Switzerland has probably given the world more adventurers than watchmakers. One of them, Willy Bruderer, was born in 1899 and played a key role in the discovery of three of the greatest oil and gas fields of the 20th century. As he found his way in the new century, the world around him benefitted mightily from his supergiant discoveries that fueled it.
Bruderer wanted very early in life to become a geologist – a petroleum geologist in particular, like many of his compatriots who made the planet their canton. His story is a nostalgic journey, a reminder to us of the basic practices of the profession, its beginnings, and the severe physical conditions that are hard to imagine today. It also offers strong motivation and messages of perseverance, trust and creativity to all of us who have chosen the beautiful career of petroleum geology.
No contact with his descendants could be made, but fortunately, Bruderer left two books that are rich in personal memories and anecdotes that were the main sources for this article. Stories were left by former colleagues, as were company documents, particularly regarding his promotion of successful exploration for giant fields in the Sahara and in Abu Dhabi. In tribute to the man, his own titles of the chapters of his main book are used here, only slightly modified to introduce most of the following portions of this article.
The first phase of Willy Bruderer’s career was a humble 20-year period spent in central Europe, South America and northern Africa, with modest monetary rewards, but rich in life’s lessons and humanity. Later came a contrasting period marked by the grandeur of the petroleum geology and the magnitude of the operations of the richest oil province in the world. This brought him the immense satisfaction of having his intuition proven correct.
Years of Apprenticeship
His father, a successful entrepreneur with business in countries of the former Dutch Indies, would have liked him to follow the same route. But on their return to the Motherland, Willy started running in the Appenzell Mountains, fell in love with them and the fossils he hunted and collected. There were numerous job offers for geologists to satisfy an increasing demand by the nascent petroleum industry. In spite of a lack of encouragement by his father, he wanted to chart his own course and study geology, which was ultimately accepted by the family, his father even deciding in the end to send his son to the renowned University of Lausanne.
He then pursued a course of study in which field excursions throughout the Vaud and Valais Alps were a large part of the instruction. Bruderer started a thesis on the Aar granitic massif, an island over which sediments as old as 150 million years have been swept into thrust sheets stacking up to form the towering peaks of the Eiger, the Jungfrau and other famous summits. He measured the thickness of the sediments over the 200-kilometer-long massif, studying the stratigraphy and reconstructing the pre-Alpine geological history, a great training ground indeed for a future petroleum geologist.
When his thesis supervisor had to travel to Argentina as a dam expert, Bruderer was forced to interrupt his work for a while and found a multifaceted job in the Grand Hotel of Orgevaux. In exchange for board and lodging, he worked as a ski instructor, a bridge player and a socialite dancer.
Things Seen in Central Europe
After graduation, Bruderer found out that big companies did not need his uncertain talents (his own words) to discover more oil in their most active territories, Persia and Venezuela. So, he found a position with La Société Franco-Polonaise des Pétroles Premier, whose head office was in Lwow (now Lviv in Ukraine) thanks to a kind recommendation written by Prince Poniatowsky of Poland between two games of bridge at the Grand Hotel.
He was promptly sent to Galicia, then a part of Poland, and he started working on Boryslaw, an old field in full decline which had seen its glory days in 1906-12. Everything was rather primitive; the wells were drilled empty or only filled with water, and clay was used for “cementing” the tubing. The exploration was carried out exclusively on the basis of oil shows on the surface. Violence, political hatred and the impoverished state of the population at the time created an unpleasant atmosphere that was compounded by the poor equipment at his disposal.
In contrast with the declining business in Galicia, the situation was improving rapidly in Romania. After resigning from Premier, Bruderer moved there, with a recommendation to La Colombia, another oil company. The senior geologist in charge of the geological department intended to leave, which opened up his position to Bruderer. It was an opportunity to work in a promising oil province with new responsibilities. He travelled through the Subcarpathian region, trying to identify targets near existing production.
