Oil And Water
It was as plain as daylight to any rationally thinking oilman in the early part of the century that vast oceans of oil must lie under the world’s seabeds. After all, the same geological pressure cooker that had turned ancient organic matter into petroleum under the Texas cap rock had to have worked just as well under the ocean, hadn’t it? The oil was there all right, but it was tantalizingly out of reach. A smart geologist could almost see it. It was like looking at snowcapped peaks from the floor of a desert—all that lovely water so close, and no way to get at it.
In the early 1940s, small oil producers were finding it increasingly difficult to win prime drilling spots in the oil fields of Texas, California, and Wyoming. A small Oklahoma independent named Kerr-McGee was one of those low-overhead firms whose executives felt muscled out. Officials at the company began to be intrigued with geological reports that hypothesized that the shelves around most of the world’s continents were nothing more than extensions of those continents. Thus, if oil had been discovered near the sea, it would be a good bet that you’d find oil under the water too.
Kerr-McGee decided to stake its fortune on this hunch and began to make seismic surveys of land off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. As early as 1938, the company was exploring Mobile Bay off Alabama, and near the end of World War II it went so far as to lease nearly half a million acres on the eastern half of the Mississippi Sound, off of Pascagoula, Mississippi. In both these initial forays, seismic surveys failed to find anything that seemed to be worth drilling, and the leases were soon dropped; but the experience the company acquired in underwater oil hunting was then brought to a square of seawater 11 miles offshore from swampy Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana.
Then, as now, Louisiana’s borders—and its power to tax—extended three imperial nautical miles into the Gulf (an imperial nautical mile is 6,080.2 feet). State surveyors had subdivided the watery real estate into neat squares, much like the nineteenthcentury township model of the Midwest. Taking a pricey gamble, KerrMcGee paid the state $317,000 in 1946 for the privilege of drilling on a pair of 20,000-acre parcels with the unromantic names of Block 28 and Block 32.
Block 32 had appeared especially interesting in the seismic surveys. Geologists took a look at the charts and thought they saw a salt-dome structure hiding in the sediments. For oil hunters, a salt dome is like a flashing neon sign that says OIL HERE . It is essentially a hard knob of salt pushing upward to the earth’s surface. The sides of the dome form large traps for oil and natural gas, which become squeezed inside between layers of nonporous rock.
The surveyors had used the standard method of setting off small explosions and tracking the time it took for the sound waves to bounce back. They just did it from a boat instead of a truck. This gave them some advance intelligence of what the bedrock looked like but didn’t take away the inherent mystery of whatever it was that was tucked in there within it—sand, shale, limestone, or oil. The only way to find out for certain was to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase a lease, mount a derrick, and sink a well. Even then, an exploratory well had only about a 13 percent chance of hitting anything useful. More often than not, geologists had to rely on intuition to point the crews in the right direction. “It seems sometimes that the best way to communicate the presence of oil… is to revert to guttural ughs and growls, and just go out and, by damn, sink a hole in the ground, shove the pipe down there deep enough, until oil begins to flow up out of it, bubbling, with its rich smell of hiddenness and with the energy of discovery,” wrote the geologist Rick Bass in his 1989 volume “Oil Notes.”
Getting to the black booty off Louisiana was going to require a brash move forward. It was true that oilmen had been sinking wells into the beach off Santa Barbara, California, since the 189Os and had even built piers out into the surf to find better places to drill. Enterprising oil hunters in Venezuela had built docklike platforms over a shallow lake to drill for oil. Louisiana’s Caddo Lake had been drilled as early as 1911, and the Superior Oil Company and the Pure Oil Company had together found crude deposits more than one mile away from the beach of Cameron Parish, Louisiana, in 1937. But nobody had ever been able to take oil from a spot where all land was out of sight.
The solution would have to be an adaptation of normal drilling procedures on land. On land, once the oil company had any necessary leases in order, a crew “rigged up,” erecting a derrick whose chief purpose was to lift pipes over the drilling hole. A brutal-looking, metal-toothed bit, like a huge drill bit, would be affixed to the end of the first pipe, and an engine on the floor of the derrick would rotate the pipe to break through the earth, a process called “spudding in.” As the well grew deeper, the crew would attach new lengths of pipe and flush a chemical mixture called “mud” through the system to clean the bit and remove debris. Meanwhile, a metal casing was run down between the drill pipe and the edge of the hole. A cylindrical sample of soil and rock, called a core sample, was removed and analyzed.
