The Rise of the Swiss Mafia

When one of us joined Royal Dutch Shell in 1980, seven out of 27 young professionals in the basic training course were Swiss, or at least had studied in Switzerland – a remarkable number of students from a tiny country that does not produce oil or gas (with the exception of an occasional puff of gas in the Finsterwald “field”).

Significant numbers of managers and senior technical specialists at that time were also Swiss.

The term “Swiss mafia” was coined by our Dutch colleagues, and it wasn’t meant in a complimentary sense.

Why the Swiss?

The reasons for the initial employment of Swiss geologists in the early years of the 20th century were threefold:

  • Having the Alps in their backyard, Swiss geologists enjoyed a particularly good training ground for geology, including structural geology, stratigraphy in complex tectonic contexts and “sedimentology” (yet to be defined then), under splendid outcrop conditions.
  • Because Switzerland was a neutral country, and in addition not one perceived as burdened by a colonial past, Swiss geologists could travel relatively easily into the world at difficult times during World War I, between both wars and during World War II.
  • Easily forgotten today now that Switzerland is a “rich” country, Switzerland was in the early years of the 20th century, a very poor emigration country, and the opportunity to gain a good salary by working “in the oil” was eagerly grasped by a great number of Swiss geologists.

Today, the situation has changed. There is still a trickle of young Swiss geologists and engineers joining the petroleum industry, but their numbers are much more in proportion to the size of the country. This also reflects the fact that jobs in geology in Switzerland are easier to find and well remunerated.

In 2013, Monika Gisler published the book, “Swiss Gang – Pioniere der Erdölexploration,“ issued (in German) as part of the series “Schweizer Pioniere der Wirtschaft und Technik.” The book gives an overview of the origins of what was later to become the “Swiss mafia.” The present article is mostly extracted from this book.

Warda Bleser-Bircher

Petroleum geology was in the early days a job for men. Rare were the women who ventured into this domain; rarer still were those who took upon themselves the then arduous task to travel to remote and difficult countries.

In that context, it is remarkable that a Swiss geologist was one of the first (if not the first) women geologists to work in the petroleum industry. Warda Bleser-Bircher (1905-2006) studied geology in Zurich and, jointly with her later spouse Paul Bleser, looked for work in difficult times after graduation in 1935. In 1937, she worked in Turkey as a paleontologist while her husband moved to Colombia with a contract for Shell. In 1941, she found employment with Shell Egypt (in her parents’ country of residence), before moving to Tehran in 1941 as an employee of the National Department of Mines, eight years before the Iranian government called in a Swiss group of geologists to systematically review those parts of the country not operated by the Anglo-Iranian (BP) group.

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When one of us joined Royal Dutch Shell in 1980, seven out of 27 young professionals in the basic training course were Swiss, or at least had studied in Switzerland – a remarkable number of students from a tiny country that does not produce oil or gas (with the exception of an occasional puff of gas in the Finsterwald “field”).

Significant numbers of managers and senior technical specialists at that time were also Swiss.

The term “Swiss mafia” was coined by our Dutch colleagues, and it wasn’t meant in a complimentary sense.

Why the Swiss?

The reasons for the initial employment of Swiss geologists in the early years of the 20th century were threefold:

  • Having the Alps in their backyard, Swiss geologists enjoyed a particularly good training ground for geology, including structural geology, stratigraphy in complex tectonic contexts and “sedimentology” (yet to be defined then), under splendid outcrop conditions.
  • Because Switzerland was a neutral country, and in addition not one perceived as burdened by a colonial past, Swiss geologists could travel relatively easily into the world at difficult times during World War I, between both wars and during World War II.
  • Easily forgotten today now that Switzerland is a “rich” country, Switzerland was in the early years of the 20th century, a very poor emigration country, and the opportunity to gain a good salary by working “in the oil” was eagerly grasped by a great number of Swiss geologists.

Today, the situation has changed. There is still a trickle of young Swiss geologists and engineers joining the petroleum industry, but their numbers are much more in proportion to the size of the country. This also reflects the fact that jobs in geology in Switzerland are easier to find and well remunerated.

In 2013, Monika Gisler published the book, “Swiss Gang – Pioniere der Erdölexploration,“ issued (in German) as part of the series “Schweizer Pioniere der Wirtschaft und Technik.” The book gives an overview of the origins of what was later to become the “Swiss mafia.” The present article is mostly extracted from this book.

Warda Bleser-Bircher

Petroleum geology was in the early days a job for men. Rare were the women who ventured into this domain; rarer still were those who took upon themselves the then arduous task to travel to remote and difficult countries.

