January 2017 /// Vol 238 No. 1


What's new in production

Project Gasbuggy

Don Francis, Contributing Editor

Because looking back is a tradition at the start of the new year, let’s join the party. But, we’ll look back a bit further than last January, because that’s where we’ll find inspiration to start a new tradition—beginning the next 12 months with a chuckle.

Even if you didn’t know anything at all about Project Gasbuggy, you have to admit, the name is a knee-slapper. Not, as it sounds, some visionary’s attempt at an automobile, Project Gasbuggy actually was the first experiment in nuclear fracing.

As recounted by the American Oil & Gas Historical Society, “In December 1967, government scientists—exploring the peacetime use of controlled atomic explosions—detonated Gasbuggy, a 29-kiloton nuclear device they had lowered into a natural gas well in rural New Mexico. [By comparison,] the Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons.

“Project Gasbuggy included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and El Paso Natural Gas Company. Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 ft—and lowered a 13-ft long by 18-in. wide nuclear device into the borehole.

“The 1967 experimental explosion in New Mexico was part of a wider set of experiments known as Plowshare, a program established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957 to explore the constructive use of nuclear explosive devices. ‘The reasoning was that the relatively inexpensive energy available from nuclear explosions could prove useful for a wide variety of peaceful purposes,’ notes a report later prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy. From 1961 to 1973, researchers carried out dozens of separate experiments under the Plowshare program—setting off 29 nuclear detonations.”

Oilfield artillery fights fires. Yes, you read that right. Cannons were applied as an early petroleum technology. They weren’t used to deal with competitors; rather, they were utilized for fighting oil storage tank fires, especially on the Great Plains, where lightning strikes often ignited derricks and tanks. The idea was to shoot cannon balls into the base of a burning tank, to allow oil to drain into a holding pit until the fire died. “Oil fires, like battles, are fought by artillery,” proclaimed a December 1884 article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As one contemporaneous account noted, “The marksmanship at first was not very good, and as many shots glanced off the iron plates as penetrated, but after a while nearly every report was followed by an outburst. The oil in the three tanks was slowly drawn down by this means and did not again foam over the top, and the supply to the river being thus cut off, the fire then soon died away.”

Don’t take our word for it. In Corsicana, Texas, where oil was discovered while drilling for water in 1894, you can see an oilfield cannon (donated to the city by Mobil in 1969). Another cannon can be found on exhibit in Bartlesville, Okla., near the state’s first oil well.

Million Barrel Museum’s failed elliptical oil tank. If you find yourself barreling, so to speak, along Interstate 20 in West Texas, don’t miss the Million Barrel Museum at Monahans in the heart of the Permian basin. This oil museum’s main attraction is an elliptical cement oil tank, which is the size of three football fields. “There were great oil discoveries around 1926 and few places to put the oil. No pipelines or tanks,” says Elizabeth Heath, chairwoman of the Ward County Historical Commission. A single well in Hendricks field produced 500 bopd.

“Unfortunately, the Roxana Petroleum Company—later absorbed by Shell Oil—did not have a pipeline to get all that oil to a refinery,” adds journalist Mike Cox in a 2006 article. To solve the problem, the company decided to build a giant concrete reservoir. Using mule-drawn equipment, workers completed an excavation and laid wire mesh over the packed earth, Cox explains. Contractors then started pouring tons of concrete.

“By late April 1928, workers hammered away at a wooden cover for the colossal tank, placing creosote-soaked support timbers at 14-ft intervals across the sprawling reservoir floor,” he reports. The timbers supported a domed redwood roof covered with tar paper. Completion of the walls, pillars and roof took just three months, because construction took place 24 hours a day.

Although the Monahans oil storage facility soon became known as the “million-barrel reservoir,” engineers had actually designed it to hold “a staggering five million barrels of oil,” Cox claims. It was filled with one million barrels just once. “One thing Roxana’s engineers apparently forgot to take into consideration was the weight of crude,” he says, noting that one gallon of oil weighs nearly eight pounds. “When Roxana injected a million barrels of oil into the tank, the weight bearing down on the concrete amounted to four hundred million pounds of pressure.”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” adds Heath. “It didn’t work. It leaked from too many places, and the company couldn’t seal it properly. When workers poured the cement, they did it in sections, so it made seams all around. You didn’t have caulking like we have today, so oil seeped into the sand.” Despite the tank’s domed, California redwood roof, oil began to evaporate. The wooden structure was dismantled soon after the start of the Great Depression, and much of the redwood lumber reportedly ended up in Monahans’ homes and businesses.

With that, bon voyage, as you begin your journey across 2017. May you have many more occasions to smile than frown. wo-box_blue.gif 

The Authors ///

Don Francis DON@TECHNICOMM.COM / For more than 30 years, Don Francis has observed the global oil and gas industry as a writer, editor and consultant to companies marketing upstream technologies.

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