Updated November 16, 2017
A summary of U.S. petroleum history includes many milestones (good and bad) from an extensive heritage – including discoveries, pioneers, inventors and advances in exploration and production technologies, petroleum products and transportation.
The modern offshore oil and natural gas industry is born on November 14, 1947, when an exploratory well strikes oil in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the first successful offshore oil well out of sight of land.
Commissioned by Kerr-McGee Industries, the offshore drilling platform is 10 miles off the Louisiana coast in just 18 feet of water. Built by Brown & Root Company for only $230,000 — and without comparable information on how strong to make the pilings, welds and jackets — the platform will withstand hurricane-force winds and waves.
Sixteen 24-inch pilings sunk 104 feet into the ocean floor secure the 2,700 square foot wooden deck.Kerr-McGee purchases World War II surplus utility freighters to provide supplies, equipment, and crew quarters. The “Kermac 16″ oil platform will produce 1.4 million barrels of oil and 307 million cubic feet of natural gas before being shut down in 1984.
On November 11, 1884, America’s largest gas utility is created in New York City. Six gas-light companies (the New York, Manhattan, Metropolitan, Municipal, Knickerbocker and Harlem companies) merge to form what will become the Consolidated Edison Company of New York.
“With six major gas companies serving New York City, the streets were constantly being torn up by one company or another installing or repairing their own mains – or removing those of a rival,” notes a Con Edison historian. “From time to time, work crews from competing companies would inadvertently meet on the same street and literally battle for customers, giving rise to the term “gas house gangs.’”
Con Edison today distributes natural gas to more than one million customers – and maintains more than 4,200 miles of gas mains.
Dredged 25 feet, the Houston Ship Channel opens for ocean-going vessels on November 10, 1914. President Woodrow Wilson salutes the occasion from his desk in the White House – reportedly by pushing an ivory button wired to a cannon in Houston.
“With the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901 and crops such as rice beginning to rival the dominant export crop of cotton, Houston’s ship channel needed the capacity to handle newer and larger vessels,” explains the Houston Port Authority, which administers the channel.
As work began in 1912, similar extraordinary maritime projects of the time included the Panama Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The channel today is 45 feet deep and 530 feet wide and extends 52 miles. It supports refineries and the largest petrochemical complex in the world, thus making petroleum history.
America’s first National Automobile Show opens in New York City’s Madison Square Garden on November 3, 1900. Almost 48,000 visitors pay 50 cents each to see the latest in automotive technology. Of the 4,200 automobiles sold by the end of the year, less than a thousand are powered by gasoline.
Manufacturers present 160 different vehicles and demonstrate driving and maneuverability on a 20-foot-wide wooden track that encircles the exhibits.
A 200-foot ramp tests hill-climbing power. Almost 48,000 visitors pay 50 cents each to see the latest in automotive technology. Automobiles will help reduce the 450,000 tons of horse manure annually removed from New York City streets.
In Boonsville on October 26, 1970, Texas, Governor Preston Smith dedicated a “Joe Roughneck” statue on the 20th anniversary of the Boonsville natural gas field’s discovery. The field’s first well, Lone Star Gas Company’s B.P. Vaught No. 1, produced 2.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas in its first 20 years.
“Joe Roughneck” began life in 1950s advertisements after the oilfield tubular goods manufacturer hired Texas artist Torg Thompson to create a character representing the “heart of the oil and gas industry.” Joe – whose bronze face is on four other Texas monuments – has been presented annually since 1955 as the U.S. petroleum industry’s “Chief Roughneck Award” honoring one individual whose achievements and character represent the highest ideals of the oil and natural gas industry.
Wyoming’s first oil boom began on October 23, 1908, when the Dutch-owned Petroleum Maatschappij Salt Creek “Big Dutch” well erupted as a gusher about 40 miles north of Casper.
Although the Salt Creek area was known to be productive, the central Salt Creek dome had received little attention until noted Italian geologist Dr. Cesare Porro recommended the drilling site in 1906. Drillers J.E. Stock and his father, working for an English corporation known as the Oil Wells Drilling Syndicate, made petroleum history with a well producing 600 barrels a day.
In Venango County, Pennsylvania, Samuel Van Syckel’s Oil Transportation Association in 1865 put into service a two-inch iron line linking the Fraser well to the Miller Farm Oil Creek Railroad Station – about five miles away. Pipelines – and the technology to manufacture and lay them – will revolutionize petroleum transportation in the early oil patch. With 15-foot welded joints and three 10-horsepower Reed and Cogswell steam pumps, Van Syckel’s pipeline transported 80 barrels of oil per hour – the equivalent of 300 teamster wagons working for 10 hours.
On October 2, 1919, William Grove Skelly incorporated a company that helped make Tulsa become known as the “Oil Capital of the World.”
Skelly Oil Company built on Skelly’s earlier success in the El Dorado oilfield in, Kansas. Skelly, born in 1878 in Erie, Pennsylvania — where his father hauled oilfield supplies in a horse-drawn wagon – became known as “Mr. Tulsa.” He was a philanthropic sponsor of civic, educational, and charitable causes – and served as president of Tulsa’s famous International Petroleum Exposition for 32 years until his death in 1957.
