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there she blows!

striking oil

a briefing document
and book review

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There she blows! striking oil, a subsidiary document to fossil fuels disasters and fossil fuels are a dirty business, is one in a series of briefing documents on the problems of power consumption, posed by the steady depletion of fossil fuels and most particularly of pumpable oil.
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adventure in oil reviewed
mesopotamia (with map)
eternal fires
end notes


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adventure in oil reviewed

Adventure in oil gives a very interesting description of the development of oil fields, especially in Persia. It catalogues the huge advantages brought to the area by the oil industry, in particular by British Petroleum (B.P.).

It was written as a promotion job for BP before the days of political correctness and nonsense about the oppressed of the Empire.

[p.60] "Scarcely did the caravan come to a halt than men, women and children would crowd round beseeching the Hakim [wise man or doctor] to prescribe for complaints in which Western medicine has little more than an antiquarian interest. Men wasted by long-continued dysentery, children with the characteristic disfigurement of severe chronic malaria which would be grotesque if it were not so pitiable. Gangrenous wounds, ugly festering limbs mutilated as the result of shark bites—these were typical cases. Perhaps also there would be an imploring summons to a case of scorpion bite or snake bite, or to minister to a peasant convulsed by tetanus, or to one suffering from the terrible distress of hydrophobia [rabies], in either of which latter cases the sufferer would be found manacled and shackled to prevent his doing violence to onlookers and so [p.61] passing on his strange madness. If smallpox was prevalent, then the swollen faces which seemed scarcely human would be an all too common object. Little cause for wonder that such wretchedness should hail the prospect of possible relief so eagerly or place so profound a trust in the will to help. Today these conditions are rare even in the East, but perhaps only those who have had such experiences appreciate to the full the incalculable benefits of preventive medicine."

The book is produced to a high quality with many fascinating photographs. There are also intriguing tales of daring-do from around the world during a period when the company was struggling from insecure exploration towards becoming a world power.

Unfortunately, Adventure in oil is long out of print and only available on the second-hand market. It is very interesting to read, and would be well worth reprinting.

Here is a marvellous description of an early oil well coming in:

Baba Gurgur, Iraq - 14th October 1927
The well was down to 1500 feet and had already presented some hopeful signs. Small showings of oil had already been detected in the mud-stream and the rock sample last taken had been found to consist of limestone with "live" oil seeping from it. As a result of this they had taken the safety precaution of changing over from rotary to percussion drilling. As soon as they began their shift Winger and his crew baled out most of the mud left in the casing, at the same time keeping 500 feet of it at the bottom of the hole as a precaution against any upward surge of gas and oil. Then they ran in their drilling tools.

The stillness of the night was broken only by the hiss of the boilers and the familiar, slow puff-puff-puff-puff, puff-puff-puff-puff of the steam engine—which is so precisely reminiscent of a heavy train pulling up the incline out of Euston station. Suddenly the bit, pounding away at the bottom of the hole, cracked through into the oil reservoir.

At the psychological moment, unaware of what was going on 1500 feet below, the driller decided to pull out the bit and clean the hole of cuttings. He had raised the tools to within 20 feet of the derrick floor when a piercing hiss drowned the noise of the engine. Gas and oil, released from the tremendous pressure in the limestone, were rushing up the hole. This was one of those moments when no one stops to ask questions. Winger ran to the boiler and set about extinguishing the fire. Another man, Sayyid Nur Ali, who was 50 yards from the rig when he heard the gas, immediately ran to the generator and turned off the electric current. As they were doing this, a fountain of oil gushed up through the floor and high over the top of the derrick into the darkness. It was heard rather than seen, for nobody dared light a lamp.

Daylight broke on a huge black pall of gas and vapour, and [p.87] a stream of oil flowing down the wadi leading away from the well. The first task, since power was needed to get the well under control, was to rig up a boiler in a safety zone out of the range of gas and to organise the laying of steam and water pipelines. At two o'clock in the afternoon, however, before this could be done, the pressure became so great that the heavy drilling string was blown sky high out of the hole with a tremendous roar. With nothing now left to restrain it the oil gushed freely from the well and rained like a black thunder shower on to ground that was already ankle deep in it. A few hours later when darkness fell all operations came to a standstill. With no lighting there was nothing to be done except wait until dawn the following morning.

In the meantime messages had been flashed to all the Field locations, to Baghdad, and to the Company's Headquarters in London with urgent requests for men and materials, so that by the next morning a small army of men was steadily converging from all sides on Baba Gurgur. Some of them who had travelled from the south reported that oil vapour had misted the wind- screens of their cars ten miles from the well. Among the first on the scene was H. C. H. Bull, then General Manager in Iraq and until his recent death Chief Accountant to the Iraq Petroleum Company, who came up by train from Baghdad and hurried from Kirkuk station in a taxi.

