Thursday, June 6, 2013

Remember The McKee

         (an aerial view of McKee refinery after spheroid Tank 199 BLEVEd)

It isn’t news to anyone that Texans are all about remembering—after all, Texans are quick to remind us all they still “Remember the Alamo”.  However, for a little girl growing up in the Texas panhandle in the 1950s, there was more to remember than just that standoff between a few brave men and the Mexican army. We also remember McKee.  

The McKee Refinery owned by Shamrock Oil was located just north of Dumas, Texas, 7 miles from Sunray which is located 34 miles from Stinnett, - my hometown.  However, on July 29, 1956, I was living in the Mayfield camp belonging to the J.M. Huber oil company roughly mid-way between Stinnett and Sunray.  I had just completed my first year of elementary school at Pringle, Texas and all that concerned me were the seemingly endless days of summer just being a kid.

A few minutes before 7:00 am an explosion rocked the world as I knew it.  To date, this explosion is considered to have caused the 4th most casualties of fire fighters in the United States for a single fire event.  9-11 is the first.

The McKee was a “tank farm” which housed several well spaced tanks.  However, one of those tanks containing 500,000 gallons of pentane & hexane gas ignited and the result was a combination ground and vent fire which ultimately took the lives of 19 people—15 volunteer fire fighters and 4 refinery workers. 33 more people were injured.  Of those 19 deaths, 16 of them happened that day and the remaining 3 died later from burns.  The 33 injured included volunteer fire fighters, refinery workers and sight seers.    

 This tragedy happened in an area which had a population of only 1,240 people.
The fire and subsequent BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion) of the McKee affected virtually everyone I knew and loved.  I think there was a loss of innocence on that day.

Being Oilfield people, we were well aware of the dangers associated with drilling.  But, we were production people.  I don't think a lot of us had ever before considered what MIGHT happen to our husbands and fathers when we sent them out the door with their lunch box and thermos every day.  Now....we knew.

The town of Sunray, Texas has a memorial for the McKee honoring those who perished that day.  The plaque there reads: 

“But whether on the plains on high or in the battle’s van—the fittest place where man can lie, is where he dies for man.”

There is risk every day, everywhere.  We cannot live in fear of risk, we must live in spite of it.  We must also do everything WE can to ensure the safety of ourselves and others & truly hope we will never be tested to see what our response will be.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Cajun/Smackover Connection

Because the booms of Louisiana and Arkansas started at the beginning of the twentieth century, their oil scenes were vividly recorded by the camera.  Therefore, there is a well documented visual history of one of America's greatest oil rushes - a boom which in many ways revolutionized the world's petroleum industry through the development of new drilling techniques opening vast new horizons to further development.
Freebooters stalking Spanish galleons along the coast of Louisiana little realized that beneath their keels was a petroleum prize of greater value than all the gold and silver ever taken out of the New World.
Knowledge of oil’s potential and inept attempts to bring it forth from the earth made the viscous substance more of a nuisance than a boon.  However, when Edwin Drake (whom we wrote about in the June issue) brought in that landmark first commercial oil well in Titusville, PA, the real value of crude became not only apparent but critical.
Pronounced an excellent candidate for refining into kerosene, Louisiana oil would receive a start.  But, with the outbreak of the Civil War and the need to make the state self - sufficient, its importance was kicked up a notch.  Louisiana Governor Henry Allen, requested a report on the state's mineral deposits and oil springs in the Calcasieu region.  When it was determined and reported those petroleum deposits alone could become a major source of oil for the entire Confederacy, excitement ran high.
However, the war came to an end and it was recommended that the Calcasieu region be leased to oil men and all the revenue acquired from doing so be used to retire Louisiana's war debt.  This proved to be no easy task, as Northern businessmen were hesitant to invest in a state that had fought for the Confederacy so development was at a standstill.
Then in 1895, a young mining engineer named Anthony Lucas poked around a bit on the salt dome around Jefferson Island and while he found "show", the shortage of capital caused him to abandon his quest.  Discouraged with Louisiana,  Lucas moved off to Beaumont, Texas.  And, if you have been following these articles you know what happened there.  Lucas hit the Spindletop in 1901 and in doing so rejuvenated the interest of others in his previously abandoned Louisiana test wells. 
In 1901, the Jennings strike hit in a big way in the same general region where Escoubas and Lowell had searched four decades previously and Lucas had gone broke looking.
As we have seen from every story we have told from the old oil patch, the rush and subsequent "boom" was immediate.  Louisiana was pushed into the forefront of the nation's oil-producing areas.  For 45 years, Louisiana never ranked lower than 8th among the oil-producing states and on more than one occasion rose as high as 3rd.
The Louisiana black gold discovery spawned a search for crude in southern Arkansas.  El Dorado, Smackover and Magnolia quickly joined in with their own producing fields.  And even though Arkansas' boom wasn't apparent until the early 20s, it produced enough barrels of petroleum to rank the state 4th in the nation's oil producing states in 1923, 1925 and 1926.
Within 45 years of the start of production at Jennings, the oil area of Louisiana and southern Arkansas would produce billions of dollars' worth of rich crude.  Throughout their boom era, 1901 through 1947, the two areas combined to produce $3,202,912,000 worth of oil coming at a rate of 1,720,600 barrels of oil every twenty four hours.
Then, the boom began to ebb in 1947 only to re-spark a new era with the completion of the first offshore well out of sight of land.  That innovation opened the new frontier of oil exploration for the oil men.
- source...Early Louisiana and Arkansas Oil by Kenny Franks and Paul Lambert