On October 3, 1980 – exactly 50 years after the discovery of the giant East Texas oilfield – the East Texas Oil Museum opened in Kilgore “a tribute to the independent oil producers and wildcatters, the men and women who dared to dream as they pursued the fruits of free enterprise,” notedJoe White, founding director.
“Here are the people, their towns, their personal habits, their tools and their pastimes, all colorfully depicted in dioramas, movies, sound presentations and actual antiques donated by East Texas citizens,” said White. One downtown block in Kilgore – the “World’s Richest Acre Park” – once contained the greatest concentration of oil wells in the world.
New Mexico’s first commercial oil well was drilled September 25, 1922, on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Shiprock by the Midwest Refining Company.
The Hogback No. 1 was a modest producer at 375 barrels per day, but Midwest soon drilled eleven additional wells to establish the Hogback oilfield as a major producer of the San Juan Basin.
Two years later, a pipeline to Farmington was completed and oil is shipped by rail to Salt Lake City, Utah, for refining. However, discoveries in southeastern New Mexico overshadowed the San Juan Basin’s oil and natural gas possibilities. New Mexico has produced more than 5.5 billion barrels of oil since the Hogback No. 1 well of petroleum history.
The first major oil discovery in Utah occured in the massive Uinta Basin on September 18, 1948. After drilling for oil in Utah for more than 25 years, J. L. “Mike” Dougan, president of the small independent Equity Oil Company, completed the state’s first commercial well in the Uinta Basin. Dougan beat out larger and better financed competitors, including Standard Oil of California. His Utah discovery launched a deep-drilling boom.
The Texas petroleum industry is born September 12, 1866, east of Nacogdoches when Lyne Taliaferro Barret and his Melrose Petroleum Oil Company bring in the state’s first commercial oil well.
The Confederate army veteran’s No. 1 Isaac C. Skillern well — drilled in an area known as Oil Springs — finds the newly prized resource at a depth of 106 feet. His well yields a modest ten barrels per day, but limited access to markets soon leads to the company’s failure.
Barret’s failed project lay dormant in petroleum history for nearly two decades until 1887 when new wildcat drilling companies once again found oil and by 1889 had 40 producing wells. The Nacogdoches oilfield remains the first and oldest in Texas. Barret’s 1848 homestead, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, today has been restored as a bed and breakfast.
In 1927, the Schlumberger brothers add a new technology to petroleum exploration and production – a downhole electronic “logging tool.”
A technology that will revolutionize the search for oil and natural gas – an electric downhole well log — is first applied near Pechelbronn, France.
After successfully developing an electrical four-probe surface approach for mineral exploration, brothers Conrad and Marcel Schlumberger adapt their surface system to operate vertically. Changes in subsurface resistance readings show variations and possible oil and natural gas producing areas.
On August 31, 1959, just four days after America’s first commercial oil discovery at Titusville, Pennsylvania, a series of far less known “firsts” are achieved by local entrepreneur John Livingston Grandin.
Instead of being remembered as America’s second commercial oil discovery, the Grandin exploratory well results in the petroleum industry’s first “dry hole.” Gradin’s drilling attempt might also be credited with the first stuck tool, the first shooting of a well with black powder (and first well ruined by a failed shooting attempt).
Travelers on U.S. 62 about four miles south of the Allegheny River Bridge at Tidioute, Pennsylvania, will find an historic marker erected in July 1959. The marker reads: “At oil spring across river at this point J.L. Grandin began second well drilled specifically for oil, August 1859, after Drake’s success. It was dry, showing risks involved in oil drilling.”
August 30, 2002 – Birth of ConocoPhillips
Almost 100 years after Frank and L.E. Phillips completed their first oil well and 128 years after Continental Oil delivered its first can of kerosene in a horse-drawn wagon, Phillips Petroleum Company and Conoco Inc. combined to face energy challenges of the the 21st century.
The two successful companies joined their complementary strengths to create a new industry giant, ConocoPhillips. Each brought a history of success and innovation to a highly competitive world marketplace.
The modern American petroleum industry begins on August 27, 1859, in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
The Seneca Oil Company’s highly speculative pursuit of oil is rewarded when Edwin Drake and his blacksmith driller, William “Uncle Billy” Smith, bring in the first commercial oil well at 69.5 feet near Oil Creek in Venango County. They launch a new industry.
It is one of those special dates that changed the world, explains one respected oil patch historian.
“Even though the use of petroleum dates back to the first human civilizations, the events of that Saturday afternoon along the banks of Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania, provided the spark that propelled the petroleum industry toward the future,” notes historian William R. Brice, author of Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry.
Aviation fuel technology is still in its infancy when a pilot agrees to use a new Phillips Petroleum aviation fuel – Nu-Aviation Gasoline – for a dangerous air race over the Pacific Ocean. Eight airplanes will takeoff before a crowd of 50,000 at the Oakland Airport in California. Several competitors will never return.