"Twelve miles from Kirkuk," he recalled, "we saw what we first thought to be a dump of trees against the background of buff-coloured hills, but we soon realised that the black smudge was Baba Gurgur oil spraying up into the air above the derrick. A roaring column of dark brown oil was shooting up through the steelwork and spraying out 50 feet above the crown block. As the wind increased, it flattened out and drifted off in a fine spray, accompanied by a thick cloud of gas.

On the windward side the air was clear and hurrying figures could be seen running to and fro from the well to the machine shop. All around the [p.88] hills were black with oil, while to the leeward they were hidden by gas fog and drifting oil spray."

From their observation post on the hilltop Bull and his two geologist colleagues hurried towards the derrick. Everything, from the roof of the machine shop to the pipe-carrying trailers and heavy drilling equipment, was dripping with oil. In the machine shop they were confronted by a group of American drillers in oil-soaked clothes with red-rimmed eyes peering out of oil-spattered faces, looking like a group of nigger minstrels. The well was gassing more and more fiercely and the stench must have been quite indescribable. The heavy blanket of gas that was by now creeping out all over the area made it quite out of the question to fire the new boilers or to light a light of any description. Anything that could be done had to be done by hand during the hours of daylight. The plan was to connect two 8-inch flow lines from the two side-openings of the well-head and then somehow to anchor down- the whole head, after which it might be possible to shut off the vertical flow and allow the oil to flow out through both sides and thus be brought under control. This would free the floor of the continual rain of oil and a: good deal of the gas. At this moment Nature played an extra card in the shape of a sandstorm and, as anyone familiar with these phenomena in the Middle East may well imagine, the place at once became a complete inferno.

"Sand and oil, coupled with the whistling wind, and the roar of the escaping oil"—to quote ML Bull again—"made one wonder if it was not beyond man's resources to cope with the situation. No man could work for long under such conditions and ten minutes seemed to be the average endurance. By the end of the day when everyone was exhausted, and the gas was collecting round the well owing to the complete absence of wind (the sandstorm had abated), both flow lines had been connected up, but they could not be used until the head had been anchored and an 8-inch gate valve fitted to one of them."

[p.89] To attempt to anchor the well-head meant working in the well cellar under the derrick floor—but this was full of oil. They managed to pump it nearly clear with five hand-pumps. The drama and excitement of the next move has been vividly recaptured by Mr. Bull. "With gas masks on, and oil dripping from their hats, the drillers worked feverishly in the cellar. The man actually at the bottom of the cellar fixing the tie-rods under the flange had a rope tied round him so that he could be hauled up if overcome by the gas. All day long men were collapsing and being hauled up unconscious to be revived outside in the comparatively fresh air. Some of the men were gassed two or three times a day, and yet staggered back to their jobs. It was inspiring to watch them, and the courage they displayed."

The oil was still roaring out of the well at the almost unbelievable rate of 12,500 tons a day and something had to be done with it. Already the stream of oil was a river in its own right 100 feet wide. About 400 yards down the wadi gangs of men were feverishly constructing a small bund, but "the oil rose at the rate of 4 inches an hour, and it was only with great difficulty that those trying to control it kept pace with it and prevented it from overflowing and rushing down the wadi out of control. When the bund was over 10 feet high, and leaking at the bottom, it was thought advisable to build further bunds at intervals down the ravine. Each bund had a by-pass channel cut round it to allow the oil to flow into the next reservoir when it reached a few inches below the top of the bund. Six bunds were constructed in all before I decided to go 17 miles away and build a reservoir capable of draining the ravine and storing a week's flow. We found a suitable place which required a bund 6 feet high and 700 feet long to make it capable of containing 200,000 tons. Kinch, the Labour Superintendent, went off into the desert among the Jibbour tribe and recruited 800 men who walked 40 miles in twenty-two hours. A few hours before the well was finally shut in the bund was about 2 feet high and the oil [p.90] 3 miles away. It would have been a hard fight to hold it if it had continued to flow."

