Battling the elements: In the flat, desert-like oil fields of Kazakhstan, amid scorching temperatures and windswept plains, Volvo wheel loaders are conquering harsh conditions on an oil rig.

Once a vast and barren home for nomadic tribes, Kazakhstan is now a developing Central Asian power, fuelled by the hydrocarbon industry. Boasting a landmass larger than Western Europe, it is the ninth biggest nation in the world. With a rapidly expanding oil and gas network, it is already lined-up with Russia and other central Asian republics looking to export to China and Western Europe.

Astra Star Limited Liability Partnership is a Kazak company which started two years ago and specializes in oil well drilling in western Kazakhstan. President and CEO of the company, Marcel Lensvelt, worked for 20 years for Shell in the Middle East, South America, Canada and Nigeria but he admits that the Kazak terrain - the Buzachi Peninsula of Mangistau - is as tough as it gets.

"It's like a desert, absolutely flat, with no trees or towns, just a few small settlements," he says. "There's snow and ice in winter and dust storms in summer. Temperatures range between +50°C (122°F) to -40°C (-40°F). We're below sea level and the whole steppe plain is whipped by winds 365 days a year."

Around 70 percent of drilling in the region is shallower than 1,400m (4,593ft) so the company uses compact, mobile rigs that can drill several wells in a row - called pattern drilling - and then quickly move on to the next site. But as Lensvelt explains, operations haven't been that simple. "We ordered four rigs from Canada, but the last one got delayed - first by Hurricane Gustav, then by Hurricane Ike, then the Volga froze over causing more delays and then finally the credit crisis happened."

Despite these setbacks, Astra Star has still managed to outpace the competition. "When we started there were 45 companies offering drilling and repair services," says Lensvelt. "But today, there's less than a dozen. We drill quicker and faster than our rivals. Why? Because we buy the best equipment!"

Each Astra rig requires a wheel loader to move chemicals, pallets, equipment, earth, sand and snow, which is where the Volvo L90F, with its Tier 3/Stage IIIA approved D6E engine, comes in. "The Volvo wheel loaders operate 24 hours a day, in horrendous conditions." says Lensvelt. "In this environment it's performance that counts - and Volvo has delivered in terms of both reliability and performance."

The Volvo L90F has many features for operator comfort such as Care Cab, Automatic Heat Control and hydraulic quick coupler. "Let's face it, you have to be comfortable to operate efficiently in those conditions," says Lensvelt. The operator also has improved cab visibility and can work with different attachments.

Ugur Basturk, Volvo Construction Equipment's Area Sales Manager, Central Asia and Caucasus, provided the machines and lifting attachments for Astra Star. "For us, the key was to provide top class back-up and servicing," he says. "Our dealer is based in the east of the country, in Almaty, but they established a branch and spare parts warehouse in Aktau, so they can easily access any of Astra Star's job sites. But to be honest, the machines haven't had any problems so far, so our support hasn't really been tested."

Despite the credit crisis, Astra Star's drills have been continually busy and the company already has its eye on another L90F when their final rig arrives.

"We believe that the region will soon be booming again," says Basturk, who has been with Volvo for 14 years. "Kazakhstan has a lot of potential, especially around the Caspian Sea. There are lots of oil and natural gas projects, lots of copper and gold mines, and the government is planning to build a new city in the area. Astra Star is an important customer and it's demonstrating to other businesses exactly what Volvo can do."

Kazakhstan gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 and moved its capital from Almaty to Astana six years later. Astana has since become one of the world's biggest building projects as government buildings, a presidential palace, an imposing mosque and parks and monuments have sprung up across the city. Its population has doubled to around 750,000 since 1997.


April, 2010

Note: This story is also published in Volvo Construction Equipment's external company magazine, Spirit, issue 33.

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