Australia's Oil & Gas History
Geological Survey of Rough Range, 1948. Left to right: Murray Johnstone (BMR), Jack Sofoulis (GSWA), Brian Glenister (BMR), field assistant and Eric Craig (Signal Oil and Gas).
Murray Johnstone catches oil samples from the flowline of Rough Range-1A, May 1955. (West Australian Newspaper)
WAPET and BMR field party, Byro Plains, Carnarvon Basin, 1954.
Rough Range, Exciting Times For Australia
PESA Distinguished Member (1980) and WA Past President (1977-1978) Murray Howard Johnstone says there is no doubting the huge impact the Rough Range discovery made upon WA industry.
"Up to that point in WA, the main mineral wealth came from gold in the Kalgoorlie and Norseman areas. The early goldfields at Halls Creek and Meekatharra had already petered out", Johnstone said.
"BHP was mining iron ore on Kulin Island offshore from Derby but that was a self-contained operation and the products never reached the mainland, so the effect of this on the state was negligible.
"So the finding of oil really started the industrialisation of WA, dragging it away from the wheat and wool economy. It was a hell of an important period a major point in our state's development. It was followed in the 1960s by discovery and development of the iron ore deposits in the Pilbara and the nickel discoveries at Kambalda.
"Up to 1950, the WA countryside had not really progressed beyond the mid 1930s. The road from Perth to Geraldton was not sealed for about a quarter of its length, and roads north of Geraldton were mainly sand tracks. The first large bulldozers that I saw were those imported by WAPET to upgrade the roads around the Rough Range area. With the need to transport drilling rigs on huge trucks with heavy axle loads, the Department of Main Roads speeded up the construction of major country roads and the strengthening of bridges, particularly along the northwest coastal highway."
Johnstone first went up to Rough Range in November 1948, five years before the discovery. "I was a geology cadet with the Commonwealth Bureau of Mineral Resources (BMR) and another guy and I went up to help to map the Rough Range structure, which had not been actually mapped", he said.
"Ampol, who held the leases at that stage, brought out an experienced American geologist named Eric Craig from the Signal Oil and Gas Company of California to undertake the mapping. They were trying to get some oil companies interested in putting money into their leases.
"So the first step was to map the Rough Range structure, which we did in 1948 and 1949."
Johnstone said there was a gap in activity before work on Rough Range began in earnest.
"Australia had no flowing oil and the perception was that there wasn't any oil in Australia, and it was an uphill struggle to get any oil exploration going. But William Walkley, the boss of Ampol, had a vision for Australia and he took up huge leases covering all of the Perth Basin, the Carnarvon Basin, the Canning Basin and the Bonaparte Gulf Basin. He had a huge area and he was trying to interest people in it.
"And the first thing they looked at was the Rough Range area because it's close to the sea, and it looked at bit like Saudi Arabia being semi-desert, with simple anticlinal structures. The BMR repeated the mapping of the Cape Range and the Giralia Range to the south east of Rough Range in the following years as a part of their post war evaluation of the geology and mineral resources of Australia. I was part of the BMR field party that mapped the Carnarvon Basin.
"Then, in 1950, Caltex became interested. In the latter part of 1950, four people were sent out to look at the leases in WA, two of them from Texaco and two of them from Standard Oil California, which is now called Chevron. Of course, the only people who knew the regional geology were members of the BMR field geology parties, because the BMR were keen to encourage mineral activity, both in oil and metallic minerals in Australia.
"John Rattigan showed these four men around the Kimberleys. I got the job of showing them around the Carnarvon Basin and I took them to Rough Range, Cape Range and Giralia Range and then down into the south east into the Kennedy Range area to have a look at some of the Permian black shales down there which were thought to be favourable source rocks. Three of them wrote a very positive report on the prospects of the area, and one of them wrote a negative report
"As a result of that, Caltex finally, after lots of negotiation, went into partnership with Ampol and formed WAPET in March 1952. At that time, I was still working with the BMR and when Rough Range started to drill, WAPET realised that although they had a trained American well-site geologist there, they didn't have a geologist on hand who knew the rocks that they were going to penetrate.
"So the Commonwealth Government sent two people to Rough Range. First, for the upper part of the hole a guy named Dennis Belford came over from Canberra. He was an expert on foraminifera (minute calcareous shelled animals) and so he was able to tell the company what rocks they were drilling through until they got down to about the oil level.
"Then the rocks started to change and, since I was familiar with the older rocks in the Carnarvon Basin, I was sent up to the well from Perth it was actually just after they'd drilled into the oil but I was certainly up there when the official announcement of the oil discovery was made.
"These were exciting days, actually.
"The camp was on the drill site at Rough Range. It consisted of a series of corrugated asbestos huts with lots of glass louvres to let the breezes through in the hot summer weather - no air conditioning in those days. The camp housed the drill crew and some of the key drilling personnel who had to be on the site at all times.
"Those of us that were not so essential to the hour-by-hour operations were in a base camp that was at the Learmonth airfield, which is about 30 km away to the north on the shore of Exmouth Gulf.
"The buildings there were built by Qantas Airways during the second world war to house passengers because Qantas operated the airways route to England during the war. They used Catalina flying boats, which came ashore at Learmonth for an overnight stopover. The planes were very slow and it took several days for the trip from Perth to Europe, so overnight stops were essential.
"Qantas built special asbestos roofed buildings, again with plenty of through ventilation, but they were tied down with steel ropes to prevent them blowing away in cyclones. So when there was a cyclone that went through the area in early '52 or '53, it blew away the air force camp which was on the coastal sand dunes near Exmouth Gulf, but the Qantas terminal on the airstrip survived because it was all tied down.
