Russian-built rockets once launched satellites from the Ocean Odyssey, a modified semi-submersible drilling platform. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.
Many offshore oil and natural gas platforms have found use after retirement. Hundreds of former platforms today serve as aquatic habitats in the Gulf of Mexico (see Rigs to Reefs). Two historic jack-up drilling rigs are museums and energy education centers in Texas and Louisiana. One retired self-propelled platform once launched rockets.
Ten percent (about 450) of decommissioned production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico have been converted to permanent reefs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A retired jack-up drilling rig in Galveston Bay, Texas, the Ocean Star, opened as a petroleum museum in 1997 after drilling more than 200 wells. Another offshore museum, Mr. Charlie of Morgan City, Louisiana, was the first submersible drilling rig in 1953.
The Ocean Odyssey, a self-propelled, semi-submersible drilling platform designed to endure 110 foot North Atlantic waves, became a floating equatorial launch pad. In March 1999, a Russian Zenit-3SL rocket – fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen – placed a demonstration satellite into geostationary orbit from the Ocean Odyssey’s remote Pacific Ocean launch site (Latitude 0° North, Longitude 154° West).
Constructed in Japan in 1982, the Ocean Odyssey was designed to endure 110 foot North Atlantic waves before it became a floating equatorial launch pad. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.
Sea Launch, a Boeing-led consortium of companies from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Norway, began commercial launches on October 9, 1999, using a Russian Zenit-3SL rocket with a DirecTV satellite payload. By 2014 the Ocean Odyssey had made 36 such launches for XM Satellite Radio, Echo Star and communication companies.
Originally to have been named Ocean Ranger II, the $110 million platform was under construction in Yokosuka, Japan, on February 15, 1982, when its namesake and predecessor tragically capsized in a North Atlantic storm off Newfoundland, killing all 84 men aboard. Renamed Ocean Odyssey, the new offshore drilling platform went to work that same year.
Between April 1983 and September 1985 the platform drilled off the coasts of Alaska and California before a two-year hiatus. In early 1988, the Ocean Odyssey was contracted to Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) for North Sea explorations. All was well until September 1988 when a blow-out and fire ended the rig’s career in oilfields.
Led by a Boeing, the Sea Launch consortium of international companies used Russian Zenit-3SL rockets to carry communications satellites into geosynchronous orbits. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.
After spending the several years as a rusting hulk in the docks of Dundee, Scotland, advancing aerospace technologies came to the rescue of the self-propelled platform, 436 feet long and about 220 feet wide.
The advantages of space launches from the equator – and the availability of the Ocean Odyssey – prompted Boeing to convert the rig into a launch platform. According to experts, the speed of earth’s rotation is greatest at the equator, providing a minor extra launch “boost.”
By April 1995, Boeing (with 40 percent ownership) led a four-country joint partnership, Sea Launch LLC. The venture included: Russia (25 percent), Norway (20 percent), and Ukraine (15 percent).
Ocean Odyssey’s last launch on May 26, 2014, came as civil war broke out in Ukraine. Bankruptcy and years of litigation followed. Photo courtesy Steve Jurvetson.
Another platform, the Ocean Star, opened as a museum in 1997 in Galveston Bay.
Thanks to Ocean Odyssey, a new industry was “launched.”The consortium established its U.S. home port in Long Beach, California, near satellite, aerospace and maritime supply companies. Before the end of 1995, Hughes Space and Communications had contracted for 10 launches.
However, economic and legal troubles emerged. After almost 40 launches (with three failures), operating costs and a declining world economy led to Sea Launch’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization in 2009. Russia emerged with 95 percent ownership.
Then began litigation, claims and counter-claims within the Sea Launch consortium. Ocean Odyssey’s last launch in May 2014 came as civil war broke out in Ukraine.
According to financial reports, the company’s debt when it filed for bankruptcy was estimated at $1 billion, with assets of $100 million to $500 million. The cost per launch was more than $80 million. Boeing sued to recoup $356 million of a reported $978 million loss in loans, trade debt and partner liabilities.
At the end of 2014, the Ocean Odyssey and its command ship, Sea Launch Commander, remained at port in Long Beach.
Oil patch lore says the yellow dog lantern was so named because its two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night.
Others believed the lamp projected a strange and eerie dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.
Jonathan Dillen’s lantern was “especially adapted for use in the oil regions…where the explosion of a lamp is attended with great danger by causing destructive conflagration and consequent loss of life and property.”
Rare is the community oil and natural gas museum that doesn’t have a “yellow dog” in its collection. The two-wicked lamp is an oilfield icon.
Some say that the unusual design originated with whaling ships – but neither the Nantucket nor New Bedford whaling museums can find any such evidence.
Railroad museums have collections of cast iron smudge pots, but nothing quite like these heavy, odd shaped, crude-oil burning lanterns once prevalent on petroleum fields from Pennsylvania to California.
Although many companies manufactured the iron or steel lamps, the yellow dog’s origins remain in the dark.
Oil patch lore says these lanterns were so named because their two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night.
Others say the lamps cast a dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.
Inventor Jonathan Dillen of Petroleum Centre, Pennsylvania, was first to patent what became the “yellow dog” of the early oil patch. The U.S. patent was awarded on May 3, 1870.
WWII technology improves method for perforating well casings.
Swiss inventor Henry Mohaupt used his experience from creating a World War II anti-tank weapon to develop a new technology for improving production of oil and natural gas wells. He used conically hollowed-out explosive charges to focus each detonation’s energy.
In 1951, Henry Mohaupt applied for a U.S. patent for his “Shaped Charge Assembly and Gun,” based on anti-tank technology he had patented a decade earlier – a conically hollowed out explosive fired from bazookas.
Cement casing, a key oilfield technology developed in 1919 by Erle Halliburton’s New Method Oil Well Cementing Company, Duncan, Oklahoma, isolates wellbore zones and guards against collapse.
But far down the borehole, a newly completed well’s cemented casing stands between the petroleum company’s massive investment and the production of oil or gas.
In the early days of well “perforating” technology, a variety of mechanical means of penetrating casings were used. Read the rest of this entry »
An unsuccessful Pennsylvania well achieved many industry “firsts.”
Modern exploration and production technologies began with the earliest wells of the mid-19th century.
Visitors to the scenic Allegheny National Forest Region on U.S. 62 near Tidioute, Pennsylvania, will discover this Warren County roadside marker.
Just four days after completion of America’s first commercial oil wellin Pennsylvania in 1859, a second attempt nearby resulted in the first “dry hole” for the young U.S. petroleum industry.
The first well, drilled by Edwin L. Drake in Titusville on August 29, included invention of a method of driving a pipe down to protect the integrity of his well bore. The former railroad conductor reportedly borrowed a common kitchen water pump to produce his first barrel of oil.
Although Drake’s discovery was a milestone for a well drilled specifically for oil, the August 31 well would become a far lesser known oil industry milestone. It was on that day that 22-year-old John Livingston Grandin began drilling America’s second well to be drilled for petroleum.
Despite not finding the oil-producing formation (later called the Vanango Sands), the Grandin well produced technology firsts for the young exploration and production industry, including:
Petroleum drilling technologies have advanced far beyond shovels, spring poles, cable-tools, and fishtail rotary bits.
Often used for drilling brine wells, a “spring-pole” well discovered oil in Appalachia. Photo from “The World Struggle for Oil,” a 1924 film by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Oil and natural gas well drilling technologies evolved from the ancient spring pole to percussion cable-tools to the modern rotary rigs that can drill miles into the earth.
“A good cable-tool man is just about the most highly skilled worker you’ll find,” one historian noted. “Besides having a feel for the job, knowing what’s going on thousands of feet under the ground just from the movement of the cable, he’s got to be something of a carpenter, a steam-fitter, an electrician, and a damned good mechanic.”
– From a 1939 interview in “Voices from the Oilfield” by Paul Lambert and Kenny Franks.
“A cable tool driller knows more knots and splices than any six sailors you can find,” Lambert and Franks added during the interview. Cable-tool rigs, powered by a steam engine and boiler, included the bullwheel and drilling cable – often high-quality manila rope.
Standard cable-tool derricks stood 82 feet tall and were powered by a steam boiler and engine using a “walking beam” to raise and lower drilling tools. Image from The Oil-Well Driller, 1905.
Drilling or “making hole” began long before oil or natural gas were anything more than flammable curiosities found seeping from the ground.
For centuries, digging by hand or shovel was the best technologies that existed to pry into the earth’s secrets. Oil seeps provided a balm for injuries. Natural gas seeps – when ignited – created folklore and places called “burning springs.” Read the rest of this entry »
Oklahomans first use reflections and refractions as way to find oil.
Exploring seismic waves is all about a vital earth science technology – reflection seismography – which first revolutionized petroleum exploration in the 1920s. Seismic waves have led to oilfield discoveries worldwide and billions of barrels of oil.
A tourist site for geologists, a sign and historic marker on I-35 near Ardmore, Oklahoma, commemorates the August 9, 1921, test of seismic technology.
Established in 1932, the company created powerful perforating guns.
As production technologies evolved after World War II, Lane-Wells developed a downhole gun with the explosive energy to cut through casing. Above, one of the articles preserved in a family scrapbook, courtesy Connie Jones Pillsbury, Atascadero, California.
About 15 years after its first oil well perforation job, Lane-Wells Company returned to the same well near Motebello, California, to perform its 100,000th perforation. The publicity event of June 18, 1948, was a return to Union Oil Company’s La Merced No. 17 well. It was a colorful ceremony, according to at least one trade magazine.
Officials from both companies and invited guests gathered to witness the repeat performance of the company’s early perforating technology, noted Petroleum Engineer in its July 1948 issue. Among them were “several well-known oilmen who had also been present on the first occasion.”
Walter Wells, chairman of the board for Lane-Wells, was present for both events. The article reported he was more anxious at the first, which had been an experiment to test his company’s new perforating gun. In 1930, Wells and another enterprising oilfield tool salesman, Bill Lane, came up with a practical way of using guns downhole. They envisioned a tool which would shoot steel bullets through casing and into the formation.
The two men created a multiple-shot perforator that fired bullets individually by electrical detonation of the powder charges. After many tests, success came at the Union Oil Company La Merced well. As explained further in Downhole Bazooka, by late 1935 Lane-Wells had established a small fleet of trucks as the company grew into a leading provider of well-perforation services.
“Bill Lane and Walt Wells worked long hours at a time, establishing their perforating gun business,” explained Susan Wells in a 2007 book. The men designed tools that would better help the oil industry during the Great Depression, she noted. “It was a period of high drilling costs, and the demand for oil was on the rise. Making this scenario worse was the fact that the cost of oil was relatively low.”
What was needed was a high-powered gun for breaking through casing, cement and into formations. An oilfield worker, Sidney Mims, had patented a similar technical tool for this purpose, but could not get it to work as well as it could. Lane and Wells purchased the patent and refined the gun.
