General Articles


For six months men battled the wild black geyser that belched up a fortune in oil then blazed above the prairie like a satanic blowtorch

BLAIR FRASER November 1 1948
General Articles


For six months men battled the wild black geyser that belched up a fortune in oil then blazed above the prairie like a satanic blowtorch

BLAIR FRASER November 1 1948



For six months men battled the wild black geyser that belched up a fortune in oil then blazed above the prairie like a satanic blowtorch

DRILLER Bill Murray and his crew of four had the graveyard shift, midnight to 8 a.m., at Atlantic Oil Company’s No. 3 well last. March 8. It was a ciear cold night; Leduc oil field, 20-odd miles southwest of Edmonton, was under two feet of snow. To the well, already a mile deep, the evening shift had added 22 feet.

Murray’s crew worked four hours, made another 18 feet. Then they heard a rumbling underfoot, and the derrick platform shivered. Seconds later, a great column of gas and liquid mud blew up in their faces.

Murray yelled, “Cut the lights.” The gas was explosive; let a stray pebble smash a light bulb and the3^ might all be burned to death. Somebody threw the master switch. For a minute the crew fumbled around in the dark, then they ran for the boilerhouse and sat down to wait for daylight and a chance to look at No. 3 in its rampage.

It. was a spectacle, all right—one that ran for six months and a day and cost nearly a million dollars. Wild No.[3 brought up 1 L million barrels of oil in that, time—as much as all other Leduc wells produced in the first 17 months of operation—and several billion cubic feet, of natural gas. It churned 25 acres of rich farm land into an evil-looking swamp of black stinking mud which may never bear grain again. By God’s mercy, not a man was hurt in the whole long job of killing No. 3, but. it kept 50 men working in continual danger. Before it was finally and permanently killed on Sept. 9, it exploded into t he most spectacular fire ever seen in Canada, a pillar of flame sometimes 800 feet, high and visible for 40 miles.

Blowing Wild

I^VEN ON that first. March morning, it. was JLJ something to see. The reddish-brown plume of gas and oil and mud stood higher than the 136foot derrick. The rotary table at. the centre of the derrick platform was blown out. The great bushings that hold the drill in place are 300-pound cubes of steel two men can’t lift one of them. No. 3 was tossing them around like dice.

Murray sent a man over to camp to telephone Edmonton, and let the management know that No. 3 was blowing wild. No one at the field needed any noticethey could hear it.

Farmer John Rebus, on whose land Atlantic was drilling, was wakened by it. in his bedroom a quarter of a mile away; he wondered, not for the last time, whether the $200,000 and 12}C/ royalty he’d got, for his mineral rights were enough to compensate for the trouble the wild well would cause him. In the cookhouse next door, where “Ma” Ferguson was fixing breakfast for the day shift, a man couldn’t speak to his neighbor without shouting. The steady, high-pitched roar of No. 3 filled the room like something solid.

At daylight the task of killing the well began. The drill pipe was still in the hole and still connected. The plan was to pump heavy mud into the well and choke the flow of oil long enough to get a patented “blow-out preventor” into the casing at, the well-head.

They pumped in mud for 38 hours before the great, plume died down—38 hours in which oil spray fell over everything in a blinding rain and men came in for their meals “so black,” Mrs. Ferguson said, “that you couldn’t tell one from the other.” But. t he plume did sink at last. The well was killed for 17 minutes, long enough for two men to ram the sealing device into the gap between the drill pipe and the surface casing.

No. 3 was under control for the moment. Two or three days later the really serious trouble started. Gas began to bubble out. of the ground around the derrick.

In a completed oil well, you set a casing of steel pipe all the way down to the producing zone, which

at Leduc is a mile deep. Then you pump cement down the pipe and force it back up around the sides of the casing, welding it firmly to the surrounding eart h. The pressure of oil and gas in t he formation, which at Leduc is about 1,850 pounds per square inch, is held down by 5,000 feet of solid ground. It has no escape except through the pipe where it can be controlled.

No. 3 was not a completed well. Only “surface casing” for the top 300 feet, of t he hole had been set and cemented. Below that there was nothing to stop the great pressure of gas and oil in the drill hole from pushing its way through relatively loose material to the surface.

At first it didn’t look like much just a few bubbles spluttering out of t he half-frozen mud. But as time went on and t he ground thawed, the whole 25-acre field became a swamp of live oil dotted with active craters. Sometimes it oozed up quietly, sometimes it came up in geysers 20 to 50 feet high, but always it kept on coming. The whole field bubbled and quaked like a pot of porridge and the

oil ran down ojien ditches to collect in great jxiols in the sump jiits below the drilling rig.