In the meantime the black column of oil was clearly visible 5 miles away in Kirkuk and causing a tremendous stir. Women and children crowded the roof-tops to watch it, while the men made their way out on foot or in horse-drawn carriages to come for a closer view. The police did their best to prevent their coming too close—not without good reason since five employees, acting against orders, had already been rendered unconscious by the gas—but with the atmosphere by now thick for miles around it was a miracle that there was no explosion. The mere flicker of a light could have caused a holocaust almost unparalleled in peacetime experience. Company employees were sent round to all the nearby dwellings with dry rations so that their inhabitants would not need to kindle fires for cooking and even the Eternal Fires themselves were hurriedly smothered with earth—thus closing them down for the first recorded time since the days of Nebuchadnezzar, in addition there was always the risk of the weather breaking. If the autumn rains had come at any time during these ten critical days all the hastily erected bunds would have burst and thousands of tons of oil would have flowed in the direction of the Tigris with catastrophic results.

On October 19 the well was still completely out of hand and work was begun on the fitting of a new well-head control, or "Christmas Tree," while a 4-inch burning-off line, 2 miles long, was being laid to take over the pressure. It was finished in a day and a half, but by the evening of the second day the men had reached the limit of human endurance. To swing a 4-foot "Christmas Tree" weighing three-quarters of a ton over a 3-inch hole through which oil was gushing under a pressure of hundreds of pounds per square inch and connect it to the existing well- head fittings was an operation requiring a high degree of skill, patience and sheer physical strength—particularly since the "Christmas Tree," supported by ropes, was being constantly [p.91] swung out of alignment by the pressure just when the crucial moment seemed to have arrived,

Capping a gas jet spurt from a well.
Capping a gas jet rushing from a well

At last at 3 p.m. on October 23, nine days after the well had come in, the last bolt securing the "Christmas Tree" to the well- head fittings was tightened. Then, with anxious glances in the direction of the well-head gauges, the flow of oil and gas was gradually reduced. Slowly the great fountain of oil subsided and the roar died away. Men looked at each other in awe, and the silence, they say, was uncanny.

We may fittingly close the story of this historic episode with the comment of Sayyid Khadhir Lutfi, a retired army major now eighty years of age, who recalls it as though it were yesterday: "Though oil was not new to us—our people had been collecting it for centuries from seepages—the violent way it burst through, with all the poisonous gas, led many to believe that Allah was punishing them for their wrongdoing. Their fears, however, were quickly dispelled when the great economic advantages of the discovery dawned on them, and we were happy and grateful, knowing how it would open up a new way of life for our people."

Marker at abelard.org

circa 1944; Pazanun, South Persia (Iran)
The result was instantaneous. Gas shot up from the well with such force that within a matter of seconds one of those other scavengers of the Middle East, properly, though I fear rarely, known as kites, dropped dead from 2000 feet, at which altitude it had been wheeling, all unsuspecting, above their heads. To control this sort of force is no easy matter, since gas at very high pressure can cut through steel pipes at the bends in a matter of minutes. At first they opened the plant for an hour a day, then two, then four, and finally twenty-four. Seven British and 150 Persians operated this plant, in conditions arduous even for South Persia, Pazanun lies in a hollow surrounded by high and barren hills. When the wind does come to stir the hot and stagnant air, it roars fiendishly round the hills, turning the whole place into a seething bowl of dust. Water was scarce—for weeks the ration was doled out a pint at a time—and labour even scarcer, since even the tribesmen shun this dreadful place. Worst of all was the whining of the gas as it rushed through the makeshift plant and echoed round the valley, a ceaseless, meaningless sort of noise and the most maddening, as those who have lived with it declare, in the world. Nevertheless from this makeshift apparatus there now flowed down to Abadan no less than 50,000 gallons of the precious butanes every day.

Marker at abelard.org.

Fire in South Persia (Iran), May 1951
After a general mobilisation From Abadan and Fields a road was hacked out in four days and 22 miles of 6-inch piping were laid to bring water from the Karun river. Not far from the blaze they were able to sandbag a natural depression and turn it into a reservoir. Meanwhile the rig itself and the machinery had long since collapsed into a tortured tangle of metal—it remains there as such today—and from time to time great jets of flame would shoot suddenly from unsuspected quarters, as though snapping at would-be extinguishers of the fire.

While the preliminary work was being done on the water supply and the road, Kinley was directing work on a lengthy mobile canopy made mainly of asbestos sheeting, behind which he proposed to advance and inspect the well-head. He knew from long experience exactly what he wanted and despite the misgivings of many present he knew that it would work. The result was similar to the "testudo," or "tortoise," behind which Roman soldiers used to advance upon a defended fortress a couple of thousand years before, except that in this instance it was to be pushed forward by a tractor.