Lane-Wells became Baker Atlas, which celebrated its 75 anniversay in 2007, and today is a division of Baker-Hughes, a GE Company.
Established in Los Angeles in 1932, the oilfield service company developed a remotely controlled 128-shot gun perforator. “Lane and Wells publicly used the reengineered shotgun perforator they bought from Mims on Union Oil’s oil well La Merced No. 17. There wasn’t any production from this oil well until the shotgun perforator was used, but when used, the well produced more oil than ever before,” she explains in 75 Years Young…BAKER ATLAS The Future has Never Looked Brighter.
The successful application attracted many other oil companies to Lane-Wells, which decided to conduct its 100,000th perforation 15 and a half years later at the same California oil well. The continued success led to new partnerships beginning in the 1950s.
A merger with Dresser Industries was finalized in March 1956. Another merger came in 1968 with Pan Geo Atlas Corporation, forming Dresser Atlas. A 1987 joint venture with Litton Industries led to Western Atlas International, which became an independent company before becoming a division of Baker-Hughes, a GE Company in 1998. Baker Atlas today provides well logging technology and perforating services worldwide.
Connie Jones Pillsbury of Atascadero, California, possesses the original guest book (press-clippings scrapbook) from the “Lane-Wells 100,000th Gun Perforating Job” of June 18, 1948, at the Union Oil Company La Merced No. 17 well at Montebello, California. She is looking for a good, permanent home for her rare oil patch artifact, which comes from an event “attended by most of the top players in the oil industry in Los Angeles during this era.”
The book has attendees’ signatures, photographs, and articles about the event (from TIME, The Oil and Gas Journal, Fortnight, Oil Reporter, Drilling, The Petroleum Engineer, Oil, Petroleum World, California Oil World,Lane-Wells Magazine, the L.A. Examiner, L.A. Daily News and L.A. Times). The children of Dale G. Jones and the grandson of Walter T. Wells have sought for an oil museum to preserve this family record. Contact the American Oil & Gas Historical Society for more information.
The founder and president of the Reda Pump Company, Armais Arutunoff, once lived in this house at 1200 Cherokee Avenue – across from Phillips Petroleum founder Frank Phillips, whose home today is a Bartlesville, Oklahoma, museum. Photo courtesy Kathryn Mann, Only in Bartlesville.
Armais Arutunoff will obtain 90 patents. Above, a 1934, patent for an improved submersible well pump – and “submersible electric cable and method for making same.” At right, a 1951 Reda Pump advertisement.
Today’s petroleum industry owes a lot to Armais Sergeevich Arutunoff.
With the help of a prominent Oklahoma oil company president, he built the first practical electric submersible pumps (ESPs) – and revolutionized production from America’s oilfields.
A 1936 Tulsa World article described his downhole pump as “An electric motor with the proportions of a slim fencepost which stands on its head at the bottom of a well and kicks oil to the surface with its feet.”
By 1938, an estimated two percent of all the oil produced in the United States with artifical lift, was lifted by an Arutunoff pump. According to an October 2014 article in the Journal of Petroleum Technology, the first patent for an oil-related electric pump was issued in 1894 to Harry Pickett. His invention used a downhole rotary electric motor with “a Yankee screwdriver device to drive a plunger pump.”
Armais Arutunoff, inventor of the modern electric submersible pump.
More than two decades later, Robert Newcomb received a 1918 patent for his “electro-magnetic engine” driving a reciprocating plunger pump. “Heretofore, in very deep wells the rod that is connected to the piston, and generally known as the ‘sucker’ rod, very often breaks on account of its great length and strains imposed thereon in operating the piston,” notes Newcomb in his patent application.
Although several patents followed those of Picket and Newcomb, the Journal reports, “it was not until 1926 that the first patent for a commercial, operatable ESP was issued – to ESP pioneer Armais Arutunoff. The cable used to supply power to the bottomhole unit was also invented by Arutunoff.”
Russian Electrical Dynamo of Arutunoff
Arutunoff built his first ESP in 1916 in Germany, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. “Suspended by steel cables, it was dropped down the well casing into oil or water and turned on, creating a suction that would lift the liquid to the surface formation through pipes,” notes historian Dianna Everett.
After immigrating to the United States in 1923, in California Arutunoff could not find financial support for manufacturing his pump design. He moved to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in 1928 at the urging of a new friend – Frank Phillips, head of Phillips Petroleum Company.
“With Phillips’s backing, he refined his pump for use in oil wells and first successfully demonstrated it in a well in Kansas,” says Everett. The device was manufactured by a small company that soon became Reda Pump.
The name Reda – Russian Electrical Dynamo of Arutunoff – was the cable address of the company that Arutunoff originally started in Germany. The inventor would move his family into a Bartlesville mansion across the street from Phillips.
A holder of more than 90 patents in the United States, Arutunoff was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1974. “Try as I may, I cannot perform services of such value to repay this wonderful country for granting me sanctuary and the blessings of freedom and citizenship,” he said at the time.
A modern ESP applies artificial lift by spinning the impellers on the pump shaft, putting pressure on the surrounding fluids and forcing them to the surface. It can lift more than 25,000 barrels of fluids per day. Courtesy Schlumberger.
Arutunoff died in February 1978 in Bartlesville. At the end of the twentieth century, Reda was the world’s largest manufacturer of ESP systems. It is now part of Schlumberger.
Son of a Soap Maker
Armais Sergeevich Arutunoff was born to Armenian parents in Tiflis, part of the Russian Empire, on June 21, 1893. His home town, in the Caucasus Mountains between the Caspian and Black Sea, dated back to the 5th Century.
According to an online electrical submersible pump history at ESP Pump, his father was a soap manufacturer and his grandfather a fur trader. In his youth, Arutunoff lived in Erivan (now Yerevan) the capital of Armenia.
ESP Pump, which includes a profile of his extensive scientific career, says Arutunoff’s research convinced him that electrical transmission of power could be efficiently applied to oil drilling and improve the antiquated methods he saw in use in the early 1900s in Russia.
“To do this, a small, yet high horsepower electric motor was needed,” ESP Pump explains. “The limitation imposed by available casing sizes made it necessary that the motor be relatively small.”
However, a motor of small diameter would necessarily be too low in horsepower. “Such a motor would be inadequate for the job he had in mind so he studied the fundamental laws of electricity to find the basis for the answer to the question of how to build a higher horsepower motor exceedingly small in diameter,” explains ESP Power.
By 1916, Arutunoff was designing a centrifugal pump to be coupled to the motor for de-watering mines and ships. To develop enough power it was necessary the motor run at very high speeds. He successfully designed a centrifugal pump, small in diameter and with stages to achieve high discharge pressure.
“In his design, the motor was ingeniously installed below the pump to cool the motor with flow moving up the oil well casing, and the entire unit was suspended in the well on the discharge pipe,” ESP Pump says. “The motor, sealed from the well fluid, operated at high speed in an oil bath.”
Upside Down Well Motor
Although Arutunoff built the first centrifugal pump while living in Germany, he built the first submersible pump and motor in the United States while living in Los Angeles.
“Before coming to the U.S. he had formed a small company of his own, called Reda, to manufacture his idea for electric submersible motors,” notes ESP Pump. “He later settled in Germany and then came with his wife and one-year-old daughter to the United States to settle in Michigan, then Los Angeles.”
However, after emigrating to America in 1923, Arutunoff could not find financial support for his down-hole production technology. Everyone he approached turned him down, saying the unit was “impossible under the laws of electronics.”
No one would consider his inventions until friends at Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville encouraged him to form his own company there.
Arutunoff’s manufacturing plant in Bartlesville will cover nine acres, employing hundreds during the Great Depression.
In 1928 Arutunoff moved to Bartlesville, where formed Bart Manufacturing Company, which changed its same to the Reda Pump Company in 1930. He soon demonstrated a working model of an oilfield electric submersible pump.
One of his pump-and-motor devices was installed in an oil well in the El Dorado field near Burns, Kansas – the first equipment of its kinds to be used in a well. One reporter telegraphed his editor, “Please rush good pictures showing oil well motors that are upside down.”
By end of the 1930s Arutunoff’s company held dozens of patents for industrial equipment, leading to decades of success and even more patents. His “Electrodrill” aided scientists in penetrating the Antarctic ice cap for the first time in 1967.
“Arutunoff’s ESP oilfield technology quickly had a significant impact on the oil business,” concludes ESP Pump. “His pump was crucial to the successful production over the years of hundreds of thousands of oil wells.”
Dazzling “gems of light” at Baltimore Museum launches new industry.
The Baltimore gas company used wooden pipes to distribute gas to elegant street lights. Photo courtesy BG&E.
America’s first public street lamp (fueled by manufactured gas) illuminated Market Street in Baltimore, Maryland, in early 1817. The Gas Light Company of Baltimore thus became the first U.S. commercial gas lighting company by distilling tar and wood to manufacture its gas.
Today, a small monument to the company and its street lamp stands at the corner of North Holliday Street and East Baltimore Street (once Market and Lemon streets). Dedicated in 1991, the lamp is a 175th anniversary replica of the original 1817 design.
In 1816, noted local inventor, artist and museum founder Rembrandt Peale first illuminated a room in his Holliday Street museum a year earlier, burning his artificial gas and dazzling local businessmen and socialites gathered there with a “ring beset with gems of light.”
“Taking after a natural history museum that his father, Charles Wilson Peale, started in Philadelphia in 1786, Rembrandt Peale displayed collections of fossils and other specimens, as well as portraits of many of the country’s founding fathers that his family had painted,” notes a historian for Explore Baltimore Heritage.
“During a candlelit period in American history the forward-thinking Peale aimed to form a business around his gas light innovations, the exhibition targeting potential investors,” adds another historian at the utility Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E). The manufactured gas gamble worked, and several financiers aligned with Peale, forming The Gas Light Company of Baltimore, BG&E’s precursor.
A 1921 painting dramatized the moment when Rembrandt Peale ignited his “gems of light.” Photo courtesy BG&E.
“Peale’s Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Paintings” opened in 1814 in a building designed by architect Robert Carey Long. Photo courtesy Baltimore Heritage.
“Less than a year later, on February 7, 1817, the first public gas street lamp was lit in a ceremony one block south of City Hall,” notes BG&E.
The impressed city council speedily approved Peale’s plan to light more of the city’s streets. BG&E also credits Baltimore inventor Samuel Hill for establishing America’s first gas meter manufacturing company in 1832. Two years later the first meters were installed. The company petitioned the city to begin laying underground pipelines in 1851.
Over coming decades, two miles of gas main would be completed under Baltimore streets and the company showed its first profit. Metering replaced flat-rate billing, helping residents afford lighting their homes with gas.
By 1855, a new gas manufacturing plant was constructed to distill gas from coal – an improvement over the former “gasification” of tar or wood. Manufacturing gas from coal had earlier proved successful in Philadelphia.
