Rounding the Four Corners – April 2013

Tales from the Oil Patch

By Larry Larason

Some great stories have come out of Four Corners oil fields.  Some are peculiar, including oil that didn’t need refining and oil found in igneous rock.  Read on.

Rounding the Four Corners Gallup Journey

Photo by Andrew Kudrin

America’s petroleum industry began in 1859 in western Pennsylvania when a steam engine was used to drill the first well specifically to find oil.  Oil had been collected for a long time at seeps, where it flowed out of a petroleum laden rock layer that outcropped at the surface.  It was used mostly as a lubricant and for lamp oil.  The first oil well was not a deep one: it went down only about 20 meters [ca. 65 feet] from the surface.  After the Pennsylvania well, exploration proceeded and petroleum became more abundant.  Then in 1901 a well was drilled at Spindletop, a hill atop a salt dome, near Beaumont, Texas.  It was a gusher spewing petroleum into the air 150 feet high.  The flow was estimated at 100,000 barrels a day, more oil than the world had ever seen before.  The effect was almost immediate.  For example, in 1901 the Santa Fe Railway only had one oil burning locomotive; by 1905 they were using 227.  The oil industry was up and running.

Money was being made and nearly everyone wished they had an oil well in their back yard.  Oil exploration began in New Mexico as early as 1890, but none of the early wells were successful until 1922 when one was drilled near Hogback that produced 75 barrels of oil per day.  Natural gas production began about the same time near Aztec.  The San Juan Basin has continued producing both oil and gas ever since.

S. C. Muñoz loved playing poker.  As president of a small railway company, the New Mexico Central Railroad, he was in Santa Fe for business reasons on the night of October 14, 1923 and joined a game of cards with some men, including a friend, H. G. Hagerman, commissioner to the Navajo Tribe.  During the game Hagerman told the others that for the first time an auction would be held the next day for mineral leases on Navajo lands in the northwest part of the San Juan Basin.  Muñoz attended the Saturday auction, probably thinking he was there only as an observer.  One parcel, called Rattlesnake, was put up for bids twice with no takers.  On the third offer Muñoz made the minimum bid of $1000 and received the right to explore 4000 acres southwest of the town of Shiprock.

He almost immediately regretted his purchase and tried to re-sell the lease, but no one was buying.  Maybe the name – Rattlesnake – was too off putting.  He then hired a geologist – from New York, no less.  In early 1924 the first well produced ten barrels/day of oil and some gas.  The second well gave up even more [300 barrels/day] and the fifth well came in with 1,500 barrels/day.  Before the end of that year Muñoz sold 51 percent of the operation to Continental Oil [later to become Conoco] for an amount variously reported as one million to more than three million.  I haven’t seen any information about how he fared in that poker game, but it made him the first oil millionaire in New Mexico.

The Rattlesnake Field had some unusual aspects.  Oil was pumped out of the ground by windmills of the type you would expect to see in a pasture next to a stock tank.  This was not unique, however; the same technique was also used in some other places.   But the product at Rattlesnake was the lightest oil ever found at that time.  It was so light that some of it was trucked to Cortez, Colorado and sold as gasoline without even being refined.  Of course, auto engines weren’t so persnickety in those days.

Arizona is not known as an oil producing state.  About 85 percent of the petroleum extracted in Arizona came from one place: the Dineh bi Keyah oil field, which is at elevations of 8000+ feet in the Chuska Mountains.  In 1967 Kerr-McGee began exploration of Pennsylvanian rocks in the mountains, hoping to find carbonate strata acting as oil reservoirs similar to ones in Utah, for example at Aneth and other places in the Paradox Basin.  What they found surprised them: an igneous sill full of oil.  A sill is created by magma intruding horizontally into sedimentary rock.  It is sort of a flat dike.  But, oil forms from organic matter deposited in sedimentary rock – usually the remains of sea creatures that died and fell to the sea floor.  So what was the oil doing in an igneous rock?  The sill in the Chuskas was unusually bubbly and porous, almost like vesicular lava that had been extruded onto the surface.  Oil, which formed in the carbonate rocks surrounding the igneous intrusion, became trapped in the sill while it was being squeezed upward.

Oil men discovered early on that oil is mostly found in anticlines, wrinkles in the crust where the rocks are domed upward.  As it is squeezed toward the surface it may become trapped and pooled in such structures.  During the abortive gold rush on the San Juan River around Bluff and Mexican Hat, Utah, which began in 1892-93, some of the would-be miners noticed oil seeps along the banks of the river, and an oily sheen on the water near Mexican Hat and downstream.  Drilling for oil there started about 1904.  Several companies hauled drilling rigs into the field, despite the lack of decent roads in the region.  Most of the wells were either dry or uneconomical.  But oil was found.  Someone finally noticed that the Mexican Hat field defies conventional wisdom: it is in a syncline, where the rocks dip downward, instead of an anticline.  It seems that oil flows down the limbs of the syncline and floats on the water table beneath the surface.  Even after oil was found, the lack of good roads hindered getting it to market.  Although the Mexican Hat field still produces oil today and the roads have been greatly improved, the small quantity of oil it produces hasn’t led to great prosperity.

It would be interesting to compile the figures and see which natural resource provided the greatest benefit to the economy in the Four Corners: oil, coal, or uranium mining.  In my mind it is a toss-up between coal and petroleum, because coal has been produced longer, but the oil is still flowing, while uranium was a boom that lasted only a couple of decades.  However, our greatest asset is our scenery, which draws people back again and again.  So it’s all down to geology.

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