petroleum history february

Alabama’s major producing regions are in the west. Map courtesy Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Although swallowing tar pills reportedly had been curing ills since the mid-1850s, Alabama’s petroleum industry officially began when its first oilfield was discovered on February 17, 1944. Famed Texas oilman H.L. Hunt drilled the No. 1 Jackson well in Choctaw County.

Hunt, who had found great success in Arkansas and even greater success in the East Texas oilfield of 1930, discovered the Gilbertown oilfield. Prior to Hunt’s wildcat well, 350 dry holes had been drilled in the state.

Although there had not been a major oil discovery in the state, natural petroleum seeps had attracted interest as early as the mid-19th century.

Geologist and historian Ray Sorensen has been investigating the earliest reports oil or natural gas in all of today’s producing states. He has documented many reports made before to the historic Drake well of 1859.

In Alabama’s case, Sorenson uncovered an account from 1858 by Michael Tuomey, who described finding natural oil seeps six miles from Oakville in Lawrence County.

Noting oil and water emerging from a crevice in limestone, Tuomey observed, “the tar, or bitumen, floats on the surface, a black film very cohesive and insoluble in water.”

Like “American oil” and “Kentucky oil,” Alabama’s Lawrence County oil became popular for its medicinal qualities. The oil was claimed to be “a known cure for Scrofula, Cancerous Sores, Rheumatism, Dyspepsia, and other diseases,” Tuomey reported.

“Patents visiting the Spring find the tar taken and swallowed as pills, the most efficient form of the remedy,” Tuomey wrote in the Second Biennial Report On the Geology of Alabama.

Alabama Natural Gas

Traces of natural gas were discovered in Alabama in the late 1880s, “and by 1902, natural gas was being supplied to the cities of Huntsville and Hazel Green,” notes Alabama historian Alan Cockrell.

“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,” he adds.

However, according to Cockrell, the state’s oil and natural gas industry would not truly begin until Hunt drilled in Choctaw County and discovered the Gilbertown oilfield. The discovery well penetrated the Eutaw Sand at a depth of 3,700 feet, he explains in “Oil and Gas Industry in Alabama.”

Alabama’s first oilfield produced 15 million barrels of oil, “not a lot by modern standards but enough to make ‘oil fever’ spread rapidly,” Cockrell notes. Still, the search for another oilfield led to another 11 years of dry holes.

The 1955 oil discovery at Citronelle, a town above a geologic salt dome, finally launched a new drilling boom; five new Alabama oilfields were discovered by 1967. Mobil Oil Company drilled Alabama’s first successful offshore natural gas well in 1981.

With modern technologies, geologists now believe opportunities exist “in the hard shales of the deep Black Warrior Basin beneath Pickens and Tuscaloosa counties and in the thick fractured shales of St. Clair and neighboring counties,” Cockrell concludes.

According to the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), at the end of 2014 more than 16,500 wells had been drilled in Alabama since 1944. Eleven percent produced oil, 59 prcent found natural gas, and 30 percent (4,982 wells) were dry holes.

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