"These buildings formed the basis of the WAPET base camp. We were housed there and WAPET built a lot of new buildings. The main warehouse facilities, the main canteen and a whole lot of extra sleeping accommodation was built. It was quite a big camp and we had to drive back and forth to the wellsite on a dirt road. I don't know if you've seen the film 'Japanese Story', but the road was a bit like where they got bogged in that film.
"It's all sealed roads nowadays, though. In those days, it was dirt roads and a lot of them were actually put in by WAPET. With their heavy earthmoving equipment, they were able to lay down a base of small stones with a sand and clay top to form a reasonable sort of surface to move heavy things around, they had a lot of heavy Mack trucks.
"The Australian roads were not built for trucks with heavy axle loads. They were shocking roads, some of them were just potholed limestone, and you just bounced from one hole to the next. And you didn't go very fast; you went about 10 km/hr or so to prevent the springs from breaking."
Johnstone said that at that stage, WAPET didn't have much in the way of personnel vehicles.
"They had them on order but things took a long while to get out from the States and I had a Land Rover belonging to the Commonwealth Government so I was the 'government taxi', actually, and ferried people about.
"I had to go to the well each day and would bring a group of people down in the Land Rover, stay all day at the well site, sometimes into the night too if something was happening like a core coming out or a test. And then I'd drive people back to Learmonth to sleep."
Johnstone said the people that were at the well site were a great bunch.
"The Americans were a really mixed bunch. Some of them were Native American guys who were a nice lot of guys. They were really funny and had interesting stories, which improved our knowledge of the people and places in the United States.
"We had some guys from way down south and it was actually difficult to hear what they were saying, their accents were so thick. That has passed now pretty well in America because all the accents have become more homogenised, or we have become more used to them.
"There was one guy they called Cajun, he came from Tennessee actually, not Louisiana, but he never used to wear his false teeth so he was a bit gummy all the time (laughs) and he was a real character. I'd talk to him quite a lot. He was one of the drillers and, as a geologist, you had to talk to the drillers all the time to find out what the heck was really going on, because they were the ones that knew how the drill bit was behaving.
"One time, an American geologist came up from the Perth office just to see what the well site operation was like, and I got talking to old Cajun for about quarter of an hour. He went away and the American guy said, "Now tell me, what was that conversation all about?" (laughs). It was a pretty heavy accent and no teeth!
"The contract drilling company was called the Brown Drilling Company. The head guy was Al Dysart. He had the knack of keeping everybody calm and was able to smooth over any troubles that occurred, he was a real diplomat and a hell of a nice guy too.
"They had what they called the tool pusher; the guy who actually runs all the operations of the rig, his name was Jack Rice. Another very nice guy, bit nervous and he had a bit of a stutter.
the drillers were all from the US, then they gradually realised the Australians
were equal in abilities. In later years, Australian drillers took over."
" because in Australia in those days, there were plenty of cows so you got plenty of steak, but for some reason or other, chickens were in short supply so a roast chook was really a luxury", he said.
"But of course in America, at that stage, chickens were as common as they are now in Australia, a dime a dozen, and steak was the thing that they really liked. So they tried to balance the food out between the two cultures: we ended up with a lot more chicken than we were used to and a little less steak, and the Americans got lots of steak and a little less chicken.
"We learnt a lot about American cuisine. It was fairly southern. Texas scrambled eggs means you chuck the raw eggs into the frying pan, then you stir them up with a fork so you end up with stringy bits of white and yolk mixed in all together. Then you slap that on your slice of toast and that's it, with lashings of bacon, of course.
"One of the cooks was Danish and he'd been cooking in America for years. He was an absolute character. Peter Petersen was his name. (Laughs). He'd always come around and top up your coffee or tea, he was known as 'Toppy-uppy Pete'. One of the things he taught us was iced tea very refreshing in the hot weather."
According to Johnstone, the official ceremonies for the spudding of the wells were equally well catered.
"The local Church of England clergyman was there and we had the Bishop of the North West for one of the spuddings. One of them said that he was unsure which ceremony to use because it was the start of an operation, so a christening might be appropriate, but on the other hand, the drill bit was about to enter the earth, so perhaps a burial service would be better!
"WAPET always put on a huge feast whenever the dignitaries turned up for a spudding. They had refrigeration for the mess so you could always get lots of salads and of course the beer flowed freely.
"Normally, the ration was two bottles of beer per man per day. 1.25 litre bottles. I might struggle through one bottle so I'd have a spare one and say to someone 'you take my second bottle'.
"There was one guy there, a bulldozer driver, and some nights he'd get through about 15 bottles of beer. But he'd be up at 7:30 in the morning on his bulldozer roaring away doing his job. It was fantastic! He never seemed to have a hangover or anything. He did his job and there was never any problem, nobody took any notice, officially."
Johnstone said his career in the oil industry had been very enjoyable, during which time he'd witnessed a major revolution in transport and technology.
"I've always been interested in the oil industry. I was lucky enough to get involved in all sorts of things over the years, well-site geology, seismic and other geophysics, and things like that. And I have seen huge changes in our understanding of geology and the origin of oil, so I consider myself very lucky."
Johnstone was WAPET's Chief Geologist in the 1970s. He then worked for the State Government for a few years and ended up working for Esso in Sydney. Esso moved to Melbourne in 1991, around the time he was due for retirement, making the decision to stay in Sydney an easy one.