Gusher Signals Start of U.S. Oil Industry

Gusher Signals Start of U.S. Oil Industry

On January 10, 1901, a drilling derrick at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas, produces an enormous gusher of crude oil, coating the landscape for hundreds of feet and signaling the advent of the American oil industry. The geyser was discovered at a depth of over 1,000 feet, flowed at an initial rate of approximately 100,000 barrels a day and took nine days to cap. Following the discovery, petroleum, which until that time had been used in the U.S. primarily as a lubricant and in kerosene for lamps, would become the main fuel source for new inventions such as cars and airplanes; coal-powered forms of transportation including ships and trains would also convert to the liquid fuel.

Crude oil, which became the world’s first trillion-dollar industry, is a natural mix of hundreds of different hydrocarbon compounds trapped in underground rock. The hydrocarbons were formed millions of years ago when tiny aquatic plants and animals died and settled on the bottoms of ancient waterways, creating a thick layer of organic material. Sediment later covered this material, putting heat and pressure on it and transforming it into the petroleum that comes out of the ground today.

In the early 1890s, Texas businessman and amateur geologist Patillo Higgins became convinced there was a large pool of oil under a salt-dome formation south of Beaumont. He and several partners established the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company and made several unsuccessful drilling attempts before Higgins left the company. In 1899, Higgins leased a tract of land at Spindletop to mining engineer Anthony Lucas. The Lucas gusher blew on January 10, 1901, and ushered in the liquid fuel age. Unfortunately for Higgins, he’d lost his ownership stake by that point.

Beaumont became a “black gold” boomtown, its population tripling in three months. The town filled up with oil workers, investors, merchants and con men (leading some people to dub it “Swindletop”). Within a year, there were more than 285 actives wells at Spindletop and an estimated 500 oil and land companies operating in the area, including some that are major players today: Humble (now Exxon), the Texas Company (Texaco) and Magnolia Petroleum Company (Mobil).

Spindletop experienced a second boom starting in the mid-1920s when more oil was discovered at deeper depths. In the 1950s, Spindletop was mined for sulphur. Today, only a few oil wells still operate in the area.


History of the petroleum industry in the United States

The history of the petroleum industry in the United States goes back to the early 19th century, although the indigenous peoples, like many ancient societies, have used petroleum seeps since prehistoric times where found, these seeps signaled the growth of the industry from the earliest discoveries to the more recent.

Petroleum became a major industry following the oil discovery at Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, in 1859. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the US was the largest oil producing country in the world. As of October 2015, the US was the world's third-largest producer of crude oil. [1]


Gusher signals start of U.S. oil industry

On this day in 1901, a drilling derrick at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas, produces an enormous gusher of crude oil, coating the landscape for hundreds of feet and signaling the advent of the American oil industry. The geyser was discovered at a depth of over 1,000 feet, flowed at an initial rate of approximately 100,000 barrels a day and took nine days to cap. Following the discovery, petroleum, which until that time had been used in the U.S. primarily as a lubricant and in kerosene for lamps, would become the main fuel source for new inventions such as cars and airplanes coal-powered forms of transportation including ships and trains would also convert to the liquid fuel.

Crude oil, which became the world’s first trillion-dollar industry, is a natural mix of hundreds of different hydrocarbon compounds trapped in underground rock. The hydrocarbons were formed millions of years ago when tiny aquatic plants and animals died and settled on the bottoms of ancient waterways, creating a thick layer of organic material. Sediment later covered this material, putting heat and pressure on it and transforming it into the petroleum that comes out of the ground today.

In the early 1890s, Texas businessman and amateur geologist Patillo Higgins became convinced there was a large pool of oil under a salt-dome formation south of Beaumont. He and several partners established the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company and made several unsuccessful drilling attempts before Higgins left the company. In 1899, Higgins leased a tract of land at Spindletop to mining engineer Anthony Lucas. The Lucas gusher blew on January 10, 1901, and ushered in the liquid fuel age. Unfortunately for Higgins, he’d lost his ownership stake by that point.

Beaumont became a “black gold” boomtown, its population tripling in three months. The town filled up with oil workers, investors, merchants and con men (leading some people to dub it “Swindletop”). Within a year, there were more than 285 actives wells at Spindletop and an estimated 500 oil and land companies operating in the area, including some that are major players today: Humble (now Exxon), the Texas Company (Texaco) and Magnolia Petroleum Company (Mobil).

Spindletop experienced a second boom starting in the mid-1920s when more oil was discovered at deeper depths. In the 1950s, Spindletop was mined for sulphur. Today, only a few oil wells still operate in the area.


Contents

Gushers were an icon of oil exploration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that era, the simple drilling techniques, such as cable-tool drilling, and the lack of blowout preventers meant that drillers could not control high-pressure reservoirs. When these high-pressure zones were breached, the oil or natural gas would travel up the well at a high rate, forcing out the drill string and creating a gusher. A well which began as a gusher was said to have "blown in": for instance, the Lakeview Gusher blew in in 1910. These uncapped wells could produce large amounts of oil, often shooting 200 feet (60 m) or higher into the air. [2] A blowout primarily composed of natural gas was known as a gas gusher.

Despite being symbols of new-found wealth, gushers were dangerous and wasteful. They killed workmen involved in drilling, destroyed equipment, and coated the landscape with thousands of barrels of oil additionally, the explosive concussion released by the well when it pierces an oil/gas reservoir has been responsible for a number of oilmen losing their hearing entirely standing too near to the drilling rig at the moment it drills into the oil reservoir is extremely hazardous. The impact on wildlife is very hard to quantify, but can only be estimated to be mild in the most optimistic models—realistically, the ecological impact is estimated by scientists across the ideological spectrum to be severe, profound, and lasting. [3]

To complicate matters further, the free flowing oil was—and is—in danger of igniting. [4] One dramatic account of a blowout and fire reads,

With a roar like a hundred express trains racing across the countryside, the well blew out, spewing oil in all directions. The derrick simply evaporated. Casings wilted like lettuce out of water, as heavy machinery writhed and twisted into grotesque shapes in the blazing inferno. [5]

The development of rotary drilling techniques where the density of the drilling fluid is sufficient to overcome the downhole pressure of a newly penetrated zone meant that gushers became avoidable. If however the fluid density was not adequate or fluids were lost to the formation, then there was still a significant risk of a well blowout.

In 1924 the first successful blowout preventer was brought to market. [6] The BOP valve affixed to the wellhead could be closed in the event of drilling into a high pressure zone, and the well fluids contained. Well control techniques could be used to regain control of the well. As the technology developed, blowout preventers became standard equipment, and gushers became a thing of the past.

In the modern petroleum industry, uncontrollable wells became known as blowouts and are comparatively rare. There has been significant improvement in technology, well control techniques, and personnel training which has helped to prevent their occurring. [1] From 1976 to 1981, 21 blowout reports are available. [1]

Notable gushers Edit

  • A blowout in 1815 resulted from an attempt to drill for salt rather than for oil. Joseph Eichar and his team were digging west of the town of Wooster, Ohio, US along Killbuck Creek, when they struck oil. In a written retelling by Eichar's daughter, Eleanor, the strike produced "a spontaneous outburst, which shot up high as the tops of the highest trees!" [7]
  • Oil drillers struck a number of gushers near Oil City, Pennsylvania, US in 1861. The most famous was the Little & Merrick well, which began gushing oil on 17 April 1861. The spectacle of the fountain of oil flowing out at about 3,000 barrels (480 m 3 ) per day had drawn about 150 spectators by the time an hour later when the oil gusher burst into flames, raining fire down on the oil-soaked onlookers. Thirty people died. Other early gushers in northwest Pennsylvania were the Phillips #2 (4,000 barrels (640 m 3 ) per day) in September 1861, and the Woodford well (3,000 barrels (480 m 3 ) per day) in December 1861. [8]
  • The Shaw Gusher in Oil Springs, Ontario, was Canada's first oil gusher. On January 16, 1862, it shot oil from over 60 metres (200 ft) below ground to above the treetops at a rate of 3,000 barrels (480 m 3 ) per day, triggering the oil boom in Lambton County. [9]
  • Lucas Gusher at Spindletop in Beaumont, Texas, US in 1901 flowed at 100,000 barrels (16,000 m 3 ) per day at its peak, but soon slowed and was capped within nine days. The well tripled U.S. oil production overnight and marked the start of the Texas oil industry. [10][11]
  • Masjed Soleiman, Iran, in 1908 marked the first major oil strike recorded in the Middle East. [12]
  • Dos Bocas in the State of Veracruz, Mexico, was a famous 1908 Mexican blowout that formed a large crater. It leaked oil from the main reservoir for many years, continuing even after 1938 (when Pemex nationalized the Mexican oil industry).
  • Lakeview Gusher on the Midway-Sunset Oil Field in Kern County, California, US of 1910 is believed to be the largest-ever U.S. gusher. At its peak, more than 100,000 barrels (16,000 m 3 ) of oil per day flowed out, reaching as high as 200 feet (60 m) in the air. It remained uncapped for 18 months, spilling over 9 million barrels (1,400,000 m 3 ) of oil, less than half of which was recovered. [2]
  • A short-lived gusher at Alamitos #1 in Signal Hill, California, US in 1921 marked the discovery of the Long Beach Oil Field, one of the most productive oil fields in the world. [13]
  • The Barroso 2 well in Cabimas, Venezuela, in December 1922 flowed at around 100,000 barrels (16,000 m 3 ) per day for nine days, plus a large amount of natural gas. [14]
  • Baba Gurgur near Kirkuk, Iraq, an oilfield known since antiquity, erupted at a rate of 95,000 barrels (15,100 m 3 ) a day in 1927. [15]
  • The Yates #30-A in Pecos County, Texas, US gushing 80 feet through the fifteen-inch casing, produced a world record 204,682 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 1,070 feet on 23 September 1929. [16]
  • The Wild Mary Sudik gusher in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, US in 1930 flowed at a rate of 72,000 barrels (11,400 m 3 ) per day. [17]
  • The Daisy Bradford gusher in 1930 marked the discovery of the East Texas Oil Field, the largest oilfield in the contiguous United States. [18]
  • The largest known 'wildcat' oil gusher blew near Qom, Iran, on 26 August 1956. The uncontrolled oil gushed to a height of 52 m (170 ft), at a rate of 120,000 barrels (19,000 m 3 ) per day. The gusher was closed after 90 days' work by Bagher Mostofi and Myron Kinley (USA). [19]
  • One of the most troublesome gushers happened on 23 June 1985, at well #37 at the Tengiz field in Atyrau, Kazakh SSR, Soviet Union, where the 4,209-metre deep well blew out and the 200-metre high gusher self-ignited two days later. Oil pressure up to 800 atm and high hydrogen sulfide content had led to the gusher being capped only on 27 July 1986. The total volume of erupted material measured at 4.3 million metric tons of oil and 1.7 billion m³ of natural gas, and the burning gusher resulted in 890 tons of various mercaptans and more than 900,000 tons of soot released into the atmosphere. [20]
  • Deepwater Horizon explosion: The largest underwater blowout in U.S. history occurred on 20 April 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico at the Macondo Prospect oil field. The blowout caused the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, a mobile offshore drilling platform owned by Transocean and under lease to BP at the time of the blowout. While the exact volume of oil spilled is unknown, as of June 3, 2010 [update] , the United States Geological Survey Flow Rate Technical Group has placed the estimate at between 35,000 to 60,000 barrels (5,600 to 9,500 m 3 ) of crude oil per day. [21] [needs update]

Reservoir pressure Edit

Petroleum or crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights, and other organic compounds, found in geologic formations beneath the Earth's surface. Because most hydrocarbons are lighter than rock or water, they often migrate upward and occasionally laterally through adjacent rock layers until either reaching the surface or becoming trapped within porous rocks (known as reservoirs) by impermeable rocks above. When hydrocarbons are concentrated in a trap, an oil field forms, from which the liquid can be extracted by drilling and pumping. The downhole pressure in the rock structures changes depending upon the depth and the characteristics of the source rock. [ citation needed ] Natural gas (mostly methane) may be present also, usually above the oil within the reservoir, but sometimes dissolved in the oil at reservoir pressure and temperature. Dissolved gas typically comes out of solution as free gas as the pressure is reduced either under controlled production operations or in a kick, or in an uncontrolled blowout. The hydrocarbon in some reservoirs may be essentially all natural gas.