Following Baltimore, public use of manufactured gas lighting began in New York City in 1823 when the New York Gas Company received a charter from the state legislature to light to parts of Manhattan. Consolidated Edison, Inc. – known as “Con Edison” or “Con Ed” – was created in 1884, when six New York City gas-light companies merged.
Coal Gas brightens Philadelphia
Forty-six lights burning manufactured “coal gas” were lit on February 8, 1836, along Philadelphia’s Second Street by employees of the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works. As Philadelphia became the nation’s center for finance and industry, the municipally owned gas distribution company began a series of gas-manufacturing innovations.
By 1856, Philadelphia Gas completed construction of a gas tank at the company’s Point Breeze Plant in South Philadelphia. At the time it was the largest in the nation with a total holding capacity of 1.8 million cubic feet.
A natural gas storage facility at Point Breeze in South Philadelphia, circa 1856. Photograph courtesy Philadelphia Gas Works.
When the American Centennial Exposition of 1876 displayed the wonders of the age in agriculture, horticulture and machinery, gas cooking was showcased as a novelty. Sixty miles of pipe brought manufactured gas to the exhibition’s lamps.
Natural Gas Lights
The earliest commercial use of natural gas in a community, according to most historians, took place in Fredonia, New York, in 1825.
Natural gas was piped to several stores, shops and a mill from a downtown natural gas well drilled by William Hart, who some consider as the father of the natural gas industry.
Hart made three attempts at drilling, according to Lois Barris in her history of the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company, which incorporated in 1857.
“He left a broken drill in one shallow hole and abandoned a second site at a depth of forty feet because of the small volume of gas found,” she reports.
“In his third attempt, Mr. Hart found a good flow of gas at seventy feet,” Barris adds. “He then constructed a crude gasometer, covering it with a rough shed and proceeded to pipe and market the first natural gas sold in this country.”
Texas “crater well” leads to advancements in directional drilling.
As the Great Depression worsened and oil exploration and production expanded north of Houston, a 1933 oilfield disaster near Conroe, Texas, brought together the inventor of a portable drilling rig and the father of directional drilling.
Although the Conroe field’s well’s producing sands proved to be dangerously gas-charged, shallow and unstable, the giant oilfield – the third largest in the United States at the time – had 60 successful wells producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil a day.
Disaster came in January 1933 when one of the wells blew out and erupted into flame. The runaway well cratered – completely swallowing several nearby drilling rigs. The catastrophic fire threatened the entire field’s production. It took the combined efforts of oilfield technology innovators George Failing of Enid, Oklahoma, and H. John Eastman of Long Beach, California, to save the Conroe oilfield.
“Only a handful of men in the world have the strange power to make a bit, rotating a mile below ground at the end of a steel drill pipe, snake its way in a curve or around a dog-leg angle, to reach a desired objective.” — Popular Science Monthly, May 1934
Some say that Conroe, Texas’ Crater Lake is bottomless. Others say it is 600 feet deep, but with the twisted remains of the Madeley No. 1 well at its bottom.
A few may even remember the day in January 1933 when the well came roaring in ablaze and cratered, eventually swallowing two nearby drilling rigs. The towering black cloud from the oil fire could be seen from Houston. It burned for months.
Conroe was no stranger to blowouts and rig fires. In 1931, wildcatter George Strake’s South Texas Development Company No. 1 well came in at 4,991 feet, producing millions of cubic feet of natural gas per day and several hundred barrels of oil. Strake found the oil sands to be gas-charged, shallow, and unstable. Despite these challenges, he continued and spudded a second well 2,000 feet from his first success.
In June 1932, the Conroe Courier newspaper headline proclaimed, “Strake Well Comes In. Good for 10,000 Barrels Per Day.” Strake had found the discovery well for the 19,000-acre Conroe oilfield, but its geology made drilling and development risky.
Texas lawmakers regulated drilling practices, casing procedures, and well spacing, but as always, the oilfield remained a hazardous place.
By the end of the year, the Conroe oilfield had 60 wells producing over 65,000 of barrels daily, principally from Humble Oil and Refining Company (now ExxonMobil), and the Texas Company (later Texaco, now part of Chevron). A number of independent producers were also operating successful wells.
Some of these wells required water, mud, and cement to be pumped into them for stabilization. Others required relief holes to reduce reservoir gas pressures, but drilling continued unabated.
In January 1933, Standard Oil of Kansas’ Madeley No.1 blew in as a gusher and immediately erupted into flame. All attempts to put out the fire with dynamite blasts and tons of dirt failed. The crater spread into a growing lake of burning oil, and the entire field was threatened.
The nearby rig of James Abercrombie and cousin Dan Harrison collapsed into the growing crater. With its casing shattered, their Alexander No. 1 well unleashed the reservoir’s full fury and millions of barrels of oil began surging into the crater. Good fortune intervened.
Enid, Oklahoma, entrepreneur George Everett Failing and his crew were working near Conroe. They arrived on the scene with their patented, self-contained portable drilling rig.
Failing had begun his company only two years prior when he mated a drilling rig to a 1927 Ford farm truck and a power take-off assembly. The same engine that drove the sturdy truck across the oilfields was used to power its rotary drill.
George Failing’s newly patented portable drilling trucks would revolutionize drilling. He started his company in 1931 when he mated a drilling rig to a truck and a power take-off assembly. One of his drilling trucks would be featured with Native Americans in a parade in his hometown of Enid, Oklahoma.
While a traditional steam powered rotary rig took about a week to set up and drill a 50-foot borehole, Failing could drill ten 50-foot holes in a single day. This capacity to quickly drill multiple relief wells and relieve the enormous gas pressure was critical to extinguishing the Conroe fire.
Working behind walls of Foamite and sheets of asbestos to suppress the flames, Failing drilled nearly a dozen 600-foot relief wells in record time, enabling the firefighters to at last extinguish the inferno.
It cost Failing the hearing in one ear and partial sight in one eye, but the fire was out. It had burned for three months. A grateful Humble Oil Company paid Failing a $25,000 bonus and his success was widely reported, giving his fledgling company a welcome boost.
The George E. Failing Co. (GEFCO) facility in Enid continues to manufacture drilling rigs and other oilfield equipment used worldwide.
Fire is Out – But a Lake of Oil
Although Failing was successful and the Conroe fire was out, the growing lake of oil continued to feed off of the sunken Abercrombie and Harrison casing at the rate of over 6,000 barrels each day. Meanwhile, reduced pressure in the field dropped all other wells to less than 100 barrels per day in production.
Humble Oil Company was the largest producer in the field — and was determined to bring the well under control before it drained the field of its lifting power and dissipated the oil pool, completely destroying their investment. After the fire was out, Humble Oil brought in H. John Eastman from Eastman Oil Well Survey Co. of Long Beach, Calif., to stop the flow of oil into the crater.
In October, Humble purchased the “crater well” and the 15 acres surrounding it from J.S. Abercrombie Co. and the Harrison Oil Co. for $300,000. The astute Abercrombie and Harrison retained ownership of all oil the crater produced under the “Law of Capture.”
Since this oil was not charged against the fields “allowable” production, as managed by the Texas Railroad Commission, Abercrombie and Harrison bulldozed berms around the crater and continued to pump oil out at $1.10 per barrel, making a substantial fortune.
In an effort to choke off the unrestricted flow of oil into the crater, Humble Oil brought in H. (Harlan) John Eastman from Eastman Oil Well Survey Company of Long Beach, Calif. The growing dimensions of the oil-filled lake meant that the relief well would have to be spudded 400-feet distant and the borehole deviated deep underground to reach the crater’s source.
“Whip stocks” were tapered wedges in a borehole that forced a drill bit sideways into a new direction and Eastman was a “whip-stocking expert.” ALthough today he is recognized as the father of directional drilling and surveying, in 1933 his techniques were new — and put to the test in Conroe.
Drilling of the relief well began on November 12, 1933. At 1,400 feet, Eastman began his efforts to redirect the borehole. The Conroe Courier kept careful track of the relief well, reporting its progress: December 8, “Killer Well Now Drilling At 2,760 Feet.” December 29, “Conroe Relief Hole Drilling Now At 4,870.”
On January 7, 1934, Eastman’s directional drilling successfully reached its target. Four steam-powered pumps began forcing thousands of tons of water into the well under 1,400 psi pressure. After two days, the erupting oil flow was finally staunched.
By January 19, 1934, the newspaper reported, “Conroe Crater Becoming Just Another Well.” It was a year since the Madeley No. 1 had first roared onto the scene. The newspaper’s postscript noted that the crater, “will exist only as the most expensive memory of the Conroe field.”
More than just expensive memories remain from those early days of men making oil history. Wildcatter George Strake’s oil fortune continued to grow, making him a wealthy man. He gave much of his fortune to the Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston and to educational institutions and civic organizations and charities.
H. John Eastman’s contributions to the industry continue today in oilfields around the world with INTEQ, a business unit of Baker Hughes, Inc. that “…delivers advanced drilling technologies and services for efficiency and precise well placement.”
George E. Failing’s philanthropy earned him a place in Oklahoma’s heart. His company remains in Enid, “…a world leader in the design and manufacture of a complete line of portable drilling rigs.”
James Abercrombie and Don Harrison’s good fortune with the “crater well” and other ventures led them to prominence as Houston civic leaders.
Today, the Abercrombie Foundation helps fund Texas Children’s Hospital, an internationally recognized pediatric hospital located in the Texas Medical Center in Houston. A brief oral history interview with James Abercrombie is posted at the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center website.
Popular Science Monthly, May 1934
Slanted Oil Wells Work New Marvels
“Slanted oil wells are the latest sensation of the oil industry,” begins the May 1934 Popular Science Monthly article. “Drilled by experts who use special tools and secret methods to send the bit burrowing into the ground at strange angles, they are finding amazing new applications.”
The article continues: “Brilliant work by a specialist in the new science of directional drilling has just saved a whole oilfield from ruin. A spectacular wild well was spouting oil, gas, and water with volcanic fury from a huge crater more than a hundred feet across. Alexander No. 1, thundering giant of the Conroe field in Texas, was out of control. Before oil men could get to the runaway well, they saw the whole derrick, with its Christmas tree of pipe fittings and valves, vanish into a cauldron of mud, water, and oil.”
Noting that H. John Eastman brought his new directional drilling technology to the crisis in Conroe, Popular Science reported: “With the aid of simple geometry, Eastman sketched a plan. He would sink a straight hole part way, then drift sidewise in an arc, intersecting the oil formation close to the wild well.”
After successfully using a “whip stock” to deflect the drilling direction, “Into the hole went a single-shot surveying instrument of Eastman’s own invention. As it hit bottom, a miniature camera within the instrument clicked, photographing the position of compass needle and a spirit-level bubble.
“Again Eastman caused the bit to swerve like a living thing, plunging straight down to 5,135 feet. Here, at last, it struck the oil formation. Thousands of gallons of water could be pumped into the borehole. Within a few hours, the flood of oil ceased spouting from the crater. Eastman’s relief well had done its work.”
An unidentified Halliburton company employee in this circa 1920s photograph posed confidently in a Model T Ford. Background includes an early Halliburton self-propelled truck with pumps for cementing wells. Photo courtesy Timothy Johnson.
Erle P. Halliburton received a 1921 patent for an improved method for cementing oil wells, helping to bring greater production and environmental safety to America’s oilfields. When he patented his “Method and Means for Cementing Oil Wells,” the young inventor revolutionized how wells were completed after drilling.
Erle Halliburton’s well cementing process isolated down-hole production zones, prevented collapse of the casing – and helped secure the well throughout its producing life.
In 1919, Halliburton was 27 years old when he founded his oilfield equipment and service company headquartered in Ardmore, Oklahoma. The New Method Oil Well Cementing Company would receive many patents on its way to becoming today’s Halliburton. He had recently moved to Ardmore and the nearby Healdton oilfield after working in the booming fields of Burkburnett, Texas.
“It is well known to those skilled in the art of oil well drilling that one of the greatest obstacles to successful development of oil bearing sands has been the encountering of liquid mud water and the like during and after the process of drilling the wells,” Halliburton noted in his June 1920 U.S. patent application.
Halliburton’s patent awarded on March 1, 1921, explained that a typical well’s production, hampered by water intrusion that required time and expense for pumping out, “has caused the abandonment of many wells which would have developed a profitable output.”
A statue dedicated in 1993 in Duncan, Oklahoma.
The improved well cementing process isolated the various down-hole zones, guarded against collapse of the casing, and allowed better control of the well throughout its producing life. Learn more about well production history in All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology.
Inventing a Cement Service Company
After World War I, as Halliburton struggled to set up cementing operations in Texas, many oil companies were skeptical of cementing casing, according to the former editor-in-chief of E&P magazine.
“Most wells were doing well, they reasoned, without the new-fangled technology and there was, in the back of their minds, the question of possible well damage resulting from cementing,” explains Bill Pike. “For Halliburton, it was to be an uphill struggle to normalize the practice of cementing a well.”
Halliburton would persist — and patent much of today’s cementing technologies, including the jet mixer, the re-mixer and the float collar, guide shoe and plug system, bulk cementing, multiple-stage cementing, advanced pump technology and offshore cementing technology.
One of the earliest self-propelled Halliburton cementing trucks includes a jet mixer at the rear of the truck on the left. Halliburton photo courtesy E&P magazine.
“It is safe to say that in the first half of the 20th century, the formative years, Halliburton dominated the development of cementing technology,” Pike proclaims in his 2007 article, Cementing is not for Sissies, where he also also notes: “Halliburton was ever the tinkerer. He owned nearly 50 patents. Most are oilfield, and specifically cementing related, but the number includes patents for an airplane control, an opposed piston pump, a respirator, an airplane tire and a metallic suitcase.”
For years Halliburton’s only real competitor in the oilfield service industry was R.C. (Carl) Baker of Coalinga, California. Baker Oil Tools also held around 50 patents, including a Gas Trap for Oil Wells in 1908, a Pump-Plunger in 1914, and a Shoe Guide for Well Casings in 1920.
Almost three decades after his Method and Means for Cementing Oil Wells patent, Halliburton would develop yet another industry-changing oilfield technology.
On March 17, 1949, Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company and Stanolind Oil Company completed a well near Duncan, Oklahoma: It was the first commercial application of hydraulic fracturing, a process that dramatically increased oil and natural gas production.
Casing a Well
Today, cement is first used soon after a well has been spudded – the beginning of drilling operations. The surface hole is lined with steel casing and cement to protect freshwater aquifers.
Steel casing is installed in the surface hole to prevent the contamination of freshwater zones. (A) The conductor pipe has been cemented into place. Cement is pumped down the inside of the casing. (B) The cement in the bottom of the casing has been drilled out so that drilling can be resumed. Illustration courtesy the Kansas Geological Survey.
A 1939 issue of “The Cementer,” a Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company magazine.
According to the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS), this surface hole may be several hundred or several thousand feet deep. When the predetermined depth is reached, drilling pauses so steel casing can be inserted.
To strengthen the well and protect the environment, cement is then pumped down the surface casing to fill the space between the outside of the casing and the well bore all the way to the surface. This insures the protection of freshwater aquifers and the security of the surface casing.
KGS notes that the casing and the cement typically are tested under pressure for 12 hours before drilling operations resume. A vital piece of equipment for controlling pressure – the blowout preventer – is attached at the top of the surface casing.
Cementing a Well
When drilling has reached total depth and after well-logging and other tests have been completed and analyzed, petroleum company executives must decide whether to complete the well as a producing well – or plug it as a dry hole.
(A) The casing shoe makes it easier to insert the casing into the bore hole. The float collar prevents drilling fluid from entering the casing. The bottom plug precedes the cement down the casing, and the top plug follows the cement. (B) The production casing when the cementing operation is completed. Kansas Geological Survey illustration.
The KGS explains that if the well is to be plugged and abandoned as a dry hole, the well bore is filled with a drilling fluid with additives that prevent its movement from the well bore into the surrounding rock.
Several cement plugs can be used within the well bore at intervals where porosity has been detected, KGS adds. This isolates the porosity zones – and prevents movement of fluids from one formation to another.
If a decision is made to complete the well as a producer, more casing is delivered to the site and the cementing company called.
“The well bore is filled with drilling fluid that contains additives to prevent corrosion of the casing and to prevent the movement of the fluid from the well bore into the surrounding rock,” notes KGS.
Casing may be inserted to a total depth of the hole or a cement plug may have been set at a specific depth and the casing set on top of it.”
The cement is then pumped down the casing and displaced out of the bottom with drilling fluid. The cement then flows up and around the casing, filling the space between the casing and the well bore.
Special tools are sometimes used with the casing which allow the setting of cement between the outside of the casing and the well bore at specific intervals. This is done to protect the casing and to prevent the movement of formation fluids from one formation to another.
“After the cementing of the casing has been completed, the drilling rig, equipment, and materials are removed from the drill site,” says KGS. “A smaller rig, known as a workover rig or completion rig, is moved over the well bore. The smaller rig is used for the remaining completion operations.”
A well-perforating company is then called to the well site, adds the KGS article, because it is necessary to perforate holes in the casing at the proper position to allow the oil and natural gas to enter the casing. Learn more in Downhole Bazooka.Also see Halliburton and the Healdton Oilfield.
Ever since America’s earliest oil discoveries, detonating dynamite or nitroglycerin downhole helped increase a well’s production. The technology – commonly used in oilfields for almost a century – would be greatly improved when hydraulic fracturing arrived in 1949.
In 1862, E.A.L. Roberts was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 28th New Jersey Volunteers. “In December of that year he conceived the idea of opening the veins and crevices in oil-bearing rock by exploding an elongated shell or torpedo therein,” noted historian Paul Henry Giddens in 1948. Images courtesy Drake Well Museum, Early Days of Oil: A pictorial history of the beginnings of the industry in Pennsylvania, Princeton University Press.
Hydraulic fracturing has been used to increase production on millions of oil and natural gas wells since 1949.
Modern hydraulic “fracking”” can trace its roots to April 1865, when Civil War Union veteran Lt. Col. Edward A. L. Roberts received the first of his many patents for an “exploding torpedo.”
In May 1990, Pennsylvania’s Otto Cupler Torpedo Company “shot” its last oil well using liquid nitroglycerin – abandoning nitro but continuing to pursue a fundamental oilfield technology. President Rick Tallini says today’s widely used fracturing systems are much advanced from Col. Roberts’ original patents.
When Col. E.A.L. Roberts founds his company in 1865, his many patents give him a monopoly on torpedoes needed by the oil industry. The stock certificate – with oilfield vignettes – is worth about $300 to collectors.
“Our business since Colonel Roberts’ day has concerned lowering high explosives charges into oil wells in the Appalachian area to blast fractures into the oil bearing sand,” says Tallini. His company is based in Titusville – where the American petroleum industry began in August 1859 (learn more in First American Oil Well). Read the rest of this entry »
The founding of the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company in 1902 will lead to creation of an oilfield icon known by many names — nodding donkey, grasshopper, horse-head, thirsty bird, etc.
Invented in 1925 in Lufkin, Texas, the counterbalanced pumping unit brought greater efficiency to the oil patch. Photo by Bruce Wells.
In a valley in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859, Edwin Drake drilled America’s first commercial oil well,launching the U.S. petroleum industry. For his oil well pump, he borrowed a common water well hand pump to retrieve the new resource from 69.5 feet.
As the American petroleum industry was born, it wasn’t long before necessity and ingenuity combined to find something more efficient for producing oil from a well.
Industry pioneers realized that by improving oil well pump efficiency they could extend the economic life of far deeper wells by years. The new resource will be refined to meet the phenomenal worldwide demand for an inexpensive lamp fuel: kerosene.
The evolution of technology for pumping oil from the ground is reflected in thousands of small, marginally producing oil wells reaching deep into often stubborn reserves.
Although there are almost one-half million wells in the United States that produce less than 15 barrels of oil per day, their total production remains significant.
Oil wells will run dry, but advances in “artificial lift systems” technology can put off the inevitable. But even with today’s best technologies, more than half of the oil can remain trapped underground.
Low-volume marginal or “stripper” wells produce no more than 15 barrels a day. The average stripper well produces only about 2.2 barrels per day. These wells comprise 84 percent of U.S. oil wells and produce 18 percent of all domestic oil.
Marginal oil and natural gas wells number about 650,000 of the nation’s 876,000 wells. Once shutdown, they are lost forever. Keeping them in production has long been a challenge for a special breed of oilman, one who combines technical skills with hard work in the field.
America’s oilfield technologies advanced in 1875 with this “Improvement In Means For Pumping Wells” invented in Pennsylvania.
“This is an occupation where most of your work is done in all types of weather while working alone, with few thanks, and possibly only a small herd of cattle as company,” notes the Oklahoma Commission on Marginally Producing Oil and Gas Wells.
It was the same in the industry’s earliest oil well pump days.
Central Power Units
Marginal quantities of oil always need help leaving the well. In the early days of the industry, oilmen adapted water-well technology to the problem and used steam-driven walking beam pump systems.
At each well, a steam engine rhythmically raised and lowered one end of a sturdy wooden beam, which pivoted on a Samson post. The walking beam’s other end cranked a long string of sucker-rods up and down to pump oil to the surface.
An oilfield “jack plant” often included a single-cylinder horizontal engine that rotated one eccentric wheel.
