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Call them oilfield detectives, night riders of the hemlocks, or simply oil scouts. These early oil and gas well investigators separated fact from fiction.

oil scouts

Oil scouts like Justus McMullen often braved harsh winters (and sometimes armed guards) to visit well sites. Their intelligence debunked rumors and “demystified” reports about oil wells producing in early oil fields.

In the hard winter of 1888, famed 37-year-old oil scout Justus C. McMullen, succumbs to pneumonia – contracted while scouting production data from the Pittsburgh Manufacturers’ Gas Company’s well at Cannonsburg.

McMullen, publisher of the Bradford, Pennsylvania, “Petroleum Age” newspaper, already had contributed much to America’s early petroleum industry as a reliable oil field detective. Read the rest of this entry »

 

July 6, 1988 – North Sea Piper Alpha Tragedy

An explosion and fire on Occidental Petroleum’s Piper Alpha offshore production platform in the North Sea results in the deaths of 167 out of 224 personnel. It remains the petroleum industry’s most deadly offshore disaster.

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California-based Occidental Petroleum’s Piper Alpha platform began operations in 1976.

At the time of the explosion, Piper Alpha – originally designed for oil production – was receiving natural gas from two platforms while exporting gas to a compression platform. According to safety consultant Gary Karasek, “the initial explosion was caused by a misunderstanding of the readiness of a gas condensate pump that had been removed from service for maintenance of it’s pressure safety valve.”

New offshore platform designs and operation engineering, evacuation technologies and safety procedures emerged following an official inquiry. “It was a ground-breaking effort, with numerous detailed findings and 106 recommendations, which were readily accepted by industry.”

July 8, 1937 – Mile-Long Gulf of Mexico Drilling Pier

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The future Exxon, Humble Oil Company was founded in 1911 in Humble, Texas.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of War approves an ambitious plan to build a one-mile pier into the Gulf of Mexico to explore for oil.

War Secretary Harry Woodring approves an application to drill near McFaddin Beach, Texas, by the Humble Oil and Refining Company. The 60-acre lease is about eight miles east of High Island in Galveston County. Humble Oil builds the one-mile pier and erects three drilling rigs to search for oil above what geologist describe as a shallow salt dome.

All three wells are dry holes. A hurricane will destroy the pier in 1938. Visit the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum and Education Center on Galveston Island.

July 9, 1815 – Early Natural Gas Discovery

Natural gas is discovered accidentally by Capt. James Wilson during the digging of a salt brine well within the present city limits of Charleston, West Virginia (Virginia in 1815).

The site is near where George Washington noted “burning springs” along the Kanawha River in his 1775 diary. Washington was awarded tracts of the land in Wirt County, which in the 1860s would experience one of America’s earliest oil booms.

Visit the Oil & Gas Museum in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The first commercial discovery of natural gas will be in 1821 in Fredonia, New York.

July 9, 1883 – Finding Oil in the Land of Oz

petroleum history july 6

The father of L. Frank Baum, Benjamin Ward Baum, found great success in the early Pennsylvania oilfields – allowing young “Frankie” to launch an axle oil business before becoming a children’s book author.

The future world-famous author of the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz starts a business selling petroleum products in Syracuse, New York. The store offers lubricants, oils, greases – and “Baum’s Castorine, the great axle oil.”

L. Frank Baum – whose father has found great success in early Pennsylvania oilfields – serves as chief salesman for Baum’s Castorine Company, which is still in operation. Reporting on the opening, the Syracuse Daily Courier newspaper notes that Baum’s Castorine was a rust-resistant axle grease concoction for machinery, buggies, and wagons.

The grease was advertised to be “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.”

Baum’s connection to the petroleum industry began decades earlier when his father closed the family barrel-making business to risk his fortunes in the oilfields. Although Baum will sell the axle oil business in 1900, one Oz historian – after researching company records at its current location in Rome, New York – proclaims the Tin Man can trace his roots to Baum’s Castorine. Read more in Oil in the Land of Oz.

July 11, 2008 – World Oil Prices hit Historic High

petroleum history july

Many types of crude oil are produced around the world, notes the U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Variations in quality and location result in price differentials, but because oil markets are integrated globally, prices tend to move together.”

U.S. “light sweet crude” rises to $147.27 a barrel, before dropping back to $145.08. Prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange peaked at $145.29 a barrel eight days earlier.