On one occasion, while he was tasting some plums from an orchard near an oil field, the owner came to him, seemingly threatening to punish him for the intrusion. Instead, surprisingly, he invited the geologist to his home to drink with him and soon showed a map of his parcels of land in the neighborhood, some of them producing oil and making him rich. One of the parcels interested Bruderer. It precisely covered the aforementioned orchard and the landowner (having sympathy for the group) agreed to sell it after some negotiation, “just for the pleasure of it.” Two successful wells were drilled, thanks to a small fault within the field. This wasn’t a big find, but he said it was his only triumph in Romania, and it was due to luck, an intuition and the human factor.
During the period in Borislaw, he met Cristina Jamnikowna for the second time. She was a charming young lady with whom he had danced at the Grand Hotel. They soon married in Bucharest and later raised a family.
In the meantime, La Colombia’s business lacked funds to buy new acreage and decided to do away with the geological department and Bruderer lost his job. He caught malaria and, disappointed by his four-year experience as a geologist, went back to Switzerland with a radical change of profession in mind. Bruderer had tried unsuccessfully to start a chicken farm when, distinguished by his doctorate in geology, he unexpectedly received an attractive offer of a two-year contract to join the geological team of the Northern Venezuelan Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of an important gold mining trust from South Africa. He jumped on the opportunity and started a new life by moving on solo status to the jungles surrounding El Mene, on the eastern coast of Lake Maracaibo.
Commercial oil in small quantities had been found in the area by drilling below traces of bitumen, and the group of geologists (most of them from Switzerland) looked for more significant accumulations. They tracked down all the surface shows in the area, drilling wells no deeper than 700 meters. This was an unacceptable restriction for Bruderer, as the best producing wells in the area were no shallower than 1,500 meters, with better pressured reservoirs. He recommended that his boss purchase a modern American rig capable of working at such depths and got the following answer, “Would it be reasonable to buy one of these modern monsters with rotary bits and mud circulation while oil is within reach at shallow depth and low cost? More numerous wells will have more appeal to shareholders. The effort toward greater depth will be carried out later after having fully explored the surface following the menes (seeps).” Not a strong endorsement.
The area was picturesque and the adventures tropical. For instance, when he wanted to shoot some wild ducks flying over the camp, one colleague said to him, “You can go shoot some over the lagoon just before night. But there are many caimans there, you shoot the ducks, they pick them up and never bring them back to you.”
He also experienced the famous “hé-hénes” – tiny gnats that inflicted intolerable, lasting and almost unhealable damage to the skin.
“The Venezuelan jungle has nicely christened you,” said his “peones” (laborers).
His “Motherland”, First Steps in Exploration Management
In 1931 he got sick again, decided to interrupt the Venezuelan experience and returned to Switzerland, where his former professor advised him to consider working in Morocco where mining geologists were in high demand. Bruderer loved the country, but after some exploration in the Atlas, was not convinced that he had a future in this type of work and decided to leave. He strolled on the Casablanca harbor while he waited for his ship to set sail within the hour when he came across a former acquaintance from his time in Galicia who had just been appointed as a manager of a new company, Société Chérifienne des Pétroles. SCP had promising petroleum operations in Morocco’s Rharb region. He offered Bruderer a position – a glimpse of the future that made him change his mind – and Bruderer immediately cancelled the trip back.
Four years passed without any significant discovery, in spite of high hopes after a publicized blowout at the Tselfat location (which spared his house by a narrow margin) and another small discovery at Bou Draa in 1934. He worked hard in the field and drilling wells, and he became familiar with the new logging and seismic technologies. He was later promoted to chief of the geological department and focused exploration on the Chaînes Prérifaines, the foothills of the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco where a new rig was capable of drilling down to 5,000 meters. Bruderer felt at home in this new and rich country where he built a house and became a father for the second time. The subsurface was still lacking generosity, as he said, but he was confident that deep drilling and geophysics would bring success in the end. However, his health had suffered from recurrent amoebic dysentery and worse, tuberculosis, so he had to leave prematurely.