Offshore, some sort of platform would have to be devised for carrying out such an operation. But as Daniel Yergin writes in his book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power , “The technology and know-how did not exist for building a platform, getting it into position, drilling into the ocean floor—or even for servicing the operation. Moreover, essential knowledge about such important matters as weather (including hurricanes), tides, and currents was either rudimentary or almost nonexistent.”
Not surprisingly, the first attempt to drill off Louisiana was an expensive bust. In 1946 the plucky Magnolia Petroleum Company found a promising spot 10 miles out to sea and spent two months driving in 110-foot pilings in very shallow water and mounting a fixed platform perhaps 12 feet above high tide. Roustabouts and roughnecks went out to the site each day in a converted Mississippi River steamboat they called the Magnolia Inn. An ordinary drilling derrick was hauled into place and positioned above a hole on the platform. Magnolia’s geologists found natural gas at 900 feet and again at 1,500 feet, but no oil.
But it was not a totally dry hole. Magnolia had hit upon the marriage of a crew vessel and a stable platform, and the idea would be refined and perfected by a shrewd Kerr-McGee engineer named A. T. F. Seale. He believed in working 24 hours a day, recalled one of his crewmen, and he was known to come hunting for his men in a Morgan City bar called the Hub Club during their offhours. Hiding from Seale on days off became a feature of working for Kerr-McGee.
As he went to work on Block 32, days off were few and far between. Instead of daily travels out to the platform and back, a ship would tie up at the site for 20-day periods. Seale acquired a war-surplus tender ship from the U.S. Navy and loaded it with a set of ordinary mud pumps and pipe racks, among other equipment. He also rigged up living quarters on the second deck for the crew. It was an innovation born of penury. If Block 32 turned out to be a dry hole, Kerr-McGee could simply move most of its equipment to another location without costly salvage.
As Seale wrote later, he found that “a compromise between an all-rigid and an all-floating structure would be the most logical approach, at least with the limited first-hand knowledge and experience available.” It was a brilliant combination of already existing technologies—drilling rigs, deep-water docks, and transport vessels—joined together in a revolutionary way. “They merely tried to reproduce a little bit of ‘land’ over the water and then proceed as conventionally as possible,” one observer said. The platform was built somewhat like a boat dock in a lake. A conventional pile driver was taken out to the site and the pilings were set. Then a wooden platform was nailed together right there, with a hole in the middle to accommodate the drilling pipe. The derrick was taken out to the site on a barge and mounted right above the hole. All this was rigid; the only thing that moved was the barge tied up next to the platform. It housed the mud pumps, pipe racks, and crew quarters.
A major obstacle to overcome was ensuring that the platform would stay upright despite the soft and squishy mud under the water. Kerr-McGee’s engineers determined that the top 30 feet of the ocean floor were made up of alluvial muds and silts; the pilings therefore would have to be driven to a depth of 40 feet. “The Gulf floor was soft, and stable ground was a long, long ways down,” recalled one early rig builder. “Some of those steel piles you’d wind up going 150 feet into the bottom.”
The company hired a Tulsa manufacturer to build a rig, but on February 23, 1948, an accident happened while the new rig was being mounted. A team of men was delicately moving the draw works—the pulley mechanism at the very top of a derrick that lifts and lowers pipe sections—from the supply barge to the platform when the hoisting hook broke, sending $55,000 worth of equipment into the Gulf.
“Nobody really knew what they were doing at that time,” recalled J. Burney Courtney, one of the surviving members of the drilling crew. “It was blow-by-blow. And it wasn’t easy living out there. The cook had a stove the company decided to convert to diesel fuel, and the smoke from that thing just turned the walls black. The cook was ready to raise hell.”
He wasn’t the only one. The shrimping business in the Louisiana marshlands was experiencing an unprecedented boom after World War II, and many trawler captains viewed Kerr-McGee’s offshore drilling experiment with fear. Oil spills might kill the shrimp and drive them out of business. Shrimpers would go out of their way to harass the oilmen, and some even fired warning shots at the platform. There were threats to blow up the pile driver, said Courtney, and those threats were taken seriously. “They were tough old bastards,” he said. It was an odd foreshadowing of the environmental battles that would come to haunt the industry in the 1970s. The shrimpers eventually called off the range war once they realized there was no real danger to their livelihoods, and today Morgan City holds an annual celebration with the unlikely name of Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. The hubbub was fictionalized in a 1953 movie, Thunder Bay , starring Jimmy Stewart as a hero oil engineer.
A more abstract difficulty than either shrimpers or hurricanes loomed in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 23, 1947, after a lengthy deliberation, the Court upheld the federal government’s claim of ownership of the oil-rich lands up to three miles off the coast of California. The Tidelands case, as it was known, was really a fight over taxes and which government would have the power to cash in on the upcoming offshore bonanza. It was a question that would remain unsettled until well into the 1950s. The June decision, however, cast Louisiana’s leasing rights over the KerrMcGee well in doubt. Undeterred, the crew kept on working through the hurricane season.
They went about the business of drilling just as if they had been doing it on land. Down from the derrick hung a series of heavy steel pipes screwed together. At the end of the stack was the big metal-toothed bit, designed to chew through rocks of varying hardness. Whenever a drilling crew punched through a harder layer of rock, or wore down the old bit, the entire apparatus had to be hauled up so a new bit could be affixed. Thus, the lion’s share of work on an offshore rig was the frequent and tedious exercise of attaching and reattaching pipes to one another. The tall, towerlike derrick built atop the platform hauled a length of pipe upward on a cable, and a team of men called roughnecks did the job of screwing the new pipe onto the end of the existing length reaching down to the sea bottom. Before the roughnecks could do that, another team of men, called roustabouts, usually less senior and less well paid, had to get the heavy pipes into position. Most crews also had a more experienced man, called a mud engineer, who had the vital job of evaluating the thick cleansing fluid circulating through the drill pipe. This was as vital as a heart pumping blood through a body. The drilling mud flowed down the pipe to the bit and came back up in the tight space between the pipe and the drill hole. It cooled and cleaned the bit and carried cuttings—pieces of pulverized soil and rock—up to the surface. More than this, the mud brought news from down below. What came up with the mud—and what didn’t come up—needed to be constantly monitored. By late autumn the sands coming up with the mud on Kerr-McGee’s Block 32 were looking like something taken from the top of a salt-dome structure—a very good sign. The drilling superintendent stayed in constant contact with Kerr-McGee officials onshore.
One day in November, it happened. One of the roughnecks saw a thick, greenish black fluid filling the open storage bins known as mud pits when the drill bit hit the relatively shallow level of 1,734 feet. “Someone told the tool pusher and he went to look at the pits and then he came and told me,” recalled Seale. “I told him to get a skimmer and skim it off. His answer was, ‘Skim it off, hell! There’s barrels of it.’”
“We looked in the mud pits on the tender, and sure enough, she kept hitting, and it was getting better all the time,” said Courtney. The world’s first sip of truly offshore oil was pumped onto a supply barge and hauled to shore, where it sold for $2.65 a barrel. The bill of sale was put directly into the hands of Robert S. Kerr, a former governor of Oklahoma and the founder of Kerr-McGee.
The race was on. Following Kerr-McGee’s lead, other companies purchased offshore leases from the Gulf Coast states and started to sink their own wildcat wells. The state of Louisiana, hard hit by the Depression, welcomed the industry. Within three years, the state’s coffers swelled by more than $26.5 million in tax revenue from the big oil companies. A thicket of support industries—tool and bit manufacturers, marine supply outfitters, caterers, pipe dealers, equipment renters, and platform construction companies—took root in bayou towns like Morgan City, Lafayette, and Houma. The U.S. Navy found a booming market for its bullet-scarred landing craft tanks (LCTs), which had ferried troops to combat in Europe and the South Pacific in World War II. Oil companies used them to get their men and supplies back and forth from the rigs. This ingenuity was typical of the early days of the industry. Very few standards were in place.
“It was a lot of fun,” said R. Nelson Crews, who got his start as a field engineer in 1948 and today is retired from the presidency of a Houston rig construction company. “We were doing things nobody had ever done. It was all new. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and I had to ask him, ‘I wonder if it’s as much fun now as it was like when we were doing it?’”
It was a volatile time. Independents that had been muscled out of landed oil fields in Wyoming and Oklahoma could become big players. The sudden opening of a new field for exploration was something like the discovery of a new continent where nobody had any prior claims and the oil was practically there for the taking. The Magnolia Petroleum Company, which had paved the way for Kerr-McGee’s success, scored a coup in 1950 when it developed a 788barrel-a-day well 25 miles from the nearest land. It was a record, the farthest producing offshore well yet.
Very early on, the engineers realized they were going to need a better way of getting the oil to shore than hauling it by barge. Seale wrote in 1948 of the need for a “submarine pipe line” to move oil from Block 32 to an inland barge terminal at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River. Wanting to avoid a repeat of its earlier battles with the shrimping fleet, Kerr-McGee would have to be careful to bury the pipe six feet under the seabed, “in order that fishermen’s nets and anchors will not catch on it,” reported the Oil & Gas Journal that same year.
The laying of undersea pipe helped fuel a job boom. There was also a need for semiskilled labor like never before in southern Louisiana. Each rig required an average of 27 men to operate. Two teams of 6 drillers alternated between half-day shifts. There was usually a full-time geologist to evaluate core samples, as well as 4 seamen, 4 cooks, 2 tool pushers, a mud engineer, and a drilling superintendent. A whole new line of work emerged—that of the offshore roughneck, who, unlike his land-based brethren, didn’t knock off and go home at the end of the day. Tom Seale’s philosophy of a 24-hour workday caught on. A standard industry workweek quickly evolved: seven 12-hour days of backbreaking labor on the rig and then seven days to fish, hunt, and relax on land before going back out to sea.
The long days were broken up by frequent and substantial meals. Then, as today, oil companies made sure to keep their employees well fed and did not skimp on food costs, serving hearty meals buffet-style in the galley four times a day. Representatives from the Oil and Gas Journal paid a visit to a rig in 1948 and found lunch satisfying: “roast beef, ham, hominy grits, creamed potatoes, egg salad, potato salad, spinach, asparagus, corn, gravy, milk, iced tea, and lemon pie.”
Conspicuously missing from an offshore oilman’s diet was liquor in any form. The quotidian danger of the work, combined with the isolation from society, led oil companies early on to ban all alcohol from the rigs. The rule was strenuously observed, and violators were quickly sent back to shore. Burney Courtney can recall only one time in his four decades in the business when he saw liquor on a rig, a time when a supervisor poured a tiny nip of celebratory bourbon for his crew on the day of a big strike. The bourbon went back into the cabinet, and the men went right back to work, he said.
Smoking was another forbidden pleasure, especially in the area near the rotary hole, where the crude oil came up through the pipes and natural gas fumes were known to linger. A single exposed flame could kill the whole crew. This was not the only danger. Offshore crews lived in dread of a blowout, in which a high-pressure fountain of oil or natural gas would come rushing out of the drill hole, sometimes with enough force to destroy the platform. The hazards seemed to increase the farther rigs pushed away from land. Between 1955 and 1968, blowouts demolished 23 rigs worldwide, prompting insurance rates to nearly double. A device called a blowout preventer, designed to close the well automatically in case of a sudden kick in the flow pressure, became indispensable.
A development in the early 1950s radically cut down on the costs of having to build and dismantle a platform each time a new well was drilled. A Navy veteran named A. J. (“Doc”) Laborde had a brainstorm: Why not, he wondered, simply do away with the fixed platform and float the whole apparatus from place to place, the way a honeybee moves from flower to flower? The problem would be to get the whole heavy rig to stay put in the shifting tides and hurricanes of the Gulf. Laborde was familiar with barges from his service in World War II and came up with the idea of using them for huge underwater anchors. The barges would act as hulls while a platform was being transported; they would carry concrete columns with the platform on top, and when they reached their destination they’d be flooded with water and sunk to hold the platform in place, resting on the floor like big shoes. Once drilling was done, the barges would be emptied out with electric pumps and raised upward and would sail away atop the water. Again, as with the Kerr-McGee exploration at Block 32, this was not a radically new technology but a brash extension of existing technology into uncharted territory.
Laborde took a series of sketches to his bosses at KerrMcGee, who this time were hesitant to take a gamble. Laborde resigned and started shopping his idea around to the competition. He had no takers. “Like in many other such undertakings, the oil industry suffers from a kind of sheep complex,” he complained in his autobiography, which was published in the 1990s. “If all of the other companies are doing something in a certain manner, it is safe for them to do likewise, even if it is not the best way… . Promotions are earned by going along, by being good company men, by not rocking the boat.”
Finally he found a buyer for the floating platform. An obscure Arkansas outfit, the Murphy Oil Company, invested $500,000 and helped Laborde secure further backing from St. Louis investors and a partnership with Shell Oil. His ungainly contraption was built in a New Orleans shipyard in 1953, and the owner of Murphy Oil, Charles Murphy, Jr., named it Mr. Charlie (usually pronounced “Mr. Cholly” in the standard southern Louisiana argot) after his father.
Doc Laborde had a flair for publicity, and a crowd of reporters and photographers, as well as several spies for the competition, went to witness the assemblage’s maiden voyage out to the South Pass region near the mouth of the Mississippi. Life magazine promised a story if the awkwardlooking thing worked. One construction supervisor suggested the construction crew weld several metal eyelets onto the sides of the barges to make it easier for a salvage crew to haul the rig out of the water once it collapsed. To Laborde’s relief, there was no need for that. Despite some especially hard waves that knocked the rig about eight feet away from the drill hole while it was drilling, Mr. Charlie tapped into a major oil-bearing formation, according to the electric log, a record of electrical resistivity that reveals what materials the bit is pushing through. On the strength of this, Laborde was hailed as a genius, despite the platform’s initial stability troubles. “It is a sad fact that a contractor who drills a ‘dry hole,’ no matter how well he performs, gets little credit,” he wrote later. “On the other hand, if, as in this case, he performs rather poorly, but comes up with a good discovery, all is forgiven and he is a great operator.”