In that context, it is remarkable that a Swiss geologist was one of the first (if not the first) women geologists to work in the petroleum industry. Warda Bleser-Bircher (1905-2006) studied geology in Zurich and, jointly with her later spouse Paul Bleser, looked for work in difficult times after graduation in 1935. In 1937, she worked in Turkey as a paleontologist while her husband moved to Colombia with a contract for Shell. In 1941, she found employment with Shell Egypt (in her parents’ country of residence), before moving to Tehran in 1941 as an employee of the National Department of Mines, eight years before the Iranian government called in a Swiss group of geologists to systematically review those parts of the country not operated by the Anglo-Iranian (BP) group.

Josef Theodor Erb

The first geologists out of Switzerland left mostly for Indonesia, where Royal Dutch and its precursor companies had found huge reserves. Perhaps the most famous among them was Josef Theodor Erb (1874-1934), who, jointly with Englishman Charles Hose, is credited with the discovery of the Miri field in Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo).

Erb worked for the Royal Dutch company and traveled to Sumatra (Palembang), which was the center of Indonesian oil activities at the time, in the year 1900. There, where oil had been discovered as early as 1885, he met with several other Swiss geologists (among them Arnold Heim, son of the legendary guru of alpine geology Albert Heim) and applied new drilling methods, not only concentrating on seeps but also on the structural geology where these seeps were found (Miri was actually one of the first structures to be drilled solely based on geology, not on seeps). Erb was, during his successful years in Indonesia and Malaysia, one of the first Swiss to systematically recruit other Swiss geologists for work in Indonesia – perhaps the original “Godfather” of what was later to become the “Swiss mafia.”

Erb remained in Europe for a few years upon returning, working on Romanian fields and beginning a successful managerial career with Royal Dutch.

Max Mühlberg

Max Mühlberg (1873-1947) is another important name linked to oil exploration in the Far East. He was one of the first geologists to systematically use geophysical tools in oil exploration. Gravity and magnetic, as well as logging of wells, were not yet systematically used. But, as Erb had already done, Mühlberg also used reflection seismic long before this became standard practice for oil exploration. One has to remember that at that time, the use of dowsing rods was considered acceptable practice in the search for oil deposits.

Swiss geologists also left their marks in Latin America, specifically and initially in Argentina and Mexico. The previously mentioned Arnold Heim (acting more as a scientist there than as an oil man), and Mühlberg passed through.

Daniel Truempy

Daniel Truempy (1893-1971) was also there, and after a stint in Argentina moved to Mexico, where he was highly successful, namely in the 1932 discovery of the Poza Rica field.

Also in the Chicontepec area discoveries were made. At that time however, they were not considered to be of significant interest. But it was later, in Colombia, where Truempy had his most significant successes in South America. The discovery and subsequent development of the Casabe field, under difficult topographic conditions in the Middle Magdalena Valley, laid the base of Royal Dutch’s successful exploration and production efforts in Colombia.

Held back in Colombia by the outbreak of World War II, Truempy was able to contribute significantly to the general geological understanding of this country. His publication on the Palaeozoic sediments and stratigraphy of Colombia remains still in use today.

Hans Gottfried Kugler

Venezuela and the Caribbean Island of Trinidad also were active hydrocarbon development areas since the early years of the 20th century. The name of one Swiss geologist is intrinsically linked to the petroleum geology of Trinidad, offset from Venezuela’s Oriente Basin by the Gulf of Paria. As a student, Hans Gottfried Kugler (1893-1986) met with the petroleum geologist August Tobler, who was contracted by Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd. to carry out investigations in Trinidad. Tobler was one of the first geologists to realize the value of micropaleontology for age-dating in the oil industry.

Immediately after graduating in 1921, Kugler returned to Trinidad, eventually working as chief geologist for both Trinidad and Venezuela with Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd. His initial tasks were the systematic topographic and geologic mapping of the central ranges of Trinidad, a series of low-lying hills separating the prolific southern basin from the far less productive northern basin. At the time, these hills were still covered by dense tropical vegetation and fieldwork consisted in systematically following and mapping creeks, which in the dry season provided the only outcrop successions, and in digging stratigraphic control holes between the existing sections. This detailed work led eventually to the discovery of several oil fields in the southern basin, such as the Apex and the Palo Seco fields around 1926.

Kugler’s work also was fundamental in mapping out stratigraphic traps on the flanks of the Forest Reserve field (originally discovered 1914), at a time when stratigraphic traps were nearly unheard of. His work resulted in issuing the first geological map of Trinidad and its sister island Tobago.

In Venezuela, his mapping and micro-paleontological efforts were fundamental for the discovery of the Cumarebo field.