It has been just three months after Charles Lindbergh’s famous 1927 transatlantic flight. The Dole Pineapple Company has sponsored the air race of more than 2,400 miles across the Pacific.
Phillips Petroleum’s high-octane gas fuels the “Woolaroc” monoplane into petroleum history. The winning aircraft today is in a museum at the Woolaroc Ranch near Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Fishtail bits became obsolete in 1909 when Howard Hughes Sr. introduced the twin-cone roller bit. Hughes Sr., who received his patent for the roller bit on August 10, 1909, a few years later had a chance meeting with inventor Granville A. Humason in a Shreveport bar. By the end of the evening, Humason had sold the rights to a cross-roller bit. The University of Texas Center for American History collection includes a 1951 recording of Humason’s recollections of that chance meeting. He recalls that he sold the rights for $150 – and spent $50 of his sale proceeds at the bar during the balance of the evening.
A 1926 discovery well near Seminole, Oklahoma, reveals the potential of an oil producing formation, the Wilcox sand – and launches a drilling boom that will make Oklahoma one of today’s leading producing states. The Fixico No. 1 well penetrates the Wilcox sand at 4,073 feet.
The greater Seminole area – several 1920s Oklahoma oilfields – will swing the United States’ oil reserves from scarcity to surplus. More than 60 petroleum reservoirs are found in 1,300 square miles of east-central Oklahoma – and six are giants that produce more than million barrels of oil each.
The La Brea tar pits are discovered by a Spanish expedition on August 3, 1769. Although commonly called the tar pits, the thick liquid that bubbles out of the ground at Rancho La Brea is actually comprised of asphalt (bitumen) and not tar. Learn more at the Page Museum at Rancho La Brea in the heart of Los Angeles. “Asphalt is a superb preservative; small and delicate fossils, such as hollow bird bones or paper-thin exoskeletons of beetles are very well-preserved here,” notes the museum. “As a result, our collection of fossil birds is one of the worlds largest.”
A wildcat well comes in on S. L. Fowler’s farm on July 29, 1918, near a small North Texas community on the Red River. The subsequent drilling boom will make Burkburnett famous — two decades before “Boom Town,” the motion picture it inspires. The 1940 MGM feature will star Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, Hedy Lamarr and Claudette Colbert.
Following the 1918 discovery, Burkburnett’s population grows from 1,000 to 8,000. A line of derricks two-miles long greets visitors. The new oilfield joins earlier discoveries in nearby Electra (1911) and Ranger (1917) that will make North Texas a worldwide leader in petroleum production.
The new association will promote “the education and professional development of individuals employed in or affiliated with the petroleum, energy and allied industries and to educate the general public about these industries.” On July 23, 1951, The Association of Desk and Derrick Clubs (ADDC) of North America is established to promote petroleum industry education in the United States and Canada. “ADDC has ebbed and flowed with the tides of the energy and allied industries,” notes the nonprofit organization.
A 19th century petroleum product – kerosene – makes petroleum history when it fuels the first stage of the Saturn V rocket that carries Apollo 11 to the moon, where astronaut Neil Armstrong announces on July 20, 1969, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Although the Saturn V was last launched in 1972, “rocket grade” kerosene continues to fuel spaceflight – powering today’s Atlas and Delta II launch vehicles…and Russia’s Soyuz.
On July 9, 1883, L. Frank Baum – whose father found great success in Pennsylvania oilfields – opens Baum’s Castorine Company in Syracuse, New York.
The future author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and his brother Benjamin begin their enterprise by offering petroleum lubricants, oils – and Baum’s Castorine.
The brothers sold a buggy grease, “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.” According some researchers, L. Frank Baum’s sales trips in the Pennsylvania oil patch may have influenced the writing of his famous children’s books.
“On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him,” proclaims historian Evan Schwartz in his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story.
On June 28, 1967, the Hall of Petroleum opens at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of History and Technology on the national mall in Washington.
The petroleum history exhibit features exploration and production technological advancements and the resulting oil and natural gas discoveries essential to development of America’s energy supplies.
The hall’s main exhibits are prepared with “the best available technical advice to give the public some conception of the involved nature of the processes of finding and producing oil and its preparation for consumption — whether by automobiles, airplanes, power stations, household furnaces, or the petrochemical industry,” explains Philip W. Bishop, author of the exhibit’s catalogue, Petroleum.
None of the hall’s equipment is on display in today’s Museum of American History.
After years of “dry holes,” a June 23, 1921, discovery on Signal Hill, California – one of the world’s most famous oil strikes – launches a drilling boom 20 miles south of Los Angeles.
The well reveals the Long Beach oilfield, which will eventually produce one billion barrels, making Signal Hill acreage among the most productive in the world. Signal Hill, a growing residential area prior to the discovery, will have so many derricks people call it Porcupine Hill.
“Today you can see wonderful commemorative art displays of this era throughout the lush parks and walkways of Signal Hill,” notes a local newspaper. Dedicated in 2006, a bronze-cast sculpture – Tribute to the Roughnecks – overlooks western Signal Hill and Long Beach.
