- This Week in Petroleum History, March 23 to March 29
March 24, 1989 – Grounding of Exxon Valdez results in Alaskan Oil Spill
After nearly a dozen years of daily tanker passages through Prince William Sound, Alaska, the 987-foot-long Exxon Valdez runs aground on Bligh Reef.
Eight of the supertanker’s 11 oil cargo tanks are punctured. An estimated 260,000 barrels of oil spill, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. With the captain not present on the bridge, an error in navigation by the third mate has grounded the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload.
Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely passed through Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times during the previous 12 years. With a boom deployed around the vessel within 35 hours of the grounding, Exxon launches a massive cleanup. Read more in Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.
March 26, 1930 – “Wild Mary Sudik” makes Worldwide Headlines
What will become one of Oklahoma’s most famous wells strikes a high-pressure formation about 6,500 feet beneath Oklahoma City – and oil erupts skyward. The Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company’s Mary Sudik No. 1 well flows for 11 days before being brought under control.
The well, which produces 20,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of natural gas a day, becomes a worldwide sensation known as “Wild Mary Sudik.”
The giant discovery is featured in movie newsreels and on radio broadcasts. It is later learned that after drilling to 6,471 feet, roughnecks had overlooked a dangerous pressure increase in the well.
“The exhausted crew failed to fill the hole with mud,” notes one historian. “They didn’t know the Wilcox sand formation was permeated with natural gas under high pressure, and within minutes that sand under so much pressure found a release.”
On April 6, NBC Radio announces that after two unsuccessful attempts, the well is closed with a two-ton “overshot” cap. As drilling resumes in the Oklahoma City oilfield, the high-pressure Wilcox sands formation continues to challenge technologies of the day. Read more in World Famous “Wild Mary Sudik.“
March 27, 1855 – Canadian Chemist invents Kerosene
Canadian chemist Abraham Gesner patents a process to distill bituminous shale and cannel coal into kerosene.
“I have invented and discovered a new and useful manufacture or composition of matter, being a new liquid hydrocarbon, which I denominate Kerosene,” he proclaims in his patent. Because his new lighting fluid was extracted from coal, consumers called it “coal oil” as often as they called it kerosene.
When it is found that kerosene can also be distilled from crude oil, investors create the first U.S. oil exploration company – and hire Edwin L. Drake to drill a well in Pennsylvania. Kerosene becomes America’s principle source of illumination until commercial electricity arrives.
March 27, 1975 – First Pipe laid for Trans-Alaskan Pipeline
With the laying of the first section of pipe, construction begins on the largest private construction project in American history at the time.
The 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline system, including pumping stations, connecting pipelines, and the Valdez Marine Terminal, will cost $8 billion by the time it is completed in 1977.
The pipeline, designed to carry North Slope oil to the ice-free port, has been recognized as a landmark engineering feat. Oil from the Prudhoe Bay oilfield flows at four miles an hour through the 48-inch-wide pipe.
Above-ground sections of the pipeline (420 miles) are built in a zigzag configuration to allow for expansion or contraction of the pipe because of temperature changes.
Anchor structures, 700 feet to 1,800 feet apart, hold the pipe in position. In warm permafrost and other areas where heat might cause undesirable thawing, the supports contain two each, two-inch pipes called “heat pipes.”
The first tanker carrying North Slope oil sails out of the Valdez Marine Terminal in August 1977. By 2010, the pipeline will have carried about 16 billion barrels of oil. Read more in Trans-Alaska Pipeline History.
March 28, 1886 – Beginning of Indiana Natural Gas Boom
A natural gas boom comes to Portland, Indiana, when the Eureka Gas and Oil Company finds gas at 700 feet. For a time, the state becomes the world’s leading natural gas producer.
By April 1887, five miles of pipe supplies natural gas to offices, residences – and 50 large torches or “flambeaux” for street lighting.
The “Trenton Field” as it would become known, spreads over 17 Indiana counties and 5,120 square miles. It was the largest natural gas field known in the world. Within three years, more than 200 companies were drilling, distributing, and selling natural gas.
Indiana is among the earliest states to legislate conservation when in 1891 it passes an act forbidding the burning of natural gas in the wasteful flambeaux lights. Read more in Indiana Natural Gas Boom.
March 28, 1905 – Caddo-Pine Discovery
The Offenhauser No. 1 discovery well for the giant Caddo-Pine Island oilfield in Louisiana comes in at a depth of 1,556 feet – after drilling through a productive natural gas zone.
Although the well yields only five barrels a day and is soon plugged and abandoned, more wells follow and the northern Louisiana oilfield is soon prolific.
To prevent the loss of natural gas through venting, Louisiana passes its first conservation law in 1906. By 1918, annual production from the Caddo-Pine Island oilfield reaches 11 million barrels. Learn more by visiting the Louisiana State Oil and Gas Museum in Oil City.
March 29, 1819 – Birthday of Father of the Petroleum Industry
Today is the birthday of Edwin Laurentine Drake (1819-1880), who will become the “father of the American petroleum industry” when he drills the first U.S. commercial oil well in 1859 near Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Born in Greenville, New York, Drake will overcome many financial and technical obstacles to make his historic discovery.
Drake also will pioneer new drilling technologies, including using iron casing to isolate his well bore from nearby Oil Creek. Seeking oil for the Seneca Oil Company for refining into a new product (kerosene) his shallow well creates an industry.
“In order to overcome the hurdles before him, he invented a ‘drive pipe’ or ‘conductor,’ an invention he unfortunately did not patent,” reports a Pennsylvania State University historian. “Mr. Drake conceived the idea of driving a pipe down to the rock through which to start the drill.”
On Saturday afternoon on August 27, 1859, at a depth of 69.5 feet, the drill bit had dropped into a crevice, notes one Drake expert. Late the following afternoon the oilman’s driller, “Uncle Billy” Smith, visited the site “and noticed a very dark liquid floating on top of the water in the hole.”
“Drake’s Folly,” as it was known to the local population, was not such a folly after all. So began the modern petroleum industry. Read more in Birth of the U.S. Petroleum Industry.
March 29, 1938 – Magnolia Oilfield Discovery in Arkansas
“Kerlyn Wildcat Strike In Southern Arkansas is Sensation of the Oil Country,” notes an Arkansas newspaper headline as the Barnett No. 1 well opens the 100-million-barrel Magnolia oilfield.
Drilling had been suspended by the Kerlyn Oil Company (predecessor to the Kerr-McGee company) because of a recession and lack of backers, but company vice president and geologist Dean McGee persevered. He was rewarded with the giant Arkansas discovery at 7,646 feet. Visit the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover.
Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio program, Exploring Energy, 9 a.m – 10 a.m., eastern time. On the fourth Wednesday of each month AOGHS Executive Director Bruce Wells calls in to discuss petroleum history. Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation. © AOGHS, This Week in Petroleum History.