In 1929, Kugler took up residence in Pointe-a-Pierre near San Fernando in Trinidad, where Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd. had built the country’s refinery, later expanded by Texaco and today operated by the state oil company Petrotrin. In 1933, he established the paleontological laboratory there, which was soon to become a global hotspot for foraminiferal paleontology, and where many of the leading micropalaeontologists of the world spent many years establishing the zonations for the Late Cretaceous-Paleocene to Middle Miocene stratigraphy. Swiss, American and British stratigraphers passed through this institution, which also served as training ground for Trinidadian geologists who now play key roles in Petrotrin or in other oil companies in Trinidad.

Hans Hirschi

Swiss geologists also were active in the United States. In 1911, the “Union des Pétroles d’ Oklahoma” contracted Swiss geologist Hans Hirschi (1876-1964) as chief geologist for their licenses in Oklahoma, where so far little or no exploration had been carried out.

Hirschi came with significant experience from fieldwork with Erb in Sumatra and Borneo. His main task was to evaluate reports sent to him by field parties. As his collaborator and later successor, Swiss geologist Eduard Blösch (1884-1980) comments, this was a complex task, since Blösch had to send his reports to Switzerland where Hirschi resided eight months per year, who sent the reports with his comments to the general management, who sent instruction and orders to the local management.

Blösch was highly successful in his search for oil in Oklahoma. However, his relations with management were not always smooth. In 1913, he mapped the anticlines of what was to become the Cushing field, where wildcatter Thomas Baker Slick Sr. had made a successful discovery the previous year. Excited by his work, he presented it directly to management, only to be told that the company was not ready to spend $80-100 per acre solely on the advice of a single geologist. (It’s worth noting that in May 1917, the Cushing field produced 310,000 BOPD, two-thirds of the entire production of the western hemisphere.)

When Blösch continued his work on the Cushing anticline in an area of the field later to produce impressive quantities of gas, he was told by his employer that his job was to find oil, not gas. Frustrated, Blösch resigned in 1915, stating that when he went to Oklahoma he was of the opinion that geology would be the key tool to find oil and gas, as was customary in other countries. However, he went on to realize that there, with few exceptions, managers cracked jokes about geologists and considered geology irrelevant – a short-lived flavor-of-the day soon to fall out of use.

Arnold Heim

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Swiss geologists had little impact on the Arabian Peninsula, but were very successful in Iran. Discovery and development of the huge fields of the territories now known as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, Kuwait or even Iraq were done without significant Swiss involvement – partly because these desert areas were very much in the British sphere of interest, and partly because the Royal Dutch Shell Company, employer of many Swiss geologists at that time, did not have significant footholds there.

However, Arnold Heim (1882-1965), whose name was to become directly tied to many of the Iranian discoveries, was invited in 1924 to lead an expedition to look for oil, ore and water in the Persian Gulf. The last because improving the water supply to the areas of the northern Persian Gulf (northeast Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain) was a condition of being granted future licences.

Heim, suffering from bad health during the two months he spent almost entirely on camel back, was convinced that oil exploration efforts in these areas were bound to fail (though he specified that the last word remained to be spoken on the issue). His focus on the search for water, however, was highly successful, and shortly after his departure, the first springs produced fresh water based on the recommendations of Heim.

Swiss geologists were, however, to play a dominant role in the oil exploration and production of Iran after the creation of the Iranian National Oil Company in 1949, and the departure of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had produced oil in the south of the country since 1933. The Swiss geologists were specifically called in by Iran because they were looking for citizens from neutral countries to join their newly-formed state oil company.

The first to be invited was again Arnold Heim, who as chief geologist was asked to form a top-quality team made up almost entirely of Swiss geologists, amongst whom were Jovan Stöcklin (1921-2008) and Augusto Gansser (1910-2012). It was the latter who was, as Heim’s successor, chief geologist for INOC at the time of the spectacular Qom wildcat blowout (Alborz-5 well), the largest ever recorded blowout at rates of 120,000 BOPD, after the drill string had, for the first time ever, been able to penetrate the Miocene salt to reach the objective marine Qom limestones.

At the time, Heim had already returned to Switzerland, weakened by sickness and age. However, there too he remained active, insisting on the hydrocarbon potential in his native Switzerland. Based on the relative abundance of oil seepages (both in the Molasse basin and in the Jura Mountains), many Swiss geologists in the early days of oil exploration rated the chance of finding hydrocarbons in Switzerland in commercial quantities as good. Arnold Heim was the first, however, to map Switzerland systematically for its oil potential, and he remained throughout his life convinced that Switzerland had the potential to at least become self-sufficient in terms of hydrocarbon supply.

Indeed, both Germany and Austria have encountered success in the Molasse basin adjacent north of the Alps, but in Switzerland success has somehow been elusive. This notwithstanding, many geologists today, like Heim, think that the last word on the hydrocarbon potential of Switzerland may not have been spoken. New insights have come through modern seismic carried out in the context of searching for safe storage sites for nuclear waste, and there is new interest in the potential for shale gas or even shale oil from the Toarcian Posidonia shale.

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