The state-of-the-art offshore barge drilling platform, Mr. Charlie leaves its shipyard on June 15, 1954. It goes to work for Shell Oil Company in a new oilfield in East Bay, near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Mr. Charlie is the first the first mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) and a springboard for new offshore technologies for deeper wells. Its column-stabilized design will revolutionize the offshore industry. The historic MODU drills hundreds of Gulf of Mexico wells for 32 years.
The June 13, 1928, discovery of a massive oilfield near Hobbs, New Mexico, will provide a Great Depression photographer many subjects.
The Midwest Refining Company’s well revealed the Hobbs field, later cited by the New Mexico Bureau of Mines & Mineral Resources as “the most important single discovery of oil in New Mexico’s history.”
The Library of Congress petroleum history related collection includes photographs taken by Russell Lee for the Farm Security Administration.
“Although Lee visited Hobbs a dozen years after its first major oil strike, these photographs are the most complete visual record available of this early New Mexico oil boom town,” notes Sen. Jeff Bingaman.
“New Mexico has been a major producer of oil and natural gas since hydrocarbons were first discovered in the state during the early 1920s,” notes the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.
The Lone Star State’s oil and natural gas industry is launched on June 9, 1894, when the state’s first major oilfield is discovered – while drilling for water.
The American Well and Prospecting Company makes the oil strike in the Mid-Continent oilfield at a depth of 1,035 feet. The city council – still wanting water for its growing community – pays only half of the contracted $1,000 fee.
The Corsicana oilfield leads to Texas’ first petroleum boom – and the first west of the Mississippi River. The first oil refinery in Texas is built in 1897. By 1898 there are 287 producing wells in the Corsicana oilfield alone
Corsicana today hosts an annual “Derrick Days” and claims the first commercial oil well west of the Mississippi River.
Robert A. Chesebrough patented “a new and useful product from petroleum,” which he named “Vaseline.”
Chesebrough’s June 4, 1872, patent proclaimed the virtues of this purified extract of petroleum distillation residue as a lubricant, hair treatment, and balm for chapped hands.
Earlier, when the 22-year-old chemist visited the new Pennsylvania oilfields in 1865, he had noted that drilling was often confounded by a waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged the wellhead.
A virtue of this “rod wax” was as an immediately available “first aid” for the abrasions, burns and other wounds afflicting drilling crews.
Female buyers of Vaseline soon found that mixing lamp black with the petroleum jelly created an impromptu mascara.
In 1913, Miss Mabel Williams employed just such a concoction. Her idea helped create the giant company and a still popular Maybelline product.
It takes almost two years of cable-tool drilling before petroleum history is made in West Texas on May 28, 1923.
Near Big Lake, on the arid land once thought to be worthless, the Santa Rita No. 1 well strikes oil, discovers an oilfield – and reveals the vast Permian Basin. Until now, experts have considered West Texas barren of oil.
The Santa Rita No. 1 – named for the patron saint of the impossible – will produce for seven decades. The discovery also will make the University of Texas one of the richest state universities in the country.
America’s first diesel-electric “streamliner,” the 97.5 ton Burlington Zephyr, pulls into Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition on May 26, 1934.
Zephyr has completed a nonstop “dawn to dusk” run from Denver, Colorado — cutting traditional steam locomotive time by half.
Powered by a single eight-cylinder diesel engine, the revolutionary passenger train travels 1,015 miles in slightly more than 13 hours. The Zephyr burns $16.72 worth of diesel fuel. The same distance in a coal burner would cost $255. By the end of 1934, eight major U.S. railroads have ordered diesel-electric locomotives. The engine technology’s cost advantages in manpower, maintenance, and support are apparent.
A pioneer in oilfield technologies, George Failing of Enid, Oklahoma, received a patent for his design of a drilling rig on a truck bed.
“I designate the rear portion of a drilling rig such as used in drilling shallow wells, the taking of cores, drilling of shot-holes, and performing similar oil field operations,” Failing noted in his patent for a design he first built in 1931.
“This invention relates to drilling rigs, particularly to those employing a drill feeding mechanism for controlling pressure on the drill bit, and has for its principal object to provide a simple and readily operable connection between the feeding mechanism and the Kelly rod of the drilling string,” Failing explained.
On May 9, 1863, Confederate raiders attacked an early oil town in what would soon become West Virginia, destroying equipment and thousands of barrels of oil.
The Burning Springs oilfield was destroyed by Confederate raiders led by General William “Grumble” Jones – “making it the first of many oilfields destroyed in war,” accordingt to the founder of an oil museum in Parkersburg.
Almost a century earlier, George Washington had acquired 250 acres in the region because it contained oil and natural gas seeps. “This was in 1771, making the father of our country the first petroleum industry speculator,” noted David McKain, author of Where It All Began, a history of the West Virginia petroleum industry.
