The HISTORY: How did all this start?

In the beginning

spindletop oil field

Spindletop Oil Field, Source: U.S. Geological Society

The past 100 years of the history of Louisiana has been intimately linked to the oil industry. Prior to the boom of the oil industry, tarry hydrocarbons seeping to the soil surface in certain regions of Louisiana were well noted. Native Americans used these products in many ways including medicine and as a mosquito repellent. Some Native Americans even drank the tar material to supposedly cure digestive problem. Early explorers including Hernando DeSoto in 1540 noted the abundance of surface hydrocarbons and used the products as pitch for their sailing vessels. The pitch was used to seal the wood on the ships as well as to waterproof boots.

spindletop well

Source: Paleontological Research Institution, Petroleum Education, courtesy of American Petroleum Institute

The first official oil well drilled in the United States was located in the quiet farm country near Titusville, Pennsylvania on August 27, 1859. It was known as the Drake Well named for its founder "Colonel" Edwin Drake. This well changed the history of the world and modern civilization. On January 10, 1901, a successful oil well known as Spindletop was drilled near Beaumont, Texas revolutionizing the economy of Texas and encouraging explorers to search for oil in neighboring Louisiana.

Louisiana's industry takes off

The unique geology of Louisiana has allowed this state to become an abundant source for natural gas and oil. As a result, the oil and gas industries, as well as offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, have grown incredibly throughout the last century. Check out this timeline documenting the major highlights of Louisiana'a oil and gas industry.

The Louisiana oil industry had its most humble beginnings around 1868 when The Louisiana Oil and Coal Company drilled a well approximately 15 miles west of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Unfortunately this first attempt to find oil was unsuccessful. But the attempt did reveal vast sulfur deposits that showed great promise in the search for oil. In 1870, another clue to Louisiana’s oil and natural gas future occurred quite accidentally when a night watchman at an ice plant in Shreveport discovered natural gas escaping from an artesian water well. This gas was quickly put to use lighting the ice plant, which is assumed to be the first application of natural gas in Louisiana. Learn more about the history of fossils and fossil fuels.

The First Successful Oil Well

The first successful oil well in Louisiana struck oil on September 21, 1901, in a rice field on the "Mamou Prairie" in the small community of Evangeline near Jennings.

first louisiana oil well

Source: Louisiana Dept of Natural Resources, Office of Conservation

Jules Clement, the owner of the well’s location, first noticed bubbles forming from a small region of a rice field after a flood. He placed an old stovepipe over the source of the bubbles and threw a lit match into the source. To his delight, the bubbles ignited.

The news of his discovery soon spread throughout the region. Local businessmen purchased the land and formed S.A. Spencer and Company. The company contracted with Scott Heywood a successful oil wildcatter from Texas to drill for oil. They also allowed him to form the Jennings Oil Company. After several disappointments, Heywood finally struck oil at over 1700 feet. Upon striking the deposit, oil shot into the air in a gusher that exceeded 100 feet in height from the four-inch pipe. It is thought that if the well had not been hampered by the build up of sand, it would have produced nearly 7,000 barrels a day. By 1905, more than six million barrels of oil had been produced in Louisiana worth approximately 4.3 million dollars. Of course, this is only a fraction of its worth in today’s market.


Source: U.S. Dept of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory

1909: A Year of Big Discoveries

The year 1909 was a special year for the oil and natural gas industries in Louisiana. The first oil refinery built near Baton Rouge went on line. This site was located where the Exxon refinery exists today. Presently, the Exxon site is one of the largest oil refineries in North America.

Also in 1909, a new type of drilling bit known as the Hughes rotary drilling bit was developed. This bit not only made drilling more efficient, it allowed paleontologistsone who studies fossils and the history of life on Earth to collect and analyze the rock for microfossils. These microfossilsextremely small fossils that are studied with microscopes could serve as important index fossils for particular deposits perhaps denoting the presence of oil deposits.

And finally in 1909, construction of Louisiana’s first long-distance oil pipeline was begun and by 1910 served to transport crude oil from Caddo Parish to the Baton Rouge refinery.

quizPrior to the development of the Hughes rotary bit, how was drilling accomplished with percussion bits?

Seismic exploration & offshore drilling

seismic truck

Minivib III Seismic Shaker Truck, Source: U.S. Geological Society

In 1923, seismic exploration was introduced to the Gulf Coast region. It had been developed in 1921 in Oklahoma. Seismic exploration involves the scientific search for subsurface deposits of crude oil and natural gas by the production, recording, processing, and interpretation of artificially induced shock waves in the earth.

Manmade seismic energy is generated on the land by using borehole explosives such as dynamite, or surface vibratory mechanisms mounted on specialized trucks. The travel times measured in milliseconds of the returned seismic energy, used with existing borehole well information, helps scientists estimate the structure and stratigraphy of underground formations, and help scientists locate potential drilling targets. Today these techniques on land and in the marine environment are important in the search for oil and natural gas.