Awakening of the Giants
Henri de Cizancourt, Bruderer’s former chief in Poland, proposed that Bruderer join him at the Compagnie Française des Pétroles (now TotalEnergies), which looked, he said, like a true lifeline. He left Morocco in 1947 and, to finish the story, he was satisfied to see that five more small fields were discovered between 1947 and 1951 in the foothills play area where he had paved the way for SCP’s exploration.
A change of scale in all senses awaited him in his new job. CFP was a 23.75-percent partner of the Irak Petroleum Company, and he and de Cizancourt represented CFP in London at conferences gathering the IPC and partners’ representatives. This included Esso, Socony Vacuum, Royal Dutch Shell and Anglo-Iranian, in summary all the “demigods” (including ministers) of the business and profession who counted most in the world petroleum industry. The main focus was Kirkuk, the giant producing field and best asset of the company. The concern was how and when to evacuate the field’s production.
Bruderer discovered a prolific hunting ground in the Middle East, including the nascent provinces of Kuwait and Qatar and the still poorly explored Emirates – quite a change from his previous experience. He worked extensively on the abundant available documentation and realized that “the region seemed to shelter the geological sleep of an army of black giants whose initial surveys signaled the others.” It was an unbelievably great new training ground.
Bruderer travelled with colleagues throughout the main producing areas of Saudi Arabia, dazzled by the activity and ongoing drilling programs, including at the future Ghawar Field. He saw the birth of the largest field in the world. However, Bruderer almost died from a bout of pneumonia-pleurisy contracted during a visit to an air-conditioning factory at Doukhan (Qatar). Fortunately, it was diagnosed at the Kirkuk hospital and treated by the newly available antibiotics. He titled the relevant chapter of his book “Voir Ghawar et mourir” (“See Ghawar and die”).
Deserts and People
The immense sedimentary basin of the Sahara did not appeal to the geologists and directors of the government’s Bureau de Recherches Pétrolières, for it was totally lacking oil shows. However, Michel Tenaille, a tenacious vice president of REPAL, a French national company created for exploring the basin, came to see him. Tenaille, a geologist with whom Bruderer had carried out reconnaissance field work in south Morocco, was convinced of the potential of the Sahara. He showed Bruderer maps and a wide variety of data and asked him to promote a partnership with CFP.
The company had no intention of joining a Saharan exploration, which it considered costly and extremely risky. However, he was allowed to join a field trip with Tenaille and La Sorbonne’s professor Nicolas N. Menchikoff, the leading expert on the Sahara (who himself did not believe in its oil potential). Bruderer said that “the expedition crossed the desert in all directions, breaking enough jeeps’ springs and suffering breakdowns long enough to allow forming an honorable opinion of the composition of the Hoggarian Paleozoic.”
One of Bruderer’s former geologists in Morocco had found oil and gas shows in a well drilled for water in the Cretaceous and deepened unintentionally into Carboniferous sediments. A fortuitous encounter with him was, Bruderer said, a critical encouraging factor.
Upon Bruderer’s return, Victor de Metz, the president of CFP, wanted to see him face-to-face and said initially that thick salt would make the region difficult to image by seismic. Bruderer replied that deep below the salt one should find marine sediments of Paleozoic age forming anticlinal structures, citing the “buried hills” model of the United States as an example. De Metz was admired for his open-mindedness and practical sense. Persuaded by the final argument that an existing railway built across the desert was capable of carrying heavy material he concluded saying, “I will see Tenaille again.”
Tenaille was the key man to deal with in the joint venture. De Metz having decided to see him again meant he agreed implicitly with Bruderer’s recommendation. Bruderer’s role was both to go against the seemingly negative absence of surface shows and to support the prospectivity of the Paleozoic section. He believed that seismic could be helpful in the process of dealing with the region’s thick salt, which was also a critical step in persuading de Metz.