The first state museum in Louisiana dedicated to the petroleum industry opened on May 14, 2004, in Oil City, about 30 miles northwest of Shreveport. The Louisiana State Oil and Gas Museum, originally the Caddo-Pine Island Oil and Historical Museum, includes the historic depot of the Kansas City Southern Railroad. With the first oil wells drilled in the early 1900s, by 1910 almost 25,000 people were working in the first “wildcat town” of the Arkansas-Louisiana-Texas region.
On May 4, 1869, the first U.S. patent for an offshore oil drilling rig is issued to Thomas Fitch Rowland, owner of Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, New York, for his “submarine drilling apparatus.” Many believe this patent is the beginning of the modern offshore oil and natural gas industry.
Rowland’s 1869 patent – for a fixed, working platform for drilling offshore to a depth of almost 50 feet – is just ten years after Edwin Drake has made the nation’s first commercial oil discovery in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
With $50 million in assets, Harry Ford Sinclair borrows another $20 million and forms Sinclair Oil & Refining Corporation on May 1, 1916.
Sinclair brings together a collection of several depressed oil properties, five small refineries and many untested leases – all acquired at bargain prices.
In its first 14 months, Sinclair’s New York-based company produces six million barrels of oil for a net income of almost $9 million.
The first “Brontosaurus” made its debut in Chicago during the 1933-1934 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair.
In April 1865, Civil War veteran Col. Edward A.L. Roberts of New York City received the first of his many patents for an “Improvement in Exploding Torpedoes in Artesian Wells” – to fracture oil-bearing formations and increase oil production. With its exclusive patent licenses, the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company charged up to $200 per torpedo “shoot” and a one-fifteenth royalty of the increased flow of oil. Seeking to avoid the fee, some oilmen secretly hired unlicensed practitioners who operated at night with their own devices – and the term moonlighter entered the American lexicon.
The giant Los Angeles oilfield was discovered on April 20, 1892, when a struggling prospector, Edward L. Doheny, and his mining partner Charles A. Canfield drilled into the tar seeps between Beverly Boulevard and Colton Avenue. The discovery well – near present-day Dodger Stadium – set off California’s first oil boom by producing about 45 barrels a day. Within two years, 80 wells were producing oil and by 1897 more than 500 wells were pumping. By 1895, the Los Angeles City field produced about 750,000 barrels, more than half of the 1.2 million barrels produced in the entire state of California. In 1925, California supplied half of the world’s oil.
On April 13, 1974, the Bertha Rogers No. 1 well (Loffland 32 drilling rig) reached a total depth of 31,441 feet – where it encountered liquid sulfur in Oklahoma’s Anadarko Basin. Bottom hole pressure and temperature were an estimated 24,850 pounds per square inch and 475 degrees Fahrenheit respectively.
It required about eight hours for bottom hole cuttings to reach the surface almost six miles above. “It was the deepest hole in the world until it was surpassed by a well in the Soviet Union several years later,” one petroleum history expert reported. “Even so, Bertha Rogers reigned as the deepest well in the United States for three decades, finally exceeded in 2004.”
Railroad oil tank cars become an oilfield innovation on April 10, 1866, when James and Amos Densmore of Meadville, Pennsylvania, are granted a patent for their “Improved Car for Transporting Petroleum.”
“The first functional railway oil tank car was invented and constructed in 1865 by James and Amos Densmore at nearby Miller Farm along Oil Creek,” explains an historical marker near Titusville.
“It consisted of two wooden tanks placed on a flat railway car; each tank held 40-45 barrels of crude oil,” the marker, on Route 8, continues.
“A successful test shipment was sent in September 1865 to New York City. By 1866, hundreds of tank cars were in use. The Densmore Tank Car revolutionized the bulk transportation of crude oil to market.”
On April 4, 1951. after eight months of difficult drilling and severe snowstorms, Amerada Petroleum discovered oil in North Dakota – revealing the Williston Basin two miles beneath the wheat field of Clarence Iverson near Tioga. About 30 million acres were under lease within two months of the discovery as petroleum companies rushed to the region. The humongous basin would prove to extend into Montana, South Dakota and Canada. Here is the story of North Dakota’s first oil well.
Edwin Laurentine Drake was born on March 29, 1819. Forty years later he overcame many financial and technical obstacles and used a cable-tool rig to drill America’s first commercial oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania.
The first well drilled specifically for oil – it was called “Drake’s Folly” by many – found oil 69.5 feet deep. He also pioneered drilling technologies, including using iron casing to isolate the well bore from nearby Oil Creek.
“Drake is known as the ‘father of the petroleum industry’ because the technology he devised revolutionized how crude oil was produced and launched the large-scale petroleum industry,” explains one historian.
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil supertanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
The accident, which came after almost 12 years of daily oil tanker passages through Prince William Sound, resulted in a massive oil spill. Eight of the supertanker’s 11 oil cargo tanks were punctured. An estimated 260,000 barrels of oil spilled, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline.
With the captain not present on the bridge, an error in navigation by the third mate had grounded the huge vessel, “possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload.”
