Offshore Petroleum History

Exploration and production drilling technologies evolved from lake platforms and California piers.

 

offshore oil history California oil piers

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.

The exploration history of the U.S. offshore oil and natural gas industry began in the Pacific Ocean at the end of the 19th century. As recently as 1947 no offshore drilling company had ever risked drilling beyond the sight of land.

 

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…)

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.”

june 15 petroleum history

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. (more…)

Offshore Rig Patent of 1869

Inventor Thomas Rowland would become known for his oil storage tanks.

For many experts, the beginning of the modern offshore petroleum industry can be traced to an 1869 offshore rig patent by New York engineer Thomas Rowland, who had helped build the USS Monitor during the Civil War.

On May 4, 1869, Thomas Fitch Rowland, owner of Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, New York, received a patent for his “submarine drilling apparatus.”

first offshore rig

In 1861, inventor John Ericsson hired Thomas Rowland (1831-1907) to build an “iron-clad battery” for the Union.

(more…)

ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench

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

In 1960, Shell Oil and Hughes Aircraft companies began modifying a 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. 

Scientist tests 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.”

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.

In 1960, Popular Science magazine described the advanced technology in “Marvelous Mobot Will Do Work Too Hot For Man.” The article, which reflected the era’s fascination with science fiction and new technologies, began: “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 accompanying photograph showed the “murderous impluse” of a mobot stalking a scientist, but as the caption explained, “Never fear, he (the scientist) has it all under control” by watching three TV screens. The U.S. offshore oil industry quickly saw the potential of underwater electronic nerves, hydraulic muscles, and TV eyes. (more…)

Rigs to Reefs

Thousands of offshore petroleum platforms provide energy and habitats.

 

Offshore petroleum platforms act as artificial reefs, creating ideal marine habitats. Beginning with an Exxon experimental subsea structure in 1979, the “Rigs to Reefs” program has formed the largest artificial reef habitat in the world.

 

rigs to reefs

Offshore platforms make good artificial reefs. The open design attract fish – and divers – where they can swim easily through the circulating water.

In 1984, the U.S. Congress signed the National Fishing Enhancement Act, “because of increased interest and participation in fishing at offshore oil and gas platforms and widespread support for effective artificial reef development by coastal states,” according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). This led to the development of the National Artificial Reef Plan the next year. (more…)

Ohio Offshore Wells

Oil was produced from platforms on Grand Lake St. Marys as early as 1891.

 

As the turn of the century approached, oil producing Ohio wells drilled far out over a reservoir mark the beginning of America’s offshore petroleum industry, according to Mercer County historians.

 

 ohio offshore wells

Grand Lake St. Marys – hand-dug from 1837 to 1845 – originally was nine miles long by three miles wide. It supplied water to central Ohio’s Miami and Eric Canal until designated a “public recreation and pleasure resort” in 1915.

America’s first offshore drilling once was generally acknowledged to be over Louisiana’s Caddo Lake in 1911 – until researchers in Mercer and Auglaize counties in Ohio said otherwise.

The oil patch sleuths point to Mercer County documents recording wells producing oil above the waters of Grand Lake St. Marys 20 years before drillers ventured over the waters of Caddo Lake (above the giant Caddo-Pine Island field).

Work on the Ohio reservoir that would become Grand Lake St. Marys – about 60 miles north of Dayton – began in 1837 to support water levels of the Miami and Erie Canal. Eight years of construction (1,700 men earning 30 cents a day) took place near the towns of Celina and St. Marys. (more…)