Blogger's Note—research for this article led me to information from 2011 on the Smackover Brown Dense Formation which seems to have some potential to re-energize oil exploration in Southern Arkansas and Northern Louisiana.
The Smackover Formation can be found to the north of the Haynesville Shale play. In the middle of the Smackover you find the thick brown dense formation that has the potential to hold vast amounts of oil.  And, even below the Brown Dense, you have the Lower Smackover Shale which is also of great potential.
Because of the production emanating from Bakken, Eagle Ford, Niobrara, Barnett, Tuscaloosa Marine, Permian and Woodford, several companies are moving rigs into the area with Southwestern Energy emerging as the big player in the field.
According to an August 3, 2012 Southwestern Energy report they currently have several wells “shut-in” for testing.  Read more about the Brown Dense Shale here:

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Permanence of the Permian Basin

Today we drill into that seemingly endless lake of oil called the Permian Basin.

The Permian Basin has the distinction of being recognized as the most productive petroleum producing region in the Continental United States.  Located in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico it underlies an area slightly larger than the state of Indiana.  A down warped area eventually covered by the Permian Sea, it continued through much of the Permian period and consequently contains one of the thickest deposits of Permian rock found anywhere.  Structurally, a basin in the subsurface, much of it lies underneath the Llano Estacado.

When the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco Coronado spied the huge Caprock Escarpment which caused him to dub the area the "Palisaded Plains" or the more commonly known "staked plains", he had no idea of the wealth waiting below that vast sea of grass.  

His written account of the area was pretty descriptive...."I reached some plains so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues...with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea....there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor tree, nor shrub, nor anything to go by."  Later explorers such as Randolph Marcy in 1852 found no argument with Coronado's statement.

One of the richest fields of the Permian Basin was owned by Ira and Ann Yates.  The Yates’ had swapped a thriving general store for a sprawling ranch in Pecos County and were starting to regret that decision.  The land was too poor to sustain enough cattle or sheep to be profitable and they were having a difficult time paying the mortgage and taxes on their property.  On a hunch, Ira Yates invited Transcontinental Oil Company to come exploring. 

 In 1926, an exploratory well was drilled into the San Andres formation of the Permian Basin lying beneath the Yates ranch. At approximately 1,000 feet it "gushed" a spew of crude oil into the air.  With no way to contain the spew, the crew dammed a nearby draw building a crude holding pond for their oil.

Punching away, other wells were showing impressive strikes and Yates and the oilmen knew they had a significant find.  

However, just as it happened in other fields in this period of time, oil production facilities and transportation infrastructure were lacking.  But the richness of the Yates Field spurred Humble Pipe Line Co. to hurriedly construct a 55,000 barrel storage tank which proved to be woefully inadequate.
The first five wells drilled on the Yates Field together produced an average of 9,009 barrels a day which was more than could be stored or moved.  A sixth well blew out due to extreme gas pressure and 500 barrels of oil a day blew through the damaged well onto the ground, pooling in nearby canyons.  Most of that "blow out" oil was recovered by damming the canyons and sucking it up with pumps.

In 1929 the spudding of the Yates 30-A blew out with the spectacular flow of 8,528 barrels per hour - over 200,00 in a day setting a world record.

The high production rate of the Yates field coupled with lack of storage and transport caused the State of Texas Railroad Commission to step in and require a proration of the field for the first time in Texas history. 