With just minutes left in the school day on March 18, 1937, a gas explosion destroyed the New London High School in Rusk County, Texas.
Odorless gas (a residual natural gas also called casing gas) had leaked into the basement and ignited with a force felt four miles away. East Texas oilfield workers – many with children attending the school – rushed to the scene, as did a cub reporter from Dallas, Walter Cronkite.
Despite desperate rescue efforts, 298 people were killed that day (dozens more later died of injuries).
The explosion’s source was later found to be an electric wood-shop sander that sparked odorless natural gas that had pooled beneath and in the walls of the school. As a result of this disaster, Texas and other states passed laws requiring that natural gas be mixed with a malodorant to warn of a gas leak.
On March 17, 1949, a team of experts converge on an oil well about 12 miles east of Duncan, Oklahoma – and make history by performing the first commercial application of hydraulic fracturing.
The technique had been developed and patented by Stanolind and an exclusive license issued to Halliburton to perform the process. Today, 2.5 million fracture treatments have been performed worldwide, according to a 2010 article in the Journal of Petroleum Technology.
“Since that fateful day in 1949, hydraulic fracturing has done more to increase recoverable reserves than any other technique,” claims one service company executive. “In the more than 60 years following those first treatments, more than two million frac treatments have been pumped with no documented case of any treatment polluting an aquifer.”
Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay Oilfield discovered
Two hundred and fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle, Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield was discovered on March 8, 1968, by Richfield Oil (ARCO) and Humble Oil Company (Exxon).
The Prudhoe Bay State No. 1 exploratory well arrived more than six decades after the First Alaska Oil Well. It followed Richfield Oil’s discovery of the Swanson River oilfield on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957. At more than 213,000 acres, the Prudhoe Bay field remains the largest oilfield in North America, surpassing the 140,000 acre East Texas Oilfield Discovery of October 1930.
Prudhoe Bay’s remote location prevented oil production beginning in earnest until 1977, after completion of the 800-mile the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The field’s production exceeded an average rate of one million barrels a day by March 1978, according to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. It peaked in January 1987 at 1,627,036 barrels per day.
Arthur “Spud” Melin received a patent for his “Hoop Toy” on March 5, 1963, thanks to a petroleum product. Since 1958 Wham-O had been using Marlex, a high-density plastic recently invented by two chemists at Phillips Petroleum. “I have invented a toy which is economical to fabricate and affords physical benefits to users,” he explained in his 1963 patent application. “The use of plastic gives both economy and strength.”
A revolutionary oilfield technology comes from Erle P. Halliburton when he patented a “Method and Means for Cementing Oil Wells” on March 1, 1921.
Halliburton’s patent (No. 1,369,891) explained that oil well production, hampered by water intrusion that required time and expense for pumping out, “has caused the abandonment of many wells which would have developed a profitable output.”
His well cementing process isolated the various down-hole zones, guards against collapse of the casing and permits control of the well throughout its producing life.
“It is well known to those skilled in the art of oil well drilling that one of the greatest obstacles to successful development of oil bearing sands has been the encountering of liquid mud water and the like during and after the process of drilling the wells,” Halliburton noted in his patent application.
A state taxes gasoline for the first time on February 23, 1919. Oil is selling for about $2 per barrel when Oregon enacts the one-cent gasoline tax to be used for road construction and maintenance. Less than two months later, Colorado and New Mexico have followed Oregon’s example.
By 1929, every state has added a tax of up to three cents per gallon. Faced with $2.1 billion federal deficit and declining revenue, President Herbert Hoover adds another one-cent per gallon federal excise tax in 1932.
Today, the average state gasoline tax averages about 27 cents per gallon (varying from less than 10 cents to about 70 cents per gallon). The current federal excise tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has been unchanged since 1993.
On February 20, 1959, after a three-week voyage, the Methane Pioneer – the world’s first liquefied natural gas tanker – arrives at the world’s first LNG terminal at Canvey Island, England, from Lake Charles, Louisiana. The vessel, a converted World War II liberty freighter, contains five, 7,000-barrel aluminum tanks supported by balsa wood and insulated with plywood and urethane, according to the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas. “This event demonstrated that large quantities of liquefied natural gas could be transported safely across the ocean.”
After years of “dry holes,” Alabama’s first oilfield is discovered in Choctaw County on February 17, 1944. Texas oilman H.L. Hunt drills the No. 1 Jackson well — and discovers the Gilbertown oilfield. Prior to finding this oilfield, 350 noncommercial wells have been drilled in the state.
“Traces of petroleum, in the form of natural gas were first discovered in Alabama in Morgan and Blount counties in the late 1880s, and by 1902, natural gas was being supplied to the cities of Huntsville and Hazel Green,” notes one historian. “
In 1909, a small discovery by Eureka Oil and Gas at Fayette fueled that city’s streetlights for a time, but no natural gas was recovered anywhere in the state for several decades afterward.”
Hunt’s well makes petroleum history in Choctaw County when it discovers the Gilbertown oilfield in the Eutaw Sand at a depth of 3,700 feet. Today, Alabama’s major producing regions are in the west, including a coalbed methane region underlying Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties.