Before Kinley and his volunteers could advance, the canopy and the surrounding ground had been doused continuously by the fire hoses. Then they themselves were submitted to the same treatment. The noise of the fire—it was a high-pitched screaming sound rather than a roar—made it impossible to hear yourself speak within 200 yards, much less within the canopy, so they filled their ears with wax and rehearsed their orders by means of signs. As the time came to move the canopy gradually forward, firemen behind portable asbestos shields soaked the contrivance and the men in it continuously with water, while other firemen in turn gave "covering fire" by soaking the ones in front. It was like advancing behind a creeping barrage of water. Kinley's object was to get close enough to the tangle of wreckage to see where to place an explosive charge by which he hoped, for a start, to clear the well-head and turn the flames into a single [p.150] vertical jet. He was within 20 yards when he found all progress blocked by a red-hot conglomeration of pipes and casing stacked beside the well.

Next day volunteers somehow managed to cast a. chain over these and drag them c1ear by a crane, and the way was now open for the introduction of Kinley's next device, which was a long metal rod protruding, like a fishing-rod, from a bulldozer. To the other end of it was we1ded a tank containing a 40-gallon drum, with the space between the two filled with water. Volunteers, swathed from head to foot and hosed continuously, staggered up with 50-lb. loads of high explosive to fill the drum, Under the canopy, in a temperature still above 200°, the Field Superintendent, Eric Martin, placed the explosives in the drum, Kinley gave the signal to move the whole contraption forward to the heart of the flames and steadily the drum was lowered to the desired position. The arena was cleared; everyone withdrew to a safe distance; Kinley signalled by lowering his arm, and the charge was fired. The explosion thudded in men's ears—they could hardly hear it against the din—and in a fraction they saw the side jets vanish, leaving, as Kinley had hoped, one vast vertical flame.

Then they saw a demonstration of the forces of nature about which people talk with awe to this day. It is the highlight of a spectacular film made on the spot and is inevitably received by audiences with a momentary silence, followed by a gasp of wonder. As the explosion caused the broken well-head to disintegrate, it left the way open for the full force of the gas to escape upwards. Down in the hole was half a mile of 4-inch drill pipe. A second or two after the explosion came the fantastic sight of the whole half-mile of pipe shooting up from the hole like a long slender rocket. It shot away high into the sky, far above the thousand feet of flame, and here, twisting and turning and writhing like a serpent, it broke as though into mere pieces of string and fell slowly to earth.

A well-head blowing off its cap in Persia
A well-head blows in Persia. Half a mile of steel pipe shoots 2,000 feet into the sky.
The size of the light-coloured fire can be compared to the buildings at its base

[p.151] Rig 20 had at this time been blazing for a fortnight but it was another week before Kinley reckoned it safe to launch the second phase of his attack. In this he hoped with another explosion to snuff out the flame. He moved ail the firefighting equipment round to the old road, made further canopies and shields and a second reservoir, and caused water to be poured into the well cellar and all over the surrounding ground and red-hot wreckage continuously day and night for a week. Meanwhile special equipment of vast strength was going to be necessary in order to cap the gas, should he succeed in blowing out the flame, and this was being flown from Britain and the United States. Men who took advantage of the respite to retire to a rest-house far from the scene found that the screaming of the well vibrated in their ears as though they were still within hearing.

Kinley in the meantime was preparing his second bomb, 500 lb. of gelignite this time, and hanging, as before, on the end of a "fishing-rod." With hoses playing on it from every side it was advanced foot by foot to the very base of the 1000-foot column of fire. Once again Kinley lowered his arm, the plunger was pressed, and suddenly the mighty flame, which for three weeks had made it possible to read a newspaper at midnight a mile away, was out. It was instantly replaced by an equally vicious column of screaming petroleum gas, visible like steam. The second stage had been accomplished and the supremely dangerous work could now begin.

This involved cutting away some of the casing which was still protruding from the well and fitting a base on which could be clamped the huge 4 ½-ton hydraulically operated valve by which they hoped eventually to bottle up the gas. So long as the gas shot vertically upward it was comparatively safe, and now that the temperature had reverted to the mere 110° normal in [p.152] Persia at that time of year men could approach close to the foot of the column. When it came to lowering any kind of machinery over it, however, jets of gas must clearly rush out sideways and here would come the moments of extreme peril. One spark from one man' s shoe on a flint would light such a holocaust as would instantly destroy Kinley and all those working near the rig and possibly the firemen too. For several days he was content to pump water continuously on the site and particularly into the well cellar, which they were going to have to enlarge in order to cut away the casing.

Eventually Kinley and volunteers from the Company's Fields staff cut the casing, working within a few feet of the outlet of the gas, and after much difficulty managed to get the base fitted round the jet and cemented in. They were thus ready for what every man knew would be the most deadly peril of all, namely hoisting the great valve into position and clamping it down on the base. It was lifted by a crane and controlled by four gangs of men pulling on hawsers in different directions. Gradually they manœuvred it into position and, with feelings it is not difficult to imagine, brought it into contact with the gas jet.

