Historic New York Survey Set High Geologic Standards

Petroleum research by the First New York Geological Survey (1836-1843).
Petroleum research by the First New York Geological Survey (1836-1843).

When New York began its first state geological survey in 1836, seep petroleum was used in small quantities primarily for medicinal purposes.

It would be almost two decades before manufactured coal oil began to replace whale oil for lighting and lubrication.

It would be 23 years before the Drake well in Pennsylvania demonstrated the existence of a much cheaper and more abundant feedstock for a rapidly expanding coal oil refining business.

Manufactured coal gas for municipal lighting was a major growth industry, with New York City having had an operating system for more than a decade. Gas from shallow wells along the Lake Erie shoreline was used in a similar manner in Fredonia, N.Y., and the nearby Barcelona lighthouse.

Indeed, the New York Natural History Survey (1836-1843) is commonly recognized as the premier state geological survey of the pre-Civil War era – but its role in conducting the first systematic governmental study of petroleum in North America has been neglected.

In the absence of an established oil and gas industry, the search for seeps was inspired not by petroleum exploration but to facilitate the health spa and salt manufacturing industries – and to assess the possible extension of Pennsylvania’s vast coal resources across the state line.

Watch Out for the Seeps

The Survey actively documented seeps of all compositions, not just hydrocarbons.

Mineral springs at Saratoga were well known and actively exploited for health spas, and identification of springs with similar commercial potential was highly desired.

In addition to mineralized waters, seeps with Seneca oil (petroleum) or concentrations of carbonic acid gas (CO2) and sulphuretted hydrogen (H2S) were highly valued for their medicinal properties. Today the presence of H2S would be looked upon as negative due to its toxic properties, but prior to the development of modern antibiotics that toxicity was used to advantage to combat infections.

The presence of carburetted hydrogen (C) was not considered of importance for this market.

Rapid expansion of Pennsylvania’s coal industry had put many New York industries, which relied on wood for fuel, at a competitive disadvantage, and so assessment of coal resources became the Survey’s most important assignment.

Numerous coal exploratory pits had been dug without success during the 1830s, spurred on by two influential publications:

Amos Eaton, the best-known New York geologist of the time, had stated in an 1830 paper that gas seeps found near Seneca and Cayuga Lakes were associated with the same bituminous shales as those found above coal seams in Pennsylvania.

Three years later, Yale’s Benjamin Silliman published a description of the oil spring at Cuba, N.Y., stating that the oil “… “rises from beds of bituminous coal below.”

The Survey investigated these claims on a priority basis and quickly demonstrated through paleontological research that the bituminous shales in New York were too old to be associated with commercial coal beds, and made a point of disseminating information to show that digging more exploratory pits would be a waste of money.

Defining Reality

Salt manufacturing was New York’s largest mineral industry in 1836-1843, with activity concentrated on the Onondaga salt springs near Syracuse.

New York’s big advantage over competing salt works in the Ohio River valley was accessibility to eastern markets – but the Ohio River region had better fuels available for the evaporation process, with local coal mining plus gas flows that accompanied brine production from wells.

Documentation of oil and gas seeps provided hope (in vain) that coal would be found to lower fuel costs, but also exploration potential for new salt reserves.

Lewis Beck in 1838 speculated that the salt industry might expand to far western New York, arguing that, “From the frequent occurrence of gas springs in Chautauque County, it is not improbable that brine will be found associated with them, as it is in various parts of the state of Ohio.”

Over the time period 1836-1843, the New York Geological Survey published six annual reports, four regional final reports and a final mineralogical report. Within these publications were almost 200 descriptions of hydrocarbon occurrence, the vast majority from the pens of either Lewis Beck or James Hall.

Oil was documented at seeps or quarries from at least 17 different locations in eight different counties. Carburetted hydrogen gas was noted from at least 38 seeps in 14 counties and from nine wells in five of those counties (figure 1).

For the Record

Despite the presence of hydrocarbons across a broad area, New York has been a minor participant in the historical petroleum industry.

During the 1870s and 1880s, exploration along the New York-Pennsylvania border resulted in development of the Bradford field – the first giant oil field in the United States – but the regional prospective area was limited due to northward termination of the Devonian sandstone reservoirs.

Many hydrocarbon occurrences described by the New York Natural History Survey originated in bituminous shales of Ordovician through Devonian age. Although not of major economic significance at the time, they documented the bituminous character of shale formations such as Marcellus, Utica and Rhinestreet.

They also foretold the potential for modern programs to develop these resource plays.

