In 1741, more than two centuries before Colonel Drake found oil in Titusville, a Swiss gentleman, Pierre Ancillon de La Sablonniere, established the first oil company by shares in Pechelbronn, France. However, with a limited production, France’s oil activity remained confidential. Before WWII, the country had no experience of modern drilling and oil production was nonexistent. French engineers had however taken part in the exploitation of petroleum deposits in Iraq and Romania. They brought back to France an unknown know-how.
When WWII broke out, Raymond Goddet, a prominent French engineer, returned from Romania and bought a German drilling rig. He skillfully upgraded the old Wirth rig and paired it with a boiler. Goddet won its first contract to drill at Saint Marcet at the foot of the Pyrenees mountain.
The birth of Forex, France’s first company exclusively dedicated to drilling, was celebrated on August 2, 1942. Raymond Goddet had called on an exceptional engineer, Amedee Maratier, previously deputy director of Step Romana, stationed in Bucharest. He appointed him as technical director of the company. With only three men having acquired a solid experience of drilling in Iraq, Joseph Lebail and the Pernoud brothers, Goddet and Maratier embarked on an incredible adventure which several decades later led them to have a globally recognized influence.
The young drilling company prospered at Saint Marcet. Amedee Maratier called on young people from the humble families of the region and introduced them to a difficult and yet unknown profession. Decades later one could say “They came to get you from your farm and made you a cosmonaut.” Some of them, such as Marcel Fonade, endowed with remarkable intelligence and an extraordinary capacity for work, would become exceptional leaders.
Forex acquired a second rig and moved its offices 34 rue de la Plaine, in Billere, near Pau, in 1949. The company deployed a new Ideco H40 drilling rig to Soultz-sous-Forêts in the Pechelbronn area in 1950, and at the same period started seismic drilling in the Parisian Basin.
In 1952, Amedee Maratier founded Norafor to support North Africa’s emerging market. With a Failing 500, core drilling was started in the Sahara desert near In Salah.
In 1953, a contract was signed with Esso Standard to drill near the Parentis lake in southwestern France. Using a new Ideco 1050 drilling rig, France’s largest oilfield was discovered on March 25, 1954. In 1959 Forex entered the South Sahara. In 1956 oil was found at Pointe Clairette in Gabon and quickly three Ideco rigs, one H30, two H40 and one Super 7/11 were shipped to the country.
Forex set up in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria in 1964, and soon drilled the Obagi discovery well in the Niger Delta. By the end of the 1980’s Forex was running up to 17 rigs drilling there.
From 1964 Forex went offshore and soon became Forex-Neptune. The construction of three offshore units started in 1964. It was a tough start with the DeLong-inspired Roger Buttin, sinking offshore Cameroon after a few days of operation, in September 1966. The two jackups Neptune 1 and Neptune Gascogne had more success. On January 1st, 1971, Schumberger acquired 100% of Forex’s shares. The development of offshore drilling business intensified.
In the 1970s, Forex entered the North Sea with Unifor 1, a desert rig installed on a jacket offshore Great Yarmouth. For the first time the company was exposed to international customers, Shell and then Amoco. Led by high caliber supervisors, Maurice Jalet, Fred Bergner and Robert Pernoud the operation was a success.
By the end of 1984, Schlumberger surprised and shook up the global drilling business with the acquisition of the US offshore giant, Sedco. The clash of cultures between the two companies was never easy to manage but the new company was going to suffer more from the different oil shocks.
In January 2000 the New York Times was reporting: “Schlumberger Ltd., a leading oil services company, said yesterday that the spinoff of its Sedco Forex Offshore unit and its merger with Transocean Offshore Inc. had been completed in a $3.61 billion transaction that creates the world’s largest offshore drilling company.”
Schlumberger kept alive for some years, a land drilling activity based in Dubai, but the spin off marked the end of the adventure of the old French drilling company that started from scratch during the difficult years of WWII.
Like prestigious drilling companies which have disappeared and marked history, Santa Fe, Rowan, Sedco…, there is not much left of Forex today excepted the incredible memories that can still be told by its former employees. Most of them are gone.
(Source: Forex archive/ Amedee Maratier web page – Image: Mano 1 well near Parentis and Amedee Maratier/ La Memoire de Bordeaux)