Monday, July 26, 2010

Oklahoma knows oil gushers

BP’s out-of-control oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico isn’t the first to grab the world’s attention. In fact, one of the most infamous blowouts was right here in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma City oil field became the largest oil producer in the United States after it was discovered in 1928. In fact, until oil was found in the Middle East, the Oklahoma City field was the largest known oil reserve in the world.

The Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company had been poking around looking for black gold in Oklahoma County for 27 years. Finally, after 25 dry holes and having spent $400,000, ITIO hit a gusher on December 28, 1928 which blew five thousand barrels of oil in the first 24 hours. That well eventually produced more than a million barrels of oil.

But that discovery well was nothing compared to what happened on March 26, 1930.

A few miles further south, near present-day I-240 and Bryant Avenue, ITIO was drilling another well on the farm of Vincent and Mary Sudik. Tired roughnecks forgot to fill the hole with mud before starting to pull 25 tons of pipe that, unknown to them, had pierced the top of the Wilcox sand 6,741 feet below them. The pipe began vibrating. Then came a roar, heard in Purcell 30 miles away, that permanently deafened some of the workers. The joints of pipe were shot like toothpicks into the air by gas that had built up over millions of years, waiting for this day to be released.

Thus was born the Wild Mary Sudik well. For the next eleven days, she vented 200 million cubic feet of gas and up to 75,000 barrels of oil a day. When the wind came from the south, oil coated downtown Oklahoma City and the state capitol building 10 miles away; when it shifted from the north, an oily mist rained down on Moore and Norman. Housewives couldn’t hang their laundry outside; fires and pilot lights were prohibited, and land and air traffic was rerouted.

The scene attracted worldwide attention. Newsreel photographers arrived by train, and their films were shown in theaters around the globe. Twice-daily national radio reports kept the world updated. The coverage, for eleven days, was every bit as extensive in its day as the BP Gulf oil gusher is today.

After two failed attempts, the third try to cap Wild Mary was successful. An estimated 800,000 barrels of oil were lost, and 211,589 barrels of oil were recovered from ponds and ditches. Thousands of acres of oil-soaked land had to be plowed under, and hundreds of buildings had to be repainted. Once tamed, the Mary Sudik well would eventually produce 5 million barrels of oil.
Wild Mary was only the most famous of hundreds of wells that tapped into the Oklahoma City oilfield. She was not the last gusher, either. Seven months later the No. 1 Stout ran wild for three days, gushing between 60,000 and 75,000 barrels a day. It was finally capped using lessons learned on Wild Mary.

By this time pools of oil were stored behind earthen dams all over Oklahoma City. One of those dams collapsed, spilling a layer of oil three inches thick onto the North Canadian River. Besides killing fish and birds, the river actually caught fire, with flames blazing forty feet into the air. Black smoke was visible from Enid. Two bridges were destroyed, and damage reached as far downstream as McLoud.

The Oklahoma story is best understood in the context of a nascent industry. Problems arose because drillers didn’t know better. Blowout preventers and drilling mud were recent innovations, and nobody expected the gas pressure to be that intense. A moratorium on production was imposed, not because of the environmental impact, but because the production glut caused the price of oil to drop below 15 cents a barrel. Once the price rose above $1 a barrel, drilling was allowed to resume.

Now, 80 years later, the oil and gas industry is dealing with another gusher, this time a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico. While we don’t yet know exactly what caused it, we do know that safety and cleanup considerations have lagged behind our zeal to find new domestic sources of energy. There’s still a little too much of the wildcatter’s vinegar in a dangerous and dirty business that can cause widespread and long-lasting harm. And, while redundant precautions will add to the cost of drilling, they’re necessary until we can transition to cleaner and safer fuels. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, especially when the stakes are so high and the rewards so lucrative.

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