The beam walked and the oil surfaced, but a more efficient system was needed. One of the early oil pumping innovations came from an 1875 patent. An “Improvement in Means for Pumping Wells” allowed pumping of multiple wells with a single steam engine. The technology helped boost efficiency in the early oilfields of Venango County, Pennsylvania.
The new pumping method applied a system of linked and balanced walking beams to pump the oil wells. Wooden or iron rods instead of a rope and pulley system made the technology the forerunner of more efficient production methods. Learn more in Eccentric Wheels and Jerk Lines.
Walter Trout’s Revolutionary Prototype
Sketched by Walter Trout in 1925, a prototype of his counterbalanced pump jack was in an oilfield before the end of the year.
As efficient as central power units were, time and technology changed the oilfield again. A new icon of U.S. petroleum production appeared and was soon known by many names: Donkey, Grasshopper, Horse-head, Thirsty Bird, and Pump Jack, among others.
As East Texas timber supplies dwindled and the sawmill business declined, the long-established Lufkin Foundry & Machine Company discovered new opportunities in the oilfield. As more oil discoveries were made, the company – in Lufkin, Texas – not only survived, but prospered.
Walter Trout was working in Texas for Lufkin Foundry & Machine in 1925 when he sketched out his idea for the now familiar counterbalanced oil well pump jack. Before the end of the year, the prototype was installed and working near Hull, Texas, in a Humble Oil Company oilfield.
“The well was perfectly balanced, but even with this result, it was such a funny looking, odd thing that it was subject to ridicule and criticism, and it took a long time, nearly a year, before we could convince many the idea was a good one,” Trout explained.
Key to pumping the oil (and often set to run on a timer), an engine turns gears that move a counter weight connected to the walking beam, which moves the sucker-rod up and down to up draw oil. The oil is pumped into nearby holding tanks.
Modern stripper wells still look much like Walter Trout’s original, but they enjoy the reliability and efficiency that 85 more years of evolving technology have produced.
Lufkin Industries produces a variety of oil well pump units designed to meet worldwide needs. More than 200,000 units have been sold.
Advancements in Efficiency
As with nearly every segment of the petroleum industry, artificial lift systems – including the venerable pump jack – are also benefiting from inclusion of “smart” technology, notes a representative from another leading oilfield supply company.
“The computer-based technology is used to monitor and analyze pump systems in realtime from miles away, quickly and with minimal human interference,” says Paul Nelson of Weatherford International Ltd., Houston.
“On pump jacks that means constant monitoring of well production and the lift unit in order to optimize energy usage while maximizing the amount of oil recovered from reluctant zones,” Nelson adds.
Smart well technology is of particular importance to the United States, where a very large portion oil is produced from thousands of stripper wells producing less than 10 barrels a day, Nelson explains.
Many stripper wells have reached such a depleted pressure state that once they are shut in they can never be economically restarted. The majority of them must be kept alive by oil well pump jacks.
The lighting of the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Pumping Unit” in Lufkin, Texas, has included more than 1,000 lights decorating a 38-foot-tall pump jack. Photo courtesy the Lufkin Daily News.
“By improving pump efficiencies without adding significantly to operating costs, smart well technology stands to extend by years the economic life of many of these wells and, by extension, add millions of barrels of oil to U.S. reserves,” he concludes.
Edwin L. Drake (1819-1880) became the “father of the petroleum industry” when he drilled what most consider America’s first commercial oil well on August 27, 1859, near Titusville, Pennsylvania. He used a steam engine and cable-tool rig.
Drake overcame many financial and technical obstacles to make his historic discovery. He also pioneered new drilling technologies, including using iron casing to isolate his well bore from nearby Oil Creek.
Seeking oil for the Seneca Oil Company for refining into a new product (kerosene), Drake’s shallow well created an industry.
Learn more about drilling technology – including how “fishtail” bits became obsolete in 1909 when Howard Hughes Sr. introduced the twin-cone roller bit: Making Hole – Drilling Technology.
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.
The Anadarko Basin extends across more than 50,000 square miles of West-Central Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. It 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.”
Although most experts disagreed, Robert Hefner III believed immense natural gas reserves resided even deeper, three miles or more. Read the rest of this entry »
Reversing an earlier ban, in 1962 voters in Long Beach, California, approved petroleum exploration in their harbor. Five oil companies formed a company called THUMS and built four artificial islands to produce the oil.
Island Grissom, one of the four THUMS islands at Long Beach, California, was named after Nasa astronaut Col. Virgil “Gus” Grisson, who died in 1967 in the Apollo spacecraft fire. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy.
California’s Signal Hill was a residential area until a surprise oil boom in 1921 sprouted so many derricks it became known as “Porcupine Hill.” Much of the land was sold and subdivided in real estate lots of size described as “big enough to raise chickens.” Many homeowners became aspiring oil drillers and speculators.
“Even today, those islands are viewed as one of the most innovative oilfield designs in the world,” notes Frank Komin, executive vice president for the California Resources Corporation. Circa 1965 illustration courtesy Oxy Petroleum.
Derricks were so close to one cemetery that graves “generated royalty checks to next-of-kin when oil was drawn from beneath family plots,” noted one historian. By 1923, oil production reached more than one-quarter million barrels of oil per day.
At the time, a “law of capture” for petroleum production ensured the formerly scenic landscape would be transformed. Competitors crowded around any new well that came in, chasing any sign of oil to the Pacific Ocean. Naturally produced California oil seeps led to many discoveries south of the 1892 Los Angeles City field.
By the early 1930s, the massive Wilmington oilfield extended through Long Beach as reservoir management concerns remained in the future.
Petroleum reserves brought drilling booms to southern California. By 1923, oil production reached more than one-quarter million barrels of oil per day from Signal Hill, seen in the distance in this detail from a panorama from the Library of Congress.
Onshore and offshore tax revenues generated by production of more than one billion barrels of oil and one trillion cubic feet of natural gas helped underwrite much of the Los Angeles area’s economic growth. But not without consequences.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported, “Subsidence, the sinking of the ground surface, is typically caused by extracting fluids from the subsurface.”
Although Californians had experience dealing with groundwater induced subsidence and the building damage it caused, by 1951 Long Beach was sinking at the alarming rate of about two feet each year. Earth scientists noted that between 1928 and 1965, the community sank almost 30 feet. TIME magazine call the bustling port “America’s Sinking City.”
After decades of prospering from petroleum production, the city prohibited “offshore area” drilling to slow the subsidence as the community looked for a solution.
On February 27, 1962, Long Beach voters approved “controlled exploration and exploitation of the oil and gas reserves” underlying their harbor. The city’s charter had prohibited such drilling since a 1956 referendum, but advances in oilfield technologies enabled Long Beach to stay afloat.
The prospering but “sinking city” of Long Beach would solve its subsidence problem with four islands and advanced drilling and production technologies. Photo by Roger Coar, 1959, courtesy Long Beach Historical Society.
Directional drilling and water injection opened another 6,500 acres of the Wilmington field — and saved the sinking city.
Five oil companies formed a Long Beach company called THUMS: Texaco (now Chevron), Humble (now ExxonMobil), Union Oil (now Chevron), Mobil (now ExxonMobil) and Shell Oil Company. They built four artificial islands at a cost of $22 million (in 1965 dollars). The islands in 1967 were named Grissom, White, Chaffee, and Freemen in honor of lost Nasa astronauts.
Today the four islands, a total of 42 acres, include about 1,000 active wells producing 46,000 barrels of oil and 9 million cubic feet of natural gas every day.
To counter subsidence, five 1,750-horsepower motors on White Island drive water injection pumps to offset extracted petroleum, sustain reservoir pressures, and extend oil recovery. The challenge was once described as “a massive Rubik’s Cube of oil pockets, fault blocks, fluid pressures and piping systems.”
Meanwhile, all of this happens amidst the scenic boating and tourist waters in Long Beach Harbor. The California Resources Corporation operates the offshore part on the islands of the Wilmington field, the fourth-largest U.S. oilfield, according to the Los Angeles Association of Professional Landmen, whose members toured the facilities in November 2017.
“Most interestingly, the islands were designed to blend in with the surrounding coastal environment,” explains LAAPL Education Chair Blake W.E. Barton of Signal Hill Petroleum. “The drilling rigs and other above-ground equipment are camouflaged and sound-proofed with faux skyscraper skins and waterfalls.” Most people do not realize the islands are petroleum production facilities.
From the nearby shore, the man-made islands appear to be occupied by upscale condos and lush vegetation. Much of the design came courtesy of Joseph Linesch, a pioneering designer who helped design landscaping at Disneyland.
“It was an exceptional design. The people who were involved at the time were very creative visionaries,” notes Frank Komin, executive vice president for southern operations of the California Resources Corporation, the latest owner of the islands.
THUMS Island White, named for Col. Edward White II, the first American to walk in space, who died in 1967 along with Nasa astronauts “Gus” Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee. A fourth island was named for Nasa test pilot Ted Freeman, who in 1963 was the first fatality among the Nasa astronauts. Photo courtesy UCLA Library.
“Even today, those islands are viewed as one of the most innovative oil field designs in the world,” Komin adds in a 2015 Long Beach Business Journal article celebrating the production facilities’ 50th anniversary. “The islands have grown to become icons in which the City of Long Beach takes a great deal of pride.”
The Journal article, “THUMS Oil Islands: Half A Century Later, Still Unique, Still Iconic,” explains that 640,000 tons of boulders, some as large as five tons, were mined and placed to build up the perimeters of the islands.
“Concrete facades were constructed for aesthetic purposes but also for practical purposes – to divert any industrial noise away from the residents living nearby,” Komin explains. “For noise abatement purposes, nearly all of the power that’s used to run the islands is electricity.”
The THUMS aesthetic integration of 175-foot derricks and production structures has been described by the Los Angeles Times as, “part Disney, part Jetsons, part Swiss Family Robinson.”
Kansas oilfield workers struggled for weeks trying to cap the 1906 burning well at Caney. Photo courtesy Jeff Spencer.
America’s fascination with “black gold” switched to natural gas for a time in 1906 after lightning ignited a natural gas well fire near a small Kansas town.
The flaming well of Caney, Kansas, towered 150 feet high and at night could be seen for 35 miles. It made headlines.
Newspapers as far away as Los Angeles regularly updated readers as the technologies of the day struggled to put out the well, “which defied the ingenuity of man to subdue its roaring flames.”
It would take five weeks to bring the well under control.
In the early 1900s large amounts of natural gas had been discovered between Caney and Bartlesville in Indian Territory. About 20 miles apart, the towns were connected by the Caney River. Read the rest of this entry »
James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron in 1922 filed a patent for the hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer. Their invention was a vital technology for ending dangerous oil gushers.