Formation kick Edit

The downhole fluid pressures are controlled in modern wells through the balancing of the hydrostatic pressure provided by the mud column. Should the balance of the drilling mud pressure be incorrect (i.e., the mud pressure gradient is less than the formation pore pressure gradient), then formation fluids (oil, natural gas, and/or water) can begin to flow into the wellbore and up the annulus (the space between the outside of the drill string and the wall of the open hole or the inside of the casing), and/or inside the drill pipe. This is commonly called a kick. Ideally, mechanical barriers such as blowout preventers (BOPs) can be closed to isolate the well while the hydrostatic balance is regained through circulation of fluids in the well. But if the well is not shut in (common term for the closing of the blow-out preventer), a kick can quickly escalate into a blowout when the formation fluids reach the surface, especially when the influx contains gas that expands rapidly with the reduced pressure as it flows up the wellbore, further decreasing the effective weight of the fluid.

Early warning signs of an impending well kick while drilling are:

  • Sudden change in drilling rate
  • Reduction in drillpipe weight
  • Change in pump pressure
  • Change in drilling fluid return rate.

Other warning signs during the drilling operation are:

  • Returning mud "cut" by (i.e., contaminated by) gas, oil or water
  • Connection gases, high background gas units, and high bottoms-up gas units detected in the mudlogging unit. [22]

The primary means of detecting a kick while drilling is a relative change in the circulation rate back up to the surface into the mud pits. The drilling crew or mud engineer keeps track of the level in the mud pits and closely monitors the rate of mud returns versus the rate that is being pumped down the drill pipe. Upon encountering a zone of higher pressure than is being exerted by the hydrostatic head of the drilling mud (including the small additional frictional head while circulating) at the bit, an increase in mud return rate would be noticed as the formation fluid influx blends in with the circulating drilling mud. Conversely, if the rate of returns is slower than expected, it means that a certain amount of the mud is being lost to a thief zone somewhere below the last casing shoe. This does not necessarily result in a kick (and may never become one) however, a drop in the mud level might allow influx of formation fluids from other zones if the hydrostatic head is reduced to less than that of a full column of mud. [ citation needed ]

Well control Edit

The first response to detecting a kick would be to isolate the wellbore from the surface by activating the blow-out preventers and closing in the well. Then the drilling crew would attempt to circulate in a heavier kill fluid to increase the hydrostatic pressure (sometimes with the assistance of a well control company). In the process, the influx fluids will be slowly circulated out in a controlled manner, taking care not to allow any gas to accelerate up the wellbore too quickly by controlling casing pressure with chokes on a predetermined schedule.

This effect will be minor if the influx fluid is mainly salt water. And with an oil-based drilling fluid it can be masked in the early stages of controlling a kick because gas influx may dissolve into the oil under pressure at depth, only to come out of solution and expand rather rapidly as the influx nears the surface. Once all the contaminant has been circulated out, the shut-in casing pressure should have reached zero. [ citation needed ]

Capping stacks are used for controlling blowouts. The cap is an open valve that is closed after bolted on. [23]

Well blowouts can occur during the drilling phase, during well testing, during well completion, during production, or during workover activities. [1]

Surface blowouts Edit

Blowouts can eject the drill string out of the well, and the force of the escaping fluid can be strong enough to damage the drilling rig. In addition to oil, the output of a well blowout might include natural gas, water, drilling fluid, mud, sand, rocks, and other substances.

Blowouts will often be ignited from sparks from rocks being ejected, or simply from heat generated by friction. A well control company then will need to extinguish the well fire or cap the well, and replace the casing head and other surface equipment. If the flowing gas contains poisonous hydrogen sulfide, the oil operator might decide to ignite the stream to convert this to less hazardous substances. [ citation needed ]

Sometimes blowouts can be so forceful that they cannot be directly brought under control from the surface, particularly if there is so much energy in the flowing zone that it does not deplete significantly over time. In such cases, other wells (called relief wells) may be drilled to intersect the well or pocket, in order to allow kill-weight fluids to be introduced at depth. When first drilled in the 1930s relief wells were drilled to inject water into the main drill well hole. [24] Contrary to what might be inferred from the term, such wells generally are not used to help relieve pressure using multiple outlets from the blowout zone.

Subsea blowouts Edit

The two main causes of a subsea blowout are equipment failures and imbalances with encountered subsurface reservoir pressure. [25] Subsea wells have pressure control equipment located on the seabed or between the riser pipe and drilling platform. Blowout preventers (BOPs) are the primary safety devices designed to maintain control of geologically driven well pressures. They contain hydraulic-powered cut-off mechanisms to stop the flow of hydrocarbons in the event of a loss of well control. [26]

Even with blowout prevention equipment and processes in place, operators must be prepared to respond to a blowout should one occur. Before drilling a well, a detailed well construction design plan, an Oil Spill Response Plan as well as a Well Containment Plan must be submitted, reviewed and approved by BSEE and is contingent upon access to adequate well containment resources in accordance to NTL 2010-N10. [27]

The Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 occurred at a 5,000 feet (1,500 m) water depth. [28] Current blowout response capabilities in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico meet capture and process rates of 130,000 barrels of fluid per day and a gas handling capacity of 220 million cubic feet per day at depths through 10,000 feet. [29]

Underground blowouts Edit

An underground blowout is a special situation where fluids from high pressure zones flow uncontrolled to lower pressure zones within the wellbore. Usually this is from deeper higher pressure zones to shallower lower pressure formations. There may be no escaping fluid flow at the wellhead. However, the formation(s) receiving the influx can become overpressured, a possibility that future drilling plans in the vicinity must consider. [ citation needed ]

Myron M. Kinley was a pioneer in fighting oil well fires and blowouts. He developed many patents and designs for the tools and techniques of oil firefighting. His father, Karl T. Kinley, attempted to extinguish an oil well fire with the help of a massive explosion—a method still in common use for fighting oil fires. Myron and Karl Kinley first successfully used explosives to extinguish an oil well fire in 1913. [30] Kinley would later form the M. M. Kinley Company in 1923. [30] Asger "Boots" Hansen and Edward Owen "Coots" Matthews also begin their careers under Kinley.

Paul N. "Red" Adair joined the M. M. Kinley Company in 1946, and worked 14 years with Myron Kinley before starting his own company, Red Adair Co., Inc., in 1959.

Red Adair Co. has helped in controlling offshore blowouts, including:

    in the Gulf of Mexico in 1959
  • "The Devil's Cigarette Lighter" in 1962 in Gassi Touil, Algeria, in the Sahara Desert
  • The Ixtoc I oil spill in Mexico's Bay of Campeche in 1979
  • The Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea in 1988
  • The Kuwaiti oil fires following the Gulf War in 1991. [31]

The 1968 American film, Hellfighters, which starred John Wayne, is about a group of oil well firefighters, based loosely on Adair's life Adair, Hansen, and Matthews served as technical advisors on the film.

In 1994, Adair retired and sold his company to Global Industries. Management of Adair's company left and created International Well Control (IWC). In 1997, they would buy the company Boots & Coots International Well Control, Inc., which was founded by Hansen and Matthews in 1978.

Subsea Well Containment Edit

After the Macondo-1 blowout on the Deepwater Horizon, the offshore industry collaborated with government regulators to develop a framework to respond to future subsea incidents. As a result, all energy companies operating in the deep-water U.S. Gulf of Mexico must submit an OPA 90 required Oil Spill Response Plan with the addition of a Regional Containment Demonstration Plan prior to any drilling activity. [32] In the event of a subsea blowout, these plans are immediately activated, drawing on some of the equipment and processes effectively used to contain the Deepwater Horizon well as well as others that have been developed in its aftermath.

In order to regain control of a subsea well, the Responsible Party would first secure the safety of all personnel on board the rig and then begin a detailed evaluation of the incident site. Remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) would be dispatched to inspect the condition of the wellhead, Blowout Preventer (BOP) and other subsea well equipment. The debris removal process would begin immediately to provide clear access for a capping stack.

Once lowered and latched on the wellhead, a capping stack uses stored hydraulic pressure to close a hydraulic ram and stop the flow of hydrocarbons. [33] If shutting in the well could introduce unstable geological conditions in the wellbore, a cap and flow procedure would be used to contain hydrocarbons and safely transport them to a surface vessel. [34]

The Responsible Party works in collaboration with BSEE and the United States Coast Guard to oversee response efforts, including source control, recovering discharged oil and mitigating environmental impact. [35]

Several not-for-profit organizations provide a solution to effectively contain a subsea blowout. HWCG LLC and Marine Well Containment Company operate within the U.S. Gulf of Mexico [36] waters, while cooperatives like Oil Spill Response Limited offer support for international operations.

Use of nuclear explosions Edit

On Sep. 30, 1966, the Soviet Union experienced blowouts on five natural gas wells in Urta-Bulak, an area about 80 kilometers from Bukhara, Uzbekistan. It was claimed in Komsomoloskaya Pravda that after years of burning uncontrollably they were able to stop them entirely. [37] The Soviets lowered a specially made 30 kiloton nuclear bomb into a 6-kilometre (20,000 ft) borehole drilled 25 to 50 metres (82 to 164 ft) away from the original (rapidly leaking) well. A nuclear explosive was deemed necessary because conventional explosives both lacked the necessary power and would also require a great deal more space underground. When the bomb was set off, it crushed the original pipe that was carrying the gas from the deep reservoir to the surface and glassified all the surrounding rock. This caused the leak and fire at the surface to cease within approximately one minute of the explosion, and proved over the years to have been a permanent solution. A second attempt on a similar well was not as successful and other tests were for such experiments as oil extraction enhancement (Stavropol, 1969) and the creation of gas storage reservoirs (Orenburg, 1970). [38]


First Texas Oil Boom

A contractor hired by the town of Corsicana to drill a water well on 12th Street found oil instead, creating a drilling frenzy seven years before a more famous discovery at Spindletop Hill, 230 miles southeast.

