The exploration history of the U.S. offshore oil and natural gas industry began in the Pacific Ocean more than 100 years ago. As recently as 1947 no company had ever risked drilling beyond the sight of land.
America’s offshore petroleum industry began in the late 19th century in Pacific Ocean with drilling and production piers at Summerland, California. Drilling platforms also appreared on lakes in Ohio and Louisiana. By the 1940s, technology was taking wells far into the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1896, as enterprising businessmen pursued California’s prolific Summerland oilfield all the way to the beach, the lure of offshore production enticed Henry L. Williams and his associates to build a pier 300 feet out into the Pacific – and mount a standard cable-tool rig on it.
Although never built, Thomas Rowland’s 1869 design for an offshore platform was far ahead of its time.
By 1897 this first offshore well was producing oil and 22 companies soon joined in the boom, constructing 14 more piers and over 400 wells within the next five years. The Summerland offshore field produced for 25 years – fueling the growth of California’s economy.
Piers, Platforms and a Patent
In 1894, Henry Williams drilled two wells on a California beach. He drilled another in 1895 with encouraging results. This led Williams and others to exploring for oil offshore the next year.
They constructed piers and drilled wells, leading to the realization that the Summerland oilfield extended offshore. This would be the first offshore field developed in the nation by drilling offshore wells from piers. – From Santa Barbara County records
In 1911, Gulf Refining Co. abandoned the use of piers. It drilled Ferry Lake No. 1 on Caddo Lake, Louisiana, using a fleet of tugboats, barges, and floating pile drivers. When the well came in at 450 barrels per day, Gulf constructed platforms every 600 feet on each 10-acre lakebed site.
The Caddo Lake wells – completed over water without a pier connection to shore – have frequently been called America’s first true offshore drilling . However, Ohio oil documents record hundreds of oil wells pumping far out into a lake – 20 years before drillers ventured into the waters of Caddo Lake.
Louisiana’s Caddo Lake, circa 1911.
As early as 1891, the first submerged oil wells were drilled from platforms built on piles in Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio, notes historian Judith L. Sneed in “The First Over Water Drilling: The Lost History Of Ohio’s Grand Reservoir Oil Boom.” See “Ohio Offshore Wells.”
Even earlier, some historians say the true beginning of the modern offshore industry can be traced to an 1869 U.S. patent. Thomas Fitch Rowland of Greenpoint, New York, patented a “submarine drilling apparatus” on May 4, 1869.
Rowland’s design included a fixed, working platform for drilling offshore to a depth of almost 50 feet. The anchored, four-legged tower – with telescoping legs “suitable hydraulic attachments or devices” – resembles modern offshore platforms. Ream more in “An 1869 Offshore Rig Patent.”
Gulf of Mexico Technologies
In 1938, Pure Oil Co. and Superior Oil Co. built a freestanding drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, despite logistics, engineering, and communications challenges.
They hired a Houston engineering and construction company, Brown & Root Marine Operators, Inc., to build a 320-foot by 180-foot freestanding wooden deck in 14-feet of water about a mile offshore. The chosen drilling site was near Creole, La.
Using onshore building criteria and intuition, the Creole platform was designed to withstand winds of 150 mph and constructed 15 feet above the water. Three hundred treated yellow pine pilings were driven 14 feet into the sandy bottom.
The Superior-Pure State No. 1 well was successful – but was wiped off its pilings by a hurricane in 1940. Although the pilings were damaged, the platform was quickly rebuilt and put back into production in the four million barrel field.
Onshore salt domes were recorded as early as 1890 by the Geological Survey of Texas.
“It may be tentatively assumed that the Gulf of Mexico is a potential source of salt-dome oil…Whether or not it will ever be economically feasible to explore these waters for the domes that must exist is a question for the future to answer.” – Geologist Orval Lester Brace in 1941.
Kerr-McGee dramatically answered the salt dome question in 1947 with an experimental offshore rig.
Not much equipment specifically designed for offshore drilling existed and exploration remained an extraordinarily speculative and risky business venture. An offshore dry hole could easily swallow the huge capital costs sunk into construction of a large, permanent rig platforms.
Nevertheless, Dean McGee of Kerr-McGee Oil Industries Inc. partnered with Phillips Petroleum and Stanolind Oil & Gas Co. to secure leases for exploratory wells in the Gulf of Mexico. They hired Brown & Root to build a freestanding platform 10 miles out to sea.
The Mighty Kermac No. 16
“We decided to explore the areas where the really potential prolific production might be – salt domes – the good ones on land were gone, but we could move out in the shallow water and, in effect, get into a virgin area where we could find the real class-one type salt dome prospect,” McGee said.
Vessels were needed to provide supplies, equipment, and crew quarters for the drilling site, 43 miles southwest of Morgan City, La. The gradually sloping Gulf of Mexico reached only about 18-feet deep at the drilling site. A second platform would be built about eight miles from the first at Ship Shoal Block 28. Sixteen 24-inch pilings were sunk 104 feet into the ocean floor to secure a 2,700 square foot wooden deck.