“The object of our invention is to provide a device designed to be secured to the top of the casing while the drilling is being done and which will be adapted to be closed tightly about the drill stem when necessary,” they noted in their application, which was approved in January 1926. It revolutionized the petroleum industry. Read the rest of this entry »
An “Improvement in Rock Drills” patent application filed after the Civil War included the basic elements of the modern petroleum industry’s rotary rig. The design for Sweeny’s 1866 rotary rig for drilling wells – making hole – was an idea decades ahead of its time.
The inventor, who applied for his U.S. patent on January 2, 1866, described his rotary drilling method’s “peculiar construction particularly adapted for boring deep wells.”
Peter Sweeney of New York City was granted a patent (No. 51,902), which included a series of descriptions similar to technology used in modern rotary rigs. His design improved upon an 1844 British patent by Robert Beart. Sweeney’s patent utilized a roller bit with replaceable cutting wheels such “that by giving the head a rapid rotary motion the wheels cut into the ground or rock and a clean hole is produced.”
Peter Sweeney’s innovative 1866 “Stone Drill” patent included a roller bit using “rapid rotary motion” similar to modern rotary drilling technologies.
The “drill-rod” was hollow and connected with a hose through which “a current of steam or water can be introduced in such a manner that the discharge of the dirt and dust from the bottom of the hole is facilitated.”
A 1917 rotary rig in the Coalinga, California, oilfield. Courtesy of the Joaquin Valley Geology Organization.
Better than cable-tool technology of the day, which lifted and dropped iron chisel-like bits, Sweeney claimed his drilling apparatus could be used with great advantage for making holes in hard rock, “in a horizontal, oblique, or vertical direction.”
Drilling operations could be continued without interruption, he added in his 1866 patent application, “with the exception of the time required for adding new sections to the drill rod as the depth of the hole increases. The dirt is discharged during the operation of boring and a clean hole is obtained into which the tubing can be introduced without difficulty.”
Perhaps even foreseeing the offshore exploration industry, Sweeney’s patent concluded with a note that “the apparatus can also be used with advantage for submarine operations.”
With the American oil industry booming, drilling contractors improved upon Sweeney’s idea. A new device was fitted to the rotary table that clamped around the drill pipe and turned. As this “kelly bushing” rotated, the pipe rotated – and with it the bit down hole. The torque of the rotary table was transmitted to the drill stem.
Early petroleum technologies included cannons for fighting oil-tank storage fires, especially in the great plains where lightning strikes often ignited derricks and tanks. Shooting cannon balls into the base of a burning tank allowed oil to drain into a holding pit until fire died.
Lightening frequently struck oil derricks, which spread fires to storage tanks. Photo courtesy Butler County History Center & Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado.
“Oil Fires, like battles, are fought by artillery,” proclaimed a December 1884 article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Lightning had struck the derrick, followed pipe connections into a nearby tank and ignited natural gas, which rises from freshly produced oil. Immediately following this blinding flash, the black smoke began to roll out,” noted the first-person account in Tech magazine.
Burning oil tank could be drained by a muzzle-loading cannon firing solid shot at the tank’s base.
The “A Thunder Storm in the Oil Country” article described what happened next:
“Without stopping to watch the burning tank-house and derrick, we followed the oil to see where it would go. By some mischance the mouth of the ravine had been blocked up and the stream turned abruptly and spread out over the alluvial plain,” reported the Tech article.
“Here, on a large smooth farm, were six iron storage tanks, about 80 feet in diameter and 25 feet high, each holding 30,000 barrels of oil,” it added, noting the burning oil “spread with fearful rapidity over the level surface” before reaching an oil storage tank. Read the rest of this entry »
Scientists lowered a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear device into a New Mexico gas well. The experimental 29-kiloton Project Gasbuggy bomb was detonated at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alamos Lab photo.
Project Gasbuggy was the first in a series of Atomic Energy Commission downhole nuclear detonations to release natural gas trapped in shale. This was “fracking” late 1960s style.
In December 1967, government scientists – exploring the peacetime use of controlled atomic explosions – detonated Gasbuggy, a 29-kiloton nuclear device they had lowered into a natural gas well in rural New Mexico. The Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons.
Project Gasbuggy’s team included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and El Paso Natural Gas Company. They sought a new, powerful method for fracturing petroleum-bearing formations.
Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 feet – and lowered a 13-foot-long by 18-inch-wide nuclear device into the borehole.
The 1967 experimental explosion in New Mexico was part of a wider set of experiments known as Plowshare, a program established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957 to explore the constructive use of nuclear explosive devices.
The 1967 nuclear detonation produced 295 million cubic feet of natural gas – and Tritium radiation.
“The reasoning was that the relatively inexpensive energy available from nuclear explosions could prove useful for a wide variety of peaceful purposes,” notes a report later prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy.
From 1961 to 1973, researchers carried out dozens of separate experiments under the Plowshare program – setting off 29 nuclear detonations.
Most of the experiments focused on creating craters and canals. Among other goals, it was hoped the Panama Canal could be inexpensively widened. “In the end, although less dramatic than nuclear excavation, the most promising use for nuclear explosions proved to be for stimulation of natural gas production,” explains the September 2011 government report.
Tests, mostly conducted in Nevada, also took place in the petroleum fields of New Mexico and Colorado. Project Gasbuggy was the first of three nuclear fracturing experiments that focused on stimulating natural gas production. Two later tests took place in Colorado.
Atomic Energy Commission scientists worked with experts from the Astral Oil Company of Houston, with engineering support from CER Geonuclear Corporation of Las Vegas. The experimental wells, which required custom drill bits to meet the hole diameter and narrow hole deviation requirements, were drilled by Denver-based Signal Drilling Company or its affiliate, Superior Drilling Company. Project Rulison was the second of the three nuclear gas well stimulation projects.
Gasbuggy: “Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs.”
In 1969, Project Rulison – at a site near Rulison, Colorado – detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear device almost 8,500 feet underground to produce commercially viable amounts of natural gas.
A few years later, project Rio Blanco, northwest of Rifle, Colorado, was designed to increase natural gas production from low-permeability sandstone.
The May 1973 Rio Blanco test consisted of the nearly simultaneous detonation of three 33-kiloton devices in a single well, according to the Office of Environmental Management.
The explosions occurred at depths of 5,838, 6,230, and 6,689 feet below ground level. It would prove to be the last experiment of the Plowshare program.
Although a 50-kiloton nuclear explosion to fracture deep oil shale deposits – Project Bronco – was proposed, it never took place. Growing knowledge (and concern) about radioactivity ended these tests for the peaceful use of nuclear explosions.
The Plowshare program was canceled in 1975. In its September 2011 report on all the nuclear test projects, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded:
By 1974, approximately 82 million dollars had been invested in the nuclear gas stimulation technology program (i.e., nuclear tests Gasbuggy, Rulison, and Rio Blanco). It was estimated that even after 25 years of gas production of all the natural gas deemed recoverable, that only 15 to 40 percent of the investment could be recovered. At the same time, alternative, non-nuclear technologies were being developed, such as hydrofracturing. Consequently, under the pressure of economic and environmental concerns, the Plowshare Program was discontinued at the end of FY 1975.
Government scientists believed a nuclear device would provide “a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerin” for fracturing dense shales and releasing natural gas. Los Alamos Lab photo.
“There was no mushroom cloud, but on December 10, 1967, a nuclear bomb exploded less than 60 miles from Farmington,” explains historian Wade Nelson in an article written three decades later, “Nuclear explosion shook Farmington.”
The 4,042-foot-deep detonation created a molten glass-lined cavern about 160 feet in diameter and 333 feet tall. It collapsed within seconds.
Subsequent measurements indicated fractures extended more than 200 feet in all directions – and significantly increased natural gas production.
A September 1967 Popular Mechanics article had described how nuclear explosives could improve previous fracturing technologies, including gunpowder, dynamite, TNT – and fractures “made by forcing down liquids at high pressure.”
An illustration from Popular Mechanics shows how a nuclear explosive would improve earlier technologies by creating bigger fractures and a “huge cavity that will serve as a reservoir for the natural gas.”
Scientists predicted that nuclear explosives would create more and bigger fractures “and hollow out a huge cavity that will serve as a reservoir for the natural gas” released from the fractures.
“Geologists had discovered years before that setting off explosives at the bottom of a well would shatter the surrounding rock and could stimulate the flow of oil and gas,” Nelson explains.
“It was believed a nuclear device would simply provide a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerine, up to 3,500 quarts of which would be used in a single shot,” Nelson notes.
The underground detonation was part of a bigger program begun in the late 1950s to explore peaceful uses of nuclear explosions.
“Today, all that remains at the site is a plaque warning against excavation and perhaps a trace of tritium in your milk,” Nelson adds in his 1999 article.
Nelson quotes James Holcomb, site foreman for El Paso Natural Gas, who saw a pair of white vans that delivered pieces of the disassembled nuclear bomb.
“They put the pieces inside this lead box, this big lead box…I (had) shot a lot of wells with nitroglycerin and I thought, ‘That’s not going to do anything,” reported Holcomb.
A series of three production tests, each lasting 30 days, was completed during the first half of 1969. Nelson notes that records indicate the Gasbuggy well produced 295 million cubic feet of gas.
“Nuclear Energy: Good Start for Gasbuggy,” proclaimed the December 22, 1967, TIME magazine.
The Department of Energy, which had hoped for much higher production, determined that Tritium radiation contaminated the gas. It flared – burned off – the gas during production tests that lasted until 1973.
Tritium is a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen. A 2012 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission report noted, “Tritium emits a weak form of radiation, a low-energy beta particle similar to an electron. The tritium radiation does not travel very far in air and cannot penetrate the skin.”
A plaque marks the site of Project Gasbuggy in the Carson National Forest, 90 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
According to Nelson, radioactive contamination from the flaring “was miniscule compared to the fallout produced by atmospheric weapons tests in the early 1960s.” From the well site, Holcomb called the test a success. “The well produced more gas in the year after the shot than it had in all of the seven years prior,” he said.
In 2008, the Energy Department’s Office of Legacy Management assumed responsibility for long-term surveillance and maintenance at the Gasbuggy site. A marker placed at the Gasbuggy site by the Department of Energy in November 1978 reads:
Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs. A 29 kiloton nuclear explosive was detonated at a depth of 4227 feet below this surface location on December 10, 1967.
No excavation, drilling, and/or removal of materials to a true vertical depth of 1500 feet is permitted within a radius of 100 feet of this surface location.
Nor any similar excavation, drilling, and/or removal of subsurface materials between the true vertical depth of 1500 feet to 4500 feet is permitted within a 600 foot radius of t 29 n. R 4 w. New Mexico principal meridian, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico without U.S. Government permission.
Today, hydraulic fracturing – pumping a mixture of fluid and sand down a well at extremely high pressure – stimulates production of natural gas wells. Read more inShooters – A “Fracking” History.
Parker Drilling Rig No. 114
Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 – among those used to drill wells for nuclear detonations, was later modified to drill conventual wells. Since 1991 the 17-story rig has welcomed visitors to Elk City, Oklahoma, and the now shuttered Anadarko Museum of Natural History.
