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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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The change from coal to oil-fired boilers at sea is another chapter in petroleum history. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Phillips Petroleum Co. vice presidents L.E. Phillips and Clyde Alexander, pilot Arthur Goebel Jr., and legendary oilman Frank Phillips with the 1927 racing airplane – Woolaroc.

Phillips Petroleum Co. vice presidents L.E. Phillips and Clyde Alexander, pilot Arthur Goebel Jr., and legendary oilman Frank Phillips with the 1927 racing airplane – Woolaroc.

It was a foggy Tuesday morning, August 16, 1927, as eight airplanes prepared for takeoff before a crowd of more than 50,000 at the Oakland Airport in California.

Aviation history was about to be made with a race to Honolulu – thanks to a revolutionary petroleum product: Phillips Nu-Aviation Gasoline. Read the rest of this entry »

 

July 1, 1859 – First Issue of a Gas Industry Journal

The first issue of the American Gas Light Journal is published. It is the first to report on the manufactured gas industry and subsequently the natural gas industry. Publication continues after 1917 as the American Gas Journal, which later combines with Pipeline Engineer International and continues today as the Pipeline & Gas Journal.

July 1, 1914 – Petroleum Technology Office established

The Office of Fossil Energy continues to support research.

Four years after the United States Bureau of Mines is organized under the Department of Interior, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Division is established. W. A. Williams is named Chief Petroleum Technologist.

The division’s Petroleum Experiment Station is in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. In 1977, under the newly created U.S. Department of Energy, the site becomes the Bartlesville Energy Technology Center (joining the Morgantown Energy Technology Center in West Virginia and the Pittsburgh Energy Technology Center in Pennsylvania).

In 1998, DOE opens the National Petroleum Technology Office in Tulsa and closes the Bartlesville Project Office. In 2000, the technology office joins DOE’s 15th national laboratory, the National Energy Technology Laboratory. Today, the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy continues to support research for “secure, reasonably priced, and environmentally sound fossil energy.” Read the rest of this entry »

 

Wartime planners knew that following D-Day – June 6, 1944 – Allied forces would need vast quantities of petroleum to continue the advance into Europe. Allied leaders also knew that petroleum tankers trying to reach French ports would be vulnerable to Luftwaffe attacks.

The secret pipeline mission used a popular Walt Disney character for its logo.

To prevent fuel shortages from stalling the Normandy invasion, a top-secret “Operation PLUTO” – Pipe Line Under The Ocean – became the Allied strategy. It would fuel victory and help change the petroleum industry.

Although by 1942 the industry had laid thousands of pipe miles of across all manner of terrain, to span the English Channel would require an unprecedented leap in technology. The channel was deep, the French ports distant, and the hazards unpredictable. In great secrecy, two approaches were developed. Read the rest of this entry »