Corsican’s first oil well produced less than three barrels of oil a day, but it quickly transformed the sleepy agricultural town into a petroleum and industrial center. The discovery launched industries, including service companies and manufacturers of the newly invented rotary drilling rig.

The first Texas oil boom arrived in the summer of 1894 when the Corsicana oilfield is discovered by a drilling contractor hired by the city to find water. Residents annually celebrate the 1894 discovery with a Derrick Day Chili & BBQ Cook-Off.

Corsicana local historians consider the 1894 discovery well, drilled on South 12th Street, the first significant commercial oil discovery west of the Mississippi (Kansans claim the same distinction for an 1892 Neodesha oil well ).

The American Well and Prospecting Company (from Kansas) made the oil strike on June 9, 1894, at a depth of 1,035 feet. The city council — angry and still wanting water for its growing community 55 miles south of Dallas – paid only half of the $1,000 fee.

By the end of 1898 there were almost 300 producing wells in the Corsicana. In 1923 a second, even larger oil field brought renewed prosperity.

Although the well was not the first Texas oil discovery , which was drilled by Lyne T. Barret in 1866 in Nacogdoches County, Corsicana’s failed water well helped establish the state’s massive exploration and production industry. More discoveries led to construction of earliest refineries west of the Mississippi. The town also became home to the famous Wolf Brand Chili brand.

The petroleum boom helped build the 1905 Navarro County Courthouse in Beaux Arts classical revival style.

The Navarro County well was inside the giant Mid-Continent field produced just 2.5 barrels a day, and a second well in 1895 found nothing — a dry hole. But a third oil well — at Fourth and Collins streets — in May 1896, yielded 22 barrels of oil a day. News of these small Texas oil wells began attracting drillers from young U.S. petroleum industry in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Petroleum Park educates visitors with exhibits, including a “Cooper Double Drum Pulling Unit” used to service the Navarro County oil wells in the 1950s.

By the beginning of 1897, the Corsicana oilfield was producing 65,975 barrels of oil from 47 wells. The drilling boom brought a new wave of prosperity to the town. A giant courthouse was erected in 1905 and the Corsicana Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1917.

In 1923, a second, even larger oil reservoir, the Powell oilfield, was discovered, unleashing another drilling boom attracting thousands of people. According to Christopher Long of the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), the first Texas oil refinery was built in Corsicana in 1897.

Corsicana Derrick Day events included a popular charity fundraising event, the Chili & BBQ Cook-Off.

By the next year there were 287 producing wells in the Corsicana field. The town also became a center for oilfield service companies.

Inventing the “Corsicana Rig”

The discovery of oil transformed Corsicana from a regional agricultural shipping town to an important oil and industrial center, creating a number of allied businesses. One new enterprise was started by the company that had drilled the 1894 discovery well. It would help revolutionize drilling technology.

Although American Well Prospecting Company continued to drill wells, its far-sighted owners decided to open an equipment repair shop in Corsicana. Business boomed. In 1900 the company secured the rights for a hydraulic rotary drilling rig design. It began manufacturing this oil field innovation far more efficient than traditional cable tools. (also see Making Hole – Drilling Technology). The local rotary rigs were soon known as “Corsicana rigs.”

An American Well and Prospecting rotary rig drilled the famous gusher at Spindletop Hill in Januar y 1901. Corsicana boomed at the same time, according to TSHA historian Long, with a population exceeding 9,300, with three banks, 12 newspapers, eight hotels, about 50 retail stores, a cotton mill, 32 doctors, and 35 saloons.

More discoveries followed in the petroleum-rich region southeast of Dallas. “The oil business continued to form the mainstay of the town’s economy,” Long reported. “Huge oil profits fostered great wealth in Corsicana.”

Circa 1910 Corsicana Oil Refinery

Owned by Security Oil Company since 1903 and picture below just a few years later, the Chaison Refinery of Beaumont, Texas, played a key role in the Texas breakup of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. In 1909, a federal court ruled Security Oil was in fact controlled by Standard Oil and the refinery was auctioned.

Rare images of Beaumont and Corsicana refineries are among a Texas museum collection of Albert Jeffreys’ oilfield career preserved in family scrapbooks.

As a result, the refinery’s buyer, John Sealey of Galveston, added the company to his the Corsicana Refining Company — a subsidiary of Standard Oil Company of New York. The two refineries were combined by Sealey and on April 14, 1911, he formed a partnership called Magnolia Petroleum Company — with Standard Oil of New Jersey a major stockholder. It was the same year the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to the Standard Oil Trust.

From a collection of images documenting the career Albert Jeffreys in Texas, Louisiana, Rumania, Pennsylvania and England, 1904-1913. Family photography (preserved by his granddaughter), now part of a collection at an oil museum in Beaumont, Texas. Learn more in Oil & Gas Families – Albert Jeffreys Family Collection .

Richest Texas Town

In 1953 Corsicana claimed to have the highest per capita income of any town in Texas. One reporter wrote that 21 millionaires lived within the city limits. Another drilling boom arrived in 1956 when a new oil field was discovered just east of town. Within months there were more 500 wells – and once again, “nearly one drill rig in every backyard.”

The Corsicana field produced about 125 million barrels of oil. In 1976, Corsicana leaders decided to commemorate the community’s rich petroleum exploration history – and its importance to the county’s economic development.

In addition to its annual Chili and BBQ Cook-off, Biker Bash, Car Show, and Oil Baron’s Ball, Derrick Days have included a parade, screenings of a short film, “Corsicana’s Oil History,” and Corsicana oil history field trips.

The annual Derrick Days festival (and popular Chili & BBQ Cook-off) has since become a premier gathering in Navarro County and grown with additional activities each year.

Oil and Chili

Lyman T. Davis of Corsicana developed a chili recipe in 1895. He sold his chili for five cents a bowl from the back of a wagon parked on downtown streets. For two decades he called it “Lyman’s Famous Chili.”

Oil was found on the Corsicana ranch of Lyman Davis, who marketed his chili using his pet wolf before selling the company in 1924. Photo courtesy ConAgra Foods.

By 1921, Davis was canning his popular chili, which he decided to rename. “It was about that time that he adopted the brand name ‘Wolf Brand,’ a name suggested to him in honor of his pet wolf, Kaiser Bill,” reported the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) in 1978.

By 1923, Davis had increased production to 2,000 cans of chili per day, reports Tommy W. Stringer in his 2010 Wolf Brand Chili article. “Because of the discovery of oil on his ranch, he had neither the time nor the interest to devote to his chili business, and in 1924 he sold his operations to J.C. West and Fred Slauson, two Corsicana businessmen,” explained TSHA from a Navarro College Oral History Collection

In 1977 Wolf Brand, then owned by Quaker Oats, and other chili manufacturers successfully lobbied Texas lawmakers to have chili proclaimed the official “state food” of Texas. Consolidating of its operations, Quaker Oats closed the Corsicana plant in 1985.

Corsicana’s Petroleum Park includes an oil field cannon: “This cannon stood at the Magnolia Petroleum tank farm. It was used to shoot a hole in the bottom of the cypress tanks if lightning struck. The oil would drain into a pit around the tanks and be pumped away.”

The brand of Wolf Brand Chili is now owned by ConAgra Foods, Inc. The original oil boom town recipe remains unchanged, according to the company, which also owns the trademarked slogan, “Neighbor, how long has it been since you had a big, thick, steaming bowl of Wolf Brand Chili? Well, that’s too long!”

Derrick Days Heritage Tour

For years, the closest connection between Derrick Days and the oil patch was the name, notes a 2013 article in the Corsicana Daily Sun newspaper.

Former mayor and oilman C.L. “Buster” Brown led a Derrick Days tour that included descriptions of the region’s geology. Photo courtesy Corsica Daily Sun, Janet Jacobs.

“But in recent years there’s been at least a few links to that history that helped build Corsicana,” explains reporter Janet Jacobs. “The tour was guided by C.L. “Buster” Brown, former mayor of Corsicana and an oilman himself.”

Brown’s tour included stops at Petroleum Park on South 12th Street in Corsicana, where the first oil well was drilled, and the former refinery on South 15th, which also was the first refinery west of the Mississippi, according to Jacobs.

The oilfield tour stopped at an historical marker in Mildred, a former roughneck tent city. Photo courtesy Corsicana Daily Sun, Janet Jacobs.

The group also took a “long stop at the former home of Tuckertown, the rough neck tent city that sprang up in response to the enormous oil field that stretched between where the town of Navarro and the town of Powell,” she says, noting the tent city later became the town of Mildred.

“The final stop of the tour was at the Mildred town hall, where a historical marker stands,” Jacobs concludes. “It was during those boom years that the older schools in Corsicana were built – Drane, Lee and Sam Houston – and the ornate yellow Chase Bank building, previously called the State National Bank.”

Oil historians in Neodesha, Kansas, also claim the first oil discovery west of the Mississippi. Two years earlier than the Corsicana well, a discovery well was completed at the corner of Mill and First streets on November 28, 1892. Learn more in First Kansas Oil Well. Also see Oilfield Artillery fights Fires.

Recommended Reading: Texas Oil and Gas (2013) Corsicana (2010) Neighbor, how long has it been?: The story of Wolf Brand Chili, a Texas legend (1995). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


Gusher at Spindletop

The history of Texas oil really begins on a dramatic morning in January, 1901, when the Lucas gusher, afterward world-famous as Spindletop, was brought in near Beaumont. (The name Spindletop is said to be derived from a tree in the vicinity shaped like an inverted cone.)

Beaumont in January of 1901 was an obscure and unpromising lumber and rice market. But then the Lucas gusher was brought in, four miles south of the town, and overnight Beaumont became a mecca. Adventurers flocked from far and near. Every Texan began to dream of a fortune under his ranch, farm, or town lot and many of the dreams came true: within two years Texas’ oil production increased, twentyfold.

The remarkable narrative winch appears here was obtained by Dr. William A. Owens, novelist and scholar in English literature, who took to Texas the methods of the Columbia University Oral History Project. It is the first account of Spindlelop to be derived direct from the lips of the three observers best qualified to tell it: Pattillo Higgins, since dead, who had faith that oil was to be found at Spindletop, but whose money ran out before he could prove it: and the Hamill brothers, Curt find Al (also now dead), who were at work on the drill the day a 160-foot geyser of oil suddenly leaped into the Texas sky.
--The Editors

Tuesday, January 1, 1901. First day of the first year of a new century.

Early in the morning three men in a buckboard were driving slowly across the Texas coastal plain south of Beaumont. Their destination was a prairie mound called Spindletop, where a rough wood derrick rose above the marsh grass. They were intent on the job ahead of them only as a job. Not one of them imagined the impact it would have on the new century.

The men were Allen W. Hamill, his brother Curt, and Will “Peck” Byrd. They were the entire crew of an outfit engaged to drill an oil well at Spindletop, the well that turned out to be the first gusher in American oil history.

