The thirst for exploring the unknown motivated the Richfield Oil Company people to discover the Swanson River oil field on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957. It should be no surprise that the Richfield corporate culture led them to the North Slope of Alaska. Meanwhile, some other high-level managements thought, “They are going to hell,” for exploring in so remote an area.
Richfield sent its first geological field party to the Arctic Coastal Plain in the summer of 1959. By the early 1960s, nearly all of the companies with Anchorage offices (and some outside Alaska) had surface geologic parties working on the North Slope.
With the advent of helicopters, the geologists’ mobility was further enhanced, making it possible to refine the interpretation of the surface geology and bring back samples that could be evaluated for age, oil source potential and reservoir quality.
The Coastal Plain is devoid of rock outcrops, so these early geologists worked in the hills where there were rock outcrops. In light of the spotty distribution of outcrops, the geologists would piece the geology together bit by bit, and during subsequent field seasons attempt to add new information where there was none or where available data were confusing …
The Prudhoe Bay discovery was a team effort in the broadest sense of the term. In an interview years after the discovery, H.C. Jamison said, “It (the discovery) is a measure of your capabilities as a professional group. And I stress the word group, because, boy, this thing was a total team situation.”
Contributions ranged from minor to major. At important stages, approvals were critical for the project to advance to the next step.
The Anchorage explorationists provided good reasons for drilling Prudhoe Bay. They, in turn, recommended it to the middle management of the Dallas exploration staff. Their stamp of approval was vital and was given.
For the Prudhoe exploration well, the top executives had to be convinced to allocate the capital to proceed. They did.
Prudhoe Bay would not have been drilled without the involvement of any one of these three groups. What is not so obvious is the importance of discrete individuals. It is plausible that had some seemingly minor contribution not been made, the drilling project may have faltered.
The only source of geologic structural knowledge in the Colville and Prudhoe Bay areas was the seismograph. This is where the geophysicist part of the explorationist team shines. In oil-field vernacular they are called doodlebuggers. There is no derision implied.
Historically, geophysicists and their families were a hearty lot because they were the advance guard of oil exploration. They moved often and many times to out-of-the-way places. Frequently they were not in a place long enough to establish friendships. They were not patsies, but the Arctic Coast was like the end of the world to them. They then literally lived on the job in buildings mounted on sleds called wanigans, which had been adapted to housing, eating, office and repair facilities. Crawler tractors pulled these mobile camps, keeping them close to the fieldwork.
Many of the geophysical supervisors during the early years of North Slope exploration in the early 1960s did not have college degrees in geophysics, as there were few colleges, if any, that taught exploration geophysics. Because there were physics and electrical concepts involved, these early supervisors had science backgrounds in mathematics, physics and electrical engineering.
Many of them had worked directly for some of the pioneers in exploration geophysics.
As the oil companies started to accumulate seismic data in the early 1960s, the huge Colville and Prudhoe Bay structures began to appear on the maps of various companies. These structures were unreal in size. Had they been revealed at the surface they would have been much more imposing than the quintessential sheepherder anticlines in Wyoming.
Paul Lyons, a geophysicist with Sinclair, is given the credit for being the first person to make a map of the Prudhoe Bay structure from geophysical information, which he did in 1963. Several companies, including Atlantic and Richfield, had people making maps of Prudhoe Bay not too long after.
Rudy Berlin was then working for Richfield, but had first mapped the Prudhoe Bay structure when he was working for Western Geophysical Company (under contract to Sinclair and BP); he had seen the Prudhoe structures even before the clients.
Dick Crick, the first Atlantic employee working in Alaska, remembers:
“The first time I heard about the Prudhoe Bay prospect was the summer of 1965 when we had a ‘get acquainted happy hour’ at the Petroleum Club with our Richfield counterparts. I remember that Rudy Berlin mentioned that he hoped the merger of the two companies (Atlantic, Richfield) would not cause them to move off the Slope without drilling a well to test the largest structural closure he had ever mapped.
“If anyone should be given credit for trying to sell the Prudhoe prospect, in my opinion it should be Rudy Berlin.”
At Prudhoe Bay the seismic data looked like a dream come true. In fact, to some it looked too good to be believable.
Also, the geophysicists did not have precise velocity data to apply to the problem. There was permafrost from the surface to a depth of almost 2,000 feet, and there was uncertainty as to how to deal with this variable, which affected seismic velocity. Permafrost … complicates interpretations if the character and thickness of the permafrost is unknown. It affects the velocity of seismic wave travel through the earth.
The geophysicists later learned how this permafrost change from land to offshore influenced the seismic interpretation.
Louis Davis, general manager of North American Producing, was pragmatic and always cut to the heart of issues. At one of our conferences before Prudhoe Bay was approved for drilling, Rudy Berlin presented the seismic picture for the prospect in his inimitable impassioned way.
At the end, for additional emphasis, he very forcefully said, “If this was my oil company, I would drill this prospect.”
Davis turned to Lee Wilson, drilling and production manager for Alaska, and whispered, “I thought this was his oil company!”
I am guessing Louis’s remark was serious because he wanted team players and Rudy’s innocent remark seemed to put him apart, but he was pitching for Prudhoe to be tested like the rest of us were.
ARCO had reached a moment of truth. In the district we thought we should drill the Prudhoe structure, and that is what we recommended. It was that or pull out of the North Slope.
We took the positive approach and moved in that direction …
AAPG Foundation Trustee Associate John Sweet was exploration manager for Arco’s Alaska district in the 1960s, serving under the leadership of fellow AAPG member H.C. “Harry” Jamison – which meant they had not only a front-row seat but an active hand in the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay. Sweet, who now splits his time in retirement between Boulder, Colo., and Green Valley, Ariz., decided the time was right to share his experiences and perspective of the historic discovery. His recently released “Discovery at Prudhoe Bay,” published by Hancock House, will be available through the AAPG Bookstore. Printed here, with permission, is an excerpt from that book dealing with the early efforts there of the geological and geophysical teams.