Giant rigs drilled to record depths in Oklahoma in the 1970s.

 

The Anadarko Basin, extending more than 50,000 square miles across west-central Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, includes some of the most prolific — and deepest — natural gas reserves in the United States.

Beginning in the late 1950s, when technological advances allowed it, Anadarko Basin wells in Oklahoma began to be drilled more than two miles deep in search of highly pressurized natural gas zones. By the 1960s, a few companies began risking millions of dollars and pushing rotary rig drilling technology to reach beyond the 13,000-foot level in what geologists called “the deep gas play.”

A giant drilling rig attracts tourists off Route 66 in Elk CIty, OK

Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 stands on display to welcome Route 66 travelers to Elk City, Oklahoma. It is 180 feet high — one of the tallest in the world. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Although most experts disagreed, Robert Hefner III believed immense natural gas reserves resided even deeper, three miles or more. Hefner and other independent producers formed GHK (Glover-Hefner-Kennedy) Company, Oklahoma City, to drill expensive, ultradeep wells in the Anadarko Basin.

The first GHK deep well attempt began in 1967, and it took two years to reach what at the time was a record depth, 24,473 feet. The well found large natural gas reserves, according to historian Robert Dorman, “but because of price controls, the sale of the gas could not cover the high cost of drilling so deeply — $6.5 million, as opposed to a few hundred thousand dollars for a conventional well.”

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The Federal Power Commission, which had regulated natural gas prices since 1954, struggled to create a system of wellhead price regulation that worked. Undeterred and “in hopes that the economic equation would change,” Hefner drilled another ultra-deep well.

In 1972, the Baden No. 1 well near Elk City, Oklahoma, set a new world-record depth of 30,050 feet. The steel pipe alone that went into the ultradeep well weighed more than 1.2 million pounds. Drilling at such great depths required new technologies — and very big rigs.

World’s Deepest Well

“Hefner and his associates learned a good deal from the Baden well, which they proceeded to apply to their next, most renowned project: Bertha Rogers No. 1,” Dorman explained in his 2006 book, It Happened in Oklahoma. Drilled by the largest land rig in the world (Tulsa-based Loffland Brothers Rig 32), the Bertha Rogers No. 1 well, “pushed the technology envelope even further.”

Using specially designed extra-wide pipe, GHK and partner Lone Star Producing Company began drilling in November 1972, averaging about 60 feet per day. Fourteen-inch-wide casing weighing in excess of 106 pounds per foot was cemented in the well at 14,198 feet. The 1.3 million pounds of casing was the heaviest ever handled by any drilling rig in U.S. petroleum industry history.

World's deepest well 1974 keepsake from Lone Star Gas

A 1974 souvenir of the Bertha Rogers No. 1 well, which sought natural gas almost six miles deep in Oklahoma’s Anadarko Basin.

On April 13, 1974, Bertha Rogers No. 1 reached a total depth of 31,441 feet — where it encountered liquid sulfur. Lone Star Producing Company later estimated bottom hole pressure and temperature of 24,850 pounds per square inch and 475 degrees Fahrenheit respectively.

It took about eight hours for bottom hole cuttings to reach the surface 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,” Dorman reported. “Even so, Bertha Rogers reigned as the deepest well in the United States for three decades, finally exceeded in 2004.”

Drilling strained the Bertha Rogers rig’s equipment to the limit — and the well had to be “fished” 16 months after drilling began (see Fishing in Petroleum Wells). Because of dangerous downhole conditions, including corrosive pockets of hydrogen sulfide, the historic well had to be completed at a shallower depth.

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Elk City’s most noteworthy well eventually produced natural gas from about 13,000 feet (production ended in July 1997). But like its costly predecessors, “the Bertha Rogers as a business venture was a losing proposition,” Dorman concluded. “It cost $7 million but yielded relatively little gas. Some observers classified it as an ultradeep dry hole.”

Robert Hefner’s belief in the deep Anadarko Basin would prove true as drilling technologies improved. Drilling time in the 1990s fell as much as two-thirds, helping contain costs. By 2002, Oklahoma’s deep wells would produce more than six trillion cubic feet of natural gas — with trillions more to be found. Two years later, natural gas passed oil to become the state’s most valuable energy commodity.

Parker Rig No. 114 and Atomic Wells

In western Oklahoma, another towering rig has a noteworthy oil patch history. With one of the tallest masts in the world, the 180-foot Parker Drilling Company Rig No. 114 has attracted Elk City tourists since 1991.

simple atom molecule illustration.

