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Abstract: Spindletop to Deep Water
James M. Coleman
In 1859, "Colonel" Drake drilled an onshore well to a depth of 69.5 feet; it produced 35 barrels of oil per day. Some 135 years later, drillings and completions of wells are routinely conducted at subsea depths of 20,000 feet and in water depths of 8,000 feet. What a tribute to engineering technology and to development of exploration concepts! Drake and Bissell of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company spent the huge sum of $2,490 to complete the first well; today, development of a well in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico requires expenditures of several millions of dollars.
The quest for petroleum commenced with Drake's discovery, but the "well that changed the world and gave birth to the modern oil industry" was the discovery at "Spindletop" in 1901, atop a salt dome near Beaumont, Texas. While the crew was encountering drilling problems at a depth of 1,020 feet, "...there was a deafening roar and the well erupted like a volcano - - mud, gas, oil, and rocks shooting hundreds of feet into the air;" the well gushed 100,000 barrels of oil a day, and by the end of the year, 400 such gushers were producing oil. By 1903 Gulf Coast salt domes were producing 20 percent of the nation's oil. By 1907, Oklahoma was the nation's top oil-producing state. Even as early as the 1900's, however, there were dire predictions that, "the U. S. was running out of oil."
Initial exploration concentrated around salt domes, those regions that had topographic expression or extremely strong gravity anomalies. In 1913 Charles Gould, founder of the University of Oklahoma geology department, presented a paper at an international conference stating that most of the big oil pools were located beneath anticlines, and the rush to locate anticlines was on. A few years later, Wallace Pratt (Humble Oil and Refining) changed exploration strategies by showing that major petroleum reserves could be found not only in association with salt domes and anticlines but also where oil was trapped against faults. With this strategy, he convinced Humble to drill a well on the downthrown side of a fault and discovered one of the largest fields in Texas, the Mexia field.
From that date onward, drilling activity increased significantly and major advances were made, such as the development of the Hughes rotary bit and highly precise magnetometers and the initiation of geophysical prospecting. Development of the first downhole electric log by Schlumberger in 1927 increased the geologist's capability of locating potential oil and gas traps and aided in correlation of strata from one location to the next. The alternating sands and shales encountered in the wells were thought simply to be the result of major transgressions and regressions associated with structural activity, and little attention was given to stratigraphic sequences or environmental settings of the major producing horizons. By the mid-1930, most of the major structures onshore in the Gulf of Mexico had been exploited, many deeper wells were encountering shales with few sands, and again predictions were made that "most of the hydrocarbons in the Gulf Coast had been produced."
By 1933 however, crude techniques were available for obtaining offshore geophysical surveys, and in 1934 the Texas Company drilled a well one mile from the shoreline, off Louisiana, from a submersible. The offshore industry was born. In 1947 the first bottom-supported platform was installed in 18 feet of water 12 miles offshore--at a cost of $230,000. Complex subsurface structure and stratigraphy as revealed by marine seismic and driller's logs made correlations extremely difficult; responding to this challenge, micropaleontologists began to develop major biostratigraphic schemes, many of which have stood the test of time. Offshore activity increased at a frantic pace, and drilling continued to move farther offshore. The structural integrity of the platforms allowed them to be emplaced in deeper water depths and multiple deeper penetrating wells to be drilled.
By the mid-1950s, 92 offshore platforms had been installed to water depths of nearly 100 feet; by the end of the 1960's, some 500 platforms had been installed in water depths to 350 feet. Significant production in the offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico had become a reality, and some 200 million barrels of oil and 575 trillion cubic feet of gas had been produced by the end of 1950's.
Offshore seismic improved significantly, and major structures were continually being mapped to the edge of the continental shelf. Because many of the major structures in the relatively shallow waters of the continental shelf had been defined and wells were being drilled deeper, exploration geologists cultivated better definition of the regional stratigraphy and depositional settings of the producing sands. Most of the geologic models being utilized were based on relatively shallow-water settings (i.e., deltaic, fluvial channels, beaches, and shallow-marine settings). As wells continued to be drilled to greater depths and platforms emplaced in deeper waters, many of the geologic models developed for shallow-water producing sequences became inadequate, and more attention was placed on development of deep water environmental models. By the beginning of the 1970s, some 12,500 wells were producing on the continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico, and development costs of these facilities had approached some $13 billion dollars.
Production in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico began in 1979 with the installation of the Cognac platform in slightly over 1,000 feet of water and at a cost in excess of $250 million. Today, platforms are being installed in water depths in excess of 3,000 feet, and plans are evolving for drilling wells in water depths approaching 8,000 feet. The offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico have indeed proved to be a major hydrocarbon province, and some 4,900 platforms have been installed since the initial one in 1934 in less than 10 feet of water.
In less than 100 years, from "Spindletop" in 1901 to the present production in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, hydrocarbon production in the Gulf of Mexico basin has been a story of unprecedented technological advancements and development of explorational concepts. In Louisiana alone some 1,165,000 producing wells have been drilled and some 25.2 billion barrels of oil and 214 trillion cubic feet of gas have been produced.
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS AND ASSOCIATED FOOTNOTES
Coastal Studies Institute, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803
Copyright © 1999 by The Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies