Sunday, August 31, 2008

Oil Patch Moonlighters

The modern oil industry employs many safe and effective fracturing methods to enhance the flow of oil from producing wells. This was not true during the early annals of oil exploration and production.

Nitroglycerin was first used in 1867 to “shoot” a well in an attempt to enhance production. The experiment was a success and led to The Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company obtaining a patent on the process. Independent shooters, unwilling to pay for rights to the process, often shot wells at night earning them the nickname “moonlighters.” The patent expired in 1883.

Shooting a well consisted of a shooter filling a metal canister with nitroglycerin. The canister was lowered into the borehole of a well and ignited, the resultant blast sending mud, water and oil high over the crown block. Nitroglycerin is highly explosive. A half gallon can supposedly blow a hole in the ground large enough to bury a freight train. It is also unstable and very dangerous to handle. Accidents often occurred.

Despite the risk, shooting a well greatly enhanced the flow of oil and gas and the process continued until safer more effective treatments were found. One note of interest: Clark Gable worked in the oil fields of Oklahoma before becoming an actor and reportedly sometimes assisted in the shooting of wells.

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