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DOGGR: Drilling Through Time

Before Europeans discovered California, Native Americans had discovered uses for petroleum. Asphaltum from oil seeps helped keep arrowheads on their shafts and made baskets watertight.

The Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources -- originally known as the Department of Petroleum and Gas -- never regulated the making of arrows or baskets. Its work began in 1915, at a time when the oil and gas industry was a booming free-for-all in need of a referee. Through the 20th Century and into today, DOGGR has helped the oil, gas and geothermal (a relative newcomer) industries maintain productivity while becoming more efficient, diversified and environmentally conscious.

"By and large, DOGGR and the oil, gas and geothermal industries have had an excellent relationship that has benefited the state's economy and population,'' State Oil and Gas Supervisor Bill Guerard said. "It's a legacy all Department of Conservation employees can be proud of.''

The world's first oil well, about 69 feet deep, was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. Two years later, an oil well was sunk in Humboldt County, California. It was dry. But the state experienced a two-year boom in the mid-1860s, as 65 oil companies drilled from Humboldt Bay to Ventura. Our industry was off and running.

The first legislation involving the industry -- aimed at preventing the intrusion of water into oil strata -- came in 1903. However, there was no enforcement agency. Other regulations followed in 1909 and 1911, but they were often ignored. It was becoming obvious that a statewide organization was needed to monitor the industry. The Department of Petroleum and Gas came into being Aug. 9, 1915, under the State Mining Bureau.

Mining engineer Roy McLaughlin was appointed State Oil and Gas Supervisor. The Department of Petroleum and Gas had a yearly budget of $45,000 -- hardly enough to oversee an industry of 7,000 wells producing 237,000 barrels of oil a day, not to mention 80,702 acres of oil land, about 2,000 miles of pipeline, 30 refineries and 40 tank steamers.

The department gained true credibility with the industry through a mishap at Elk Hills, near Bakersfield, in June of 1919. The department had tried to convince Standard Oil it was drilling improperly through a gas zone, only to be ignored. Shortly thereafter, fires lasting four and 10 days, respectively, started when two wells on the field blew out. It was estimated that 140 million cubic feet per day of gas was flowing out of the second well, Hay No. 7, at the time it was capped, 26 days after the fire began. That well produced an unprecedented 43 billion cubic feet of gas over the next seven years, making it the world's most productive gas well and confirming the Department of Petroleum and Gas evaluation.

By the end of World War I, the importance of petroleum was clear. Demand for gasoline for automobiles began growing. In 1930, the Department of Petroleum and Gas became the Division of Oil and Gas, under the Department of Natural Resources rather than the State Mining Bureau.

During the Great Depression, the oil and gas industry took a big hit in California. But it wasn't dormant. In June 1934, General Petroleum Corporation broke the world record with a well 11,377 feet deep in the South Belridge Oil Field. In 1936, the state's largest gas field, near Rio Vista, was discovered.

California oil was a target during World War II. A Japanese submarine attacked the Richfield Oil Corporation tanker Agwiworld as it sailed from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The tanker tried to ram the sub and made it to Santa Cruz with only slight damage. A sub sank the tanker Larry Doheny and a sub fired at an oil field near Santa Barbara on Feb. 23, 1942. Except for one salvo at an Oregon target and the launching of some balloons carrying explosive/incendiary devices, that was the only enemy attack on the continental U.S. during the war.

Offshore drilling, first accomplished in 1897, became vogue in the postwar years. The first offshore oil well was drilled in 1897 on a pier at Summerland, just south of Santa Barbara. The state started to open up offshore lands for exploratory drilling in an effort to boost sagging production. In 1957, 85 of the 106 notices to drill new wells were of the offshore variety. On Sept. 20, 1958, Standard made the first new-field discovery from the sea, rather than from dry land, starting a new era.

In 1965, the Division of Oil and Gas became part of the Department of Conservation. During the decade, oil producers tried a variety of methods to heat the heavy crude oil they couldn't pump up, making it flow more readily. The most effective of these proved to be the injection of steam or hot water into the ground. In 1967, California's daily production went over one million barrels for the first time in 14 years. In 1968, the state produced a record 373.2 million barrels.

Geothermal energy was first tapped in the state in 1922 at The Geysers, 75 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. More recently, Pacific Gas & Electric opened Geysers Power Plant Unit 1 on Sept. 25, 1960, generating enough electricity for a city of 12,500 people. By 1973, there were 10 generating plants at The Geysers, making it the world's largest geothermal power facility. The Division of Oil and Gas began to oversee the geothermal industry in 1965 and the division's name was expanded to DOGGR in 1992.

In Feb. of 1969, the state was confronted with its first offshore oil spill when a well blew out. It took the operator of the federal lease 10 days to stop the flow of oil and gas, and the incident was followed by lawsuits and proposed legislation to block all offshore drilling. Two years later, the first comprehensive report on the state's offshore oil and gas seeps was published.

Onshore, DOGGR was taking a closer look at potential environmental hazards. Assembly Bill 2209 became effective Jan. 1, 1974, providing for sump inspection and correction. Within five years, most of the pits containing oil from production operations had been eliminated or screened to prevent wildlife from falling in. In 1975, the division targeted hazardous and idle-deserted wells for plugging and abandonment.

In 1986, the division began its construction-site review and well-reabandonment program to ensure construction would not take place over improperly abandoned wells. Three years later, a program to remove unneeded equipment such as cable, pipelines and tanks from various sites was begun. Some of the work was done on land considered prime habitat for endangered species.

In the past decade, DOGGR has used new technology to more efficiently track well data. DOGGR also plugged a record number of orphaned oil and gas wells (398, for a total of 535), and is taking a proactive approach to the remaining 600 or so in the state. Also, DOGGR began plugging and abandoning geothermal wells, and received legislative authority for the regulation of oilfield tanks and pipelines.

California is the nation's fourth-largest oil producer, behind Louisiana, Texas and Alaska, with 278.2  million barrels produced in 2003. There are more than 3 billion barrels of proven crude reserves in California (onshore and offshore), meaning DOGGR will be busy for years to come.

Much of the information for this story was taken from ``Drilling Through Time,'' by William Rintoul, available from DOGGR.

Go to the Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal Resources