The innovation led to a whole generation of submersible rigs using sunken barges as anchors, deployed out to the deeper waters of the Gulf, where building traditional fixed platforms simply for the purpose of exploration was too expensive. Later innovations would lead to semisubmersibles, designed to anchor in deeper waters. These would be sunk to about 50 feet below the surface, for ballast, and then be held in place by anchors attached to cables on the sea floor, the way ropes and stakes hold a tent. Today the most popular type of rig, the jack-up rig, is something like a combination of fixed platform and submersible. The assembly is towed to the location like a submersible, the platform serving as a barge, but then its steel legs are jacked down to reach the ocean floor, where they sit unanchored like table legs, and the rig is jacked up in height until it is safely above the tops of the waves. Once the drilling is done, the rig can be disengaged from the hole (which is sealed with concrete) and moved for work in a new location. This caught on especially fast for deep-water wildcatting. Whereas 40 feet had once seemed impossibly deep for drilling, oilmen could now venture into water 300 feet deep or more.
The expansion of offshore drilling stalled in 1969, when the greatest public relations disaster in the history of the industry took place off the shore of Santa Barbara, California, where a marching line of giant rigs was built within sight of the Pacific coast. On January 28, 1969, a platform crew from the Union Oil Company capped a natural gas blowout only to create a tremendous buildup of pressure under the ocean floor. Oil came bursting out of five separate fissures in the seabed, and an estimated 200,000 gallons of crude, along with reams of dead dolphins and seals, wound up washing onto the beaches. The unsightly mess grabbed headlines and TV screens worldwide, leading directly to a federal moratorium on further drilling off the California shore. The resulting outcry galvanized opposition to offshore drilling and breathed life into a nascent environmental movement.
The year after the spill, a coalition of activists sponsored the first Earth Day celebration. Historians credit the Santa Barbara spill for helping fuel a spate of subsequent state and federal legislation: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and the California Coastal Initiative. A moratorium on offshore leases was imposed in 1981. It has been renewed and expanded to the point where new marine drilling is essentially banned off California, the Florida panhandle, and the entire Atlantic seaboard.
The western Gulf of Mexico, however, is still open for development and has become one of the most profitable oil patches in American history. A quarter of the total U.S. oil production in any given year comes from there. One of the tallest freestanding structures in the world today—substantially higher than Chicago’s Sears Tower—is a drilling platform 100 miles off Louisiana, whose legs go 3,800 feet underwater. It was put there using remote-controlled vehicles that could go where humans could not. There are some 4,000 rigs dotting the lakelike waters of the Gulf today, and on the Texas coast at sunrise you can see dozens of helicopters ferrying men and supplies back and forth from the square metal islands. Spills caused by blowouts or torn pipes are prevented by devices called subsurface safety valves, which are now required by federal law. Placed in the production tubing several hundred feet below the water line, they are designed to automatically shut down the flow of oil in case of a sudden loss of pressure such as a leak or spill would cause.
Today a typical freestanding shallow-water production platform in the Gulf of Mexico covers an area about 75 feet by 120 feet, has at least two decks, is made almost entirely of steel, and costs perhaps $45 million. It is designed to withstand “hundred-year storms,” standing high enough above the water to avoid all but the crests of the very highest waves. In the North Sea, Norwegian and British companies have taken existing American technology and modified it structurally, with stronger supports, thicker steel, and reinforcements throughout, to handle the especially rough environment of those waters, with still more resistance to wind, cold, and wave height. Still, in the worst storms, oil companies usually stop production and evacuate the rigs.
The record for deep-water drilling stands today at more than a mile. The original well at Block 32 that started it all went on to produce nearly 1.4 million barrels on its own and was in operation for nearly 37 years before finally being taken out of service in 1984. The small platform has since been dismantled, the drill hole capped with concrete, and, of course, no sign of it is visible today.
“Those guys started in shallow water, and today we’re drilling in 7,500 foot depths,” says Dr. Wayne Dunlap, associate director of the Offshore Technology Research Center at Texas A&M University. “There are no new major land-based oil reserves left, except maybe for Alaska. The only place to find really new oil patches is underwater. And that was all started by Kerr-McGee.”