Al Hamill, 24, tall and slender, was a partner with his brother Jim in the Haniill Brothers Contracting Company. Jim Hamill, after getting a start drilling artesian wells at Waco, had moved on to the Corsicana oil field near Dallas, where a small boom had begun after the discovery of oil by two enterprising Pennsylvanians in 1897. There Al joined him they formed a partnership and offered Curt a job as tool dresser. Curt, four years older than Al, was heavier ol build, with the strength of an ox and the tenacity of a bulldog. For the well at Spindletop they hired Peck Byrd as fireman and man of all work. They had begun drilling in October, but so far they had failed to strike oil.

Now, on New Year’s Day, the three of them bounced along the muddy track toward a well that seemed unlikely to pay the cost of drilling. They had shut down on December 24 so Al and Curt could spend Christmas in Corsicana. On their return, Curt had brought his wife and family and settled them in a shack not far from the well. Al and Peck boarded with them.

They came to the fence that marked Perry McFaddin’s tract, opened a gate, and drove through. McFaddin, having little faith in the prospect for oil, was planning to turn the tract into a large rice farm beyond the derrick, within hollering distance, he had six carpenters at work building a rice barn.

The men came to the derrick, which jutted up from a wide expanse of gray prairie toward a wider expanse of gray sky. Al stopped the horses and ran his eyes over the derrick, bull wheel, and boiler. Everything seemed to be in order, ready lor them to get on with the job. Al, who was in charge, had contracted to drill down to 1,200 leet, when lie would receive payment in full, $2,400. For Curt and Peek, the job represented a living—$80 a month and lodging.

Al was eager to get started.

“Peck, fire her up. Curt, check the derrick.”

Peck filled the boiler from a water well and fired it with pine slabs. Curt climbed to the double board, forty feet up, and checked the pulleys and ropes of the draw works. From the floor of the derrick to the crown block—the pulley and rope which moved the bit up and down—the rig was ready to go.

With a heavy wrench AI tightened the ring clamps that fastened the rotary drill to the drill pipe and inspected the fishtail bit. With luck it would hold out lor another day or two of drilling. Then, standing at the driller’s place on the derrick floor, he got a signal from Peck, who had built up a head of steam. Al looked up at Curt, above him on the derrick.

Al kicked in the clutch that set the rotary to its auger-like grinding and they settled down to the task.

Theirs was not the first attempt to find oil at Spindletop. For ten years Pattillo Higgins, a local man, had tried to harness the natural gas that bubbled in the five sour mineral wells at Spindletop. Managing, alter some difficulty, to obtain backing, Higgins proceeded to lay out a part of the prairie in a real-estate development, which he called Gladys City, and to bring a succession of drillers to Spindletop. As well after well Tailed, neoule almost lauyhed him out of town.

At this point Higgins brought in Captain A. F. Lucas, an Austrian mining engineer who had been prospecting lor sulphur in Louisiana. Lucas drilled another well. It was a lailuie, but he did manage to extract some crude oil—enough to fill a small vial—and took it east in search of more financial backing. (His capital exhausted, Higgins had been forced to drop out, though he still owned land at Spindletop.)

In Pittsburgh Lucas interested J. M. Guffey and John H. Galey, both experienced in the oil fields of Pennsylvania. In September, 1900, Lucas was back in Texas, at Corsicana it was he who had contracted with the Hamill brothers to drill the test well at Spindletop.

The Hamills had arrived in Beaumont with their drilling equipment about October 1. Lucas had met them and taken them to the location, where they saw a six-inch pipe extending above ground—all that remained of the earlier attempts to find oil. Lucas lighted a match and dropped it into the pipe. There was a puff. A flame shot up and died away.

Convinced of the presence of natural gas, the Hamills hauled their rotary drill and boiler to Spindletop. With their own hands they unloaded a carload of pipe, hauled it to the location, and stacked it on a crude pipe rack.

In Corsicana there had been derrick builders, but here in Beaumont they could not find one. There was not even a carpenter who would undertake the job. There was nothing to do but build it themselves. They trampled down marsh grass that grew high as fences, stirring up swarms of mosquitoes that made life almost unbearable. The timber was green, wet, unsized, and would not fit the derrick pattern they had brought with them. In a kind of desperation they laid the timber out on the ground and made a new-pattern, much as a woman cuts out a pattern for an apron.

After ten days they had a derrick 84 feet high, rough in appearance but strong and sturdy. In it they installed their Chapman rotary drill. Then they dug a slush pit sixteen by thirty by three feet and lined it with red Beaumont clay. Finally they began digging a water well to supply the boiler twenty feet down they struck a good How of water that bubbled with gas.

On an October morning they started drilling, using a twelve-inch bit. As the bit dug down, they forced water into the hole, and the fishtails worked up a sludge that was pumped out into the slush pit. As they bore downward, they hit, successively, formations of water sand, hard sand, and gumbo having no geologist to advise them, they had to experiment to get through each one. The work was time-consuming more than six weeks had passed and they were far behind schedule.

But finally they got through them all. Then, at something over 600 feet, gas suddenly blew water out of the hole and damaged the drill. Sharp sand shot out as if from a blast furnace, damaging the machinery. The men waited while the gas blew itself out then they repaired the rig and began drilling again.

Worried that another blowout might destroy their equipment, they decided to keep the rotary and pump going day and night. That meant going on eighteen-hour “towers” (as oil men called tours of duty).

One night about midnight Al came on to find that Peck had made hardly any headway at all. He took over and thumped along until about three in the morning, when the rotary began to turn with ease. Daylight showed oil in bubbles in iridescent slicks on the slush pit.

When Curt came, Al showed him the oil and sent him lor Captain Lucas. Lucas smelled and tasted the oil and then wired for John Galey. He was convinced the well was ready to be brought in and wanted Galey to share the excitement.

When Galey finally arrived he examined the oil on the slush pit.

“You might bail it,” he told Al.

They put on a bailer made of perforated pipe wrapped in a bed sheet, a device that strained out sand and mud. The sample they brought up showed a little flow of oil.

“Try it again,” Galey ordered.

When they went in again, the pipe stopped 300 feet from the bottom. They tried several times but could get no deeper.

Galey soon saw there was no use trying to bring the well in at that depth. He had them rig up a string of two-inch pipe and wash the bottom of the well out with clean water.

It was near Christmas time. Anyone could see that the men were near exhaustion.

“I’ll tell you what to do,” Galey told them. “You try to pull that pipe. Can’t do anything with it the way it is. Set the six-inch through that and go down and see if there’s anything below. When you get that done, shut down for Christmas.”

They followed Galey’s orders and on December 24 set the six-inch to a depth of 920 feet.

That is how the drilling operation stood when they returned on the morning of January 1, 1901.

All of New Year’s Day Al held the lever of the rotary and watched the slowly turning drill pipe sink into the earth. Again they were on eightcen-hour towers, constantly lacing the danger of a gas blowout. At 1,020 feet Al hit a crevice, or what he took to be a crevice, in the rock. Il he turned the bit in one direction, it would go down five or six inches farther than if he turned it in the other. If he turned it a quarter revolution more, it would start to back up. Baffled, he called Curt and Peck.

When they were unable to make headway, they decided to pull pipe. It was discouraging work, pulling up twenty-loot lengths at a time when they should be going steadily toward their 1,200-foot depth. They found the fishtail bit dull from battering rock. They sharpened it and went in again.

Another night of keeping the boiler going and the rotary turning. Still the rock would not give way. Another day of drilling with no progress. All their bits were worn down to nubbins. Finally, on the morning of January 10, Al brought a new bit from Beaumont and they put it on.

Suddenly, at about 700 feet, mud commenced boiling up through the rotary. It got higher and higher. Then the drill pipe began rising—something they had never seen before. It moved up and started going through the top of the derrick.

Al and Peck yelled to Curt and ran. Curt scrambled down from the derrick, covered with slimy mud. From a safe distance they watched as the pipe kept on rising. It took the elevators and traveling block off and then knocked oft the crown block. Fascinated, they watched pipe break in sections of three or four lengths and fall like crumbled macaroni. It knocked down the smoke-stack of the boiler and curled on the ground around the derrick. The last length of pipe was followed by rocks, and then by a deafening roar of gas.

McFaddin’s carpenters scrambled like monkeys from the nearby barn and raced on horseback toward Beaumont.

The roar died down gradually and within a few minutes all was quiet. Peck and the Hamill brothers crept back to find a discouraging mess: engine and boiler seemed ruined mud stood six inches deep on the derrick floor. They could see no signs of oil.

“Let’s get some of this off the floor,” he said.

Of a sudden, a chunk of mud shot out of the six-inch hole with an explosion like a cannon. Then a stream of mud blew up, with a little blue gas following it. Again the men ran.

Then it quieted down and ceased altogether. The crew looked at each other wonderingly. Again they inched forward till they stood on the derrick Hoor in the mud. Al walked over and peered down the hole. They could hear a kind of bubbling deep in the earth. Then they could see frothy oil starting up. The well seemed to be breathing: oil was coming up and settling back with the gas pressure with each breath it came a little higher.

When it poured out over the derrick floor they moved back. With each pulsation the flow went a little higher and a little higher and a little higher. Finally the momentum was so great that oil shot through the top of the derrick. With it came rocks and sand and shale from the conglomerate formation they had drilled into. It spurted skyward in a stream over 160 feet high—at least twice the height of the derrick. Once the oil was in full flow, there seemed to be no lessening.

After a few minutes, when their excitement had subsided somewhat, they crept closer, getting soaked with a spray of black oil. Their excitement changed to disgust. The machinery was damaged. Mud Howed all over the derrick floor. Strings of drill pipe lay on the ground, twisted and useless. They saw no way to control the power they had unleashed.

Al shouted for Peck to go lor Captain Lucas. Peck drove at a gallop across the prairie to Captain Lucas’ house, more than a mile away, only to find that Captain Lucas had gone to Beaumont.

Mrs. Lucas located him at Louis Meyer’s Dry Goods Store, where he had set up his headquarters while waiting for something to happen. She had seen the gusher from her door. Quickly she told him what she saw.

Peck got back to the well as fast as he could. Some of McFaddin’s carpenters had returned, but they stood far off, watching.

In a short time they saw Captain Lucas come over the hill in his buckboard, his horse at a dead run. At the gate, the horse stopped short, pitching Lucas to the ground. He landed on his feet and came running—panting, out of breath.

“Al, Al,” he called, his Austrian accent more pronounced in his excitement. “What is it? What is it?”

Captain Lucas grabbed Al and hugged him.

“Thank God, thank God,” he cried. Then he hugged Curt and Peck.

Within an hour people began to arrive from Beaumont—in buggies, on horseback, on loot—attracted by the rumors spreading from Louis Meyer’s store and by the roar of the gusher, which could be heard as far as Beaumont and beyond. They came as near as the fence, about 150 feet from the well, and watched in fear and astonishment. Every time the wind shifted, a spray of oil drove them back.

Lucas, when he had regained his composure, hurried to Beaumont and wired John Galey to come at once.

The effect of oil was already beginning to be felt in Beaumont. Oil spray drifted in on the Gulf breeze. Sulphur gas filled the air. People held their noses against it. They watched it tarnish their white houses with black and orange stains. They told of Negroes holding prayer meetings, thinking the end of the world had come.

Back at Spindletop Captain Lucas, seeing the danger of fire, had Curt sworn in as a deputy sheriff to keep everyone away from the well. Together they drove the curious onlookers back beyond the fence. Lucas hired extra guards, armed them with shotguns, and stationed them in lines on the east and west. To the south, marsh grass stretched unbroken.

“Keep the people back and don’t let them smoke,” Captain Lucas told Curt. “Don’t let anybody smoke.”

At sunup the curious again lined the fence. Pattillo Higgins rode his horse close and sat watching the fulfillment of his dream. Though he no longer held slock in the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company, he had valuable land near the well, more than enough to establish him in the oil business.

About ten that morning the well blew wild again, with a mighty roar of gas that heaved rocks high into the air. Those who had come to watch were rewarded. After the well had cleaned itself of rocks and shale, it settled down to a steady flow that spouted above the top of the derrick.

There being no tankage in the Beaumont area, they had to let the oil bubble out on the ground. Captain Lucas had some levees thrown up to contain it until he could get cypress tanks built. The railroad men protected their tracks with an embankment. Oil flowed over fields intended for rice farms and collected in a draw near the railroad.

During the day Jim Hamill arrived from Corsicana, and, for the first time since the well blew in, Curt and Peck went home to clean up. They took off their oil-soaked clothes and rubbed their bodies dry with gunny sacks. Then they scrubbed off the remaining oil with lye soap and water as hot as they could stand it.

Sunday morning broke clear and cold. A heavy frost coated the crass. Curt and Peck were on duty. Al having gone home to sleep. By midmorning some five or six hundred people were milling about in the pasture. Curt and Peck, in their slicker suits, took turns working around the well and keeping people away.

Then they saw a man come riding on horseback across the pasture, with a Negro boy mounted behind him. Just when they reached the oily area the boy lighted a pipe and dropped the match into the grass. Flames burst up and black smoke began to rise. A stampede toward Beaumont began, in a wild rush of horses and buggies and running men.

Curt went running toward the fire, with Peck close behind. They took oft their slicker coats and beat at the flames. When their coats were burned up, they took off their denim jumpers, and then their shirts. Still the fire spread, nearer and nearer the well. Some ol the stampeded men returned.

“Bring me some boards,” Curt shouted.

The men brought boards from McFaddin’s barn, fifty or more of them. Curt and Peck threw them on the line of flame nearest the well. Gradually they brought the fire under control, but not until more than an acre of grass had burned over.

By the time Al arrived, alerted by the smoke, the fire was out. He looked at Curt and Peck. They were out of breath and their faces were black with oil smoke. Al looked at the blackened patch.

“If it had ever got to the well,” he said, “I don’t know what we’d have done with it.”

This fire put fear into them: the well had to be shut off. But how? Great pressure was needed to cap the well it had to be supplied by human muscle, and the work was perilous because a single spark might trigger a tremendous explosion.

Stories of the wild well had appeared in newspapers across the country. Telegrams began to arrive from as far away as San Francisco, with offers to shut off the well. Estimates for the job ranged up to $10,000. A man who claimed to be a hydraulic engineer appeared at Spindletop with a telegram from John Galey, authorizing him to shut off the well. He studied the gushing oil and then turned to Al and said, “You can certainly have the job if you want it. I wouldn’t shut it off if they gave me the well, lease, and everything belonging to it. It’s too dangerous.”

Galey himself arrived soon afterward, and Al took him to the well. Elated, Galey estimated the flow to be between 80,000 and 100,000 barrels a day. Ruefully they looked at the wasted oil which had run over the flat land and been washed down the bayou by heavy rains. They talked immediately about capping the well.

Galey turned to Jim and said, “Well, you boys drilled the well. What do you think about shutting it in?”

“Well, Mr. Galey, I think we can do it.”

All that night the Hamill brothers and Captain Lucas worked on plans lor capping the well. Early next morning Jim arranged for heavy timbers and clamps to be delivered. Al swiped two steel rails from the Southern Pacific Railroad.

During the drilling they had put a collar on the ten-inch pipe to protect the threads when they set the eight-inch pipe inside. While driving the pipe through the first sand the collar had become welded to the pipe. It had to be cut off and the threads re-dressed before the shutoff could be started.

Al, the only one of the three Hamills who was unmarried, volunteered to cut the protector off. He went to Beaumont and got a pair of goggles, the kind he had used on the farm when threshing grain. These he taped to his face to keep oil and gas out of his eyes. Then he went in with a hacksaw and diamond points. He straddled the pipe all afternoon, working away carefully and patiently, with oil raining down on him and running of! his slicker suit and hat.

J. S. Cullinan, later a founder of the Texas Company and considered the lather of the Texas oil industry, had arrived a few days before, and now he and Jim Hamill stood watching.

“Now, Jim,” Cullinan warned, “you watch that kid. He’s in great danger. If he hits a spark there, why, he just—it’d be impossible to get him out.”

The men stood close, ready to pull Al out in case of fire or in case he should be overcome by gas. As fatigue set in, he had to come out for air, some work intervals lasting only two or three minutes but finally he succeeded in cutting the collar in two and springing it enough to get it off. Then, in spite of the rain of oil, he dressed the threads perfectly.

When the pipe was ready, they took the floor boards off. Then they buried two four-by-twelve timbers and bolted them to the legs of the derrick. They bolted the steel rails to the timbers. Then they built a carriage arrangement and bolted it to the rails. With the fittings, the valves and the “T,” and the connections, it looked like a crate. It was actually the beginning of what was later called the “Christmas tree,” a set of pipes and valves for reducing internal pressure in a well. All parts were solidly bolted to the derrick if the carriage were dislodged by the pressure, the whole derrick would go.

Their equipment was ready, but the well was still throwing rocks—rocks that went up as high as a man could see and then came down in a spray of oil and sand.

“We’d better not shut that in today,” Jim said. “One of those rocks might damage our valve—might knock it off.”

Again they settled down to fearful watching and waiting. A spark might set it off, the well would be lost, and there would be little hope of escape for three oil-soaked men.

On January 20 they watched as they had watched every day. In the middle of the morning Jim came out.

“Well, boys,” he asked, “how’s it been acting?”

“No rocks this morning,” they assured him.

He watched with them until after eleven.

“Well, let’s shut her in,” he said.

The brothers looked at each other. The most dangerous moment had arrived. Al was the first to speak.

“Curt, I’ll work the carriage. You turn the valve there, will you?”

With chain tongs Al pulled the unwieldy carriage until the valve was directly over the pipe. Then Curt rushed in, lowered the valve over the pipe, and screwed it tight. One moment there was a hissing roar—the next, silence. The well was shut off. But Curt had fallen to the ground, overcome by gas. They dragged him to fresh air and revived him.

The flow finally stopped. They pounded rope between the six-inch and eight-inch pipes, poured cement in over the rope, and finally covered the valve with a mound of dirt, to protect the well from fire.

It was fortunate they did. A few days later a spark from a locomotive set fire to the lake of oil that stretched between the well and the railroad tracks, three-fourths of a mile away. This time there was no chance to fight the fire. The flames leapt fast the smoke was overpowering. Men worked feverishly to drag their equipment out of the path.

The fire started about noon. By middle of the afternoon it was burning along the entire side of the lake bounded by the tracks. If the wind changed, flames would sweep across the whole of Spindletop.

A man on horseback (some said it was McFaddin trying to save his pasture) set fire to the other side of the lake. Smoke boiled up and shut out the sun. The two walls of flame rushed toward each other. When they were close, with only a deep alley between, explosions began to shake the earth. The walls would meet, throw sheets of oil into the air, and then recede under the impact of explosions that shook Beaumont, four miles away.

Smoke rolled over the city and turned day into night. Then a rain storm came and washed soot down upon the town. Houses stained orange before were now turned black. Again people, frightened by this great unknown force, held prayer meetings and prepared themselves for the end of time.

But the fire passed, and the well was safe. Its stored-up power became both the symbol and the incentive of a new century.


Gusher signals start of U.S. oil industry | JANUARY 10

On this day in 1901, a drilling derrick at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas, produces an enormous gusher of crude oil, coating the landscape for hundreds of feet and signaling the advent of the American oil industry. The geyser was discovered at a depth of over 1,000 feet, flowed at an initial rate of approximately 100,000 barrels a day and took nine days to cap. Following the discovery, petroleum, which until that time had been used in the U.S. primarily as a lubricant and in kerosene for lamps, would become the main fuel source for new inventions such as cars and airplanes coal-powered forms of transportation including ships and trains would also convert to the liquid fuel.

Crude oil, which became the world’s first trillion-dollar industry, is a natural mix of hundreds of different hydrocarbon compounds trapped in underground rock. The hydrocarbons were formed millions of years ago when tiny aquatic plants and animals died and settled on the bottoms of ancient waterways, creating a thick layer of organic material. Sediment later covered this material, putting heat and pressure on it and transforming it into the petroleum that comes out of the ground today.

In the early 1890s, Texas businessman and amateur geologist Patillo Higgins became convinced there was a large pool of oil under a salt-dome formation south of Beaumont. He and several partners established the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company and made several unsuccessful drilling attempts before Higgins left the company. In 1899, Higgins leased a tract of land at Spindletop to mining engineer Anthony Lucas. The Lucas gusher blew on January 10, 1901, and ushered in the liquid fuel age. Unfortunately for Higgins, he’d lost his ownership stake by that point.

Beaumont became a “black gold” boomtown, its population tripling in three months. The town filled up with oil workers, investors, merchants and con men (leading some people to dub it “Swindletop”). Within a year, there were more than 285 actives wells at Spindletop and an estimated 500 oil and land companies operating in the area, including some that are major players today: Humble (now Exxon), the Texas Company (Texaco) and Magnolia Petroleum Company (Mobil).


Pennsylvania wildcatters discover oilfield near Tulsa in Oklahoma Territory. Six years before Oklahoma statehood, the 1901 Red Fork oilfield discovery south of Tulsa set the town on its journey to becoming "Oil Capital of the World." Attracted to Indian.

Early petroleum exploration began near oil seeps in Indian Territory. Drilled in 1889 and completed a year later near oil seeps at Chelsea in Indian Territory, the story behind the another first Oklahoma oil well is not as well known as the Bartlesville gusher seven.