In 1969, Parker Drilling 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 additional nuclear bomb tests. Parker Drilling’s Rig No. 114 was one of three special rigs built to drill the wells.
Founded in Tulsa in 1934 by Gifford C. Parker, by the 1960s Parker Drilling had set numerous world records for deep and extended-reach drilling. According to the Baker Library at the Harvard Business School, the company “created its own niche by developing new deep-drilling technology that has since become the industry standard.”
Following completion of the nuclear-test wells, Parker Drilling modified Rig No. 114 and its two sister rigs to drill conventual wells at record-breaking depths. After retiring Rig No. 114 from service, Parker Drilling loaned the giant to Elk City, Oklahoma, as an energy education exhibit next to the Anadarko Museum of Natural History. Since 1991 the has welcomed visitors to traveling on Route 66 or I-40 and the now closed oil museum. Learn more about deep drilling in Anadarko Basin in Depth.
The Blue Flame made a spectacular debut at the Bonneville Salt Flats on October 23, 1970, setting a new world land speed record of 630.388 mph.
The quest for speed perhaps began when Mrs. Karl Benz secretly took her husband’s car on the first road trip in 1882. Steam and electric vehicles would soon compete with the cantankerous combustionof gasoline engines.
As engine technologies evolved, high-octane but dangerous enhancers like tetraethyl gas were adopted for aviation. On the ground, as competition intensified for a land speed record, kerosene-based rocket fuel powered blistering, new milestones.
But in 1970, a sleek blue feat of engineering set the world record of 630 mph. The Blue Flame was powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). In recent years, a growing abundance of U.S. natural gas supplies promises innovation for applying what is often called the “fuel of the future.” Read the rest of this entry »
The revenue possibilities of self-service gasoline pumps prompted a number of innovators to develop coin-operated systems in the early 20th Century.
Scientific American featured a “Gasoline Slot Machine” in its October 1913 issue. The article looked at the mechanics of the device, which took its cue “from the fortunes that have resulted from the harvest of pennies dropped into chewing gum slot machines.”
Trade magazines like Garage Dealer and Motor Age featured advertisements for coin-operated gas pump technologies of the 1920s.
But a coin-operated pump had risks, the publication noted. “On the other hand, it is evident that a vending machine liable to hold fifty or a hundred half-dollars would be a magnet for thieves,” the article explained.
In Minnesota, the Anthony Liquid Vending Machine Company designed its Anthony Automatic Salesman, which was extensively marketed to garage owners. The company promised a savings of $5 in overhead costs for every dollar invested in its new pumps.
“You can sell gasoline 24-hours a day and 365-days a year, without effort on your part,” the company proclaimed, adding that paying was a simple process for consumers. “Drop the coin in the slot – a quarter, half-dollar, or a silver dollar, and Mr. Robot delivers the correct amount of gasoline.”
Several other companies experimented with coin-operated gasoline dispensing, and some of their “gas pump slot machines” survive today in museums. But what seemed like a good idea then lacked the technology to make it work. Commercial names like Beacon, Gas-O-Mat, and others disappeared in a flurry of patents that could not overcome the challenges of coin-operated pumps.
A 1915 article in National Petroleum News reported a key drawback of unattended, coin-operated pumps. “One gasoline vending outfit tried out recently in a middle western city returned about $2 in real currency and $37 in lead slugs, buttons and counterfeit coins for its first 500 gallons of gasoline.”
Nonetheless, as a system for numbered highways was established, and U.S. 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles approved in 1926 (learn more in America On the Move), some coin-operated machines survived into the 1930s.
The mining industry had long provided employment for geologists and the oil boom presented a new kind of mineral wealth for America and a new challenge for geologists. But Pennsylvania’s first oilmen soon found that hiring geologists didn’t significantly improve their chances of success in an already risky business.
Decades before the Civil War, the pursuit and mining of coal prompted many geological surveys, studies, and assessments of potential mineral resources. Railroads stretching westward needed good quality coal supplies and routes always considered the availability of nearby sources.
In search of high-quality bituminous coal, geologists had often reported oil seeps and the associated landforms, but mostly as a curiosity and in relation to their proximity to coal beds.
In Kentucky, Ohio, and the western part of what is now West Virginia, the salt business also gave geologists important insights into formations called “structural traps.”
Drilling commercial brine wells and salt manufacturing was a lucrative industry. Geologists’ surveys found that strata of sedimentary rock fractured, faulted, and folded, sometimes producing salt domes and valuable brine deposits.
Geologists also noted that oil and natural gas was occasionally trapped in porous deposits sandwiched between impermeable rock layers. Such contamination fouled commercial brine wells and was an unwelcome intrusion, but cottage industry entrepreneurs skimmed it off and sold it for patent medicine, lubrication, and other novel purposes.
In Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, geologists studied landforms associated with salt brine and coal “structural traps.” These anticlinal traps held oil and natural gas because the earth had been bent, deformed or fractured. Unsuccessfully applying structural trap theories to Pennsylvania’s differing geology undermined early petroleum geologists’ credibility.
A pioneering Ohio physician and natural scientist named Samuel Hildreth examined and recorded details of the salt business in southeastern Ohio, noting structural traps as a geologic feature associated with brine, coal, and oil. In 1836, he published his extensive “Observations on the Bituminous Coal Deposit for the Valley of the Ohio, and the Accompanying Rock Strata.” It was America’s first petroleum geology primer.
Hildreth was a strong advocate for Ohio’s first geological survey and later served as the state geologist. His observations of the structural trapping of petroleum were later affirmed by Pennsylvania’s state geologist, Henry D. Rogers, who erroneously declared that Pennsylvania’s oilfields were likewise based on structural trapping of petroleum in anticline formations.
Pennsylvania’s oilfields were in fact found predominantly in another kind of formation altogether, the “sandstone stratigraphic trap,” but Rogers’ prestigious endorsement, circulated widely in an 1863 Harper’s Magazine article, convinced geologists to the contrary.
The search for oil prompted the first petroleum geologists to impose Hildreth and Rogers’ structural trapping theory on Pennsylvania’s differing geology. It didn’t work and their failures in Pennsylvania hindered the acceptance of petroleum geologists for decades.
Although structural trapping remains a dominant characteristic for many of America’s most prolific oil and natural gas fields, ironically it wasn’t so in Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek region, where the petroleum industry was born. As noted by author and geologist Ray Sorenson, “Anticlinal theories of trapping did not work in the absence of anticlines.”
The dominant oil bearing feature in Pennsylvania’s oil region is a sedimentary geologic formation known as a “stratigraphic trap” and differs significantly from a structural trap. It is formed in place by erosion, usually in porous sandstone enclosed in shale. The impermeable shale keeps the oil and gas from escaping.
It took until the turn of the century before successful geologically driven discoveries in the Mid-Continent and Gulf regions encouraged exploration companies to use petroleum geologists.
Although the science of geology had revealed the 34-square-mile El Dorado oilfield in central Kansas in 1915, many companies still had little confidence in geologists.
James C. Donnell, president of the Ohio Oil Company (later Marathon Oil) proclaimed, “The day The Ohio has to rely on geologists, I’ll get into another line of work.” But after the company’s first geologist, C.J. “Charlie” Hares found 19 oil and natural gas fields, Donnell changed his mind and declared Hares to be “the greatest geologist in the world.”
Increasing understanding and acceptance of petroleum geology as a valued tool in exploration led to the 1917 formation of the Southwestern Association of Petroleum Geologists, precursor to today’s American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Since then, AAPG has fostered scientific research, advanced the science of geology, promoted technology, and inspired professional conduct amongst its more than 30,000 members.
Petroleum geology has come a long way since taking its first steps and stumbles in the Ohio River Valley and Pennsylvania’s early oilfields. Geologists today grapple with enormous amounts of data and technological innovations in pursuit of petroleum.
From the petroleum industry’s earliest days, when tools stuck downhole, drilling stopped. Money and time evaporated. An oil well fishing expert took over.
The loss of a drilling tool down a well bore has caused trouble practically since the first commercial well in America.
The challenge of retrieving broken (and often expensive) equipment obstructing a well – “fishing” – has tormented oil and natural gas exploration companies since the first tool stuck irretrievably at 134 feet and ruined a Pennsylvania well.
It was just four days after the historic August 27, 1859, discovery by Edwin Drake along Oil Creek in Titusville, in the “valley that changed the world,” that a far less known driller got his iron chisel wedged tight.
John Grandin, who drilled his well using a simple spring pole and improvised his well fishing tools, not only lost his drill bit (an industry first), he ended up with the first dry hole in U.S. petroleum history. Read more about him in the First Dry Hole.
The term fishing came from early percussion drilling using cable-tools. When the derrick’s manila rope or wire line rope broke, a crewman lowered a hook and attempted to pull out the well’s heavy iron bit. Note the fishing tools to the left of the drill pipe.
In those early days of the industry, the search for petroleum was less an earth science and more an art. Even as drilling technologies evolved from spring poles and cable tools to modern rotary rigs, downhole problems remained – especially as wells reached new depths.
Like its ancient predecessor the spring pole, early cable-tool rigs utilized percussion drilling, the repeated lifting and dropping of a heavy chisel using hemp ropes.
Drilling time and depth improved with the addition of steam power and tall, wooden derricks. But as the well got deeper, frequent stops were needed to bail out water and cuttings – and sharpen the wedged drill bit made of iron. Forges were often on the derrick floor.
Often tools would get jammed deep in the borehole. Perhaps the manila rope or wire line would break. A pipe connection might bend or break. The increasingly heavy downhole tool assemblies could no longer be lifted and dropped.
On the rig floor, fishing tools had to be lowered by a line into the well, armed at their end with spears, clamps and hooks. Sometimes a wood, wax and nails “impression block” was first lowered to get an idea of what lay downhole.
Boot Jacks, Die Nipples and Whipstocks
“Well fishing tools are constantly being improved and new ones introduced,” explains the author of A Handbook of the Petroleum Industry. David T. Day published volume one of his book in 1922.
Describing cable tool operations, he writes that the basic principle of well fishing tools often involved milled wedges – on a spear or in a cylinder – for recovering lost tubing or casing.
Hundreds of designs were patented, each designed to catch some tool or part that broken or lost in the borehole, writes Day. Although fishing tools could be improvised on site, many already were available to get the job done.
“Simpler types of fishing tools comprise horn sockets, corrugated friction sockets, rope grabs, rope spears, bit hooks, spuds, whipstocks, fluted wedges, rasps, bell sockets, rope knives, boot jacks, casing knives and die nipples.” notes Day.
Basic fishing tools include the spear and socket, each with milled edges. Using nails and wax, an impression block helps determine what is stuck downhole. Image from A Handbook of the Petroleum Industry, 1922.
