles was highly excited as the bids were opened publicly, knowing that their high bid would create a sensation among the industry representatives gathered there. His excitement was made even more intense when their first well on this “Golden Block” was dry, having been drilled into a small unfilled fault block and requiring a second well to prove that their bid had been justified.

After eight years of great success in the UK Myles asked for a change in job to give himself a new challenge He was assigned to Billiton a Shell metals subsidiary as an Exploration Vice President and quickly learned his minerals. He expanded the metals exploration effort there from six to 22 countries.

In 1982 he retired from Shell after 30 years of service but this was not by any means the end of his career in exploration. By good fortune Myles retirement coincided with Margaret Thatcher deciding that the state-owned Gas Council, later British Gas, should not be in the oil business. So she sold off Wytch Farm, a brilliant British Gas farm-in, and was about to do the same to their North Sea assets, when Peter Walker, her Energy Minister, was brave enough to suggest using these assets to float off a new company. She agreed: “and it will be called Enterprise Oil” she declared.

Myles was appointed Exploration Director for this fledgling oil company and set about recruiting an entirely new staff from all corners of the industry. In the first five years a series of acquisitions and organic growth opportunities increased the company’s acreage, reserves, production, exploration activity and its market capitalisation by approximately 5 times. At one stage Enterprise Oil reached number 35 in the FT 100 index of shares. The most successful of his deals involved acquiring a 100% interest in a prospect that had previously been drilled in 1967 by Shell and Gulf Oil, and declared dry by them. The block had gone on to be owned by three major companies and unsuccessfully drilled by them until Enterprise farmed-in and then, in a simultaneous set of transactions, subsequently swapped interest with these three majors to obtain a 100% interest in the Nelson prospect. A re-examination of the data with a more modern and subtle understanding of the geology had revealed that the first well had indeed made a discovery and Myles backed his team’s assessment to the hilt. The discovery of the 500 million barrel Nelson field under these circumstances was another highlight in an already glittering career.

The Enterprise success was continued internationally where Myles staff had identified an important new play type and participated in three major oil discoveries in Southern Italy with Agip: Monti Alpi, Tempa Rossa and Cerro Falcone. These are among the very largest oilfields to have been found onshore in Europe bringing to about 7.5 billion barrels his personal tally of oil found under his watch.

Myles retired again in 1992 and went to live on a small holding in South Devon with his wife Margaret where he pursued his later hobbies of ocean sailing, motorcycling, driving his tractor and getting involved in the local community. His early life hobbies were falconry and motor-bike racing, where he once participated in the Manx TT race before blowing up a bike and taking up the less dangerous sport of mountaineering.

Myles will be remembered by many of his colleagues for his generosity and his guidance to them personally as well as his tremendous nose for finding where the oil was. He combined many fine characteristics of judgement, perseverance, humility, and humour and has left a lasting legacy among those who knew him. He was a great communicator, teacher and counsellor. His contribution to the oil Industry is recognised widely and he was awarded an OBE in 1977 for services to the petroleum industry, the Outstanding Achievement Medal of the Geological Society in 1992 and latterly the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ Pioneer award in 2011.

He was married to his wife Margaret nee Guthrie for 52 years, and is survived by her and their three daughters.

by Andrew Armour