Education Centers & Resources

Gusher Signals Start of U.S. Oil Industry - HISTORY

The History of the Oil Industry
(with an emphasis on California and the San Joaquin Valley)

click any of the pictures below for a better view

Oil Through the Ages
347 A.D. Oil wells are drilled in China up to 800 feet deep using bits attached to bamboo poles.
1264 Mining of seep oil in medieval Persia witnessed by Marco Polo on his travels through Baku.
1500s Seep oil collected in the Carpathian Mountains of Poland is used to light street lamps.
1594 Oil wells are hand dug at Baku, Persia up to 35 meters (115 feet) deep.
1735 Oil sands are mined and the oil extracted at Pechelbronn field in Alsace, France.
1802 A 58-ft well is drilled using a spring pole in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia by the brothers David and Joseph Ruffner to produce brine. The well takes 18 months to drill.
1815 Oil is produced in United States as an undesirable by-product from brine wells in Pennsylvania.
1848 First modern oil well is drilled in Asia, on the Aspheron Peninsula north-east of Baku, by Russian engineer F.N. Semyenov.
1849 Distillation of kerosene from oil by Canadian geologist Dr. Abraham Gesner. Kerosene eventually replaces whale oil as the illuminant of choice and creates a new market for crude oil.
1850 Oil from hand-dug pits in California at Los Angeles is distilled to produce lamp oil by General Andreas Pico.
1854 First oil wells in Europe are drilled 30- to 50-meters deep at Bóbrka, Poland by Ignacy Lukasiewicz.
1854 Natural Gas from a water well in Stockton, California is used to light the Stockton courthouse.
1857 Michael Dietz invents a kerosene lamp that forces whale oil lamps off the market.
1858 First oil well in North America is drilled in Ontario, Canada.
1859 First oil well in United States is drilled 69 feet deep at Titusville, Pennsylvania by Colonel Edwin Drake.
California Comes of Age
1861 First oil well in California is drilled manually in Humboldt County.
1866 Oil is collected from tunnels dug at Sulphur Mountain in Ventura County by the brothers of railroad baron Leland Stanford, the same year that these techniques are applied to the Pechelbronn oil mine in France.
1866 First steam-powered rig in California drills an oil well at Ojai, not far from the Sulphur Mountain seeps.
1875 First commercial oil field in California is discovered at Pico Canyon in Los Angeles County.
1878 Electric light bulb invented by Thomas Edison eliminates demand for kerosene, and the oil industry enters a recession.
1885 Gas wells are drilled in Stockton, California for fuel and lighting.
1885 Oil burners on steam engines in the California oil fields, and later on steam locomotives, create new crude oil markets.
1886 Gasoline-powered automobiles introduced in Europe by Karl Benz and Wilhelm Daimler create additional markets for California oil. Prior to the automobile, gasoline was a cheap solvent produced as a byproduct of kerosene distillation.
1888 A steel-hulled tanker sails from Ventura to San Francisco, eleven years after the 1877 sailing of a Russian tanker across the Caspian sea at Baku.
1899 Discovery of Kern River oil field propels Kern County to top oil-producing region in state.

The San Joaquin Valley Oil Industry

  • 1864 - Tar mined from open pits at Asphalto (McKittrick) on west side of San Joaquin Valley.
  • 1866 - First refinery in Kern County built near McKittrick tar pits to process kerosene and asphalt.
  • 1878 - First wooden derrick in Kern County constructed at Reward to drill for flux oil to mix with asphalt.
  • 1887 - "Wild Goose" well at Oil City, Coalinga comes in at 10 bbls/day, demonstrating potential of north part of basin.
  • 1889 - Oil wells drilled at Old Sunset (Maricopa) with a steam-powered rig mark discovery of Midway-Sunset field.
  • 1893 - Railroad reaches McKittrick, where tunnels and shafts are dug to mine asphalt.
  • 1894 - Old Sunset (Maricopa) part of Midway-Sunset has 16 wells producing 30 barrels of oil per day.
  • 1896 - Shamrock Gusher blows in at McKittrick and hastens end of tar mining operations.
  • 1899 - Hand-dug oil well discovers Kern River field and starts an oil boom in Kern County.
  • 1902 - Arrival of railroad makes development of Midway-Sunset field economically feasible.
  • 1902 - First rotary rig in Califonia reportedly drills a well at Coalinga field, but the hole is so crooked that a cable tool is used to redrill the well.
  • 1903 - Kern River and Midway-Sunset production makes California the top oil producing state.
  • 1904 - 17.2 million bbls of oil produced at Kern River exceeds annual production from Texas.
  • 1908 - Rotary drilling rigs and crews arrive in California from Louisiana and successfully drill wells at Midway-Sunset field and erase the embaressment of the Coalinga experiment six years earlier.
  • 1909 - Midway Gusher blows out near Fellows and focuses attention on Midway-Sunset field.
  • 1910 - Lakeview Gusher blows in near Taft and becomes America's greatest oil gusher.
  • 1919 - Hay No. 7 catches fire at Elk Hills and becomes America's greatest gas gusher.
  • 1929 - Blowout prevention equipment becomes mandatory on oil and gas wells drilled in California.
  • 1929 - First well logs in California run by Shell in a well near Bakersfield (Kern County).
  • 1930 - Deepest well in the world is Standard Mascot #1, rotary drilled to 9,629 feet at Midway-Sunset.
  • 1936 - First seismic exploration in California discovers Ten Section field near Bakersfield. Seismic discovery of the productive Paloma and Coles Levee anticlines soon follows
  • 1943 - Deepest well in the world is Standard 20-13, drilled to 16,246 feet at South Coles Levee.
  • 1953 - Deepest well in the world is Richfield 67-29 drilled to 17,895 feet at North Coles Levee.

  • 1961 - First steam recovery projects in Kern County start up at Kern River and Coalinga fields after a successful pilot by Shell at Yorba Linda field in Los Angeles.
  • 1973 - Tule Elk and Yowlumne fields become the last 100-million barrel fields discovered in Kern County.
  • 1980 - First horizontal well in Kern County is Texaco Gerard #6 in fractured schist at Edison field.
  • 1980s - Cogeneration hastens the spread of steam recovery projects, which dramatically ramp up oil production.
  • 1985 - Kern County reaches an all-time production high of 256 million barrels of oil/year . At the same time, California reaches an all-time production high of 424 million barrels of oil/year.
  • 1990s - 3D-seismic data and 3D-computer modeling of reservoirs bring new life to old fields.
  • 1997 - Deepest horizontal well in Kern County is Yolwumne 91X-3 with measured depth of 14,300 feet. However, the well is surpassed only two years later by the relief well for the Bellevue blowout.
  • 1998 - A blowout and oil well fire at the Bellevue #1 wildcat in the East Lost Hills subthrust fuels hopes for the first major Kern County discovery in over a decade. However, subsequent drilling proves to be a disappointment.

And throughout much of this San Joaquin Valley oil history, members of the
San Joaquin Geological Society were holding monthly dinner meetings and sharing a beer with the likes of Senteur de Boue . Click here to learn more about the history of this esteemed organization.

The Oil Industry of Medieval Persia (Azerbaijan and Baku)

When Marco Polo in 1264 visited the Persian city of Baku , on the shores of the Caspian Sea in modern Azerbaijan, he saw oil being collected from seeps. He wrote that "on the confines toward Geirgine there is a fountain from which oil springs in great abundance, inasmuch as a hundred shiploads might be taken from it at one time." In addition to oil seeps, Marco Polo also saw spectacular mud volcanos, sourced by natural gas seeping through ponds, and a flaming hillside, the "Eternal Fires of the Apsheron Peninsula", a spit of land that juts eastward from Azerbaijan into the Caspian Sea and where condensate and natural gas seeping through fractured shales has burned, and been worshipped, for centuries. The thumbnail on the right shows the Temple of the Fire Worshipers at Ateshkah where a gas seep has burned since ancient times.

Shallow pits were dug at the Baku seeps in ancient times to facilitate collecting oil, and hand-dug holes up to 35 meters (115 feet) deep were in use by 1594. These holes were essentially oil wells, which makes Baku the first true field. Apparently 116 of these wells in 1830 produced 3,840 metric tons (about 710 to 720 barrels) of oil. Later, Russian engineer F.N. Semyenov used a cable tool in 1844 to drill an oil well near the Bibi-Eibat (Bibi-Heybat) embayment on the Apsheron Peninsula, ten years before Colonel Drake's famous well in Pennsylvania. Also, offshore drilling started up at Baku at Bibi-Eibat near the end of the 19th century, about the same time that the "first" offshore oil well was drilled in 1896 at Summerland field on the California Coast. The thumbnail on the left shows workers digging an oil well by hand at Bibi-Eibat.

Baku was known for spectacular gushers, and spectacular well fires as well - an example of which is shown in the still on the right from a short film by the Lumière Brothers in 1896. The first of the big spouters blew out in 1873 on the Balakhani Plateau, which was the high ground of the Apsheron Peninisula, beneath which lies a giant anticline that is responsible for the prolific oil production. The Balakhani field during the 1870s was the largest oil field in the world. Another giant anticline at the Bibi-Eibat embayment, on the south side of the peninsula, extends from the land out to beneath the waters of the bay. A string of huge onshore producers, beginning with the Tagiev spouter in the mid-1880s, elevated Bibi-Eibat to the largest field. Russian engineers, realizing that production extended offshore, began filling and draining the bay in 1909 to allow continued drilling. Over 300 hectares (741 acres) had been reclaimed by 1927, a project said to be second in magnitude only to construction of the Panama Canal.

check out the links below
to learn more about the oil history of Azerbaijan

Modern offshore wells on the Aspheron Peninsula
are shown on the left.

You can see more Baku oil pictures
by clicking here

The Early Oil Industry of Poland and Romania

The Carpathian Mountains in Poland abound in oil seeps, and Carpathian oil, hand dipped from pits dug in front of the seeps, was burned in street lamps, as early as the 1500s, to provide light in the Polish town of Krosno. Unfortunately, the seep oil was a dark, viscous liquid that stuck to everything. It also burned with a foul smell and gave off more smoke and soot than other lamp oils, most of which were rendered from animal fat.

Ignacy Lukasiewicz , a Polish druggist in the modern Ukranian town of Lvov, saw the potential of using seep oil in lamps as a cheap alternative to expensive whale oil. To make a clean-burning fuel, he began experimenting with distillation techniques, perfected earlier by Dr. Abraham Gesner in Canada, to produce clear kerosene from smelly seep oil. His experiments gained notoriety, and the European oil industry was born on a dark night on July 31, 1853 when Lukasiewicz was called to a local hospital to provide light from one of his lamps for an emergency surgery. Impressed with his invention, the hospital ordered several lamps and 500 kg of kerosene. Lukasiewicz enlisted the aid of a business partner and traveled to the Vienna, capitol city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to register his distillation process with the government on December 31, 1853.

To provide oil for his kerosene business, Lukasiewicz initially collected a thick, sticky crude from shallow, hand-dug wells in the Gorlice region, an area in the Carpathians about 50 miles west of the Polish town of Bóbrka. The following year, he teamed up with Titus Trzecieski and Mikolaj Klobassa to establish an "oil mine" in Bóbrka which pumped crude oil from hand-drilled, 30- to 50-meter deep wells. Later, wells as deep as 150 meters were drilled that produced a lighter, better-quality crude from which to distill kerosene. Other entrepreneurs dug their own wells,and a thriving Polish oil industry developed, which was followed in 1857 by the drilling of wells at Bend, northeast of Bucharest, on the Romanian side of the Carpathians. Two years later, Colonel Edwin Drake , who perhaps had knowledge of the Polish developments, drilled his famous well in Pennsylvania, an event wrongly labeled by many in the industry as the drilling of the "first oil well".


Bobrka oil field, Poland in 1872

Many of these early wells were laboriously dug by hand. Others were drilled with spring poles, in which a springy wooden pole was stuck in the ground at an angle and a heavy metal drill bit attached by a cable to the head of the pole. Operators would bounce up and down on stirrups attached to the pole, causing the bit to literally chop a hole into the hard ground. The hole was cleaned by lowering into the hole a specially designed bucket, called a bailer, which was similarly bounced up and down until it filled dirt and cuttings to be hauled to the surface.

