On 7 November in the year 2013, fifty years after Total initiated oil exploration in the Simpson Desert through its subsidiary French Petroleum Company (Australia), an event was held in Perth to commemorate the February opening of the office of FPC(A) in Currie St Adelaide, inaugurating the work of Total in Australia.   Those attending included Total’s current joint venture partners in huge LNG projects in Queensland as well as members from previous ventures.  I was not able to attend due to ill health, but it set me to thinking about what happened in those early years.   It is important to put down what one was involved in, for the historical record soon fades, and is easily forgotten or distorted by those who were not involved.

Fifty years ago in February 1963, I met with an interviewing committee of a new company, the French Petroleum Company (Australia), for a job as a geophysicist to work in the Oil Exploration Permits in Northern South Australia and the Southwest corner of Queensland.   The permits had been granted after discussions between the Australian Government, Santos and Delhi with Compagnie Francaise de Petrole (CFP), the giant French Oil Company which was and is still known world wide as “Total”.    French Petroleum Company (Australia) (FPC(A)) was the subsidiary set up in Australia with the responsibility of carrying out the exploration, the drilling of any wells and production.    [Similarly, French Petroleum Company (Canada) was set up as the subsidiary of CFP in Canada.    I worked with them in Calgary later for most of 1970]

This is my story.  I bring you 'A brief History of Oil Exploration in the Simpson Desert (1963-1965)'    .....       Rev Professor Dean Drayton - Sydney, Australia - January 2014.



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Oil Exploration in the Simpson

A Brief History (1963-1965)

How French Petroleum Became Involved

CFP had sent to Australia some of its most capable personnel from Northern Africa.   The exploration team of FPC(A) had been instrumental in the discovery in Algeria of the Hassi Messaoud field, an ‘elephant’, one of the twelve or so largest oil fields in the world.   They were using cutting edge methods in reflection and refraction seismic techniques as well in gravity and aeromagnetic interpretation.    And they were hoping that the Simpson Desert Area, as yet unexplored, could be the location of further oil fields.

They had to start almost from scratch.   The aeromagnetic survey had been done previously.   My first task was to find the actual depth of Lake Eyre below sea level.    With a surveying crew working from the North South Railway line, we showed this lowest point on the Australian continent was lower than previously thought, at some 50 ft (16 m).   The second major survey was a helicopter gravity survey over more than 50,000 square miles covering all of the South Australian tenement.    An Australian Company, Wongela Geophysical Pty Ltd, got the contract.   Helicopters landed throughout the whole tenement on a 4 mile grid, including all of Lake Eyre, the Simpson Desert to the Northern Territory Border and huge swathes of country North of Oodnadatta.   The results were sent to France for interpretation.

CGG's Heavy Plant Tackles The Dunes

Meanwhile Jean Laherrere, the Chief Geophysicist, had decided the best way to test the whole area was to conduct a reflection seismic survey from one side to the other of the Simpson Desert (or Munga Thiri as the Wangkangurru people call it).   What an immense task.   The exploration team sought tenders and eventually Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) was awarded the contract.   They had expertise in working in the Sahara Desert that was to be useful in the Simpson with its 1100 sand dunes to be crossed running approx. North South.    The mapping of the strata below the Great Artesian Basin Aquifer favoured the use of reflection seismic with its patterns of small explosions at each of its thousands of shot points, rather than the use of refraction's large explosions that are measured over greater distances.   The reflection technique was a means of listening to the echoes from the lower strata that then enables these strata to be mapped.

I was one of the FPC(A) supervisors of the Seismic Survey undertaken under contract by CGG.   What a great job they did under extreme conditions.    No one then even guessed that this first desert wide seismic line would come to be called “The French Line” in a few decades with thousands of four wheel drive enthusiasts each year making the crossing.    CGG dragged sleeping and eating semi-trailers over the sand dunes from one seismic base camp to another on a track bulldozed in a straight line from West to East.   They followed the tracks of the Recording Truck.   It stopped every 600 metres along that line near a shothole.    There a pattern of individual explosion points had been drilled and loaded by the drillers and their trucks sent out ahead, following the tracks of the surveyors.    A 1200 metre line of special geophones or microphones were laid out along the seismic line over the dunes by another crew for each shot.    The explosion enabled the echoes to be recorded.    The whole process continued again and again shotpoint by shotpoint.    It was hot work in a desert.    The results of hundreds of these listening points were sent to Adelaide for interpretation by FPC(A).

Birdsville's Tribute to the French Line Construction Crew

A group of us from CGG and myself from FPC(A) crossed the desert in 1998 and as a memorial to all those who worked on the line, created a memorial cairn, there with other historical markers, on the edge of the airstrip near to the Birdsville Hotel.   As one who has travelled the French Line many times in the last decade since then I find it amazing that it is so difficult to find signs of this actual seismic survey.    Of course the seismic line was only another stage in the exploration.    Wells were drilled to test what sort of sediments lay beneath the Great Artesian Basin Aquifer.    Further seismic lines were made in a large grid south of the ‘French Line’, and further wells were drilled.

The exploration phase finished at the end of 1965.    The exploration team of FPC(A) moved on to Perth and eventually was transferred to FPC(C) in Canada.   I was given the task of writing up the final geophysical report which the company submitted to the South Australian Mines Dept.   A great enterprise.    But as it turned out the favourable accumulation places for oil and gas were a few hundred kilometres further East in what came to be called the Moomba Gas fields.   I am not sure when, but with the exploration phase over in Australia for CFP, FPC(A) became an historical footnote, in the world wide exploration history of TOTAL.

For a more detailed description of the geophysical exploration see:

Laherrere & Drayton, Some Geophysical Results Across the Simpson Desert. Australian Petroleum Exploration Association Journal, 1965, p48-58.

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