The effect was like putting one's finger over the nozzle of the garden hose. Gas sprayed out in all directions and with such tremendous force as to hurl showers of rocks and small stones as though they were leaves blown by a gale. Kinley and his men not hear the clatter but they knew well enough that at this moment one spark from one stone would cause them to be engulfed in fire and reduced in an instant to charred and unrecognisable remnants. For a while the 4 ½-ton valve was buffeted about like a ping-pong ball in a shooting booth. Then suddenly . the single jet shot up again through the opening in the valve and all was well. The valve was lowered into place and clamped down. It was gradually closed; the jet subsided; and at last, for the first time in forty-three days, total silence reigned around Rig 20.

Marker at abelard.org

Near Kirkuk, Northern Iraq
The eternal fires through which they walked are today something of a disappointment. Hissing slightly, since they consist of self-ignited seepages of natural gas, they form a circle a few yards wide, into which it is possible to step with not too much discomfort, if with a certain amount of apprehension.

The flames are only two or three feet high, but the fact that in the memory of people still alive they were the height of a man indicates that in the time of Nebuchadnezzar they may well have resembled the roaring fiery furnace of the Old Testament—in which case the glory so long credited to Abednego and his two colleagues remains undimmed.

Though somewhat tamed over the years the eternal fires are still an awesome phenomenon, and the thought that in this very spot they almost certainly were burning in Nebuchadnezzar's day and were the object of personal comment by that idolatrous and contrite monarch and have been gazed upon with continuous wonder for five thousand years gives them a strange quality of “eternalness”, at the same time emphasising in the mind of the beholder the shortness of his own expected span. Nor is this reflection in any way diminished by the certainty that they stank as abominably in the days of Abednego and his colleagues as they do today.

They are, in fact, only the outstanding example among a number of similar manifestations in and around the Wadi Naft, or valley of oil, which is the main centre of the Kirkuk seepages and lies in the heart of the oil workings today. This too is a sight that should be gazed upon with wonder but, if the truth be told, it presents a melancholy and dispiriting aspect. The ravine is only a few yards wide and its banks a few yards deep, and the water is alternatively green with sulphur and black with exuding oil, the mixture being frequently bubbled and ringed by escaping gas. The ravine is surrounded by mounds and rocky [p.207] slopes and on all sides black oil oozes From cracks in the ground, making the surface slippery and slimy, in one place quite a considerable pit has been formed with bubbling oil at the bottom and flames at the sides. Empty petrol cans and barbed wire adorn the scene and all over the slopes small fires burn fitfully among the stones. I found myself with a strong sense of anticlimax reflecting that this historic scene resembled nothing so much as a large corporation rubbish dump.

The shortcomings of nature, however, must not be set on the debit side against the Iraq Petroleum Company, whose efforts to integrate itself with the economy of the country and spread its benefits as widely as possible among the citizens are probably not surpassed by any oil company in the world. This has long been a matter of deliberate policy and the pay-off in real as against lip- service goodwill is certainly impressive. Continuous effort has been made to avoid creating a self-sufficient oil community "inside the fence." Everything is bought in Iraq if Iraq can provide it, even though it might cost less if imported. Local contractors run the Company's buses and more than twenty building firms are kept continuously at work in building its houses. All over the country people are making a better living than ever in their lives, not merely by working for the Company, whose pay and conditions have always exceeded most of those in comparable walks of life, but by providing all the innumerable ancillary services.


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Adventure in oil by Henry Longhurst

Adventure in oil
by Henry Longhurst

Sidgwick and Jackson, hbk, 1959



end notes

  1. Mesopotamia (Mespot)
    Mesopotamia are the lands between [meso-, meso- A. Gr.] the rivers [potamus, potomus A. Gr.]. The rivers are the Tigris and the Euphrates, while the lands referred to are what is now Iraq, , southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria and bits of southwestern Iran.

    Map of Mesopotamia; Image credit:  	NordNordWest
    Map of Mesopotamia; Image credit:NordNordWest
    During World War One and after, the region of the British campaign in Mesopotamia was given the satirical name of Mespot.

  2. The eternal fire
    [Also called the ‘eternal fires’.]

    Name for the area in Iraq that became the Baba Gurgur oilfields. [Baba Gurgur means ‘father of fire’ in Kurdish and Arabic.]

    Also the name for the burning oil fires in that region. They are estimated to have been burning for 4,000 years. First mentioned by Herodotus, the flames are widely believed to be the Fiery furnace mentioned in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament of the Bible.

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