SEEKING SUCCESS FAR AFIELD
WITH PROJECTS SPREAD FROM ONE SIDE OF AFRICA TO THE OTHER, FAR LIMITED’S CATH NORMAN IS READY TO DRILL.
IN 2004, WHEN PERTH GEOPHYSICIST Cath Norman made a trip across the country to play professional beach volleyball, she also made an appointment to discuss an idea with some players in Melbourne’s resources sector crowd.
Nearly a decade later, the Africa-focused oil and gas company that evolved out of that meeting, FAR Limited, plans to drill five offshore exploration wells, costing tens of millions of dollars each, on its leases in the next 18 months.
In oil exploration, this is where the rubber hits the road. FAR wants to drill projects in Kenya, on the east coast, where majors are moving in after a slew of gas discoveries in Mozambique and Tanzania, and on the other side of the continent, in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. “We’re at the stage where our projects will be tested with the drill bit over the next year or 18months, so we have loads of bites at the cherry,” managing director Norman, 47, says.
The meeting that started it all was with Nic Limb, now FAR chairman, whomobilised the likes of industry stalwart Rob Annells to hatchNorman’s plan for a nimble company that would useBHP Billiton mineral exploration technology to look for oil and gas.
At the time, Normanwas a consultant inPerth, having returned from London with her husband and new son Thomas after 10 years inBritain, where shehadrun a business using airborne equipment to identify the best places to drill.
In the British job, which she chose at the expense of a regular spot in the Australian indoor volleyball team, her clients were the world’smajor oil companies andherpatch stretchedfromAfrica to the North Sea. This, no doubt, gave BHP Billiton confidence to let her use its technology. “BHP’s new ventures department gave us [a list of] 10 countries. Of the 10, therewere probably three I was prepared to go into, one of which was Kenya.”
FAR’s use ofBHPBilliton’s Falcon airborne gravity gradiometry system – to which access was granted in return for first right of refusal – turned out to be limited. However, use of the resources giant’s reputation was not. In the boom years of 2005- 06, when there were many small oil and gas companies, oil prices were rising and funds easy to obtain, the agreement gave Norman an important edge. “It was fantastic. I could go to governments and say: ‘Look, wemight be this $ 10 million company you’ve never heard of, but we have this big brother and we have its technology. That gave us seats at the table we probably wouldn’t have had.”
At Curtin University in Perth, Norman studied geophysics, which is the science of working out what is underground without digging or drilling, usingmethods such as testing how conductive the ground is for electricity.
She started working with minerals in Bowral, NSW, and, after stints in Houston and Perth, moved to London at the age of 28. At the time she had been in the national volleyball team for seven years, as well as being captain of theWest Australian team.
With a market value of about $65 million, FAR is still a junior, but its staff has grownfromjust the one, Norman, to about a dozen.
Sinapa oil discovery
It’s a risky business, but having five wells in different locations spreads that exposure. The first well to be drilled is in Senegal, which has leapfrogged Kenya as the company’s leading prospect, thanks to aMarch agreement with Britain’s CairnEnergy. Cairn is chaired by founder Bill Gammell, the older brother of media mogul Kerry Stokes’ lieutenant, Peter Gammell.
An $80million well will be drilled at Cairn’s expense early next year and FARwill receive $10 million. FAR believes this well, the first drilled offshore in Senegal for two decades, has a 25 per cent chance of success. Drilling is expected to start in Guinea-Bissau around the middle of next year.
InKenya, the drilling of twowells in different blocks has also been delayed till at least the middle of next year while deals with farm-in partners likeCairnare sought. Still, Normansays, earlier drilling planned by other parties means the delay will benefit FAR. “Some of our shareholdersmight be disappointed we are not drilling early, but all of the threemain [petroleum] plays identified offshore inKenyawill have twowells drilled in them. Wewill have the luxury of sitting back and seeing which works before we drill and I think that’s a fantastic position to be in.”