As supply fears subside (despite speculation and concern about Iran and new demand from China and India competing for world oil supplies) oil prices fall to $36.51 a barrel on January 16, 2009.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), America’s dependence on foreign petroleum has declined since peaking in 2005.

petroleum history july 6

July 12, 1934 – The Start of “Clark Super 100”

petroleum history july 6

Incorporated in 1934, Emory T. Clark’s company will operate almost 1,500 gas stations by 1970.

petroleum history july 6Two years after paying $14 cash for a closed, one-pump gas station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Emory T. Clark incorporates what will become the Clark Oil & Refining Corporation.

Clark begins building a network of filling stations focused on premium gasoline only – delivering “Super 100 Premium Gasoline.”

Clark’s marketing strategy is to omit many of the common services such as maintenance, engine repair, and tire changing. Sales reach $21.1 million in 1949, notes the Harvard Business School Baker Library.

In 1953 Clark operates 158 service stations in the Midwest under the brand name “Clark Super 100. In September 1967 Clark purchases a 31,000 barrel per day refinery at Wood River, Illinois.

petroleum history july 6

Retired Shell employees established the Wood River Refinery History Museum in 1986.

By 1970, his company operates almost 1,500 gas stations and two refineries with combined capacity of almost 100,000 barrels a day.

In 1981, the Clark family will sell their company holdings – which began with  Emory T. Clark’s $14 purchase – to Missouri-based Apex Oil for $483 million.

The modern Wood River Manufacturing Complex remains a leading refinery serving the Midwest market, notes the Wood River Refinery History Museum in Roxana, Illinois, where exhibits trace the refinery’s history from its beginning in 1917.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation. © 2015 AOGHS, This Week in Petroleum History.

 

In 2001, an archaeological survey of the seafloor prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline led to the discovery of U-166 about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast. BP and Shell sponsored additional fieldwork to record detailed images, including a gun on the deck aft of the submarine’s conning tower.

Petroleum companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf are required to provide detailed sonar data in areas that have archaeological potential.

Several federal agencies today review about 1,700 oil and natural gas company surveys every year. The surveys have revealed more than 100 historic shipwrecks. In 2001, scientists at the Minerals Management Service noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.”

During World War II, U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico to disrupt the vital flow of oil carried by tankers departing ports in Louisiana and Texas.

In just one year, the Kriegsmarine sank 56 Allied ships, including 17 tankers, while losing only one submarine – the Unterseeboot 166.

German submarine predations so threatened the war effort that American government and industry responded with the longest petroleum pipeline project ever undertaken, building the “Big Inch” and “Little Big Inch” from East Texas to Illinois, and as far as New York. See WW II Big Inch and Little Big Inch Pipelines.

But for the U-166, the war was over. Its final resting place remained a mystery for almost 60 years.

The last victim of the U-166 was the passenger freighter Robert E. Lee, sunk by a single torpedo on July 30, 1942, while on its way to New Orleans. Her Naval escort ship, PC-566, rushed in to drop ten depth charges. The U-166 was believed to have escaped. It did not.

Commissioned on March 23, 1942, U-166 today is a war grave in the Gulf of Mexico.

Finding U-166

In 1986, a Shell Offshore vessel using a deep-tow system of the day recorded two close wrecks about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast in 5,000 feet of water.

Thought to be the Robert E. Lee and cargo freighter Alcoa Puritan, it was May 2001 before an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) using side scan sonar revealed the U-166. The lost World War II submarine was separated from Robert E. Lee by less than a mile on the sea floor.

The U.S. petroleum industry remains a principle user of advanced underwater technologies for seafloor mapping.

The AUV, which required no cable connection to its mother ship, found the Alcoa Puritan 14 miles away. Learn more about the petroleum industry’s offshore robotics in Swimming Socket Wrenches.

The historic submarine’s discovery resulted from the requirement for an archaeological survey of the seafloor prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline by BP and Shell Oil. Six other World War II vessels have been discovered in the course of Gulf of Mexico oil and natural gas surveys.

As a result of the U-166’s discovery, BP and Shell altered their proposed pipeline to preserve the site and government archaeologists notified the U.S. Navy Historical Center of the discovery, notes a 2001 MMS newsletter.

“They, in turn, notified the German Embassy and military attaché,” the MMS article explains. “Since the remains of the U-166’s 52 crewmen are still on board, the German government has declared the site to be a war grave and has requested that it remain undisturbed.”

Gulf of Mexico oil tanker losses led to a petroleum industry achievement: construction of the “Big Inch” and “Little Big Inch” pipelines that connected Texas oilfields to eastern refineries.

Editor’s Note – Since 2011, the Minerals Management Service has become the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

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