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Heroes, Gods And Genghis Khan: Naming An Oilfield

Genghis Khan

Have you ever wondered why oil and gas fields bear their respective names? How names like Dead Cow, Mad Dog or even Ekofisk came about—or how someone managed to name a field in the Gulf of Mexico Genghis Khan?

The truth of the matter is that mostly it is not the CEO or not even the marketing department that labels the prospective fields, but geologists and drilling teams. And if you thought they had no sense of humor, prepare to be surprised by what these formidable specialists, former and current, have come up with.

Ekofisk, discovered in 1969, is a manifest case in point. At that time, well before the heyday of Norwegian shelf exploration that got carried away by Norwegian mythology, the pioneers of exploration named their discoveries after various fish and sea creatures. A-blocks were named after fish and sea snails beginning with A, and the logic followed until it reached the letter E. Eel had already been used for another block and geologists wondered what to call the field that would turn out to be one of the most prolific in the North Sea. Then someone at Philips’ headquarters suggested to invent a new sort of fish and called it “Ekkofisk” (Echo Fish). Oddly enough, the name stuck, albeit in a grammatically incorrect way (one “k” instead of two). Of the fields which turned out to be oil-bearing, Albuskjell (common limpet) and Cod stand testament to the “fishy” tradition of Norwegian pioneers.

Roughly at the same time, a very similar story unfolded in British waters. Shell, which spearheaded the North Sea offshore exploration effort from its very beginnings, branded its after water birds habitual to the area—thus emerged the Auk, Brent, Buzzard, Cormorant, Dunlin, Eider, Fulmar fields and many more. Brent itself was named after the Brent goose and, apart from its volucrine component, it also elegantly embodied the five Jurassic layers that make up the field, namely the Broom, Rannoch, Etive, Ness and Tarbert formations. Zoomorphic associations don’t end with Europe’s oil and gas fields—one of the world’s most prolific shale gas plays, Vaca Muerta (Dead Cow) was named after a mountain in Zapata province which, according to local beliefs, resembles a silhouette of a perished grazer.

Mythology looms large in field-naming. Egyptian companies made recourse to a plethora of gods and pharaohs (Akhnaten, Seth, Taurt etc.), as did the Norwegians, who not only incorporated their gods (Odin, Hod, Valhalla), but also Viking ships (Oseberg, Ormen Lange), Old Norse literature (Edda) and even a mythic bow, belonging to a 11th century nobleman (Tambar).

The Norwegian government even went as far as to establish a committee of history and language experts whose task would be to propose names for new offshore fields. The British coast is also interspersed with fields that bear the name of saints and Christian martyrs.

Interestingly, one might expect that hydrocarbon fields in Eastern Asia would reveal a whole treasure chest of charming names. The best this author could dig up is the Chinese Jidang Nanpu (which roughly translates as “excited male servant”, however, the name reflects the county in which it is based, so no pun intended).

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Traditions vary from country to country, but some don’t have much wiggle room for naming oil and gas fields persists. For instance, in Russia the overwhelming majority of fields bear the name of the adjacent geographic entity, be it a village, river or peninsula (the only notable exception being the 23 fields named after deceased geologists and oceanologists). As a consequence, Russia wields eight Berezovskoye fields (a geographic entity meaning “the one with birches”), seven Ozernoye fields (“lake”) and six Andreyevskoye fields (places named after Andrew/Andrey). This creates confusion as it’s by no means evident where it is located, therefore very frequently the fields are written along with the region in which they’re found.

Russia also remains replete with Soviet place-names, so it should come as no surprise that it still has several Sovkhoznoye fields (“sovkhoz” was the name for a Sovietized state-owned farm) and an oil field branded Ilyich after the great revolutionary leader.

BP geologists state that it is ill-advised to name fields after one’s spouse. However, the latest developments with Rosneft’s Tsentralno-Olginskoye field (“Central Olga’s” field) in Russia’s faraway Taymir peninsula might be perceived as breaking ranks. Since the field is located on the Khatanga concession, being an offshore continuation of LUKOIL’s East Taymirskiy field, and with no adjacent geological entity bearing the name Olga whatsoever, one might assume someone’s sweetheart was very impressed by this gesture.

If one wants to test their limits of creative name-picking, look no further than the United States. Due to lesser government control, block owners can name their fields just as they wish—hence, you’ll find a vast array of funny names like Mad Dog, Genghis Khan, Macaroni, Bear’s Hump, Oregano, Cardamom… even the Mike Oldfield-inspired Tubular Bells is a genuine project. This freedom, however, is not all-encompassing, as BP found out recently after naming one of their fields Crazy Horse. The logic behind it was simple: The oil formation resembled a horse head. The real Crazy Horse, however, was a major Native American anti-reservation movement figure. So fearing a possible lawsuit from the Lakota people, BP swiftly renamed it “Thunder Horse”.

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Odd as it may sound, we might soon witness an intense debate regarding name-picking for oil and gas fields, if the Israeli spat spreads elsewhere. A few years ago, Israeli feminist organizations vocally denounced the tradition of giving female names to hydrocarbon fields, as it allegedly perpetuates “the perception of women as objects for penetration and drilling”. Notwithstanding the fact that even Israel has plenty of concessions named after male characters, it has to be said that most of the time when geologists do label a field with a female name, it is that of their daughters.

Whatever your view on it, the back story and societal influence behind the naming of these oil and gas fields are much more than mere appellations.

By Viktor Katona for Oilprice.com

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