 The Railroad Commission's right to oversee petroleum production gave them the power to require all operators be given an equal share in the pipeline outlet based on their wells’  total field production.  Additionally, the RCC restricted the depth operators could drill into the cavernous reservoir which gave each of them an equal advantage.

Naturally as it happened in all big oil strikes, an instant boomtown was born around the red barn on the Yates Ranch and given the name Redbarn.  This early town was located about 3 miles south of present day Iraan, TX (pronounced Eye-ruh-ann - a compilation of the names of Ira and Ann Yates.)  The early boomtown of Redbarn, whose permanent population was never more than 75 was abandoned in 1952 giving Iraan unchallenged bragging rights to the history of the Yates Field in the Permian Basin area.

According to the Railroad Commission of Texas' website, there were 355 active rigs in the Permian Basin in 2011.  It states, “The Permian Basin remains a significant oil-producing area, producing more than 270 million barrels of oil in 2010 and more than 280 million barrels in 2011. The Permian Basin has produced over 30 billion barrels of oil and 75 trillion cubic feet of gas and it is estimated by industry experts to contain recoverable oil and natural gas resources exceeding what has been produced over the last 90 years. Recent increased use of enhanced-recovery practices in the Permian Basin has produced a substantial impact on U.S. oil production.” 

Monday, February 25, 2013

To Patent or Not to Patent? - That Was the Question

The History of Early Pennsylvania Oil

Edwin Drake, (inventor and oil industry pioneer) was hired by the Seneca Oil Company to investigate suspected oil deposits in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Oil in the area was causing problems for salt well drillers because of the contamination
factor to their product. The oil company chose Drake, a retired railway man partly because he had free use of the rail which meant he could travel the area at no expense to them.  They tacked a phony “Colonel” title in front of his name to give him some respect and authority and sent him prospecting.

Native Americans had long been aware of crude oil and used it as “black medicine” for
sprains and cuts. They also found it effective in driving away flies. They called it
“antonotons” meaning “Oh, how much there is!”  Even early settlers tried to make use of crude but quickly learned it would not work in their oil lamps. Because it burned with
a black smoke and smelled horribly, it was basically not fit for anything.

Eventually, someone discovered a way to process out the impurities making it usable in oil lamps and for other more genteel uses. Nothing like a good bottle of (snake oil) for what ails you. The ability to process the crude oil caused an “ah ha” moment for James Townsend, the President of Seneca Oil, and he decided it was time to get that crude out of the ground. His plans were to extract, process, sell and get rich!

Edwin Drake settled on Oil Creek as a drilling site and decided to drill in the manner of the salt well drillers. He purchased a steam engine in Erie, Pennsylvania, to power the drill and began digging on an island.  It took quite some time for the drillers to get through the many layers of gravel.

At 16 feet, the sides of the hole began to collapse and those helping him began to despair, but not Drake. It was at this point he devised the idea of a drive pipe. This cast iron pipe consisted of 10-foot-long joints that were driven down into the ground. At 32 feet they struck, bedrock. Drilling tools were lowered through the pipe and steam was used to drill through the bedrock. The going was slow at a rate of just three feet per day.

All the difficulty associated with the process resulted in the well being dubbed "Drake's Folly."  Crowds gathered to jeer at the apparently unproductive operation which was also going broke. Seneca Oil had abandoned Drake, leaving him to rely on friends to back the enterprise.

On August 27, the drill bit had reached a total depth of 69.5 feet, hit a crevice and the crew packed up for the day.  The next morning Drake’s driller, Billy Smith, looked into the hole in preparation for another day’s work. He was surprised and delighted to see crude oil rising up in the hole.

Drake was summoned and the oil was brought to the surface with a hand operated pitcher pump from a local kitchen and collected in a bath tub. 
Previous methods for collecting oil had been limited. Ground collection of oil consisted of gathering it from natural occurrences, such as oil seeps or shallow holes dug into the ground.

Alternative methods of digging large shafts into the ground also failed, as collapse from water seepage almost always occurred.  Drake is now famous for pioneering a new method for producing oil from the ground by using pipe to prevent borehole collapse. The principle behind this idea is still employed today by many companies drilling for

Unfortunately, Drake failed to patent his drilling invention.  Subsequently, after losing all his money in oil speculation, the state of Pennsylvania voted an annuity of $1,500 to the “crazy man” who founded their oil industry.

Edwin Drake died in 1880, impoverished after pioneering an industry that made others fabulously wealthy.
LK Beshears