James Randi has demonstrated that a water diviner has a 94% chance of success in finding water for the simple reason that 94% of the land surface has fresh water immediately below its surface. The diviner is likely to fail miserably when he/she is asked to find a dry spot. The notion that water flows in rivers underground is only true for some exceptional places, usually associated with limestone deposits. Normally, water is trapped in microscopic pores and only moves a few centimetres to a few hundred meters per year. Similar misconceptions and statistics are seen in oil divining.

Catchment organisations are offered the services of diviners, and so are oil companies. Letters and maps are submitted showing in bright colours the location of oil fields varying in size from pin point to “company-making” giant accumulations.

Most diviners make a clear distinction between oil, gas and water, but demonstrate the lack of even the most elementary knowledge of underground hydrocarbon accumulation. They go to great lengths, and sometimes to great expense, to dowse for the black gold. Some wave their specially designed intricate divining device over a map in the comfort of their house, other rent planes and fly over the target area.

The contraptions used vary from the standard forked hazel or double steel wire to pieces of wood with mysterious bottles and springs dangling from it.

Usually there are only the two extremes of diviners: those who project oil to flow in rivers circumscribing the entire globe and those who find little isolated pools measuring only a couple of metres wide and long.

The first category of diviners is convinced that rivers of oil, for example originating in Alaska, find their way across the Pacific, traversing Indonesia and Australia to enter New Zealand just south (luckily) of the Waitomo caves. (Black water rafting would have had a different meaning.) The diviner continues on to explain that by drilling into these rivers, the production of hydrocarbons acts as a pressure relief valve, preventing the explosion of entire townships or volcanoes located on top of these volatile rivers.

The other category of diviners arrive at the gate of a drilling site and point to a spot ten meters away from the rig where the oil should be found. Explaining that the deviated well already has its bit probing the layers 800 metres away from the site does not deter the diviner in the least.

How often are they right and is there any history of a company successfully employing a diviner? The answer is simple: the diviner states “Yes, all companies have found their major finds on indication of a diviner” and all companies state “We have never used a diviner”.

The diviner claims a success rate of 80% to 90%, which indeed is correct. However, a similar reason for the success rate of water divining applies in oil prediction. On average, every one out of ten exploration wells proves to be a commercial success. By predicting that the well is not going to be commercial, the diviner has a 90% chance of success. It escapes the diviner that virtually every well encounters some hydrocarbons. Often a hydrocarbon flow to the surface is even established, but further testing concludes that no commercial quantities can be produced. Such a well is generally plugged and abandoned as a “dry” well, which is an oilfield term and does not mean no hydrocarbons were encountered. Most diviners cannot distinguish between commercial or non-commercial wells for the simple reason that they lack the understanding of basic economics.

Still, the diviners represent a group of charming but deluded people, who have a genuine interest in the success of the company. We therefore respond politely to their letters, and as a geologist I keep an eye out for the one diviner who can really do it, so I can destroy any evidence and keep my job.

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