December 2, 2001 – Enron Corporation files for Bankruptcy

ENRON logo for This Week in Petroleum History

Enron, once the world’s largest energy-trading company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, beginning one of the largest corporate scandals in U.S. history. The Houston-based company had reached a market value of almost $70 billion before it collapsed, causing thousands of employees to lose their jobs and more than $2 billion in pensions.

In 2006, former Enron Chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay and former Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Skilling were tried in federal district court; the jury convicted both of multiple counts of securities and wire fraud. New accounting regulations resulted from scandal.

December 2, 1970 – President Nixon creates EPA

EPA logoLess than a year after the January 1969 offshore platform oil spill at Santa Barbara, California, President Richard M. Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The new agency consolidated “a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities to ensure environmental protection.” Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was named the agency’s first administrator.

According to an EPA history, newly proposed environmental initiatives included improvement of water treatment facilities; creation of national air quality standards; stringent guidelines to lower motor vehicle emissions; a clean-up of federal facilities; tightening of safeguards on the seaborne transportation of oil; and a proposed tax on lead additives in gasoline.

December 4, 1928 – First Oil Discovery using Reflection Seismography

Following successful tests in the early 1920s, reflection seismic technology was first used to find oil. The Petroleum Corporation drilled a well into the Viola limestone formation near Seminole, Oklahoma. It was the world’s first oil discovery in a geological structure that had been identified by reflection survey. Others soon followed as the technology revealed dozens of mid-continent oilfields.

Conducted by Amerada Petroleum subsidiary Geophysical Research, the new exploration method resulted from experiments by an academic team led by Professor John C. Karcher of the University of Oklahoma. Reflection seismography – seismic surveying – applied techniques from weapons research. During World War I, Allied scientists developed portable equipment that used seismic reflections to locate sources of enemy artillery fire. Learn more in Exploring Seismic Waves.

December 4, 1928 – Giant Oklahoma City Oilfield discovered

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The Oklahoma City oilfield would bring stability to the economy of Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Henry Foster’s Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company and Foster Petroleum Corporation completed the Oklahoma City No. 1 well, discovery well for the Oklahoma City oilfield. Oil exploration companies had searched for decades before this successful well just south of the city limits.

The 6,335-foot-deep wildcat well produced 110,000 barrels of oil in its first 27 days, causing a rush of development that extended the field northward toward the capitol building. Drilling reached the city limits in May 1930, prompting the city council to pass ordinances limiting drilling to the southeast part of the city and allowing only one well per city block.

By 1932, with about 870 producing wells completed, the Oklahoma City oilfield’s production peaked at 67 million barrels. “From such a beginning the sprawling Oklahoma City oil and natural gas field will become one of world’s major oil-producing areas,” noted a state historical marker erected in 1980. Another major discovery erupted in 1930 thanks to Oklahoma City’s prolific Wilcox sands. With blowout-preventer technology still evolving, extreme gas pressure at the Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company’s well remained uncontrolled for 11 days – making it “the most publicized oil well in world.” Learn more about the World Famous “Wild Mary Sudik.” 

December 7, 1905 – Helium discovered in Natural Gas

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Professor Hamilton Cady in 1905 discovered helium could be extracted from natural gas from a well in Dexter, Kansas. Photo courtesy American Chemical Society.

The importance of natural gas for producing helium was revealed when two University of Kansas professors, Hamilton Cady and David McFarland, discovered significant amounts of helium in natural gas from a well in Dexter, Kansas. Helium was rare and considered a national strategic resource at the time.

In May 1903, the Gas, Oil and Developing Company had drilled a well at Dexter (45 miles southeast of Wichita) that produced “a howling gasser” from a depth of 560 feet. The well flowed about 9 million cubic feet of natural gas a day, and the town envisioned a prosperous future, until it was learned the gas would not burn due to its helium content. After finding helium’s association with natural gas, scientists predicted the element would no longer be rare, “but a common element, existing in goodly quantity for uses that are yet to be found for it.”

Although the Dexter well produced “The Gas That Wouldn’t Burn,” it led to a scientific advancement that lighted the way to a multi-million dollar industry, according to the American Chemical Society, which designated the discovery of helium in natural gas a national historic chemical landmark in 2000.

December 8, 1931 – New BOP patented

Improving upon the success of Cameron Iron Works’ 1922 mechanically operated ram-type blowout preventer (BOP), James S. Abercrombie patented a “Fluid Pressure Operated Blow Out Preventer” designed to be “operated instantaneously to prevent a blowout when an emergency arises.” After the success of the first ram-type BOP, the company’s machine shop in Humble, Texas, manufactured the latest rapidly reacting device in time for discoveries in the Oklahoma City oilfield. Many deeper, highly pressurized wells would require the new technology.

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Listen online to Remember When Wednesdays on the weekday morning radio show Exploring Energy from 9:05 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Executive Director Bruce Wells and Volunteer Contributing Editor Kris Wells call in on the last Wednesday of each month. Support our energy education mission with a contribution today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for membership information. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

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