Forty-six natural gas lights along Philadelphia’s Second Street are lit for the first time on February 6, 1836, by employees of the newly formed Gas Works — the first municipally owned natural gas distribution company. America’s first commercial gas lighting company, the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, Maryland (now Baltimore Gas and Electric Company), incorporated in 1817. It distributed gas manufactured from tar and later coal. Today there are more than 900 public natural gas systems; the Philadelphia Gas Works is the largest. There are more than 70 million residential, commercial and industrial natural gas customers in the United States.
In early internal combustion engines, “knocking” was the name applied to the out-of-sequence detonation of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder.
Discovered just two years earlier by General Motors scientists, “Ethyl,” the world’s first anti-knock gasoline containing a tetra-ethyl lead compound, goes on sale February 2, 1923, at the Refiners Oil Company service station in Dayton, Ohio.
On January 28, 1969, an accident at an oil platform six miles off Santa Barbara, California, leads to between 80,000 barrels and 100,000 barrels of oil spilled into the Pacific – and onto beaches.
“Thus the means by which the U.S. obtains about 25 percent of the nation’s natural gas production and about 24 percent of its oil production have become, understandably, linked to environmental degradation,” explains one petroleum history expert.
Earth Day is born in the following spring, adds a report by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Environmental Protection Agency is established in 1970.
“Many consider the publicity surrounding the oil spill a major impetus to the environmental movement,” the university notes. A 2009 study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reveals that natural seafloor oil seeps from nearby Goleta have produced far more oil than the 1969 spill.
Col. Edward A. L. Roberts – who fought bravely at the 1862 battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia – three years later conducted his first test to increase oil production by using an explosive charge deep in a well. This early “shooting” of a well near Titusville, Pennsylvania, increased oil production from a few barrels to more than 40 barrels. Roberts would quickly patent his “torpedoes” – iron canisters filled with gunpowder (later nitroglycerin). By 1870, the “Roberts Torpedo” and similar production-enhancing technologies were commonplace in America’s young oil patch. Modern hydraulic fracturing of wells – or “fracking” – have evolved from this Civil War veteran’s 1865 experiment.
Offshore technology advances when an “underwater manipulator with suction support device” was patented on January 19, 1965. Howard L. Shatto Jr. would help make Shell Oil an early leader in offshore oilfield development thanks to new technologies, including remotely operated underwater vehicles like the one at right.
Underwater robots can trace their roots to the late 1950s, when Hughes Aircraft developed a Manipulator Operated Robot – MOBOT – for the Atomic Energy Commission. Working on land, the robot performed tasks in environments too radioactive for humans. Beginning in 1960, Shell began transforming the it into a marine robot — “basically a swimming socket wrench,” said one engineer.
Seeking to end dangerous and wasteful oil gushers, James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron make petroleum history on January 12, 1926, with a U.S. patent for a hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer (BOP).
Abercrombie had taken his idea for a ram-type preventer to Cameron’s machine shop in Humble, Texas. The revolutionary concept, which started as “a sketch on the sawdust floor,” used rams – hydrostatic pistons – to close on the drill stem and form a seal against well pressure.
Abercrombie and Cameron worked out the details using simple, rugged parts. When installed on a wellhead, the rams could be closed off, allowing full control of pressure during drilling and production. Oil and natural gas companies embraced the new technology, which the inventors will repeatedly improve in the 1930s.
An original Abercrombie and Cameron BOP was displayed in the Smithsonian Institution for many years before returning to Cooper Cameron headquarters in Houston, where it was placed in the lobby.
The modern oil and natural gas industry is born January 10, 1901, on a hill in Texas, when a wildcat well erupts on Spindletop Hill in Beaumont. The discovery will change the future of American industry and transportation and bring new oilfield technologies.
The oil boom is welcomed. It comes just four months after the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history has devastated nearby Galveston.
The story of the Spindletop discovery well, which popularizes rotary drilling technology, begins more than a decade earlier. Two museums in Beaumont educate the public about the historic oil field – and the modern petroleum industry.
January 7, 1957, oil discovery well on Ferne Houseknecht’s dairy farm will uncover a 29-mile-long oilfield – the largest in Michigan. After almost two and a half years of drilling, the Houseknecht No. 1 well discovers the “Golden Gulch” near Scipio Township in Hillsdale County.
The 3,576-foot-deep well in southwestern Michigan produces from the Black River formation of the Trenton zone. “The story of the discovery well of Michigan’s only ‘giant’ oilfield, using the worldwide definition of having produced more than 100 million barrels of oil from a single contiguous reservoir is the stuff of dreams, and of oilfield legends,” explains Michigan historian and author Jack Westbrook.
The giant oilfield will “foster a boom on a discovery-hungry petroleum industry to end a 15-year major discovery drought in Michigan,” says Westbrook, a petroleum history expert. Modern oil and natural gas companies – armed with new detection and completion technology – have returned to the historic region.