For two months they tried to kill No. 3 by working through the original well-head. They jilanned to lower charges of exjilosive to set of a blast 2,000 or 3,000 feet below ground that would cave in the hole and seal it. But the drill jiijie was clogged and they never got it clear enough to jiut their bombs down. They jiumjied in fantastic quantities of {lacking material, hojiing to jilug it 10,000 bags of cement on one April day, another time about 100 tons of oats, sawdust, redwood shavings, cottonseed hulls and half a dozen jiatented sealing materials. Nothing liajijiened. All their contrivances just disajijieared into the vast formation of the Leduc oil field.

Meanwhile, danger was growing every day. Explosive quantities of natural gas were jiuffing out of these open craters every few minutes. About 70,000 barrels of oil had collected in the sump pits, ready to be ignited by a gas fire and more of if lay in shallow puddles or trickled down collection ditches all over the field.

By May 14, Atlantic No. 3 was formally recognized asa public menace. The Alberta Government, through its Petroleum and Natural Gas Conservation Board, took over the well and assured control of an area of four square miles around it. All work ceased at the well-head Continued on page 46

Continued on page 46

The Taming of No. 3

Continued from page 13

itself. All other wells in the Leduc area were shut down for three weeks, so that Imperial Oil’s pipe line to the railway could be used exclusively for draining the open pits of inflammable oil that lay around Atlantic No. 3. Roads leading past the wild well were blocked a mile away, and no one admitted without a Government pass. Work began on an entirely different method of killing No. 3.

To boss the job the Conservation Board borrowed Vincent John Moroney, Imperial Oil’s chief of operations, and for the next four months Tip Moroney spent all his waking hours and a good many others at the field. He carried a sleeping bag in his car, so he wouldn’t have to bother going back to Edmonton on a busy night; quite often he considered himself lucky if he had time to unroll it.

Imperial gave Moroney authority to call on all facilities and personnel that he needed, and he recruited a group of their best men, notably Charles Visser, the company’s drilling superintendent and “the best drilling man in Canada,” according to one colleague. They also got full and constant cooperation from the other companies in the field, raiding them for equipment, advice and personnel and putting their operations under numerous handicaps and restrictions which were cheerfully accepted.

Moroney’s plan was to drill two relief wells, starting each of them about 700 feet away from the No. 3 hole. They were to be drilled straight down for half a mile. Then each would be bent at an angle of about 21 degrees and drilled another half mile. The idea was that the relief wells should meet Atlantic No. 3 at, or near, the point where it entered the oil-bearing formation. Then material could be pumped down the relief holes to seal up No. 3.

It was about as simple as finding a needle in a haystack with a pair of tongs, in the dark.

“Directional” drilling—bending the well at an angle— is simple enough in principle. When the drillers reach the point where they want deflection to begin, they send down a tool called a whipstock, which is a piece of steel shaped like a stick of celery. That turns the hit in the desired direction

and that’s all there is to it—except that the ordinary difficulties of drilling are approximately tripled. Things go wrong about three times as often; the drill gets stuck, or comes apart and you spend days or weeks fishing for the loose end of it.

Atlantic No. 3 was drilled in sis weeks. To bring the two relief wells to precisely the same depth took just under four months.

But the real problem was not how, it was where to drill the relief wells. Nobody knew exactly where the bottom of Atlantic No. 3 was located—no directional survey had been taken. In theory, any ordinary oil well goes straight down; in practice, most of them twist off at a slight angle. The bottom of Atlantic No. 3 might be anywhere in a 25to 50-foot radius around the plumb line from the well-head.

Moroney got all the delta from surrounding wells. There are a dozes derricks within sight of No. 3—Imperial’s own No. 48 is only 300 yards away—and on a good many of these wells careful directional surveys had been taken. Looking at the results is the neighborhood, Moroney figurée that Atlantic No. 3’s deflection would run a few feet northeast.

Near Miss

Then he had to figure the probable deflection of his two relief wells. .4 drilling bit rotates from left to right in a directional well, it tends to “walk a bit to the right as it works its way down. So they started one relief wel a little bit north of due west of Atlantk No. 3 and the other a little bit west o due south.

Four months later, while gas and oil still bubbled from the field arount No. 3, the west relief well struck th| oil formation directly under Atlantic? well-head. The south relief well] with even more astonishing accuracy) pierced the Atlantic hole itself aboui 150 feet above the formation.

