Balikpapan – The Most Interesting Oil Town of Indonesia

City of Balikpapan - Photo by Uut Minhudan
The city of Balikpapan – Photo courtesy of Uut Minhudan

Balikpapan, located in East Kalimantan, is the most well known and interesting oil town in Indonesia, and possibly in the world. It is at the center of oil and gas exploration and production activities that have been taking place in East Kalimantan since 1897 when the first oil well was drilled in Balikpapan. It is also the battleground of two fierce battles during World War II. It is set to become even more well known with the announcement of the relocation of the capital city of Indonesia from Jakarta to East Kalimantan.

Here are the interesting facts about Balikpapan.

The first oil discovery in Balikpapan

Oil was discovered in Balikpapan in 1897 when Jacobus Hubertus Menten, a Dutch mining engineer observed oil seepages in the area. With the help from Sir Marcus Samuel from Shell Transport and Trading Ltd, they drilled the famous Well Mathilda B-1 on 10 February 1897. The well was drilled to 222 Meter and it flowed initially at 184 barrels per day. This oil discovery in Balikpapan took place 38 years after Sir Edwin Drake drilled the world’s first oil well in America.

With the discovery, Jacobus Hubertus Menten and Sir Marcus Samuel formed Nederlandsch Indisch Industrie en Handel Maatschappij (NIIHM), and it continued to discover other oil fields away from Balikpapan. 10 February 1897 is considered the birth date of Balikpapan.

The Balikpapan Refinery

To process the crude oil from the surrounding area and to meet the needs for fuel, the oil refinery of Balikpapan was completed in 1922 by BPM (Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij) which was a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell. The Balikpapan refinery was damaged in 1942 when the Japanese army invaded Balikpapan. The refinery was controlled by the Japanese army in 1942-1945. BPM regained control of the refinery after the Allied forces ended the Japanese occupation of Balikpapan in 1945.

Several years later, Pertamina gained control of the refinery in 1949. The refinery has been expanded and upgraded several times to meet the increasing demand for fuel in the eastern part of Indonesia.

As one of the largest refineries in Indonesia, it is set to become even bigger. It is currently undergoing a large 4-billion-dollar expansion which will increase its processing capacity from 260,000 barrels per day to 360,000 barrels per day when it is completed in 2021. The refinery will have the capability to produce high-quality Euro V standard fuels.

The Discovery of Giant Oil and Gas Fields

Balikpapan experienced its biggest boom when several large international oil companies came to town after the production sharing contract scheme was introduced by Indonesia in 1966.

Balikpapan was the base of Union Oil of California (Unocal), Total and Roy M. Huffington Incorporated (Huffco) during their exploration and production operations in East Kalimantan where they discovered several giant oil and gas fields.

Pertamina has a huge presence in Balikpapan since 1949 when it took over the oilfields and the refinery which were previously operated by BPM (Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij), a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell.

Operated from Balikpapan, Unocal in partnership with Japex discovered the giant offshore oil field of Attaka in 1970. It also discovered the offshore Sepinggan field and the Yakin field both of which are clearly visible from the hills at Balikpapan. In 1996, Unocal discovered and developed the West Seno field which is the first deepwater oil field in Indonesia.

Total with its partner, Inpex, acquired the Mahakam Block in 1966. They discovered several giant offshore oil and gas fields: Handil, Peciko, Tambora, Bekapai, South Mahakam, Sisi-Nubi, and Tunu.

Huffco discovered the giant onshore Badak gas field in 1970 in East Kalimantan. The discovery of the giant Badak gas field had a huge influence on the course of oil and gas development in East Kalimantan. It prompted Huffco and Pertamina of Indonesia to build an LNG plant making it possible to export the gas.

Besides the Badak field, Huffco subsequently discovered the Nilam, Pamaguan, Semberah, Mutiara, Beras, and Lempake fields.

Huffco later became known as VICO Indonesia (Virginia Indonesia Company) in 1990 after Mr. Roy M. Huffinton sold the company.

After the introduction of the production sharing contract scheme  (PSC) in 1966, and with the discovery of several giant oil and fields in East Kalimantan and in other parts of Indonesia, crude oil production in Indonesia increased from 500,000 BOPD to 1,650,000 BOPD at its peak in 1977.

The Badak LNG Plant in Bontang

The LNG plant known as the Badak LNG was completed in 1977. Located in Bontang, besides processing the gas produced by Huffco from the Badak field, the Badak LNG plant also processes gas produced from the fields operated by Unocal and Total located in East Kalimantan. Up until the completion of the LNG plant, most of the associated gas produced by Unocal and Total were flared.

The Badak LNG plant initially comprised of two trains. Over the years, with new field discoveries, six additional trains were constructed. With 22.5 million tons per year LNG production capacity, it is one of the largest LNG plants in the world.

As of 16 September 2019, Badak LNG has delivered 9445 LNG cargoes to countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Korea, China, USA, Russia, and India. 

The Fierce Battlefield during World War II

Being rich in oil and having a refinery, Balikpapan was so vital that it became a battlefield twice during World War II.

The battle of Balikpapan in 1942

During World War II, in order to control the supply of fuel, Japan invaded Balikpapan in 1942. The Dutch garrison resisted the invasion but eventually was defeated by the much bigger Japanese forces. The refinery was partially destroyed during the invasion. Japanese forces took control of Balikpapan, oil production and the refinery from 1942 to 1945.

The Battle of Balikpapan in 1945

To regain control of Balikpapan and the oil supply, the Allied forces directed by General Douglas McArthur and spearheaded by the Australian 7th Division invaded Balikpapan on 25 June 1945. After 3 weeks of fierce fighting and heavy bombing, the Japanese soldiers in Balikpapan finally surrendered on 21 July 1945. Many Japanese soldiers fought to the end in the battle. There is a Japanese cemetery hidden among the hills in Balikpapan.

The Coal Boom of Balikpapan in the 1990s

Balikpapan experienced another economic boom when it became the center of the booming coal production in East Kalimantan beginning in the 1990s.

The Balikpapan Coal Terminal completed in 1995 is one of the biggest coal terminals in Indonesia. It has a throughput capacity of 15 million tons of coal annually.

Will Balikpapan continue to boom?

Since the discovery of the first oil well in Balikpapan in 1897, Balikpapan has seen several booms in the last 120 years. It has grown from a small fishing village to become a city with a population of 850,000 today.

On 26 August 2019, the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, announced that Indonesia will relocate its capital city from Jakarta to East Kalimantan. As the main gateway to East Kalimantan, Balikpapan will be the center of activities during the construction of a new capital of Indonesia. So, Balikpapan will likely continue to boom.

Finally, Balikpapan indeed is a very interesting town. As an oil and coal mining town, it has been voted several times as the most liveable city in Indonesia.  Thousands of oil people from around the world have worked and lived here. Many children of international expatriates and Indonesian oil professionals from Java, Sumatera and other parts of Indonesia grew up in Balikpapan. Most of them have fond memories of Balikpapan.

Many sons and daughters of the first-generation Indonesia oil professionals follow the footsteps of their parents to work for oil companies in Balikpapan. There is a saying in Balikpapan whoever has drunk the water of Balikpapan will surely return. The writer of this article lived and worked for Unocal in Balikpapan from 1976 to 1980, and he has returned to visit this interesting place many times.

This article was written by Jamin Djuang, a published author of “The Story of Oil and Gas: How Oil and Gas Are Explored, Drilled and Produced” for readers who have not seen an oil field.

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