Nightmare, or vindication?

A Gusher at Baba Gurgur

“One man was at the head waters of the River Amazon among the headshrinkers when he was recalled to come to Iraq; another came from Argentina, another from Mexico, still another had been in Romania, one in Indo-China, several in Venezuela and the East Indies.”

So wrote T.F. “Jock” Williamson, a British geologist seconded to the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), describing the eclectic mix of geologists that made up the expedition to Iraq during the 1925-26 season.

The Turkish Petroleum Company, the forerunner of the Iraq Petroleum Company, was an international consortium. In 1925 the company had agreed to a convention with the Iraqi government that had opened the way for a comprehensive geological survey of Iraq.

Although U.S. oil companies were not officially part of the company at that time, they were invited to participate.

The team that was assembled numbered 18 geologists with a wide range of knowledge and experience, but this came at a price: There was considerable scope for profound disagreement among them.

Hammers at Dawn

The geologists brought with them diverse theories about the formation of oil in the region. Those from APOC had been schooled in Persian geology and in a particular theory about the region known as the “lagoonal theory of oil.” Its chief proponent was Professor Hugo de Böckh, a Hungarian geologist who had arrived in Persia in 1923 as a geological adviser to APOC.

His theory proposed that large quantities of oil might exist in certain rock formations that derived from ancient lagoons.

E. Wesley Shaw
E. Wesley Shaw
Arthur Noble
Arthur Noble

Geologists E. Wesley Shaw and Arthur Noble were soon at loggerheads with de Böckh.

At the end of the survey, Noble and Shaw joined de Böckh and others in Mosul for a final meeting to rate the best sites for drilling. It soon became clear that de Böckh had reached his own conclusions about the location of the oil reservoir. On the basis of his theory, he did not recommend drilling the Kirkuk structure.

But Noble and Shaw considered it the most important prospect of all, rating it as “of outstanding merit” and “first-class.” Having disagreed with de Böckh in the final report, they were shocked to find themselves dismissed a month later.

A senior member of the TPC board flew out from London to smooth things over.

“It was not a happy expedition,” Noble wrote, “(but) in spite of that a lot of fine work was done.”

The Long Hot Summer

The TPC board decided to drill a number of wells in northern Iraq, based on the geologists’ final recommendations. The objective of these wildcat wells was to reach the “Main” Asmari- equivalent limestone underlying the Lower Fars (Middle Miocene) Formation.

On April 5, 1927, the first well at Pulkhana was spudded in, followed by others at Injana and Khashm al- Ahmar.

Nearly four weeks later, on June 30, another well followed at a location near Kirkuk. This was Baba Gurgur, the “Father of Fires,” that took its name from the oil and gas seepages that burned nearby.

Baba Gurgur No. 1 well soon produced evidence of oil at comparatively shallow depths in the Lower Fars. Since the well was only a short distance from the famous seepages, this was not entirely unexpected. Drilling continued at a slow rate – about 20 feet per day.

Over that long hot summer, the dust on the tents of TPC field headquarters at Tuz Khurmatu grew thicker, merging the camp with the dun-colored hills. The staff received daily reports on the wells by telephone or telegram. Nothing of great importance happened and the camp gradually settled into a steady routine.

On Sept. 23, the company’s chief geologist, Louis “Chick” Fowle, suddenly noticed that Baba Gurgur No. 1 was making rapid progress. He examined a sample of rock from the well and was shocked to discover that the drill bit had already penetrated the “Main” limestone at a far shallower depth than expected – 1,521 feet.

As the drillers had only cased the well to a depth of 590 feet, it was necessary to suspend the drilling and run casing over the remaining 1,000 feet of open hole. While the cement was setting, the crew changed from rotary to percussion drilling.

Shortly after midnight on Oct. 14, the crew resumed work on the well. They cleared out the residual mud and left 500 feet at the bottom of the well as a precaution against any upward surge of gas and oil. Then they ran their drilling tools into the well.

“The stillness of the night was disturbed only by the familiar hiss of locomotive-type boilers and the breathless chugging of the steam engine,” one account recorded.

Black Rain

At 3 a.m., the drillers pulled up the drilling bit to clean out the well hole. Gas and oil, escaping from the punctured limestone below, rushed up the hole and spurted over the crown of the derrick to a height of 140 feet, drenching everything in a torrent of black rain.

In one sense, it was a driller’s dream, but reality soon dawned – It was a nightmare.

The gusher roared up in a black fountain and sprayed oil in billowy clouds across the terrain and threatened to flood the region with crude, drenching the land and poisoning the rivers.

By the time the men had capped the well 10 days later, over 95,000 barrels of oil a day had spilled out into the desert – but a major disaster had been averted, and a massive oilfield found.

No doubt Noble and Shaw felt vindicated after de Böckh’s earlier conclusion:

“I do not ... recommend a borehole here.”

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Historical Highlights - Michael Quentin Morton

Quentin Morton grew up in Qatar, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi in the1950s and 1960s. A barrister, he has written a number of books and articles on the history of oil exploration in the Middle East. His latestbook, “Buraimi: The Struggle for Power and Oil in Arabia,” tells the story of the battle over energy resources in the region during the1950s. His father, D.M. “Mike” Morton, was an exploration geologist with the Iraq Petroleum Co. and presented “The Geology of Oman,”to the fifth World Petroleum Congress, New York, in 1959.

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.

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.

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