All through that four months, dangej never ceased. They cut some of thj fire hazard by pumping the 70,OW gallons of oil out of the sump pits They cut it a little more by connectir.} an outlet to the top of the drill pipi in Atlantic No. 3 and taking off pari of No. 3’s oil in the normal way. Bui the place was still highly inflammably as one roughneck had found out il

April. (Roughneck is a technical term in the oil business—means a helper on a drilling rig.)

Smoking was forbidden anywhere within a quarter of a mile of the wild well, but this roughneck thought it would be safe enough to light a cigarette in the privacy of the privy. He got himself comfortably settled, struck a match, and the privy blew up —apparently natural gas had been accumulating in its nether cavities. The roughneck was blown righ t through the door, landing spread-eagled in the mud. He picked himself up and ran for his life—witnesses swear he covered the next 100 yards in less than 10 seconds, with his pants around his ankles.

Luckily the fire didn’t spread, and they got it out in a few minutes. But this was in April, before the flow of oil became really bad; it was mostly gas that was escaping from the well at that time. If there had been oil all over the place, as there was a few weeks earlier, the whole field would have gone up in flames. You can imagine, therefore, the problem of keeping boilers hot all summer in the two relief wells.

The sites had been carefully chosen to take advantage of prevailing winds and wind socks were set up all round the field. Any time it looked as if gas or oil spray might be blown across either of the drilling rigs, the fires were cut immediately and the furnaces flooded with steam. This was another thing that slowed up drilling—sometimes the crew would be held up for days at a stretch.

Still oftener, John Rebus and his wife would take a look at the wind socks and know they should cook no meals that day—they’d get into the car and drive in to town for the day and keep on doing that until the wind shifted. The camp and cookhouse, originally next door to the Rebus farm, was moved another quarter of a mile back, out of danger.

All these precautions broke down at the end of August. Until then, the “cratering” had been mostly out in the field; the derrick and drilling rig at No. 3 stood quietly in the middle of it, looking exactly like all the other 150 derricks in the Leduc field. But during the first week in September, oil and gas began to break out right, around the No. 3 hole, undermining the derrick itself. Rocks as big as a man’s head were being thrown up right around the hole; if they struck a spark off any of the metal lying about, the whole field would take fire.

Labor Day week end, the derrick began to lean. It leaned southward, at first, and a gang of a dozen men went into the blocked-off area to try to jack it up. The whole crew knew that if the derrick fell, fire was almost a certainty—all that metal churning around in the crater would be sure to spark. The jacking project was probably the most dangerous single job of the whole summer. If the spark had come while they were at work, at least 10 men would have burned to death.

They hoisted it back to vertical and -got out as fast as they could. Within ;an hour, the derrick was leaning again — northward, this time. It was obviously going to fall. Moroney sent word £o the Rebus family that they’d better fiot sleep at home that night, j The derrick fell at one o’clock Labor pay morning, but still no fire. When «awn came, there was nothing to be ‘«een of the contractor’s drilling rig

the whole 136 feet of it had disappeared down the crater, all except a few feet of metal that had broken off the upper part of the derrick. The 'Well was throwing up oil, rocks and ‘thaïe like a small volcano, building a ¡taound about 15 feet high around the

central crater. From time to time it would throw up some of the 12-by-12 timbers on which the derrick had stood, tossing them around like matches.

That lasted all day Monday. At a quarter past six in the evening, Charlie Smith, a big Texan who’d been brought up in June as an expert in ! directional drilling, thought he’d like to get a picture of the crater. There was a little shack just beside it; from the roof, you could look over the edge of the mound of shale into the boiling, bubbling crater itself. Smith and a companion, Hie Kern, started to walk down the boardwalk toward the hole.


They were about 100 feet away and Smith had stopped to adjust his camera, when Kern yelled, “Look!” Over the crater hung a ball of fire “about as big as this room, it looked like,” Smith said afterward, in the living room of the overnight cabin ¡ where he and his wife lived all summer.

“It just hung there quite still, for what seemed a long time,” he said. “Actually I suppose it was about a tenth of a second. Then there was a big whoosh and up she went.”

Smith and Kern ran as fast as they could, but Smith turned and pointed his camera over his shoulder for the first picture of the blaze—distance about 200 feet. He still doesn’t know whether the shot came out, but it could have been good; the fire was already about 700 feet high, a great roaring pillar of flame with a plume of dense black smoke.

