The history of Bass Strait oil and gas activity is a fascinating chapter in the global petroleum industry evolution -- and, ultimately, a rewarding chapter for AAPG.
Oil had been recorded along Australia’s southern coastline since 1869, but it wasn’t until 1960 that the offshore region was even considered for exploration and production.
Around that time former BHP executive (and AAPG member) Eric Rudd contracted Lewis Weeks, a leading American oil field geologist who, before retiring as president of Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon), had found oil seemingly everywhere -- it was said he studied data for all of the world’s known basins -- and was about to enjoy retirement in his Westport, Conn., home.
Rudd wanted Weeks to help him convince BHP officials that an oil search in oil-dry Australia should be launched.
Weeks agreed, did some studying, then met with the BHP officials and told them he knew where oil could be found that was accessible to 90 percent of Australia’s market.
Weeks was then offered -- and accepted -- a 2.5 percent royalty deal. And then he was asked, where’s the oil?
“Come to your window,” he replied. “It lies out there in the Bass Strait, and most particularly off the Gippsland Coast.”
Incidentally, the Bass Strait was one of the world’s roughest water areas -- the region had been passed over since after 40 years of trying the adjacent coastline was dotted with nothing but 140 dry holes.
BHP decided to take a risk, however, and following encouraging results from an initial aerial survey, commissioned Australia’s first offshore seismic survey that indicated several possible oil traps in the Gippsland Basin. Prior to drilling, however, BHP went looking for a partner and in 1964 convinced Esso Standard Oil (Australia) Ltd. to join the venture as a 50-50 partner.
A drillship brought in from the Gulf of Mexico spudded the first well in 1964 in water 42 meters deep, and after months of battling notorious bad weather the drill bit reached 1,318 meters and hit gas.
Striking pay dirt on the first ever try was almost unheard of -- and it prompted additional exploration.
A year later the joint venture partners made a second major gas discovery at the Marlin Field and tapped the real prize: oil.
The giant Kingfish Field discovery soon followed, and since that time a host of fields were uncovered in quick succession, including Halibut, Dolphin, Perch, Flounder, Tuna, Snapper, Mackerel and Bream as well as oil at Barracouta and West Kingfish.
At its peak in the mid-1980s the Bass Strait was producing over half a million barrels of oil a day.
At one point the Bass Strait discoveries supplied 70 percent of Australia’s petroleum needs.
Prior to these finds Australia was almost totally reliant on imports of petroleum products.
And, according to Esso Australia, the oil and gas produced from the Bass Strait, combined with the cost of oil that otherwise would have had to be imported plus the tens of billions of revenue dollars paid by the joint venture to the government, equal an enormous impact on Australia’s development.