Sunday 5 October 2014

On a trouvé d’or noir

The cry of "there's gold in them thar hills" is a staple of the Western movie genre. For a variation on the theme, I recommend There Will Be Blood, starring our neighbour Daniel Day-Lewis. In that film the gold is black and the film is very dark. If you associate oil with France it is probably because there are extensive olive groves where they speak Langue d'Oc.  But regular octane unleaded petrol has been abstracted from the rocks of France and the people of  Forcelles-Saint-Gorgon in Lorraine have Pierre-Louis Maubeuge to thank for bringing their hamlet (pop 150) into the blazing limelight of The Blob.

Maubeuge was born in 1923 and had an adventurous WWII, starting as a student instructor at the Institute of Geology (L'école nationale supérieure de géologie ENSG) at Nancy to support his widowed mother, his father having been killed by the Wehrmacht in the debacle of 1940.  Geologists work with rock and occasionally use explosives to knock off a large chunk and this experience was of some use to the Resistance.  He returned to college in 1944 and obtained his PhD from U Strasbourg in 1949; presenting a thesis "Observations géologiques dans l'est du bassin de Paris (terrains triasiques moyens-supérieurs et jurassiques inférieurs-moyens" so frighteningly compendious that it required binding in two volumes. Soon after that he settled down to a part-time position at the Chambre Syndicale des Mines de fer de France where he consulted and mapped and tapped with his geological hammer for the next 30 years. The map on the left is a postage-stamp of the BRGM (Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières) geological map from Lorraine. Maubeuge's maps covered 5% of the area of metropolitan France, as well as the whole of Belgium and Luxembourg. These maps are so beautiful and so deeply (!) informative that I'll accept any one from anywhere as a birthday present.

Mais revenons nous a nos moutons noirs - "the oil, the oil tell us about the oil", the readers cry.  Like Rudyard Kipling, who used to talk to engineers and sea-captains and soldiers, I have a lot of time for experts.  Doesn't really matter what (match-boxes, tavern-tokens, the flora of Bhutan), deep knowledge is always fascinating.  For Professor Maubeuge it was rocks and the invisible world beneath our feet.  He became convinced by fossil ferns and other data that there might be exploitable oil beneath the soil in certain parts of Lorraine.  His academic colleagues gave each other un drôle d’œil and snickered behind his back but he stubbornly persisted until he struck oil at the base of a hill in Forcelles-Saint-Gorgon. With some pals and anonymous local backers, Maubeuge founded the Société de Recherche et d’Exploitation du Pétrole en Lorraine (REPLOR) which did what it says on the tin.  At its peak, 11 oil derricks were pumping 20,000 lt per day of light crude from the bedrock of North Eastern France. Between 1983 and 1999, something close to 14,000 tons of oil were abstracted for processing. At the pump yesterday I bought a tankful of petrol at €1.50/lt, so the total value of REPLOR's extracted product is somewhere north of €20 million, in today's money.

But it was an uphill struggle; in France the State owns the exploitable sub-surface mineral resources and REPLOR soon became mired in a sludge of bureaucratic and obstructive paperwork. No doubt the eminence gris of International Megacorp Oil was stalking the corridors of power in Nancy and Paris. It's all in his book Comme une odeur de pétrole. In 1999, shortly after floating another company PETROLOR to exploit a much larger reserve nearby, Pierre-Louis Maubeuge fell ill and died.  He was 66.  Without his drive and energy, the project stalled and there remains an estimated 70,000 tons of crude waiting for the call.

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