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The Oil Century
Marking 100 Years Since Oil Gushed from Spindletop Hill

March 7, 2001 -- This three-part series by NPR's John Burnett and independent producer Wayne Bell aired on All Things Considered March 7-9, 2001.

The series begins with the discovery of the first American gusher in Texas and the fortunes that were made and lost. It also examines the environmental problems that followed and concludes with how technology has revolutionized the search for fossil fuels.


Spindletop, 1901
Photo courtesy Texas Energy Museum

Listen Listen to Part I: The Boom Heard 'Round the World.

On January 10, 1901, a tremendous roar was heard in the little sawmill town of Beaumont, Texas. With the roar came a 150-foot plume of oil that could be seen for miles. The event took place in the Spindletop oil field and changed the course of history.

By 1902, there were nearly 300 wells on Spindletop hill, and 600 individual oil companies. But rampant over-drilling began to turn the boom to bust in two years. Over the next 30 years, the U.S. witnessed a string of historic oil strikes in West Texas, Tulsa and the great East Texas field that transformed the Southwest.

Rio Bravo Blowout

Rio Bravo Blowout, 1926
Photo: Texas Energy Museum

Listen Listen to Part II: The Environmental Hangover.

Spindletop foreshadowed the future of the oil industry. The uncontrolled gushers created the first oil field environmental disasters.

Spindletop raged with a fire for a solid week in September, 1902, after a driller's carelessly discarded cigar ignited one of the wells. Oil was gushing high above the derrick top when flames reached it. There was no chance to shut off the flow because valves had not been installed. The fire was brought under control by a combination of steam and sand.

In recent times, oil field pollution has become a major problem in the oil patch of Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Property owners became rich from the oil beneath their land, but over the years, many have filed lawsuits against oil producers for contamination of groundwater.

Rio Bravo Blowout

Hoover/Diana Vessel
Photo: Exxon/Mobil

Listen Listen to Part III: Reinventing the Oil Industry.

In another of its perpetual cycles, the oil patch has sprung back to life. The number of working rigs in the United States has nearly doubled in the last two years, in part because of soaring natural gas prices.

But there's a larger force at work. High technology has re-invented the oil and gas industry. Companies are able to explore for hydrocarbons in places once forgotten, or once considered impossible, including the ocean depths.

One example is Exxon/Mobil, which has built the Hoover/Diana platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

The 127 million pound Hoover deep-draft caisson vessel is the size of an 83-story office building. When it was deployed in 4,800 feet of water, Hoover set a world water-depth record for a drilling and production platform.

When Hoover/ Diana finally peaks, it's expected to produce 325 million cubic feet of gas, and 100,000 barrels of crude a day -- enough to run two million vehicles on a daily basis. Now the industry is moving into ultra-deep water -- as much as two miles down -- where the costs will be even higher. But the big players predict it will be worth it.

Other Resources

The Texas Energy Museum

Exxon/Mobil's Hoover/Diana Project