Big interview -
Pete Jones, the new Managing Director of TAQA’s UK arm, talks about his philosophy and the challenges he faces overseeing the company’s North Sea operation

On the face of it, you might not think running an oil company and paddling a canoe over a waterfall have much in common.

Pete Jones sees it differently. White water kayaking is his way of, “getting things in perspective”, he says. “It’s a powerful analogue of risk and safety at work.”

And when, like Mr Jones, you run an oil company, managing risk and working safely are paramount. Especially when the energy company is TAQA’s UK arm, and the oil you are dealing with is in the North Sea.

Because anyone in the industry will tell you: it is easily one of the most challenging environments in the world. On July 1, Mr Jones took over TAQA’s Aberdeen operation from Leo Koot, who now runs the Abu Dhabi-based energy group’s business in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

New challenge

“Make it safe, make it work, make it grow. That’s the challenge TAQA’s set me,” says Mr Jones.

What that means specifically is not only working to sustain existing oil reservoirs and maximise their production, but also to extend the life of the assets – primarily the platforms. “The aim is to breathe new life into them, and use them as hubs to establish new sub-sea developments and identify new exploration possibilities,” says Mr Jones.

TAQA acquired its main North Sea assets – Cormorant Alpha, North Cormorant, Eider and Tern – in 2008, and three years later began a long-term inspection, repair and maintenance programme.

It was while that was under way that an event occurred which underlined the scale of Mr Jones’ challenge in the “make it safe, make it work, make it grow” strategy.

Safety incidents

In January and March of 2013, there were two hydrocarbon releases within a leg of the Cormorant Alpha platform. There was no release into the environment but the incident forced the platform to close while repairs were carried out.

As well as handling 10,000 barrels per day (bpd) of production from the South Cormorant field, the Cormorant Alpha platform is the conduit for the Brent System Pipeline. This carries approximately 90,000 bpd of oil, or about 10% of the UK’s crude oil production, so what happened was significant.

Since coming back online, TAQA’s production in the UK has hit a record 70,000 bpd. “That Cormorant Alpha is back up and running is a tribute to the expertise and teamwork of our North Sea workforce,” says Mr Jones.

“The way the business handled the issues on Cormorant Alpha earned it a great deal of respect across the industry. It was extremely open, honest and professional. Within the industry and beyond, it was recognised that this is the way we need to work.

“And when I started looking through the company’s values, I realised I could identify with all of it. ‘Stronger together’ – I couldn’t have put it better. That’s the way you make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts.

“I saw an organisation that treats its people as people, not as numbers. It is a very personal culture. It was another of the key things that made me want to be a part of it all,” he adds. “It was also for the technical discipline, and its people’s attitude. I have discovered we’re a very face-to-face company and we work hard on being inclusive. You know if you present a good opportunity, it’s going to be given consideration and acted upon.”

Before TAQA

It is a culture he admires. Before joining TAQA, Mr Jones spent 16 years with the US oil company Marathon in a number of roles that took him from London to Houston; Libya and Angola to Wyoming. “I was managing director of Marathon in the UK for three years,” he says. “It was a mid-sized operation, fairly active, but very much US-focused.”

His last year with Marathon, before joining TAQA, was spent running the Oil & Gas business in Wyoming – a job that gave invaluable onshore experience. “The business covered the north west of the state and a bit of Colorado, so I had to do a lot of driving,” he recalls. “The fields produced 35,000 to 40,000 barrels a day . . . like our Canadian operation, but smaller. A whole new set of challenges, so I have a huge respect for what TAQA has achieved there.”

The posting also suited his family – wife Isla and children Rose, nine, Theo, six, and Axel, three. “It was a very outdoor lifestyle, camping, skiing, bears – but only from a distance thankfully!” he says.

But moving to his new job has not been a wrench. More like coming home, as Mr Jones is a Scot. He was born in the Highlands, in Inverness, and raised on the west coast in Fort William. After graduating with a Masters degree in Operations Research (Eng.) from the University of Birmingham, he moved back North to do research work for one of the oil industry’s gurus, Professor Alex Kemp, at the University of Aberdeen.

As for the children, they have gone back to the same school they left when Mr Jones stopped being MD, Marathon UK, and became regional vice president, Wyoming.

Getting to know you

Since returning, he has spent a lot of time on the move. “The first thing was to get a sense of the culture and people,” he says. “Getting  round the different business sectors, getting offshore, seeing the people and the condition of the assets. It takes a lot of discipline to make Oil & Gas work, and what I have seen is a very positive and motivated workforce.

“In the Northern North Sea we have a current cessation of production date of 2022, but I am confident that will push out beyond 2025. We have established ourselves as one of the most capable operators in the North Sea, and in the next year to 18 months we are looking to be the leading operator in terms of safety record, costs, drilling,” says Mr Jones.

“If we achieve that, we will have added significant value to TAQA to sustain our operation past 2025. If we achieve that competitive edge, it will allow us to look at other acquisitions in the North Sea.”