Parker Rig No. 114 was one of three drilling rigs designed for drilling deep wells to test atomic bombs.

Parker Drilling No. 114’s story began in 1969, when the Tulsa-based company signed a contract with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to drill a series of holes up to 120 inches in diameter and 6,500 feet in depth in Alaska and Nevada for experimental tests. The advanced drilling rig and two sister rigs were built to drill atomic wells.

Founded in 1934 by Gifford C. Parker, by the 1960s Parker Drilling had set numerous world records for deep and extended-reach drilling. The company developed and tested new deep-drilling technologies that would become industry standards. With the Cold War at its height, the government sought Parker Drilling’s expertise for drilling wide-bore wells needed to test nuclear bombs. 

Former Anadarko Museum of Natural History in historic Elk City, OK, hotel.

Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 drilled wells for nuclear bomb tests. It later drilled conventional wells to record-breaking depths. Erected in 1991 beside the historic Casa Grande Hotel (1925-1949), the rig today welcomes visitors to Elk City, Oklahoma.

A separate government program used down-hole nuclear devices in New Mexico and Colorado as part of a wider set of experiments. That nuclear well fracturing program, which included Project Gasbuggy for increasing petroleum production from shale, was established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957. 

The Project Plowshare grogram was part of a wider effort to explore peaceful, constructive uses of nuclear explosive devices. Learn more in Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear “Fracking.”

Since 1991, the 180-foot drilling rig (still one of the tallest in the world) has welcomed visitors traveling to Elk City on Route 66 (or I-40) and a former oil museum inside the historic Casa Grande Hotel building. Seeing tourists stopping at the rig,

Independent oil and gas producer John West in 2006 preserved and exhibited oilfield artifacts in the Anadarko Basin Museum of Natural History, which without Elk City funding closed with a few years. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, the Casa Grande building survived. 

Drill bits inside a closed Elk City, OK, oil museum at the Casa Grande Hotel.

Oilfield art and models of drill bits were among the exhibits in the former Anadarko Museum of Natural History once inside the Casa Grande Hotel building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Photo by Bruce Wells.

“Because it sits on a small lot, the rig could not be laid out and assembled on the ground, then raised into position, as rigs are built in the oil fields. Instead, pieces were raised by crane and pinned by Parker employees who climbed the rig as it grew taller,” noted a January 28, 1991, article at NewsOK.

Superman and the World’s Deepest Oil Well

The risk of drilling too deep highlighted the theatrical release of the first full-length Superman movie on November 23, 1951. “Superman and the Mole Men,” which earned good reviews, featured reporters Clark Kent (George Reeves) and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) on assignment in the town of Silsby, “Home of the World’s Deepest Oil Well.”

The National Oil Company had been making news at its “Havenhurst Experimental Number One” drilling site — especially after the drill bit had “broken into clear air” at a depth of 32,742 feet. “Good heavens, that’s practically to the center of the earth!” Lois exclaimed. (In fact, the deepest U.S. well in 1951 reached 20,521 feet.)

Poster for Superman and the Mole Men, a 1951 movie with a very deep well.

Mole men emerged from a National Oil Company experimental well drilled more than six miles deep in the 1951 feature film “Superman and the Mole Men.”

After finding organisms on the drilling equipment, oil company executives concluded there must be life, perhaps even a civilization, far below the surface. Alarmed, the company attempted to cap the well — but small humanoid creatures emerged from the borehole.

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The townspeople feared a mole-men invasion. It would take the steady nerves and compassion of Superman to resolve the crisis. He calmed the mob, saved the mole men, and returned them to the safety of the well. In a spectacular conclusion, the derrick collapsed in flames, forever closing the connection between the two worlds.

Back in the real world, among the deepest wells ever was the “Kola Superdeep Borehole,” a 1989 experimental well drilled the Soviet Union. It reached 40,230 feet deep. In 2008, an oil well was drilled to 40,318 feet in Qatar. A 40,502-foot well was drilled offshore of the Russian island of Sakhalinn in 2011.

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Recommended Reading: It Happened in Oklahoma (2019); The Extraction State, A History of Natural Gas in America (2021); Natural Gas: Fuel for the 21st Century (2015); History Of Oil Well Drilling (2007); The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (1991). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Anadarko Basin in Depth.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/anadarko-basin-depth. Last Updated: April 7, 2022. Original Published Date: July 24, 2014. 

 

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