Comments (0)


Historical Highlights - Raymond Sorenson

AAPG member Raymond P. Sorenson holds a bachelor’s in geology from Michigan State University and a master’s in geology from the University of Texas at Austin. He retired in 2006 from Anadarko Petroleum in Houston after 30 years of service, and now works as a Tulsa-based consulting geologist.

Historical Highlights

Historical Highlights - Hans Krause

Hans Krause is an AAPG Honorary Member, Distinguished Service Award winner and former chair of the AAPG History of Petroleum Geology Committee.

Historical Highlights

A History-Based Series, Historical Highlights is an ongoing EXPLORER series that celebrates the "eureka" moments of petroleum geology, the rise of key concepts, the discoveries that made a difference, the perseverance and ingenuity of our colleagues – and/or their luck! – through stories that emphasize the anecdotes, the good yarns and the human interest side of our E&P profession. If you have such a story – and who doesn't? – and you'd like to share it with your fellow AAPG members, contact the editor.

View column archives

See Also: Bulletin Article

Considerable effort has been devoted to the development of simulation algorithms for facies modeling, whereas a discussion of how to combine those techniques has not existed. The integration of multiple geologic data into a three-dimensional model, which requires the combination of simulation techniques, is yet a current challenge for reservoir modeling. This article presents a thought process that guides the acquisition and modeling of geologic data at various scales. Our work is based on outcrop data collected from a Jurassic carbonate ramp located in the High Atlas mountain range of Morocco. The study window is 1 km (0.6 mi) wide and 100 m (328.1 ft) thick. We describe and model the spatial and hierarchical arrangement of carbonate bodies spanning from largest to smallest: (1) stacking pattern of high-frequency depositional sequences, (2) facies association, and (3) lithofacies. Five sequence boundaries were modeled using differential global position system mapping and light detection and ranging data. The surface-based model shows a low-angle profile with modest paleotopographic relief at the inner-to-middle ramp transition. Facies associations were populated using truncated Gaussian simulation to preserve ordered trends between the inner, middle, and outer ramps. At the lithofacies scale, field observations and statistical analysis show a mosaiclike distribution that was simulated using a fully stochastic approach with sequential indicator simulation.

This study observes that the use of one single simulation technique is unlikely to correctly model the natural patterns and variability of carbonate rocks. The selection and implementation of different techniques customized for each level of the stratigraphic hierarchy will provide the essential computing flexibility to model carbonate settings. This study demonstrates that a scale-dependent modeling approach should be a common procedure when building subsurface and outcrop models.

Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/Outcrop-analog-for-an-oolitic-carbonate.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 3727 Bulletin Article

See Also: DL Abstract

The Gulf of Mexico (GOM) is the 9th largest body of water on earth, covering an area of approximately 1.6 million km2 with water depths reaching 4,400 m (14,300’). The basin formed as a result of crustal extension during the early Mesozoic breakup of Pangaea. Rifting occurred from the Late Triassic to early Middle Jurassic. Continued extension through the Middle Jurassic combined with counter-clockwise rotation of crustal blocks away from North America produced highly extended continental crust in the subsiding basin center. Subsidence eventually allowed oceanic water to enter from the west leading to thick, widespread, evaporite deposition. Seafloor spreading initiated in the Late Jurassic eventually splitting the evaporite deposits into northern (USA) and southern (Mexican) basins. Recent work suggests that this may have been accomplished by asymmetric extension, crustal delamination, and exposure of the lower crust or upper mantle rather than true sea floor spreading (or it could be some combination of the two). By 135 Ma almost all extension had ceased and the basic configuration of the GOM basin seen today was established. The Laramide Orogeny was the last major tectonic event impacting the GOM. It caused uplift and erosion for the NW margin from the Late Cretaceous to early Eocene.

Desktop /Portals/0/images/_site/AAPG-newlogo-vertical-morepadding.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 3078 DL Abstract

See Also: Field Seminar

The field seminar develops and evaluates the sequence stratigraphic framework and controls on location and reservoir character of Upper Miocene-Pliocene carbonate sequences from a variety of carbonate systems within the context of the regional paleogeography.

Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/fs-Play-Concepts-and-Controls-on-Porosity-in-Carbonate-Reservoir-Analogs.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 31 Field Seminar

See Also: Online e Symposium

Join two GIS/geoscience experts Scott Sires and Gerry Bartz as they use information from the Teapot Dome Field in Wyoming (DOE/RMOTC program).

Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/oc-es-the-many-faces-of-gis.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 1435 Online e-Symposium
Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/New-Insights-into-the-Stratigraphic-Framework-hero.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 16283 Online e-Symposium