Sunday, January 11, 2009

Digging Up the Past

In the early days of oil exploration, explorers had many reasons for drilling a well at a certain location. If someone found oil, the leases around that well would suddenly become more valuable and other operators would try to drill as close as they could to a producing well.

Some companies still practice this technique of closology rather than geology. During the seventies and eighties Texas Oil and Gas Corp. would sidle up as close as legally possible to a producing well, a practice called corner shooting. TXO earned a reputation as corner-shooting kings. A reputation that was not always good.

Before the days of seismology and other geophysical exploration techniques operators would often drilled near an oil seep, or on the crest of a hill. Harry Sinclair, the founder of Sinclair oil was very superstitious and liked to drill near cemeteries. He had a lot of luck finding oil that way.

Cities Service Oil was the first company to hire geologists to try finding oil. Using surface mapping techniques, this band of geologists found literally millions of barrels of oil. This includes the El Dorado, the largest oil field in Kansas, and the Oklahoma City Field, the largest oil field in Oklahoma and at one time the world.

When I began working as an exploration geologist for Cities Service in the 70’s the company had many maps of surface features that they had never gotten around to drilling. They also still had a surface geologist that worked in Tulsa. Ernie Tisdale was a wonderful man and geologist but a throwback to an earlier period of exploration.

I was working Kansas at the time, along with another geologist named Dave Forth. While digging through a stack of old maps one day we came across an undrilled surface structure in Elk County, Kansas. Management decided that Ernie, Dave and I would drive to Kansas and check out the surface structure in person.

Elk is a rural county in far southeastern Kansas. We spent the night in Elk City in an old wooden, two-story hotel. While eating at a local cafe, Ernie recounted a story about two Cities Service “lease hounds” that used to work the area.

The geological crews and leasing crews all stayed in the same rustic hotel as the one we were staying in that night. Yes, the building was very old with no fire escape from the second floor, only a rope outside every window that extended to the ground below. The two landmen, I will call them Ted and Joe because I cannot remember their real names, were partners but different as proverbial night and day. Ted was quiet, a teetotaler and a minder of his own business. Joe was anything but.

Joe was also quite the practical joker and Ted the usual butt of his jokes. He told Ted that the owner had explained how afraid of fire he was and that the old wooden building was in constant danger of burning. Later, long after Ted had retired for the night, Joe banged on his door.

“Get the hell out. The stairwell is on fire. Climb out the window or you’ll be burned alive.”

Much to the glee of his partner Joe Ted shimmied down the rope with nothing on but his skivvies. Joe, inebriated by this time, met Ted at the front door, still rolling with laughter.
That night I slept lightly, waiting for someone to bang on my door. Thankfully, neither Ernie nor Dave was a jokester like Joe had been.

We spent the next day checking out the undrilled surface feature. The structure was there all right, just as mapped in the 1920’s. Maybe a million barrels of untapped oil. We proposed a well and Cities bought leases and agreed to drill the structure. Alas, Cities never drilled the prospect and it remains undrilled to this day. The map is probably locked away somewhere in a warehouse in California.

I am thankful for experiencing at least some of the excitement early wildcatters must have felt when deciding to drill a well at a particular location. Wildcatters such as Frank Phillips and Harry Sinclair found large fields, amassed untold fortunes and are now famous. Many forgotten explorers like Ernie, Ted and Joe played important roles, finding the oil that made this nation what it is today.

Eric's Website

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