Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara Spill

Exploring the 1969 offshore disaster and ancient natural petroleum seeps.


A 1969 oil spill from a California offshore platform transformed the public’s view of the American petroleum industry and helped launch the modern environmental movement and the Environmental Protection Agency. Ancient natural California seeps continue to leak thousands of tons of petroleum every day.

On January 28, 1969,  after drilling 3,500 feet below the ocean floor, a Union Oil Company drilling platform six miles off Santa Barbara, suffered a blowout. Between 80,000 barrels and 100,000 barrels of oil flowed into the Pacific Ocean and onto beaches, including Summerland — where the U.S. offshore industry began in 1896 with drilling on oil well piers.

Problems at the Union Oil platform began when roughnecks began to retrieve the pipe in order to replace a drill bit and pressure became dangerously low,  according to a report by the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). (more…)

ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench

Atomic Energy Commission robot inspired offshore petroleum industry’s remotely operated vehicles.


In 1960, Shell Oil and Hughes Aircraft companies began modifying an advanced but landlocked “Manipulator Operated Robot” — known as MOBOT — into one that could operate underwater. The result led to the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), which revolutionized offshore petroleum exploration and production. 

Much of today’s offshore oil and natural gas industry relies on remotely operated vehicles that can trace their roots back to Howard Hughes, Jr. In the late 1950s, Hughes Aircraft Company developed its Manipulator Operated Robot – MOBOT – for the Atomic Energy Commission.

Working on land, the robot performed tasks in environments too radioactive for humans. Weighing 4,500 pounds with hydraulically powered steel claws and television eyes, MOBOT was linked by a 200-foot cable to the operator, who used pistol grips and levers to control it.

Popular Science article shows scientist testing early remotely operated robot.

“Manipulator operated robots” were built for the Atomic Energy Commission to work in a radioactive environment. Photo courtesy September 1960 Popular Mechanics article, “Marvelous Mobot Will Do Work Too Hot For Man.”

In 1960, Popular Science magazine described the advanced technology in “Marvelous Mobot Will Do Work Too Hot For Man.” The article reflected the era’s fascination with science fiction and new technologies. “With electronic nerves, hydraulic muscles, and TV eyes, a robot whose arms are quite capable of playing golf or snuggling a blonde is ready to live far more dangerously than that,” the article began.

An accompanying photograph showed the “murderous impulse” of a mobot stalking a scientist, but as the caption explained, “Never fear, he (the scientist) has it all under control” by watching three screens.

The U.S. offshore oil industry quickly saw the potential of “underwater electronic nerves, hydraulic muscles, and TV eyes.” (more…)

Offshore Petroleum Exploration History

Modern Exploration and production technologies evolved from 1890s lake platforms and California oil piers.


The U.S. offshore oil and natural gas industry began in the late-19th century on lakes and at the end of Pacific Ocean piers. Until a innovative Kerr-McGee drilling platform in 1947, no offshore drilling company had ever risked drilling beyond the sight of land.

Offshore oil history view of California oil piers circa 1900.

Many of the earliest offshore oil wells were drilled from piers at Summerland in Santa Barbara County, California. Circa 1901 photo by G.H. Eldridge courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

In 1896, as enterprising businessmen pursued California’s prolific Summerland oilfield all the way to the beach, the lure of offshore production enticed Henry L. Williams and his associates to build a pier 300 feet out into the Pacific — and mount a standard cable-tool rig on it. (more…)

Petroleum Survey discovers U-boat

Routine scan of Gulf of Mexico seabed for new petroleum pipelines reveals shipwrecks.


During World War II, U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico to disrupt the flow of oil carried by tankers departing ports in Louisiana and Texas.

Today’s petroleum companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf routinely provide government scientists with sonar data for areas with potential archaeological value. Several federal agencies review oil and natural gas-related surveys every year, and over the years the data have revealed more than 100 historic shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

oil industry sonar and photo images of U-boat in Gulf of Mexico

A 2001 archaeological survey by BP and Shell prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline confirmed discovery of U-166 about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast.

In 2001, the Minerals Management Service (superseded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management a decade later) noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.”


Mr. Charlie, First Mobile Offshore Drilling Rig

The 1954 platform’s design and technology would be declared a mechanical engineering landmark.


When the barge drilling platform Mr. Charlie left its New Orleans shipyard for the Gulf of Mexico on June 15, 1954, it became the world’s first mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU).

Using advanced technology, the self-sufficient Mr. Charlie went to work for Shell Oil Company in a new oilfield in East Bay, near the mouth of the Mississippi River. A reporter from LIFE magazine covered the launch, noting the new “singularly monstrous contraption” could drill “a 12,000-foot hole at a different location every month.”

Mr. Charlie, the first mobile offshore drilling platform.

Beginning in 1954 and capable of drilling wells in water up to 40 feet in depth, Mr. Charlie was the first mobile offshore drilling platform. Photos courtesy Murphy Oil Corporation.

Mr. Charlie offered an exploration alternative to erecting permanent, pile-supported offshore drilling platforms to be tendered by utility boats. Kerr-McGee had pioneered this approach with the Kermac No. 16 in 1947, but Mr. Charlie could drill in water twice as deep and then move to another site (also see Offshore Oil Piers, Platforms, and Barges). (more…)

Offshore Rig Patent of 1869

Thomas Rowland’s Continental Iron Works produced a famous ironclad, gas fittings, and welded oil tanks.


The origins of the modern offshore oil exploration and production industry must include the 1869 offshore “Rock Drill” patent of a skilled New York engineer. 

On May 4, 1869, Thomas Fitch Rowland, owner of Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, New York, received a U.S. patent for his “submarine drilling apparatus.” The patent (No. 89,794) for a fixed, working platform for drilling offshore to a depth of almost 50 feet came just 10 years after America’s first commercial oil discovery in Titusville, Pennsylvania.


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