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Book Review: Blue Flames, Black Gold

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Earlier this year author Kristin Weidenbach put the finishing touches on a long term project, detailing the history Australia's most iconic gas company.

The history of Santos has been carefully, comprehensively trapped in a single tome, entitled Blue Flames, Black Gold.

This incredibly detailed work of history captures many of the most important moments in the history of a company that helped to shape the energy landscape of several Australian cities.

Weidenbach spent well over two years working on this, and interviewed some 40 people in the research phase of the project, including all of the surviving managing directors, chairmen, geologists, journalists, financial analysts, and even drillers.

The author said she tried to get all the different staff from the company, not just those at the top, including interviews with drillers and some of the old construction workers from Moomba who were involved with building the original gas plant back in the 60s.

The key differences between the modern gas industry and exploration during the 60s that Weidenback noticed in her research involved the level of existing knowledge about how to start large gas projects.

"Pioneering is really the word that comes up all the time," she said.

"It was something that no-one had really done before, to build a pipeline and bring gas to the capital cities of Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane, they all got gas in the same year, and the people involved had to learn as they went.

"They had to take all these huge bits of kit, infrastructure into the middle of the desert, things that had never been done before, and I suppose that these days it seems more routine.

"Back then they had some Americans and Canadians who knew about it, but none of the Australians had done this before.

"It seemed very seat-of-your-pants, very tough going."

With more than 40 key identities interviewed for this in-depth study, one of the most notable figures to appear between the pages is Alan Bond, the man who once bought 37.5 per cent of Santos only to be knocked down by SA government legislative changes against anyone owning than 15 per cent of the company.

"Alan Bond was the most memorable, in terms of celebrity factor I suppose," Weidenbach said.

"He was really accommodating, and as much as he could be, his involvement was back in 1978, so that's a long time ago and I guess he hasn't really thought much about Santos for a long time.

"But he reflected on the personalities in the company he was involved with, and what he was like back then and how he had changed over the years¬ it was good to get his insight and comments to add to all the research I had done."

Weidenbach observed that she understood Santos and South Australia may have held some bad blood for Bond, and that his help in adding to research on the book added a little flavour that might not have been found elsewhere.

"He had done nothing wrong at all, he bought the shareholding in good faith and the government retrospectively legislated against it," she said.

"The press and the shareholders association all said the move was scandalous, and Bond said he would never invest in South Australia again. 'I don't even like to fly over it' he had been known to say."

But what is involved in producing such a detailed history, in 430 pages, of our most significant resources company?

Weidenback said the hardest part of the journey was doing the research.

"I started out by sitting down and read­ing 57 annual reports¬ You have to get all that background information before you can go ahead and start doing the interviews," she said.

"The difficulty was the amount of material, and the geographic spread of the company, as well as the nomenclature to cover, because the names of the different permits changed over the years."

However, her favourite part of the book comes in the last chapter, with a little story about a Texan named John who had bought four hundred stock units in bearer shares.

"He finally got in touch with Santos in 2013, and I happened to be sitting next to the share registrar at Santos, briefly while I was doing some research there, and she said to me 'you might like to hear about this guy who has got in touch with us'," Weidenbach said.

"Once they chased up all the two-for one share issues and dividends he was entitled to, he was paid out about $90,000.

"When I talked to him about getting the money he said it was lucky he'd taken his heart medication that night. It's a nice little story at the end."

Anyone who has had anything to do with the gas industry, whether greasing pipe or trading shares, will certainly find Blue Flames, Black Gold an interesting read.

In particular the book has a lot in store for anyone aspiring to be a part of the production industry, such as a geologist, to get an idea of what's in store for a career in gas exploration.

Weidenbach said she thinks anyone in the industry will enjoy it, as it covers the development of the whole oil and gas industry in Australia, but also that she wrote it with the hope that readers interested in Australian history would enjoy it.

"I tried to make it accessible for them: It is pretty technical in places, and there's lots of industry jargon in there, but I tried to make it a story that general readers would like as well¬ there is so much social history and political history, particularly for South Australia.

"I had some nice comments about the book: The company secretary, who had worked for Santos in the 60s and retired in the 2000s, he wrote a lovely letter when he received his copy of the book, saying that even after all that time with the company there were still things he learned from the book about Santos.

"It was nice to think that even people with such a lot of knowledge still had something to learn from the book." 

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