America’s first oil company – the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company – incorporated December 30, 1854. George Bissell, Jonathan Eveleth and five other trustees formed the company in Albany, New York, capitalized at $250,000. Struggling to attract wealthy investors, they reorganized it in September 1855.
The “Wall Street Panic” of 1857 rendered control of the company to New Haven financier Robert Townsend, who then incorporated the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, in March 1858.
Oil was expected to be found near Oil Creek on the 105 acre Hibbard Farm in Venango County, Pennsylvania. Townsend hired an acquaintance, former railroad man Edwin L. Drake, to manage the drilling on the Hibbard Farm lease. Drilling proved expensive and time consuming; locals called the company’s investment “Drake’s Folly.” But on August 27, 1859, Drake’s discovery well near Titusville marked the birth of the American oil industry. This Pennsylvania well launched the first U.S. oil company. Many others soon followed to likewise “raise, manufacture, procure and sell Rock Oil.”
Born on December 21, 1842, Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler will become one of the most prolific “bird’s-eye view” artists who crisscross the country during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Many of what Fowler called “aero views” captured the small cities near America’s earliest oil and natural gas fields.
Fowler gained his commissions by interesting citizens and civic groups in the idea of a panoramic map of their community. After one town had agreed to having a map made, he often sought to involve neighboring towns — exploiting their sense of community pride.
Fowler traveled through Oklahoma and North Texas in 1890 and 1891 similarly documenting such cities such as Wichita Falls, Texas, Bartlesville and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Oil Fires, like battles, are fought by artillery,” proclaimed a December 17, 1884, article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Early petroleum technologies included cannons for fighting oil-tank storage fires, especially in the great plains where lightning strikes often ignited derricks and tanks. Shooting cannon balls into the base of a burning tank allowed oil to drain into a holding pit until fire died.
Government scientists on December 10, 1967, detonate an underground 29 kiloton nuclear warhead about 60 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico.
Their experiment is designed to test the feasibility of using nuclear explosions to stimulate release of natural gas trapped in dense shale deposits.
“Project Gasbuggy” includes experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bureau of Mines and a natural gas company.
Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drills to a depth of 4,240 feet and lowers a 13-foot by 18-inch diameter nuclear device into the borehole.
The detonation makes unusual petroleum history. It creates a molten glass-lined cavern 160 feet wide and 333 feet tall that collapses within seconds. The well produces 295 million cubic feet of radioactive gas.
“The available supply of gasoline, as is well known, is quite limited, and it behooves the farseeing men of the motor car industry to look for likely substitutes,” declares a December 13, 1905, article in The Horseless Age.
The monthly journal first published in 1895 describes the earliest motor technologies, including the use of compressed air propulsion systems, electric cars, steam, and diesel power — as well as the first hybrids.
Ferdinand Porsche uses a small four-cylinder gasoline engine to generate electricity to power two electric motors mounted in front wheel hubs. His hybrid system is resurrected more than 100 years later with Chevrolet’s introduction of the Volt.
Drilling safety increases dramatically in December 1931 when James S. Abercrombie improves the Cameron Iron Works mechanically operated ram-type blowout preventer. Abercrombie patents a “Fluid Pressure Operated Blow Out Preventer” designed to be operated “instantaneously to prevent a blowout when an emergency arises.”
This hydraulic design, patent No. 1,834,922, sets a new standard in safe drilling operations. The rapidly reacting device is first used during the Oklahoma City oilfield boom to help end an era of gushers. In 2003, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognizes the “Cameron Ram-Type Blowout Preventer” as an Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
A discovery on November 28, 1892, near Neodesha, Kansas, is considered the first significant oil well west of the Mississippi River.
Although it begins as just a four-barrel-a day producer, it will prove to be the first to uncover the vast Mid-Continent oilfield, which extends into Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.
Today, the Norman No. 1 well site – added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and designated a National Landmark in 1977 – is at the northeast corner of Mill and First streets in Neodesha.
“A museum has been built in a city park surrounding the site — a fitting recognition of Norman No. 1′s importance as one of the most significant oil discoveries in U. S. and Kansas history,” notes the Kansas Historical Society.
On a chilly November morning in November 1905 – two years before Oklahoma becomes a state – oil is discovered on the Glenn farm south of Tulsa. Soon, there are hundreds of wells producing so much oil that the land is called the “‘Glenn Pool.” The discovery will help make Tulsa the “Oil Capital of the World.”
With daily production soon exceeding 120,000 barrels, Glenn Pool becomes the greatest oil field in America at the time, exceeding the giant Spindletop discovery near Beaumont, Texas, four years earlier.
“Unlike the thick, sour oil from Spindletop, the famed 1901 Texas discovery that had already played out, this oil was light and sweet – just right to refine into gasoline and kerosene,” notes one Oklahoma historian.
In April 2008, a monument was unveiled in Glenpool’s Black Gold Park by the Glenn Pool Oil Field Commission. The 28-foot “derrick” illuminates at night and includes granite etchings that tell the story of the historic 1905 discovery.
Copyright © 2003-2017 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
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