Steam engines were employed to mechanically drill wells in the Pennsylvania oil fields during the U.S. Civil War, and Thomas Bard imported a steam-powered drilling rig and crew from Pennsylvania to successfully drill a mediocre oil well in California in 1865. Steam was first used in Poland two years later in 1867 to drill a well at Kleczany, 60 kilometers west of the Bóbrka field. Steam-powered drilling made its debut at Bóbrka a few years later, sometime between 1870 and 1872, and enabled operators to drill much deeper than they had been able to previously. Within a few years virtually all oil wells, in both the United States and Europe, were being drilled mechanically.

(Excerpted from various issues of the AAPG Explorer)


Polish Oil Wells - Derricks for hand-dug wells at Bobrka field are on the left,
and the derrick for a steam-driven operation at Bitkow field is on the right.

The Early Oil Industry of Pennsylvania

Oil Creek in western Pennsylvania abounds in oil seeps that ooze thick black crude into the stream. These seeps were well known to the Seneca Indians, one of the Iroquois Nation tribes, who used the oil as a salve, mosquito repellent, purge and tonic. Many settlers also believed that these oils were medicinal, and "hawkers" sold bottles of it, as early as 1792, as a cure-all called "Seneca Oil". The nearby Allegheny and Kiskiminetas river valleys had oil also, but beneath the ground, where as early as 1815 it was contaminating several of the brine wells that supplied a booming salt industry in the Pittsburgh area.

In the early 1850s, a Pittsburgh druggist named Samuel Kier began selling bottled oil from his father's brine wells as "Pennsylvania Rock Oil", but met with little success. One day, Colonel A. C. Ferris, a whale oil dealer, processed a small amount of Kier's "tonic" to make a lighter oil that burned well in a lamp. When Kier heard about this, he began using a one-barrel whiskey still of his own to convert his rock oil into lamp oil. After Kier upgraded his still to five-barrel capacity, Pittsburgh forced him to move his operation to a suburb out of fear of an explosion.

When George Bissell, a New York lawyer, learned of Kier's operation, he hired Benjamin Silliman Jr of Yale University, probably around 1854, to see if Seneca Oil would yield lamp oil. Silliman successfully distilled the oil into several fractions, including an illuminating oil already known as kerosene. Armed with Silliman's results, Bissell received financial backing to form the "Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company", which later became the "Seneca Oil Company".

An unemployed railroad conductor and express agent named Edwin Drake, who by chance was staying at the same hotel in New Haven, Connecticut as Bissel and his partners, was hired in 1857 to visit Titusville, a town on Oil Creek. Drake's only qualification for this assignment was a free railroad pass remaining from his previous job. Although Drake had never been in the military, when he returned to Titusville the following year to commence operations as a Seneca Oil Company agent, his employers passed him off as a colonel to give their venture an air of respectability.

Historically, oil was collected at Oil Creek by damming the creek near a seep, then skimming oil off the top of the resulting pond. Drake tried this at a seep once used by a sawmill to produce oil for lubricating the mill machinery, but even with improvements and opening up other seeps in the area, he only increased production from three or four gallons to a still non-economic six to ten gallons a day. Next workers tried digging a shaft to mine the oil, but groundwater flooded in too quickly for the workers to continue. Finally, Drake decided to drill a well and locate the source of the seep oil, using the same steam-powered equipment used to drill brine wells.

He hired a blacksmith named "Billy" Smith, who had drilled brine wells for Kier and others in the Pittsburgh area. Smith, with his son Samuel, began drilling in the summer of 1859. Although progress was slow, usually three feet a day in shale bedrock, they reached a depth of 69½ feet by August 27, just as Drake was reaching the last of his funds. When Billy and Samuel pulled their drilling tools from the well the next morning, they noticed oil rising in the hole. After installing a hand-operated lever pump borrowed from a local kitchen, the first days production was about twenty-five barrels. Production soon dropped off to a steady ten barrels or so a day, and the well is said to have continued at that rate for a year or more.

Although Drake's well was no gusher, it was the beginning of an idea. Titusville transformed almost overnight from a quiet farm town to an oil boom town of muddy roads, hastily constructed wooden derricks, and noisy steam engines. The Pennsylvania oil boom was on.

The Woodford (left) and Phillips (right) wells in the Oil Creek Valley of Pennsylvania about 1862 (Oil Creek flows just to the right of the Phillips well). The Phillips well was the most productive oil well of its time, initially at a rate of 4,000 barrels of oil per day in October, 1861. The Woodford came in at 1,500 barrels per day in July, 1862.

check out the links below
to learn more about the early oil history of the United States

Early Days of Oil by Paul H. Giddens, 1948, 7 p.

The Early Oil Industry of Texas

click here to learn about
The Spindletop Gusher
and the Birth of the Texas Oil Industry


Is This A Turning Point For Big Oil?

Three of the world’s largest oil companies faced a reckoning over climate change Wednesday as shareholder revolts and a landmark court ruling added new pressure to slash emissions.

Royal Dutch Shell suffered the first blow, as a civil court in the Netherlands ordered the company to cut its carbon dioxide emissions 45% below 2019 levels by the end of the decade.

Then, at the annual shareholder meeting of Exxon Mobil Corp. in Dallas, a comparatively tiny activist hedge fund seeking to shift the oil giant away from fossil fuels and toward renewables won two seats on the board of directors.

That afternoon, climate-concerned shareholders at Chevron Corporation’s annual investor confab voted to force the company to make a plan to cut emissions generated from the use of its product ― making the Texas firm responsible for the pollution its customers create when burning oil and gas.

“This really is the start of a new era for Big Oil,” said Clark Williams-Derry, an oil analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an energy research outfit. “You can’t shrug this off as having had a bad day. This is all three largest supermajors taking it on the chin from shareholders or the courts.”

It’s been a turbulent time for the industry, which saw record-breaking financial losses last year as government lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19 grounded planes, halted factories and kept automobiles idle, briefly sending the price of oil below zero for the first time in history. Governments across the world have taken bigger roles in the economy since the start of the pandemic, and they face mounting pressure to restrict fossil fuels, invest in zero-emissions alternatives and slash energy use. Still, it’s difficult to parse what the final impact of Monday’s decisions will be on the industry.

Shell said it would appeal the ruling, which Dutch Judge Larisa Alwin said would have “far-reaching consequences” and may “curb potential growth of the Shell group.” But industry analysts warned that the outcome would likely prompt more legal and investor challenges to fossil fuel producers.

“This case epitomizes the expanding fronts where fossil-fuel companies are coming under pressure: On top of investors and regulators demanding carbon cuts, now heavy emitters are facing censure through the courts,” Will Nichols, head of environment and climate change at the risk-analysis company Verisk Maplecroft, told The Wall Street Journal . “We can expect this case to embolden activists and pressure groups.”

The shareholder victories in particular may spur more activist investors to launch internal campaigns for reform. In regulatory filings, Exxon Mobil said it spent $35 million to counter hedge fund Engine No. 1’s $30 million campaign to put climate advocates on the oil giant’s board. Despite an eight-figure war chest and command of a corporate Goliath worth nearly $250 billion, Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods lost resoundingly to a financial David worth just $50 million.

The vote amounted to a signal of disapproval of the company’s management, as the two new members of the board of directors will be independent of the firm. Yet their influence over company policy could still be limited if the other members of Exxon Mobil’s board rally behind Woods.

The investor revolt at Chevron offered a more direct repudiation of the company’s strategy. Requiring the firm to slash emissions from its products marks “a clear directive,” Williams-Derry said.

“That is the sort of directive that you can’t just shuck and jive and say you’ve met that,” he said. “If the carbon content of the fuel you’re selling is going up and you’ve been told it needs to go down, you’re in trouble.”

But enforcing that measure in a way that seriously lowers emissions could prove challenging, said Fernando Valle, an oil analyst at the energy consultancy BloombergNEF.

“It’s such a tenuous line, because it’s difficult to decide what are your emissions versus everybody else’s,” he said.

The most immediate effect could be the clear exclusion of Chevron from investment funds that brand themselves as complying with environmental and social governance principles, or ESG, particularly as regulators tighten rules on what stocks qualify under that label.

Overall, though, Valle said it shows “the regulatory environment is just getting tougher and tougher, not just in Europe but in North America now as well.”

The best evidence of what’s to come, he said, actually rests in a fourth oil company. Canadian giant Suncor Energy recently announced its latest five-year plan and included “almost no growth and no new projects because of high regulatory costs.”

That doesn’t mean the end of oil. New projects will likely continue in other countries with looser regulations or weaker enforcement. And the publicly traded companies in North America and Europe may face a similar stock-market trajectory to another industry, one whose public relations strategies fossil fuel executives borrowed over much of the past three decades in a bid to stave off regulations. Once denying the link between cigarette smoking and cancer no longer worked, tobacco firms largely stopped growing, but kept making money.

“It’s going to be similar to what happened to Big Tobacco in the mid-1990s, [where it’s] still one of the better performing sectors, but not investing in growth, just reaping cash flow,” Valle said.

People kept smoking, albeit fewer of them and in far fewer environments. To make oil consumption a thing of the past, Valle said, “you still have to change societal needs.”


The Moncrief Fortune and Reputation Began in 1931 With an East Texas Gusher

Jan. 22–LONGVIEW — Seventy-five years ago this week, roughnecks opened the wellhead valves on an oil-drilling platform set in the pines of Gregg County seven miles northwest of Longview. A crowd estimated at 15,000 focused intense anticipation on the rig.

For a few minutes only a modest spurt of no more than about 10 feet came forth from the wellhead.

Suddenly the ground shook, and an underground roar could be heard. A spurt of black crude oil shot out horizontally from the wellhead more than 100 feet into the sludge pit.

On the rig deck, pumper Farrell Trapp could read the meter showing a flow of 20,000 barrels per day. The well’s co-owners, William Alvin “Monty” Moncrief and John E. Farrell of Fort Worth, didn’t need a meter to know they had brought in a gusher. Moncrief let out a whoop and threw his hat into the air. The gathered crowd, which included schoolchildren let out for the day to witness the event, drowned out Moncrief’s shout with a cheer of its own.

Moncrief’s 10-year-old son, Tex, watched the scene with his mother, Elizabeth.

“It was just the greatest thing I ever saw,” the 85-year-old Tex Moncrief recalled. “People were jumping around and hollering and hugging each other just like they’d won a football game. I decided on the spot that I wanted to become an oilman.”

The Moncrief fortune and dynasty, which would play a prominent role in Fort Worth and Texas for the remainder of the 20th Century, was born that day, Jan. 26, 1931. Within a year, Moncrief and Farrell had sold their leases for the equivalent of $30 million in today’s dollars.

While Farrell went into semiretirement to devote himself to philanthropy in Fort Worth, Moncrief would make a string of successful oil and gas discoveries that would eventually push the family fortune well beyond $1 billion. Moncrief money would finance Fort Worth’s first radiation center for cancer treatment. TCU students now live in Moncrief Hall. The Horned Frogs play on the Monty & Tex Moncrief Field and the University of Texas will put its national championship football trophy in Moncrief-Neuhaus Center at the south end of Memorial Stadium.

Monty and his son Tex, along with Tex’s sons Charlie, Richard and Tom, expanded the family business with later oil strikes in West Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, northern Florida and — most significantly for today’s operations — Wyoming. Tex’s son Richard has taken the Moncrief name abroad to Russia and the Caspian Sea.

Where other Texas wildcatter families such as the Basses, Hunts and Murchisons used their oil wealth to move into high finance, real estate or professional sports, the Moncriefs continue to be, as Tex says, “all about oil and gas. We haven’t gotten into a lot of different stuff.”

Today, the Moncriefs are plotting their next move closer to home. The walls of the Moncrief office building at 950 Commerce St. in downtown Fort Worth are adorned with colorful 3-D seismic images of the Barnett Shale on Moncrief ranch property in Parker County. This month, the Moncriefs joined Texas’ hottest natural-gas play with their first wells.

Tex Moncrief is thus one of the few, if only, Texas oilmen to have seen both an East Texas gusher and to see his rigs drill in the Barnett Shale.

The big well that came forth in Gregg County that day 75 years ago confirmed for skeptics that the East Texas field was not just the one-well wonder that wildcatter “Dad” Joiner had brought in 27 miles to the south near Henderson three months earlier. Rather, it was a 45-mile long pool of oil stretching from Rusk to Upshur counties that would produce 5.3 billion barrels of oil by the end of the century, more than any other field in Texas.

Historian Daniel Yergin, in his influential book The Prize, wrote, “Ultimately, the East Texas field came to be known as the Black Giant. Nothing to compare with it had ever before been discovered in America. And the boom that followed made all the others — in Pennsylvania, at Spindletop, elsewhere in Texas, at Cushing, Greater Seminole and Oklahoma City and Signal Hill in California, look like dress rehearsals.”

East Texas oil, which would launch several Texas fortunes, was also credited by Yergin and other historians with giving the Allies a crucial strategic advantage in World War II.

Young Tex fulfilled the ambition that dawned that January day in 1931. After earning an engineering degree from the University of Texas and serving in the Navy during World War II, Tex came home to work with his father.

The first Moncrief father-son effort was in the Scurry Field in West Texas midway between Abilene and Lubbock. Monty had brought in some West Texas fields before the war and soon afterward. Tex did geological and engineering work in West Texas to determine where the next great strike might be.

“I told dad that Scurry County looked promising and he said, ‘Forget it, there’s nothing there,'” Tex recalls. “Not long after that I got a call from Dad, and he ordered me to get a rig out to Scurry County. I asked why and he said, ‘Just do it.'”

What happened was that Monty, who by then owned a winter home in Palm Springs, Calif., had encountered a Dallas geologist named Paul Teas at the Santa Anita horse track. Moncrief listened to Teas’ tale of a big opportunity in Scurry County and accepted Teas’ offer of some leases.

“I learned then that in this business you always keep looking for more information,” Tex says with a laugh.

Beginning in 1948, Monty and Tex drilled 28 successful wells in Scurry County, a field that would produce more than 1.2 billion barrels and become the Moncrief’s largest strike.

The Scurry Field began Tex’s close working relationship with his father. “I worshipped the man,” Tex says. “He was the greatest.”

Monty and Tex developed big fields in central Louisiana and worked together in Oklahoma and New Mexico. By the late 1960s, Tex’s sons Charlie and Richard were old enough to begin working with Tex and Monty when the family brought in the big Jay Field in north Florida.

“That was a lot of fun, to be able to work with both Dad and my own sons,” Tex recalls. Charlie and Tex’s other son, Tom, has stayed with Tex in operations in the continental United States. Richard Moncrief has operated internationally, in Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

Through the years, both domestically and internationally, Tex has held firm to his dad’s long-standing rule operate through sole proprietorships and never, under any circumstances, go public.

“Dad had seen his old employer, Marland Oil, go broke in the 1929 market crash,” Tex says. “He said we should always be private, and we still are.”

Tex says his father was wonderful to work with. But he dismisses the idea that Monty Moncrief possessed special secrets to finding oil.

“People were always asking Dad what was the secret to finding oil, and he’d say, ‘There is no secret, you just work hard and tend to all the details,'” Tex says.

This month the family sank its first wells into the Barnett Shale natural-gas field. Although Monty had to hustle leases three-quarters of a century ago to help start the East Texas field, the Moncriefs have entered the Barnett Shale by drilling on their 20,000-acre ranch east of Weatherford.

“We’ll probably drill about 15-18 Barnett Shale wells in Parker County this year,” Charlie Moncrief says. Tex, who has seen it all, is as excited about the Barnett Shale today as he was 75 years ago in East Texas.

“The Barnett Shale is going to go down as one of the great plays in Texas history,” says Tex, who despite several strokes can still expertly read 3-D seismic images. “We missed the first part of the Barnett Shale play because we didn’t think it would work. But it’s a great play. There’s supposed to be 26 trillion cubic feet of gas down there, and it will take a long time to get it out.”

Tex Moncrief talks like a man who expects to be working in the oil and gas business until his last day, just as Monty did until he died in his office in 1986.

“In many ways, this is the best time in history to be in the oil and gas business. The technology is so much better and certainly there is more profit in the business today. The current prices for oil and natural gas should hold up, and I can’t think of a better time to be an oilman.”

The Barnett Shale operations represent something of a return to Texas for the Moncriefs, who over the years have sold many of their properties, including the original East Texas well.

Texas Railroad Commission data show that the Moncriefs produced 153 million cubic feet of natural gas in the state for the 12 months ended in October, mostly from the Teague Field in Freestone County and older wells in the Strawn Formation on the Parker County ranch. During the same period, the Moncriefs produced 12,210 barrels of oil in Texas, mostly from Cochran, Gaines and Pecos counties in West Texas.

The figures likely understate the Moncriefs’ impact in Texas, however, because the family does many joint ventures and lease arrangements.

The Moncriefs’ Texas production is small compared to some of Fort Worth’s other old-line private energy firms. Bass Enterprises, the legacy of Sid Richardson, produced 22 billion cubic feet of gas and 1.9 million barrels of oil in Texas during that time. Burnett Oil, the family legacy from the legendary Capt. Samuel Burk Burnett and Fort Worth oilman Bob Windfohr, produced 3.9 billion cubic feet of gas and 269,830 barrels of oil in Texas

It is in Wyoming where the Moncriefs now make their biggest impact. During the 12 months ended last October, Moncrief production totaled 25.9 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 41,373 barrels of oil, according to the Wyoming Oil & Gas Commission.

The Moncriefs have been a force in Wyoming since the mid-1970s. Wyoming was largely Tex Moncrief’s contribution to the legacy.

“Dad always thought that Wyoming would be a good place for an independent to operate, just like Texas has been over the years,” Tex says.

“Tex’s contribution to the Wyoming operation was huge,” says Fort Worth independent oilman Fred Rabalais, who was chief engineer for the Moncrief family for a decade beginning in 1970. “Sometimes Tex is overlooked as an oilman, but he’s every bit as good as his dad.”

Whereas Monty was outgoing and charismatic, Tex is more reserved. With the exception of a stint on the Board of Regents at his beloved alma mater, the University of Texas, Tex has been content to work behind the scenes. Monty played golf with the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Randolph Scott. Tex has confined his golfing to Shady Oaks Country Club, where he was a founding member when the club opened in 1958. He was a close friend to the late Ben Hogan and served as the executor of Hogan’s estate when the golf legend died in 1997.

Tex may well be remembered most for the dramatic testimony he gave before a U.S. Senate Committee in 1998 detailing the Internal Revenue Service raid on the Moncrief offices at 950 Commerce St. four years earlier.

“In my imagination, federal raids were always confined to Mafia bosses and drug lords,” Moncrief, then 78, told the Senate Finance Committee. “If you had told me that 64 IRS agents would storm my office, with sidearms holstered and boot heels trampling my civil rights and my business reputation, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

The IRS, bolstered with information from a former accountant who sought a $25 million IRS bounty, sought $300 million in back taxes.

Characteristically, the Moncriefs fought back.

Ultimately the family’s settlement of $23 million was less than a tenth of what the IRS had demanded. The informant didn’t get the bounty, and Tex’s testimony was credited by The New York Times with putting momentum behind a reform bill that put restraints on IRS investigative and enforcement practices.

The IRS case brought into the open the estrangement of Tex’s nephew, Michael Moncrief, from the rest of the clan. Mike Moncrief, now mayor of Fort Worth, traces his family tie to his grandfather, Farrell Trapp, who was the pumper on the Gregg County well in 1931. Through a series of divorces, remarriages and an adoption, Michael Trapp became Mike Moncrief, but he has confined himself to politics and has not been involved in the family’s oil and gas business.

The Moncriefs’ battle with the IRS helped reinforce the family’s image as tough, hard folks who are not to be messed with. The willingness of the Moncriefs to challenge powers larger than themselves wasn’t new.

In the early 1950s, Monty successfully took on Humble Oil, the precursor to today’s Exxon Mobil Corp. and then the largest oil and gas producer in Texas, before the Texas Railroad Commission over how the Scurry Field was to be divided. Many independents were afraid to take on a big major. Not the Moncriefs.

Fort Worth lawyer Dee Kelly, longtime counsel to the Moncriefs, says that tenacity has always been a Moncrief trait going back to Monty.

“Mr. Monty [the moniker everybody gave the founding wildcatter] was always a tenacious man,” Kelly recalls. “He’d get onto something, and he wouldn’t let go until it was carried to a successful conclusion.”

Within a year of Moncrief’s 1931 strike in Gregg County, East Texas was producing five times total U.S. consumption. Not surprisingly, the price of oil plunged from the profitable $1 per barrel in 1930 to less than 10 cents a barrel. Desperate oil producers stole oil from one another to try to stay in business. East Texas experienced a last burst of frontier lawlessness, requiring the Texas Rangers to keep order. Meanwhile politicians in Austin and Washington wrangled a system of production controls, called “proration,” that the Texas Railroad Commission used for decades to control the oil industry.

East Texas was geologically unique among the great Texas oil fields. In the other Texas fields, the pressure that pushed the oil to the surface came from natural gas. In East Texas, the pressure came from the region’s vast supply of underground water. So while the indiscriminate loss of natural gas often caused Texas’ other early big fields to play out after a few years, East Texas’ “water drive” field produced for decades.

Texas oil historian Dr. Roger Olien, author of the authoritative Oil in Texas — The Gusher Age published in 2002, says “Monty Moncrief certainly belongs in anybody’s Top Ten list of the greatest of all Texas wildcatters. There were a lot of wildcatters who hit one big well or field. Monty Moncrief hit several.”

Two years before Monty’s death in 1986, a television crew took him and Tex to the original well site in Gregg County. Now in a subdivision of the growing city of Longview, the well site is accompanied by a historic marker.

“Dad always said that the first well in East Texas was the granddaddy of them all,” Tex recalls.

On that day in Longview, Monty was once again the venturesome wildcatter. Tex recalls the scene.

“He spotted the wellhead and went over to it, knelt down and gave it a kiss,” Tex says. “Dad looked at the well again and said ‘You sure did well for us.'”


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