When he joined CFP in 1947, Bruderer worked under de Cizancourt, the exploration manager at the time. He was quickly put in charge of monitoring the exploration programs carried out in the non-operated areas of the Middle East. Because of his unique knowledge, Bruderer soon became a special geological adviser to the chairman during the late 1940s and ‘50s, which provided a direct, easy and remarkably trusting contact between the two men, particularly for key strategic decisions. In 1960 he was formally designated as deputy director of exploration.
Continued exploration by CFP and REPAL resulted in the discovery of the largest oil field and the largest gas field in Africa, both in Algeria. Hassi Messaoud was discovered in 1956 and has reserves estimated at 10 billion barrels of oil. Hassi R’Mel was found in 1957 and has reserves estimated at 100 trillion cubic feet of gas plus 2.4 billion barrels of condensate. (See the Historical Highlights article by Jean Laherrère, in the September 2014 EXPLORER, which explains the breakthrough use of refraction there.)
Treasure Hunt on the Former Trucial Coast
Bruderer’s last-but-not-least great success story took place in the Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where his knowledge of the Arabian Peninsula helped him foresee a strategic path forward into uncharted plays. Superior Oil, an American company, encouraged by the discoveries made in the offshore by Aramco, had acquired the concession for all the offshore areas of Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but the negative results of the wells drilled on the coast by Abu Dhabi Petroleum Co. (IPC’s Abu Dhabi subsidiary) led them to offer their entire position to the London Consortium of British Petroleum and Shell. BP took the Abu Dhabi part and Royal Dutch Shell the Qatar part. BP was ready to accept CFP as a partner, but de Metz hesitated because Bruderer saw the numerous salt islands piercing younger sediments without any oil seepage as a negative factor.
In 1953, Bruderer attended a tour with his Anglo-Saxon colleagues covering all the work done by the Consortium in the Gulf. In Abu Dhabi, the party’s chief geophysicist showed them two beautiful anticlines running north-south, perpendicular to the coast, revealed by seismic thanks to new vehicles able to penetrate deep into the sabkha. Enthusiasm followed surprise and Bruderer changed his mind radically about the play. Then the IPC chief geologist turned to him and said, “I think you did well to take 50 percent with BP in the marine area,” as if the deal had been made, which was not the case. As soon as he returned to Paris, Bruderer and de Cizancourt rushed into the president’s office.
Victor de Metz remembered well the negative judgment he made six months before and remained unconvinced. One could feel, said Bruderer, “a man torn between the desire to believe his geologist and the annoyance of having to take a great decision based on largely subjective recommendations.” Bruderer did his best to argue “that without seismic one was condemned to vague guess, and that geologists were neither diviners nor fanciful characters.” A few days later, de Metz entered softly into Bruderer’s office and said, “I took 33 percent (in the BP-Total deal) because I think that marine exploration is too costly. Are you happy?” Then he left.
The rest, as in the case of the Saharan fields, is history, with the discovery in 1958 of supergiant Umm Shaif Field with 2P reserves estimated at about 4 billion barrels of oil, as well as other fields by Abu Dhabi Marine Areas Ltd., a company whose shareholders included Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. (ADNOC), BP and Total.
Bruderer died in 1986, but his adventures live on through two books he wrote in French whose English titles are “Petroleum from Mesopotamia and North Africa” and “The Candle Hunt: Born with the Century, an Oil Geologist Recounts the Adventure of His Life.”
Willy Bruderer’s life fits perfectly with John Masters’ definition: exploration is hard work, smart work and an art.
Many thanks for their help to Jean Laherrère, Dominique Laurier, Hervé Lhuillier, Chris Moore and Matt Silverman.
(Historical Highlights is an EXPLORER series that focuses on the history of petroleum exploration and production. Topics broadly related to our work in the geosciences, the critical advances of science and technology, the key discoveries and the saints and sinners among our colleagues are all welcome. Narratives that illuminate the E&P process or its context in geopolitics and energy economics are encouraged. If you have such a story or know someone who does, please contact Matt Silverman, the series editor, at [email protected].)