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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 11

I The Present Energy Economy

II Australian Energy Consumption

III Research And Development

IV Coal

V Oil And Natural Gas
i Background to discovery
ii Discovery in Bass Strait
iii North West Shelf
iv Onshore
v Innovation and incidents

VI Solar Energy

VII Nuclear Energy

VIII Bagasse Firewood And Other Biomass

IX Electric Power Generation And Distribution electric Power Generation And Distribution

X Manufactured Gas

XI Industrial Process Heat



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Oil And Natural Gas

Background to discovery

This segment differs from others in the Chapter because it is based on the fascinating story of the discovery and development of major oil and gas fields in and around the continent at a time when most Australians had been led to believe that, for petroleum products, they would always be dependent on imports. It began early in 1960 when the then Chief General Manager of BHP, lan McLennan (later Sir lan and Foundation President of the Academy) decided that he needed the best advice available on the prospect of finding oil in the Sydney Basin, in which BHP was interested at the time. He asked John Norgard, one of BHP's senior executives, who was visiting the United States, to find the best consulting geologist in America. Norgard found that Lewis Weeks, one of America's most famous geologists, had recently retired from the position of Chief Geologist of Standard Oil Company (New Jersey), (Esso), and arranged for him to visit Sydney and report on the oil permits held by BHP.

Weeks arrived on 6 March 1960 and examined the area south of Sydney. Before returning to the US he went to Melbourne to report to McLennan on 18 March 1960 and told him of his belief that no commercial petroleum was likely to be found in NSW but that he knew of an area far more prospective for oil than any other place in or near Australia and that it was accessible to 90 per cent of the markets.

McLennan appeared very interested, but first asked how much it would cost for surveys to support the hunch, without actually drilling. Weeks estimated $US700,000 for magnetometer surveys and, if these looked promising, about $US2.8 million for seismic surveys. These estimates turned out to be too high, but seemed enormous amounts for BHP, whose net profit for 1959-60 was 9.4 million pounds. Nevertheless, McLennan appeared satisfied and asked, 'What is your fee for giving this advice?' Weeks asked for a royalty of 2.5 per cent which was agreed to.

McLennan then said, 'Lewis, can you trust me to do a fair thing?'. Weeks replied, 'Yes, I will rely on you.' McLennan then asked where the oil was. 'Come to your window,' Weeks said, and walked to his Bourke Street window looking out towards Port Phillip Bay. 'It lies out there in Bass Strait and most particularly off the Gippsland Coast'. 'Lewis,' asked McLennan, 'have you ever seen Bass Strait? It's some of the roughest water in the world.' Weeks replied that there was no worry -it was 'purely an engineering problem'.

Technology was advancing at such a rapid rate that Weeks knew that by the time oil was found there would be ways and means of producing it. He sketched out the area he had in mind on a map for McLennan and flew home the next day. McLennan took the map to the weekly Board meeting that was under way that day and after discussing the likely costs, the Board quickly made the fateful decision to support him.

So began a project which was to lead Australia's largest company to become associated with oil giant Esso, which was the world's largest industrial enterprise with a petroleum R&D organisation employing 4000 engineers and scientists. Co-ordination of a highly skilled work-force supported by a combination of massive financial and engineering resources and state of the art technology would within ten years provide Australia with 60 per cent of its annual needs of oil.

Week's confidence in engineers was flattering but McLennan was a mining engineer and had a good idea of the sort of problems that lay ahead, but he knew he had people in his own organisation who were both innovative and accustomed to drawing on the world's latest technology when it was needed. Later, however, he confessed that the decision to go ahead at that time was 'a bit courageous'.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Esso

People in Bright Sparcs - McLennan, Sir Ian; Norgard, John; Weeks, Lewis

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 798 - 799, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher