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Coming of Age
On August 1st, 1960, the Miri General Hospital, which had for long been operated by the oil company with financial assistance from the government, was handed over to the government; with it went the Miri Ferry that connects between the peninsular and town - and the hospital -, all the concession land on the Miri Peninsula south of the Miri Golf Course, and all the houses, roads and utility services within that area. Plans were also being made to hand over important sections of the company's oil field roads. Later in the year, the prototype of the Single Buoy Mooring (SBM) built in Holland arrived for experimental use in waters off Lutong.
For those who were mystified, the Managing Director's speech at the official opening of the oil company's head office on 22nd December may have provided a few clues to the company's rationale. Recalling the old pioneering days in Miri, he said, "Did they (the pioneers) realize what the discovery meant in terms of development, administration, politics, economics? In the event they came and came fairly swiftly. Industrial development was something new in Sarawak. The oil company of those days had perforce to set up, man and operate a world of its own; it was almost a state within a state. But not even in those, now rather remote days, did the company want to be in that position."
It was by such gently worded implications that the Managing Director, Mr. Linton sought to re-define what he called "the part of a modern industrialist in a developing state such as Sarawak", but the message was clear: after fifty years of direct involvement in the growth of Miri from a tiny fishing village into an oil town (creating Lutong in the process), the company was concerned to remind both public and employees alike that its rightful place was alongside all the other industrialists in the country. It was, of course, an inevitable process and would probably have developed faster if it had not been for the war and its aftermath rebuilding. As things were, it was only in the previous year that the oil company vehicles were re-registered, from C for company to M for Miri, thus obviating an old institution arising out of an agreement between the oil company and the government regarding the use and maintenance of some roads built by the company in Miri. And - strange to think how recent it was - the company had only in that year, 1960, come to an agreement with the government that its buildings in Miri should be liable to rates, thus enabling employees and others living in those houses to vote in District Council elections. The more perspicacious may have seen the signs as early as 1957 when the policy began of releasing areas of its land reserve no longer required for operations, but now the writing was clearly on the wall for all to see. As one wag put it, the oil company from now on was going to mind its own business. And that business, as the exploration efforts of the preceding year had shown, was going to take place more and more at sea. Proof of this was the arrival of the Orient Explorer, the first mobile drilling rig to enter Sarawak waters.
If 1960s was a turning point in the history of the oil company, then it must have seemed to many to be a distinct downturn. The following year a new panel room was installed at the Lutong Refinery but its beautifully modern meters recorded no increase of Miri crude. On land, wells continued to be either rehabilitated or abandoned, which was not so easy an operation as it sounds for some of the old wells, especially those on Miri hills, were difficult to get at. Cement, water, cutting equipment, everything had to be practically man-handled up and down the rather steep slopes and no doubt an engineer or worker paused in mid-push to take off his hat, not just to wipe sweat off his brow but more in tribute to those who had first drilled the wells and got them going in the days of few facilities and much jungle.
At sea, the Orient Explorer explored - off Baram Point in the north and off Bintulu in the south - and found no oil. The only activity that showed any sign of promise were the experiments with the SBM, and even here initial problems had to be ironed out and modifications made before this revolutionary idea in berthing and loading tankers could be put to full practical use at Lutong.
It was not until September 1962, that the first bit of good news was received from the Orient Explorer: Temana was found to be not merely the favorite hunting ground of sharks (one driller claimed he sighted as many as 150 of this piscean species in one day.), but actually concealed some precious hydrocarbons in its dark and secret depths. But after two and a half decades of disappointment, no one was prepared to make promises only the usual cautious remarks about more wells drilled in the area proved less than hopeful, and soon the excitement of later events chased Temana out of most people's minds.
Ten years later, on 1st October 1972, the inevitable happened. The Miri Field was closed in. Production of the Miri field had never, of course, returned to pre-war levels. It had been obvious from the sharp drop in the figures between 1929 and 1935, from the five and a half to two million barrels, that the reservoirs were running down. In the post-war years only once, in 1964, did production pass the 500,000 marl. At the beginning of 1972, only 90 wells of the 623 drilled during the history of the field were still pumping. Production had fallen to 450 barrels per day, and was dropping rapidly. After 62 years of production, the oil reserves in Miri field were exhausted and Sarawak Shell had no alternative but to close it in. In the last month of operation, one of the wells still creaking slowly up and down was the same well that began the saga of Miri Well No.1. At the close, 'The Grand Old Lady' was still managing to produce 3 barrels of oil a day when finally stopped.