The Uinta Basin witnessed its first drilling boom following a 1948 oil discovery oil at 4,152 feet deep. The boom continue today - thanks to giant reserves of coalbed methane gas. Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

The Uinta Basin witnessed Utah’s first drilling boom following a 1948 oil discovery. A modern boom would return  thanks to coalbed methane gas. Photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society.

After decades of expensive failed exploration attempts, the first Utah oil well finally was competed on September 18, 1948, in the Uinta Basin.

“The honor of bringing in the state’s first commercial oil well went not to the “Majors” but to an “Independent” – the Equity Oil Company,” notes Osmond Harline in a summer 1963 article in Utah Historical Quarterly.

The Ashley Valley No. 1, about 10 miles southeast of Vernal, Utah, produced about 300 barrels a day from 4,152 feet, Harline explains. “It is interesting to note that J.L. (Mike) Dougan, president and general manager of Equity Oil Company and a Salt Lake City resident, had been drilling for oil in Utah for over 25 years.”

Dougan beat out larger and better financed competitors, including  Standard Oil of California, Pure Oil, Continental and Union Oil. The Utah discovery launched a deep-drilling boom. Unlike the earlier attempts, Dougan had drilled beyond the basin’s typical depth of 1,000 feet to 2,000 feet.

Within three months, eight more wells were drilled. Development of the field quickly follows. Production soon averages just under one million barrels a year from about 30 wells in the booming oilfield.

Exploration companies then begin drilling 5,000 feet to 8,000 feet and even deeper into the Uinta Basin.

Utah’s Early Oil Pioneers

Long before the first Utah oil well, signs of petroleum had been noted near Rozel Point on the northern shore of Great Salt Lake as early as the mid-1850s.


Utah’s prolific Uinta Basin

“The exploratory period began in 1850 when Captain Howard Stansbury, while on a survey of the Great Salt Lake for the Army Corps of topographical engineers, discovered evidence of ‘petroliem’ along the northern shore of the lake,” explains Utah historian Walter Jones. During the next 40 years Utah explorers will find other signs of oil.

Jones reports that in 1891 the Utah Oil Company, whose board included future Utah Governor Simon Bamberger, drilled a well 1,000 feet deep near Green River. It was a dry hole. During the remainder of the 1890s oil and gas prospectors sank more than two dozen unsuccessful in various parts of the state.

Then in March 1908, a former gold prospector named E.L. Goodridge produced a gusher in San Juan County, says Jones, “and by the end of 1909 approximately seven oil companies had started work on no less than twenty-five wells near Mexican Hat.”

Jones adds that Goodridge’s Mexican Hat oilfield never became a major oil producer, but it and a another discovered nearby produced enough oil to supply small local refineries that operated intermittently for many years.

Jones also reports in his The Growth of Utah’s Petroleum Industry, that in the 1920s enterprising petroleum operators began testing offshore drilling technologies at the Great Salt Lake.

The Lakeside Oil Company drilled on the western shore of the lake – and an offshore rig was built on a pier near Rozel Point at the lake’s northern tip. But the state’s petroleum industry was still decades away from its true beginning.

first Utah oil well

J.L. “Mike” Dougan, left, watches oil flow from his historic 1948 Ashley Valley No. 1 well about 10 miles southeast of Vernal, Utah. Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

Dougan’s 1948 Discovery

“Toward the end of World War II oilmen began to accelerate Utah’s petroleum operations once again,” Jones says.

“From 1945 through 1947 they succeeded in finishing the groundwork necessary to propel the state into a period of commercial oil production,” he adds.

The focal point of drilling became the Uinta Basin, where a number of large companies searched.

However, major oil companies like Standard Oil of California and Gulf only drilled dry holes.

The basin’s first commercial oil discovery came in September 1948 – a well drilled by Mike Dougan’s small, independent exploration company.

“Shortly thereafter, Utah was one of the top 15 oil producing states – a position it has held since,” Jones concludes.

Today, the Uinta Basin’s coalbed methane in Utah and Colorado is considered one of the major producing areas in the nation. According to the giant energy service company Halliburton, the basin:

Located on a remote desert plateau in Utah and Colorado, and is considered one of the major coalbed methane producing areas in the United States, Uinta is estimated to have between eight and 10 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves. Coal depths in this basin vary from 1,000 feet to 7,000 feet over a 14,450 square mile region.

To learn about another Utah exploration company, one that was the first to attempt to extract oil from dense oil shales, see Ute Oil Company – Oil Shale Pioneer. By 2010, Utah produced more than 8.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas valued at more than $1.7 billion.

“Utah ranked 11th in the country in  oil production during 2014 and 10th in natural gas gross production (not including Federal Offshore production areas) in 2013. There are approximately 12,300 wells currently in production within the state,” according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources.


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