Background Photo: The Lucas gusher at Spindletop, January 10, 1901.
One Day That Shook the World
On the Brink of A New Era -- Always
Michel T. Halbouty agreed that the frustrations endured by Pattillo Higgins (who discovered Spindletop) - inadequate capitalization, scientific demurrals, technical difficulties - are in essence the same obstacles that today's independents must overcome, though the exact circumstances differ.
"There are always those who say you can't find it," he said, "but there is great potential left in the United States. I believe there is the potential to find as much oil in the future as we've already produced."
While geological and geophysical advances are constantly opening new exploration possibilities, Halbouty said today's wildcatters, in some ways, face challenges "even greater than those of the past," referring to the government's removal of economic incentives for domestic exploration and its willingness to increase dependence on imported oil.
But after years of experiencing the highs and lows of the industry, Halbouty, like Higgins and Lucas before him, remains optimistic. If today's explorationists can keep going against the odds as those two pioneers did, persistence will reap its reward again.
And he is hopeful that Congress is beginning to see the danger of declining domestic production coupled with increasing import levels; that officials will finally act to remove disincentives for exploration.
"Exploration is on the brink of a new era that will be characterized by new concepts and new ideas," he said. "I believe that, strongly. And I believe it's going to be soon."
About 100 years ago a self-taught Texas geologist named Pattillo Higgins had a vision of the future.
Standing on a low, grassy hill a few miles south of his hometown, he foresaw a great inland port city in southeast Texas, bustling with the commerce of shipping, cattle, agriculture, timber, bricks and factories of all kinds.
The catalyst for Higgins' dream was the same one that has fueled many a dream since, a gut-clenching inner certainty that he knew where oil in quantities previously unknown and unimagined could be discovered.
Admittedly, it wasn't a mainstream idea.
Industry and modern transportation ran almost completely on coal. Oil was used only for lighting and lubrication.
Higgins, however, could see the vast advantages of oil over other energy sources and believed it would revolutionize American industry - so he tried for years to interest others in the prospect, even organized a company and purchased acreage.
But when it came to drilling a well ...
His business partners were only half committed to the idea.
Formally trained geologists, steeped in the prejudices of their time, dismissed his ideas as impossible and ridiculous.
Both the feasibility of the venture he proposed and his personal honesty were questioned in his hometown newspaper.
And when he finally convinced his backers to hire a drilling crew, the technology of the day proved inadequate.
By 1898, financial difficulties finally had forced him to relinquish most of his interest in the hill, and his dream of a model industrial center for the South began to fade. His one consolation was that he had been able to find one other man, Capt. Anthony F. Lucas, who believed in the hill as much as he did.
Lucas, an experienced mining engineer, met with many of the same problems that Higgins had, and by late 1900 his personal funds were almost depleted as well. But he had been able to secure the services of capable drilling contractors, the Hamill brothers of Corsicana, Texas, and on the morning of Jan. 10, 1901, the little hill south of Beaumont began to tremble and mud bubbled up over the rotary table.
A low rumbling sound came from underground, and then, with a force that shot six tons of four-inch pipe out over the top of the derrick, knocking off the crown block, the Lucas Gusher roared in and Spindletop, history's most famous oil field, was born.
A six-inch stream of green-black oil spouted more than 100 feet over the top of the derrick, spilling by later estimates over 100,000 barrels of oil per day. That one well was producing more oil than all the other wells in the United States combined.
Probably no more than a handful there recognized that the events in that little corner of Texas marked a significant turning point in world history.
Former AAPG President Michel T. Halbouty, a native of Beaumont, recorded the story of the great oil field in 1951, when he and boyhood friend James A. Clark, now deceased, co-authored the book Spindletop to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark discovery. The book's foreword summarized the impact that Pattillo Higgins, Lucas and the army of wildcatters that rose up out of Spindletop had on the oil industry, the nation and the world:
"There and then America was blessed with the supply of energy and the incentive to move up from a secondary position in world affairs to that of undisputed leadership.
"Before Spindletop oil was used for lamps and lubrication. The famous Lucas gusher changed that. It started the liquid fuel age, which brought forth the automobile, the airplane, the network of highways, improved railroad and marine transportation, the era of mass production and untold comforts and conveniences."
The Legacy Continues
Now, a little less than two years away from Spindletop's centennial, Halbouty said the legacy of those days continues. Analogies can be drawn between then and now, but sharp disparities also exist.
"There was a tremendous amount of money made because of Spindletop," he said, "but more was lost. Eighty million dollars were invested in it, but only $50 million came out. That was because of all the wild speculation that went on, with absolutely no controls whatsoever. There was incredible waste.
"But there was an awful lot besides money that came out of Spindletop," Halbouty said. "It was the beginning of several companies that became the giants of the industry - The Texas Co., Gulf Oil, Cities Service, and really, Humble Oil Co., a forerunner of Exxon USA. Then there were some very important smaller companies, like Pan American and Amoco, that got their start, too."
Independents also came into their own with the vindication of the theory of salt domes forming traps for hydrocarbons.
Scientific method began to replace "creekology" and other antiquated misconceptions on how to find oil. Prior to the discovery, Higgins talked with one geologist who believed an underground vein of oil drained out of the Rocky Mountains and pooled in a great oil lake in Texas.
Another condemned his efforts, saying oil could be found only in proximity to hard rock.
In every way, on both the personal as well as the global level, the world was never the same after Spindletop.