These and other devices, when used with an auger stem in various combinations called jars, can secure a powerful upward stroke or “jar” and thus dislodge and recover the tool being sought, he explains.
“The jars, essentially and universally used in fishing with cable tools, consist off two heavy forged-steel links, interlocking as the links of a cable chain, but fitting together more snugly,” he adds.
“Many lost tools that cannot be recovered are drilled up or ‘side-tracked” (driven into or against the wall) and passed in drilling,” Day concludes. “Much depends upon the skill and patience of the driller.”
Once all well fishing tools failed, a final resort was a whipstock, which allowed the bit to angle off and actually bypass the fish but leaves the operator with a deviated hole, adds another historian. This was sometimes unpopular where wells were closely spaced.
By the early 1900s, rotary drilling introduced the hollow drill stem that enabled broken rock debris to be washed out of the borehole. It led to far deeper wells.
As drilling with rotary rigs became more common in the early 1900s, fishing methods adapted.
“In rotary drilling, the only tools ordinarily used in the well are the drill pipe and bits,” Day writes in his 1922 book, adding that the rotary fishing tools, “were comparatively free from the complexities of cable-tool work.”
Most rotary fishing jobs were caused by “twist offs” (broken drill pipe), although the bit, drill coupling or tool joints may break or unscrew. As in cable-tool fishing, an impression block often was needed to determine the proper fishing tool.
However, even back then – and especially now with wells miles deep and often turned horizontally – when a downhole problem occurred, the well could be lost for good – like John Grandin’s spring pole well in 1859.
Although fishing technologies have made great advances, efficiently “making hole” remains as vital to an exploration company’s success today as it was more than 150 years ago.
The Anadarko Basin extends across western Oklahoma into the Texas Panhandle and into southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado. It includes the Hugoton-Panhandle field, the Union City field and the Elk City field and is among the most prolific natural gas producing areas in North America.
A granite monument at Third and Pioneer streets in Elk City, Oklahona, notes:The Deep Anadarko Basin of Western Oklahoma is one of the most prolific gas provinces of North America. Wells drilled here have been among the world’s deepest.
A 1974 souvenir of the Bertha Roger No. 1 well, which sought natural gas almost six miles deep in Oklahoma’s Anadarko Basin.
Until the 1960s, few companies could risk millions of dollars and push rotary rig drilling technology to reach beyond the 13,000-foot level in what geologists called “the deep gas play.”
The great expense and technological expertise necessary to complete ultra-deep natural gas wells at these depths made the Anadarko Basin “the domain of the major petroleum corporations,” explains Bobby Weaver, Oklahoma Historical Society.
GHK Company and partner Lone Star Producing Company believed ultra-deep wells in Oklahoma’s Anadarko Basin could produce massive amounts of natural gas. They began drilling wells more than three miles deep in the late 1960s. South of Burns Flat in Washita County, their Bertha Rogers No.1 would reach almost six miles deep in 1974 – after a deep fishing trip.
Spudded in November 1972 and averaging about 60 feet per day, the Bertha Rogers was heading for the history books as the world’s deepest well at the time. After 16 months of drilling and almost six miles deep – the rotary rig drill stem sheared from the strain. More than 4,100 feet of pipe and the massive drill bit were stuck downhole in what was then the deepest well in the world.
An independent producer, in 2006 John West preserved artifacts in Anadarko Basin Museum of Natural History, now closed due to a lack of support.
It was March 1974 and the enormous investment of Lone Star Producing Company of Dallas, and partner GHK, was about to be lost.
GHK called a Houston fishing company.
Wilson Downhole Service Company sent its downhole fishing expert, Mack Ponder, to the rescue the multimillion dollar well. Many companies were pushing the edge of the envelope to drill deep enough.
Against all odds using the technology of 1970s – Ponder retrieved the pipe sections and drill bit from 30,019 feet deep. Drilling resumed at the site (about 12 miles west of Cordell).
Although the remarkable deep fishing achievement was celebrated, the Bertha Rogers No. 1 had to be completed at just 14,000 feet after striking molten sulfur at 31,441 feet. The equipment could not take the abuse at total depth. The well set a world record at the time – and remains one of the deepest ever drilled.
In 1979 the No. 1 Sanders well near Sayre in Beckham County became Oklahoma’s deepest natural gas producer at 24,996 feet. Deep drilling today has returned in force to today’s Anadarko Basin. “At the close of the twentieth century this vast Oklahoma region was the most prolific gas-producing area in the nation,” concludes Weaver, a Ph.D. oil patch story-teller. Also seeAnadarko Basin in Depth.
This image of a circa 1909 double eccentric power wheel manufactured by Titusville (Pennsylvania) Iron Works is just one example of what can be discovered online at public domain resources. Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collections.
A Library of Congress photograph of a 1909 double eccentric power wheel shows part of a centralized power system. The oilfield technology used the two wheels’ elliptical rotation to simultaneously pump multiple oil wells.
The LOC image is from a South Penn Oil Company (now Pennzoil) lease between the towns of Warren and Bradford, Pennsylvania. The wheels’ elliptical rotation simultaneously pumped eleven remote wells. This particular central pump unit operated in the Morris Run oilfield, discovered in 1883. It was manufactured at the Titusville Iron Works.
The field produced from two shallow “pay sands,” both at depths of less that 1,400 feet. It was part of a series of other early important discoveries.
In 1881, the Bradford field alone accounted for 83 percent of all the oil produced in the United States (see Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory). Today, new technologies are producing natural gas from a deeper formation, the Marcellus Shale.
Although production from some early shallow Pennsylvania wells declined to only about half a barrel of oil a day, some continued pumping into 1960.
Central Power Units
As the number of oil wells grew in the early days of America’s petroleum industry, simple water-well pumping technologies began to be replaced with advanced, steam-driven walking beam pump systems.
An Allegheny National Forest Oil Heritage Series illustration of an oilfield “jack plant” in McKean County, Pennsylvania.
America’s oilfield technologies advanced in 1875 with this “Improvement In Means For Pumping Wells” invented in Pennsylvania.
At first, each well had an engine house where a steam engine raised and lowered one end of a sturdy wooden beam, which pivoted on the cable-tool well’s “Samson Post.” The walking beam’s other end cranked a long string of sucker-rods up and down to pump oil to the surface.
Recognizing that pumping multiple wells with a single steam engine would boost efficiency, on April 20, 1875, Albert Nickerson and Levi Streeter of Venango County, Pennsylvania, patented their “Improvement in Means for Pumping Wells.”
Their system was the forerunner of wooden or iron rod jerk line systems for centrally powered oil production. This technology, eventually replaced by counter-balanced pumping units, will operate well into the 20th century – and remain an icon of early oilfield production.
“By an examination of the drawing it will be seen that the walking-beam to well No. 1 is lifting or raising fluid from the well. Well No. 3 is also lifting, while at the same time wells 2 and 4 are moving in an opposite direction, or plunging, and vice versa,” the inventors explained in their patent application (No. 162,406).
“Heretofore it has been necessary to have a separate engine for each well, although often several such engines are supplied with steam from the same boiler,” they noted. “The object of our invention is to enable the pumping of two or more wells with one engine.”
By it the walking-beams of the different wells are made to move in different directions at the same time, thereby counterbalancing each other, and equalizing the strain upon the engine.
Steam initially drove many of these central power units, but others were converted to burn natural gas or casing-head gas at the wellhead – often using single-cylinder horizontal engines. Examples of the engines, popularly called “one lungers” by oilfield workers, have been collected and restored (see Coolspring Power Museum).
The heavy and powerful engine – started by kicking down on one of the iron spokes – transferred power to rotate an “eccentric wheel,” which alternately pushed and pulled on a system of rods linked to pump jacks at distant oil wells.
“Transmitting power hundreds of yards, over and around obstacles, etc., to numerous pump jacks required an ingenious system of reciprocating rods or cables called Central Power and jerker lines,” explains documentation from an Allegheny National Forest Oil Heritage Series illustration of an oilfield “jack plant” in McKean County, Pennsylvania. The long rod lines were also called shackle lines or jack lines.
Oilmen quickly adopted the 1913 “Simplex Pumping Jack.”
Around 1913, with electricity not readily available, the Simplex Pumping Jack became a popular offering from Oil Well Supply Company of Oil City, Pennsylvania. The simple and effective technology could often be found at the very end of long jerk-lines.
A central power unit could connect and run several of these dispersed Simplex pumps. Those equipped with a double eccentric wheel could power twice as many.
Roger Riddle, a local resident and field guide for the West Virginia Oil & Gas Museum in Parkersburg, was raised around central power units and recalls the rhythmic clanking of rod lines.
Riddle has guided visitors through dense nearby woods where remnants of the elaborate systems rust. The heavy equipment once “pumped with just these steel rods, just dangling through the woods,” he says. “You could hear them banging along – it was really something to see those work. The cost of pumping wells was pretty cheap.”
The heyday of central power units passed when electrification arrived, nonetheless, a few such systems still remain in use. Learn more about the evolution of petroleum production methods in All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology.
The search for new technologies for pumping oil from wells – pump jacks – began soon after America’s first commercial discovery in 1859 near Titusville, Pennsylvania. For that well, Edwin Drake used a common water-well hand pump from a nearby kitchen.
A circa 1914 oil pumping jack, gears and flywheels remain intact less than a mile east of Powder Mill Creek in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Patrice Gilbert, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
By the turn of the century, a wide variety of methods, including pumping multiple wells from a single power source, helped meet growing demand for petroleum.
In 1992, photographer Patrice Gilbert discovered an abandoned circa 1910 pumping machinery in the lush Pennsylvania countryside southeast of Youngstown. The heavy iron equipment must have been too difficult or expensive to move from the site when the well was capped decades ago, according to the National Park Service.
A park service historian noted the remarkably preserved pump’s advanced design was “technologically significant as representing an early gear-driven pumping jack, designed during a period of great pumping jack experimentation in the early 1900s.”
The 2015 “Today in American Petroleum History” calendar offers industry milestones with 12 oil patch photographs from the Library of Congress.
Gilbert’s photograph is among 12 from the Library of Congress collection featured in the 2015 “Today in American Petroleum History” calender published by the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. The annual calendar features industry milestones, including oilfield discoveries, inventions, pioneers, and more. Sales (order here) support the society’s energy education mission.
Powder Mill Oil Well
The rusting pump jack near Powder Mill Creek and Connoquenessing Creek recalls one of many Pennsylvania petroleum booms.
The Bald Ridge field in Butler County was one of the state’s top three oil-producing counties from 1889 into the 1920s. Prolific discoveries beginning as early as 1872 eventually brought hundreds of steam-powered, cable-tool drilling rigs.
On this site circa 1914, on land owned by a man named Heckert, a Bream Oil Company drilling rig reached 1,566 feet – and struck an oil-producing “pay sand” six feet thick. Read the rest of this entry »