Oil Fields

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OIL FIELDS. Petroleum results from the decay of fossils and plants. The decayed matter becomes trapped in porous rock, with pools of this greenish-black liquid existing in narrow sandstone belts. The petroleum can bubble to the surface in an "oil seep," but it can also be found several miles below the surface.

The first oil field to be tapped commercially in the United States was near Titusville, Pennsylvania. Small quantities of oil appeared in several seeps along Oil Creek. The first drill was erected over the field in 1859. Two years later, wells in Pennsylvania were producing more than two million barrels of oil annually, and Pennsylvania was responsible for half the world's oil production for the next forty years. Oil fields were located in fourteen states by 1900, including Texas, which sparked the next boom. Drilling started in East Texas in 1866, but large-scale production began in 1901, when a reservoir 1,000 feet under a salt dome named Spindletop was tapped near Beaumont, Texas. This well produced at an initial rate of 100,000 barrels per day, more than all the other producing wells in the United States combined.

Productive oil fields were drilled in northern California as early as 1865, but no major field was discovered until drillers moved south to Los Angeles in 1892. In

1900, California produced four million barrels of oil. A decade later, production had jumped to seventy-seven million barrels annually. Three new fields were discovered in Southern California in the 1920s, making California the nation's leading oil-producing state, supplying one-fourth of the world's needs.

The oil hunt moved offshore as early as 1887, when H. L. Williams built a wharf with a drill 300 feet into the ocean. The first offshore oil well was set in 1932 from an independent platform, but this aspect of the industry did not begin in earnest until 1947, when the Kerr-McGee Corporation struck oil in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast. Two years later, forty-four exploratory wells in eleven fields across the Gulf had been drilled. Currently, the Gulf is part of a worldwide triumvirate of offshore fields—the other two are in the Persian Gulf and the North Sea—that provides one-third of the world's oil supply. Severe weather in the North Sea requires the construction of gravity platforms, each of which requires 11,000 work years to construct. A 1,500-foot-high platform owned by Shell Oil in the North Sea and the Great Wall of China are the only two manmade objects that can be seen from the surface of the moon with the naked eye.

The United States' biggest oil field was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in 1968. It is on the Arctic Ocean, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Since 1977, more than 12.8 million barrels of crude have been pumped from nineteen fields in Alaska, most of it shipped through the Alaska Pipeline, built from 1974 to 1977 because tankers could not get through in the winter. The pipeline, which cost $8 billion to build and $210 million annually to maintain, features ten pump stations along 800 miles of pipeline. Today, oil fields are located in thirty-three of the fifty states, with Texas, Louisiana, Alaska, Oklahoma, and California the five largest producers of oil.


American Petroleum Institute. Web site www.api.org.

Black, Brian. Petrolia: The Landscape of America's First Oil Boom. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Clark, James Anthony, and Michel Thomas Halbouty. Spindletop: The True Story of the Oil Discovery That Changed the World. Houston, Tex: Gulf, 1995.

Economides, Michael, and Ronald Oligney. The Color of Oil: The History, the Money and the Politics of the World's Biggest Business. Katy, Tex.: Round Oak, 2000.

Pratt, Joseph A., Tyler Priest, and Christopher J., Castaneda. Offshore Pioneers: Brown and Root and the History of Offshore Oil and Gas. Houston, Tex.: Gulf, 1997.

T. L.Livermore


See alsoOffshore Oil ; Petroleum Industry ; Petroleum Prospecting and Technology .