The Legacy of Mining and Oil Exploration Tracks in Australia

Sunday, Oct 13, 2013 at 20:04

Stephen L (Clare) SA

Many of Australia’s major Outback Tracks have been put in place either through the quest of linking many remote locations, weather it be for the transportation of stock as was the case of the Canning Stock Route, the Birdsville Track and the Strzelecki Track, the testing of Rockets and Nuclear Devices as was the case in the famous Len Beadell Tracks that criss cross the great deserts of Australia, and in modern times, the exploration for oil and gas in our remote desert locations.

The most famous of Australia’s Oil Exploration Tracks without question would have to be the Simpson Desert. The first major track that was made in the early 1960’s that crossed the Simpson Desert was know as Track A and today that very same track, The French Line, carries thousands of vehicles each year. In the quest of finding rich oil fields, there are many such tracks that are made each year and opening up many hundreds of kilometres of remote outback locations.

During our travels along one of my favourite Outback Tracks, the Anne Beadell Highway in 2012, we came across one such new road that was not there just two years previous. One of my travelling companions, Leigh from Victoria and I headed out to see where these new tracks were going. Our first comments were that we were seeing some very different terrain than the normal Anne Beadell Highway traveller ever gets to see. From vantage points on the higher dunes, we could see a network of newly constructed tracks that were heading further out into the desert, with other new tracks intersecting them at various points, forming large grid patterns as they mapped out locations that could be possible new drilling sites. We both commented to each other that it would be great to know where these tracks went. Then within a few kilometres of making our way back to the Anne Beadell Highway, we came to a major new track that was like billiard table compared the corrugations that are now common on the Anne Beadell Highway. What was more important was the track intersection was actually signposted ‘BMR 3’ heading in a general north-south direction, and a sign indicating the Anne Beadell Highway heading east west.

During my many phone calls with my friend Robin Matthews from Maralinga, I mentioned the new tracks that we had seen, and from that, Robin organised that we would be able to see where this new major BMR track went on our planned return visit in 2013. After all my pre trip preparations and permits organised, it was time to head back to Maralinga and the many tracks beyond, with the majority of them a legacy in the quest of searching for either oil or mineral sands.

The first of the tracks that fell into this category was the Nawa Junction Track, that lies to the west of Mobella Station, in the far west of the State of South Australia, at Dingo Flat Gate and goes through to Nawa Junction, north of Roadside on the Emu to Maralinga Road. After countless phone calls and emails to Robin at Maralinga and Wally and Glenn at Woomera, permits were finally approved and the start of another adventure was put in place. Three days after departing Port Augusta, we were heading north up the Dog Fence on Mobella Station and as pre arranged, there was Robin sitting back in his deck chair at our rendezvous point, meeting just like Dr Livingstone in the wilds of Africa. It was great meeting Robin again and after introducing my party, we all set to where Robin had picked that nights camp would be, only a few hundred metres from Dingo Flat Gate in an old drilling camp. The county had never looked so great and with a great campfire going, we all settled in for the night. That night we all sat around the campfire, exchanging many stories and it was 11.30pm before I finally called it a night, while David and Robin kept on chatting to well past midnight.

The next morning was another perfect day out in the bush, a little cool, and yet not one cloud in the sky. With the camp packed up and all vehicles loaded it was time to head to Maralinga on this new track to us all. The Nawa Junction Track was originally a two-wheel track dating back to the days when Maralinga was in full Nuclear testing mode, but in later years, the track was widened to carry large vehicles that were exploring for mineral sands out in the desert or reliable water sources. Exploring did not take place along the full length of the track, but rather two teams started from each end of the track, leaving a section of around 30 kilometres in the middle of the sand dune country that was not upgraded. This drive was a mix of different country, from thick stands of black oak, mulga, mallee, blue bush plains and spinifex, all covered in thousands of kilometres of magnificent wildflowers.

Even though the distance through to Maralinga Village was just over 160 kilometres, it still took us a little over 7 hours to do the drive, as there were many points of interest to see along the way. If time was not an issue, there were a number of other tracks branching off from this main track and it makes you wonder, just how far these tracks headed out into the Great Victoria Desert. Once we all arrived at Maralinga, we all set up our camps and settled in for three days in the Village, taking in the interesting town and range tours, plus a number of other drives that are a must see for those that have never been to Maralinga before.

After leaving Maralinga, it would be another five days out in the desert before we would start another of these new mining tracks that had only been down since 2011, which are know as the BMR Roads. Located in the far north west of South Australia, and stretching well into Western Australia is the exploration area known as the Officer Basin that covers an area in excess of 86.5 million acres, and the Canadian Oil and Gas Exploration Corporation, Rodinia was granted the first onshore exploration licence in the Officer Basin. On the 29th March 2011, Rodinia Oil Corporation updated its shareholders that its Board of Directors had approved the spending of $C52.5 Million or at the time $A54.5 Million with joint partners to search and drill for oil in the Officer Basin.

By April 2011 Ensign Australia had begun mobilizing Rig#16 from the Cooper Basin in preparation for its 2000-kilometre journey to commence drilling at the first selected site in the northwest corner of PEL 253 to be known as Mulyawara 1, with a total drilling time expected to take around six weeks. After months of preparing at the site and after a number of setbacks, Mulyawara 1 was finally spudded on the 9th June 2011. By early July they had drilled down more than 795 metres, with surface casing set at 465 metres and by the 1st August they had reached the first intermediate casing point of 1525 metres. Up until this point drilling had been slower than anticipated due to mechanical issues on the rig, drilling in harder rock than predicted and extremely high rate water inflows from upper zones, which forced drilling from the faster air hammer drilling to the slower underbalanced water rotary drilling.

After a number of important factors including the fact that Mulyawara 1 had taken three times longer to drill, causing a 75% cost overrun, mechanical and operational issues and extremely poor drilling samples, on the 13th October 2011 Mulyawara 1 was officially plugged and abandoned after drilling to a total depth of 2691.3 metres. The Drilling of Mulyawara 1 was a big learning curve for Rodinia and added to their knowledge of the geologic and hydrocarbon potential of the Officer Basin, and plans were then put in place to drill at another nearby location as a wildcat exploration well that offered a number of advantages, including:

Recently acquired infill seismic had better defined structure.

It was accessible from the existing road infrastructure that had been constructed.

The distance from Mulyawara 1 to the new Kutjara was only 45 kilometres and would reduce rid travel time.

Mulyawara 1 had demonstrated that most of the drilling at Kutjara 1 could be drilled using PDC bits, which would offer drilling efficiency and should substantially lower the overall evaluation costs.

With a budgeted expenditure of $7 million, Kutjara 1 was spudded on the 2nd November 2011 and by the 12th December 2011 the well was plugged and abandoned after reaching a total depth of 2453.7 metres. Due to a modified well design, drilling efficiencies were far superior at Kutjara-1 and that drilling time decreased by approximately two thirds as compared to the Mulyawara-1 well. Even though there were encouraging shows in the well, the wireline log data after the completions of drilling showed that there were not commercial accumulations of hydrocarbons, and as a result Rig#16 was demobilized from the Officer Basin.

As we all walked around the now abandoned site of Mulyawara 1, we could imagine the hive of activity that would have taken place, and all that remained was the capped wellhead and a number of large water pits that would have been used during drilling. The road infrastructure was made to last, as well as the Rodinia Airstrip that would have seen many planes come and go during the drilling operations. What they did not know at the time was that the newly constructed road would travel right through the very centre of the rare Eucalypts wyolensis population that only occurs in only two very remote locations in the Great Victoria Desert. We all felt very privileged to visit and see they special locations in the heart of the Great Victoria Desert that very few people ever get the opportunity of seeing.

Stephen Langman
October 2013
Smile like a Crocodile
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