The Kermac No. 16 well stood in almost 20 feet of water, 10 miles at sea.
The well was spudded on Sept. 10, 1947. The biggest hurricane of the season arrived a week later – with winds of 140 mph. Kerr-McGee had $450,000 invested in the project. Both platforms were evacuated during the hurricane, but damage was minimal. Drilling promptly resumed. On Nov.14, the Kermac No. 16 well came in at 40 barrels per hour.
“Spectacular Gulf of Mexico Discovery. Possible 100-Million Barrel Field – 10 Miles at Sea,” proclaimed the Oil & Gas Journal. Kermac No.16 would produce 1.4 million barrels of oil and 307 million cubic feet of natural gas by 1984.
Early drillers focused on natural oil seeps – until a 1901 gusher at Spindletop, a salt dome in Beaumont, Texas. Seismic instruments revealed how salt moved up through the earth – sometimes leaving oil trapped.
By the end of 1949, 11 oil and natural gas fields were found in the Gulf of Mexico with 44 exploratory wells, according to the National Ocean Industries Association, which notes that the industry continued to through the 1950s.
Modern offshore energy industry benefits come from the hard lessons learned from 60 years of open water experience. Compared to the limits of just a few years ago, today’s achievements will no doubt pale in comparison to what the future of offshore exploration will bring.
Revenue generated from the production of oil became the second-largest revenue generator for the country, after income taxes. NOIA also notes:
As the industry entered the last decade of the 20th century, advancing technology ensued. New depth records for drilling reached 7,625 feet in the Gulf of Mexico, and Shell Oil’s platform ‘Troll,’ which stands in the North Sea in 1,000 feet of water, 1,500 feet high, became one of two man-made objects visible with the naked eye from the surface of the moon. The other is the Great Wall of China.
The first use of helicopters offshore was at the request of Kerr-McGee and Humble Oil. Bell Helicopters recognized the opportunity and formed Petroleum Bell Helicopters Co.
At right is a Bell Helicopter advertisement from 1954, courtesy the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum
A flat area on an LST (from WW Two’s landing ship, tanks) anchored next to Humble Rig 28 served as landing pad for one of the first helicopters to be flown offshore.
Moveable rigs drill many exploratory offshore wells. Sometimes it is more economical to build a permanent platform from which well completion, extraction and production can occur. These large, permanent platforms are extremely expensive; they generally require large expected hydrocarbon deposits to be economical to construct.
This depiction of offshore drilling and completion platforms gives an idea of just how massive modern rigs can be. Because of their size, most permanent offshore rigs are constructed in pieces near land.
As components of the rig are completed, they are taken out to the drilling location. Sometimes construction or assembly can even take place as the rig is being transported to its intended destination, notes naturalgas.org.
Also see “Rigs to Reefs,“ “Deep Sea Roughnecks” and “Swimming Wrenches” (a history of remotely operated undersea vehicles).
A “big fin” squid.
On November 11, 2007, a mile and a half underwater, a petroleum company’s remote control submersible camera captured a rarely seen Magnapinna squid.
The brief video, obtained by National Geographic News, shows the alien-like squid loiter above the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. The clip – from Shell Oil Company’s Perdido production site — marks the first sighting of a Magnapinna or “big fin” squid near oil development. Some marine biologists have now formed partnerships with petroleum companies.
Offshore Oil and Gas Resources
Gulf of Mexico federal offshore oil production accounts for 23 percent of total U.S. crude oil production and federal offshore natural gas production in the Gulf accounts for 7 percent of total U.S. dry production, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Over 40 percent of total U.S. petroleum refining capacity is located along the Gulf coast, as well as 30 percent of total U.S. natural gas processing plant capacity.
To meet increasing U.S. demand while addressing environmental concerns, new technologies have resulted in drilling rigs capable of drilling 250 miles offshore to ocean depths exceeding 10,000 feet. At stake are an additional 19 billion barrels of oil and another 86 trillion cubic feet of gas. Fear of oil spills and heated environmental debates restrict access to many potential areas.
More than 5,000 offshore oil and natural gas platforms operate in the Gulf of Mexico around the clock, seven-days a week. It is the largest artificial reef system in the world.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, more than 60 percent of all oil found in seawater is not from wells, but from natural seepage (the largest emitting 1,000 barrels of oil a week); 32 percent comes from shipping and run-off from land. Four percent can be attributed to tanker spills.
However, near Santa Barbara, Calif., offshore drilling’s worst environmental disaster occurred in 1969 when an undersea well blew out. The calamity quickly brought industry changes that have protected the offshore environment ever since.
Between 1980 and 1999, about 7.4 billion barrels of oil were produced in federal waters, says the U.S. Coast Guard. Less than a thousandth of one percent spilled – less than the natural seepage of oil from the sea floor.
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