The Seismic Method

Seismic reflection uses a process of sending sound energy to the sea floor and underlying substrate, including oil and gas deposits. Energy is reflected from those surfaces and is received by hydrophones at, or near, the sea surface.

diagram explaining seismic reflection

Diagram of the elements of marine seismic reflection. A research vessel, equipped with navigation devices (GPS, Differential, RTK systems) tow a seismic source from the stern (shown in yellow) and a receiving hydrophone (shown in red). The outgoing and returning (reflected) energy is depicted by three rays, shown in red. Source: U.S. Geological Society

quizCompare and contrast terrestrial and marine seismic technologies.

Offshore Drilling Begins

The offshore drilling industry began in Louisiana in November 1947. A bottom supported platform was built in 18 feet of water approximately 12 miles offshore by the Kerr McGee Corporation. This site was located 45 miles south of Morgan City and cost $230,000. In 1954, the first transportable, submersible oil rig called the Mr. Charlie was built in Morgan City. Mr. Charlie was deployed south of New Orleans in 40 feet of water and stayed in production for 42 years.

Since this monumental task, over 12,000 offshore sites have been established in the Gulf of Mexico. One well constructed by Conoco in 1989, located 170 miles southwest of New Orleans, exceeded 1760 feet deep. In 2007, 15 rigs were drilling in over 5,000 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico.

offshore platforms

(Left) Photograph of an offshore platform, Source: Minerals Management Service.
(Right) Diagram of an offshore platform, Source: State of California Dept of Conservation.

quizWhere are the deepest terrestrial and offshore wells in the world? How deep are these wells?

Louisiana's production: Stats & facts

Since the early days of oil wells in Louisiana, our state has produced over 25.2 billon barrels of oil and 214 trillion cubic feet of gas. The oil and gas industry in Louisiana is a major economic and industrial source.

oil workers past

Source: History of Offshore Development in Louisiana, Minerals Management Service

The petroleum industry account for almost 25% of the total state revenues, or about $1.2 billion dollars. The petroleum industry also employs more than 116,000 people, which is about 6% of the state's total workforce. And working for the petroleum industry pays well as this 6% of the workforce earns almost 12% of the total wages paid in Louisiana, or about 4.34 billion dollars.

Quick Facts

Today in Louisiana, there is a town that was named for the oil strike of 1906: Oil City in Caddo Parish. Oil City is located on Louisiana Highway 1, north of Caddo Lake, and is included in the Shreveport–Bossier City Metropolitan Statistical Area. In 2000, the population was 1,219. You can learn more about Louisiana's oil and gas history by visiting the Louisiana State Oil and Gas Museum located in Oil City.

Louisiana Story released in 1948 is a 78-minute black-and-white film that depicts the life of a Cajun family in the early days of oil exploration in Louisiana. Robert Flaherty, the film's writer and director, recruited mostly local people for his cast and shot the film in the swamps of Petit Anse Bayou, Louisiana. The film was commissioned by Standard Oil and has been noted as a historical and culturally significant film as it examines the relationship between humans and their environment along with how industry changes the natural enviornment.

platform diagram

tv trivia

The TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies" is about a family finding oil in a swamp on their property and becoming millionaires.

One of the characters, Elly May Clampett, (Donna Douglass) was born Dorothy Smith in the tiny town of Pride, Louisiana, in East Baton Rouge Parish.

She grew up in rural Louisiana on her grandparents' farm, loving “critters” and nature, climbing trees, swinging on vines, and playing football and softball.

jennings, la

Jennings, Louisiana is where the first successful oil well was drilled into production. Read more about the history of Jennings and how oil changed this little town.

Check out the size of the Jennings Oil Field.

jennings oil field

the hughes bit

The Hughes drilling bit transformed the industry by allowing deep drilling in the U.S. Gulf region.

Hughes drilling bit

Hughes Two-Cone Drill Bit, Original Drawing, ASME, 2009

This drilling bit was so important that, in 2009, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers declared it a historical engineering landmark(PDF).

loop program

LOOP is the the first and only deepwater U.S. port that lets tankers offload crude oil. LOOP is located 18 miles south of Grand Isle, LA, and it facilitates more than 50% of the oil that goes to U.S. refineries. Read more about LOOP.

LOOP handles tankers that are just too big for inland ports.

oil platforms

Offshore oil platforms are huge facilities where people live while they are on the job. Learn more about how offshore drilling works.

platform diagram

Source: How Offshore Drilling Works, HowStuffWorks, 2008

These platforms often go deeper than 4,000 feet, meaning they are taller than most skyscrapers.

Recently, people have debated what to do with retired platforms, those that are no longer needed. In 2009, Houston architects proposed transforming used platforms into Oceanic Eco-Resorts.

eco-resort model

Oceanic Eco-Resort, Source: Morris Architects