Since the early days of petroleum exploration, the industry has met diviners and dowsers who, by using esoteric techniques, simple devices or sophisticated artifacts designed by themselves, have tried to fool companies by claiming they were able to detect oil in the subsurface.
Of course, these forms of divination are not exclusive of oil exploration and they have been a subject of discussion and controversy for many years.
The most popular non-scientific and simple devices are a rod, stick, fork or an object hung from a chain like a pendulum, through which by surveying the terrain, the dowser claims to locate underground water, oil, metals or any hidden object. More sophisticated artifacts include a prototype constructed by the dowser, who claims to detect energy, rays, radiations, vibrations or waves that allow him to locate water or oil in the subsurface, even the depth and the amount to be found. Of course, the inner content of the prototype and the geological or physical energy that is detected by the artifact is never clearly revealed and is always kept secret.
In France, during the late 1970s, two eccentric inventors claimed they could directly detect oil in the subsurface from an exceptional device mounted on board an airplane, resulting in one of the most famous frauds in petroleum exploration history. The fraud had great media and political impact in France at that time, becoming popularly known as “L’affaire des avions renifleurs,” or “The Great Oil Sniffer Hoax.”
Direct Detection of Oil from an Airplane
In the mid-1970s the world was in the final days of the first oil shock. Most western countries were anxiously trying to secure oil supplies as a national priority, preparing for any future oil shortage. The French Elf-Aquitaine, similarly as other state-owned companies, had the objective of providing the demand of national energy by exploring and producing hydrocarbons at home and abroad.
In May 1976, Elf-Aquitaine signed a top-secret agreement with a company named “Fisalma” for the exclusive use of a supposedly revolutionary method of directly detecting oil in the subsurface from an airplane. The agreement was signed at the headquarters of the Union Bank of Switzerland in Zurich. Fisalma was a Panama-based company, representing the interests of two eccentric inventors: Alain de Villegas, a Belgian aristocrat and civil engineer, and his associate Aldo Bonassoli, an Italian TV repairman. This new breakthrough technology was considered by Elf’s top management as the “Holy Grail” of hydrocarbon exploration, capable of giving France a tremendous competitive advantage and promoting a considerable reduction in oil-finding costs.
The two inventors claimed that their technology and detector devices were innovative and extremely advanced, but there was no coherent description of the technique behind the devices, and it was masked in confusion. It was speculated that they were measuring gravity or magnetic fields, two standard geophysical techniques, but it was also argued as a system of waves or radiations, electronic scanning or even sub-atomic particles, such as neutrinos. These were waves that were able to pass through solids and liquids that gave back a reverberation, “a kind of radar effect,” that were recorded in a device on the ground or mounted in a plane that merely flew over. The recorder device’s inner content was not disclosed. Externally, it consisted of different electronic instruments and TV monitors, all the paraphernalia interconnected through a big mess of cables.
At that time Elf was headed by Pierre Guillaumat, a mining engineer from the elite École Polytechnique, who had extensive background in oil exploration and had been Elf’s president since the company was formed in 1967. The president and Elf’s executives, for reasons difficult to understand, did not question the technology. The two fussy and suspicious inventors did not allow Elf engineers to examine the equipment, either claiming it emitted dangerous radiation or because it was ranked as ultra-secret. They refused to answer any question about the device and the technique involved. The poor information provided was loose, mutable, unclear and contradictory. When the inventors were upset, they threatened with “selling it to the Americans” or to a Middle East country to call off the inquisitive persistence.
The inventors also claimed that, when flying over the oceans, the device even managed to detect nuclear submarines that were at that time deemed undetectable. Following this supposed ability, from an industrial secret, the invention was then classified as military top-secret.
Testing the Device by the Drilling Bit
Testing of the device started in 1976. It was mounted in the cabin of a twin-engine propeller plane, hidden behind curtains and flown over known oil and gas fields. When flying over a producing oil field, the device flashed lights and beeps in real time, displaying colored shapes on the TV monitors, which supposedly represented virtual images of the subsurface. A paper copy with a sort of map was printed, showing the outline of the oil field, looking very similar to the field’s contour map available within the Elf’s internal reports and databases. The Elf observers, including Guillaumat, were completely convinced by the tests that the devices were genuine and they were impressed by the remarkable high quality of the output maps. Several secret flights were run over France, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, the North Sea, Brazil and South Africa.
The device was further tested by drilling highly expensive and deep exploration wells in France and South Africa, in locations where the inventors had detected hydrocarbons through previous surveys. The skeptic Elf geologists had no other instructions other than to collaborate with the inventors. Geophysicists, electronic experts and computer scientists in Elf had the mission of “learning and understanding.”
The Montegut well was spud by Elf in the Aquitaine Basin in southern France in January 1977, reaching a total depth of 4,483 meters without encountering any hydrocarbon. The inventors justified the failure because the well was not properly positioned and therefore missed the oil reservoir.
A second drill test was run in 1977, in the onshore portion of the Zululand Basin in South Africa, where the sniffer device had identified a large ‘bone shape’ hydrocarbon accumulation. The well was spudded against the opposition of the Elf geologists, who questioned this basin being oil-prospective. At 6,083 meters and after penetrating more than 2,000 meters of basaltic rocks, the drilling pipe was stuck some 1,500 meters below where the hydrocarbons had been predicted by the inventors. The well was then plugged and abandoned after nearly 600 days of drilling and 100 million French francs spent. This time the well failure was rationalized by the inventors who stated that drilling should have continued 200 meters deeper! Of course, the Elf geologists who had questioned the device and the pseudo-science behind it felt they had been duped.
Nevertheless, and in spite of the drilling failures, another contract was signed in June 1978 between Elf-Aquitaine and Fisalma, the company representing the inventors. The secret technique was again to be tested, this time in Spain.
Oil Pooled in Volcanic Rocks in Southeast Spain?
Six hydrocarbon exploration permits located in southeastern Spain, named Almeria I to VI, were awarded in March 1979 to “Investigaciones Geológicas, S.A.,” a totally unknown company in the petroleum exploration business. Three permits were located offshore and three onshore. Surprisingly, the onshore permits had the commitment of drilling one exploration well during the first two-year exploration period and, what was even more puzzling, two of them were located partially covering the Cabo de Gata region, a well-known Miocene volcanic complex!
In May 1980, by following the instructions of the Elf headquarters and ignoring the recommendations of its geologists, the Elf-Aquitaine subsidiary in Spain farmed in with a 5-percent interest in all six of the Almeria permits, becoming the operator. This deal invited speculation about who was actually behind the exploration venture in this volcanic region, and why.
Elf spudded the Cabo de Gata-1 exploration well in July 1980. The well had been located based on a flight by the sniffer airplane over the region, which precisely identified oil below a mountain peak within the volcanic terrain. It took some time to convince Elf management to move the well downhill to a more manageable drilling location. In August 1980, the well reached a total depth of 1,128 meters, all drilled through volcanic, mainly andesitic rocks, tuffs and volcanic ash. The well was plugged and abandoned without any hydrocarbon indication, establishing another milestone in drilling volcanic rocks for oil exploration! It was very difficult for the Elf representatives in Spain to explain this humiliation, but they alleged that Elf had participated with only 5 percent in the operation. However, after a time, they discovered that Investigaciones Geológicas, S.A. received all funds from the sponsors of the sniffer plane, through an intermediary society based in Liechtenstein fully supported by Elf.
The sniffer device was then widely questioned, since all the exploration wells drilled based on this revolutionary technique had failed to encounter a single drop of oil.
The Hoax is Unmasked
The hoax was discovered when the nuclear French scientist Jules Horowitz denounced the device that could allegedly detect oil from the air as an elaborate fraud. Horowitz took roughly a few seconds in a simple test to discredit the device. When Bonassoli told him his machine could detect a straight metal ruler from behind a wall, Horowitz took the ruler and went quietly to the next room. The device printed out a perfectly clear outline of a straight ruler ... whereupon Horowitz emerged holding the real ruler, which he had previously bent into an L shape without telling anyone.
When the hoax was acknowledged the detector was opened, revealing it contained a series of video recorders, with a cluster of electronic devices attached to a photocopier look alike; in fact, that is exactly what it turned out to be eventually: a bunch of equipment connected to a simple photocopier. When testing the sniffer device above known oil fields, subsurface maps had been previously provided by a mole inside Elf, who facilitated the inventors the technical and geological information Elf had on those fields, so that the maps delivered by the photocopier had been previously manipulated, adjusted and loaded into. Similarly, the images displayed on the TV monitors had been prerecorded and were activated by the inventors by remote control. The devices were no doubt recognized as fakes and returned to the inventors.
It was considered that failing to notice the falsification of the device would be a political embarrassment that would damage Elf’s international reputation. The sniffer affair was therefore muted by the French government at the time, headed by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president from 1974 until May 1981, when the socialist François Mitterrand became president.
Political Scandal in France
The sniffer plane story was forgotten until it went public on Dec. 21, 1983, following an investigation by the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné. The journal revealed the existence of a secret report issued in January 1981 by the French Accounting Court on the sniffing aircraft case, of which all copies had been apparently destroyed. The airing of the fraudulent affair immediately became a national scandal, especially when it turned out that the people who had gotten fooled by the two inventors also included the former President Giscard and Prime Minister Raymond Barre. The secret report illustrated how the project had been personally approved by Giscard, which forced him to appear in a rush on TV on Dec. 22 giving all kind of explanations and showing agitatedly a paper copy of the secret report which had allegedly been destroyed.
The secret report was made public in January 1984. It described the numerous irregularities of the affair, the lack of any proper testing of the devices and processes, the absence of investigation or vetting of the inventors’ personalities and scientific backgrounds, the disregard of cost control procedures, the creation of a pyramid of subsidiaries and how the inventors managed to convince the French president and the Elf-Aquitaine top management that they were on to something “that could change the fate of France, even the world.”
The scandal had an important impact in the political life of France during early 1984, with fierce verbal attacks and confrontation between the ruling socialist party and its right-wing opponents, until it gradually faded from public consciousness.
Now, more than 40 years later, it is still difficult to understand how such a simple and naïve trick had been able to fool, and for so long, the top management of a major oil company, and against the opinion of its own technical staff.
The total amount of money invested by Elf in the sniffer plane affair has never been clarified. It is estimated between $50 million and $250 million, depending on the source, but it is even less clear where the money wound up.
Nobody was brought to justice and nothing happened to Aldo Bonassoli and Alain de Villegas. Both inventors had faked the sniffer device, but surprisingly, they appear to have believed in their invention. In early 1984, Bonassoli was back in Italy, where he continued expressing faith in the sniffer machine and denied that he had made any money out of the affair. He always declined to discuss the technique in detail, saying that it was still secret. He threatened to hand over his machine and know-how to the Italian government and announced that the Soviets had expressed interest in the device. However, nothing ever came of the announcement. Alain de Villegas, meanwhile, disappeared from the scene. Apparently, he had run away to South America where he started to build landing strips for flying saucers. Rather than tricksters, they both appear to have been lunatics!