To the onlooker it seemed a disaster —$50,000 worth of oil burning each day, the most spectacular blaze ever seen in Canada. To oil men, it was a blessed relief.

One oil executive said, “When I heard that Atlantic had finally caught fire and nobody was hurt, I felt better than 1 had for months. Now we could breathe again.”

For the real danger was over now. No more danger of a gas explosion killing half a dozen men, for all the gas was being burned as it left the ground. There was some possibility I of the fire spreading—John Rebus moved all his furniture out of the farmhouse and loaded it on his truck, then spent the night on his tractor, i plowing up fire guards around the house and buildings. A dozen other tractors and bulldozers circled the blazing field, rolling up dikes to keep the fire contained in an area around the central crater, about 150 feet square.

By morning the danger was past; | Rebus put his furniture back in the house, without having had to move it. out of his front yard. Meanwhile, j No. 3’s death blow was just about ¡ ready to be struck, a mile underground, i

When the fire broke out, the west j relief well was within a few feet of the oil formation. On the Tuesday 2,000 gallons of acid were shot down, to increase the porosity of the rock and clear the path for enough water to choke off the oil and kill the fire. Wednesday another 3,000 gallons of acid went down. That did the trick —the well started taking water at the rate of 1,500 barrels an hour, and the same afternoon steam began to show in the burning well. By 10 p.m. it was evident the flow of oil had been cut; there was no more black smoke in the fire, just pure orange flame from j burning gas and steam from the injected water. The last bits of flame died at 4.45 Thursday morning. Nothing was left of the fire except a blackened field, a few bits of twisted metal and the dead crater—now an ugly puddle of greenish-grey mud, with a thin layer of water across the top.

Atlantic No. 3 was dead, but not yet buried. The west relief well was still pumping water into the formation; it was not in a position to inject, the cement cap tluit would seal off Atlantic No. 3 for good and all. But just a week later, the south relief well came through.

That started them on the last lap. 'They pumped thousands of bags of cement and other packing material -—first to seal the bottom 150 feet of the Atlantic well; then, after that hardened, to force a column of cement down the south relief hole and up the Atlantic hole, until it would show at the surface, ft was still a tricky job, unfinished for weeks after the fire had been killed, hut the indications were that in the end man would lick nature.

Why It Started

One interesting question remains: Why did Atlantic No. 3, of all the 150 wells in the Leduc field, alone blow wild?

Back in mid-February, they “lost circulation” at Atlantic No. 3—the mud they were pumping down the drill pipe, to clear the bit and carry up the debris, was no longer coming back up to the surface around the pipe as it should do. Instead it was leaking away into the porous limestone at the bottom, faster than it could be pumped in from the top.

Loss of circulation is a danger signal. That column of mud and the pressure that can be put behind it, is all the driller has to hold down the enormous pressure of the gas and oil, once he penetrates the formation. If the mud just leaks away in the hole, there’s nothing to pit against the uprush of oil and gas when the well comes in.

According to the hook, when you lose circulation you stop drilling until you get circulation restored. They tried several times to restore it at No. 3, hut nothing seemed to work. Then they tried a method that has been used successfully in the Middle East, drilling without circulation. The new method was not successful at No. 3.

However, there may not be much wrangling after all about whose fault it was, or who should pay whom. Wild No. 3 cost a million or more, from beginning to end, hut the million didn’t come directly out of anybody’s pocket. No. 3 was a natural disaster that paid for itself as it went along.

Of the 1)4 million barrels of oil produced there' this spring and summer,

250.000 were pumped back into the ground through Atlantic’s No. 2 well nearby. The other million barrels were sold by the Conservation Board for nearly $3 millions.

Out of that $3 million jackpot wall have to come the cost of the two relief wells, compensation to neighboring farmers for crops ruined by oil spray (a grove of trees a quarter of a mile away is still black with it in midSeptember), and so on. But no matter what the costs, there will still be left far more money than Atlantic Oil Company would have made from its No. 3 well in 1948 at the controlled production rate of 150 barrels a day.

Even the fire, which burned about

8150.000 worth of oil in three days, wasn’t a total loss. A Toronto stockbroker. at lunch one day with an Edmonton friend, said, “I don’t care what it cost, it was worth it three times over. Here in Alberta you’ve got one of the great oil fields of North America, a tremendous pool of natural wealth just discovered. Up to Labor Day, even Canadians didn’t know it was hert*now everybody’s heard of it from here to Mexico.

“That fire certainly put Alberta oil on the map.’ -Y