Author's Note: This is the second re-post in as many weeks of an old article about underground blowouts...in honor, so to speak, of the mess going on in Crane County, Texas at the moment.
"Old Salty" Blew Out of Control for 89 Years. It is the longest running blowout in North American History
Alberta, Canada is a very old, very oily place, rich in history and fascinating events, including the first commercial discovery of oil in all of Canada in 1914 in the Turner Valley, southwest of Calgary. It was the famous Leduc discovery south of Edmonton that put Canada on the world oil map in 1947 , which I have previously written about here on Oily Stuff and again here, a piece I titled, Through a 40 Acre Choke.
The Turner Valley discovery in 1914, left photograph, led to oil fever and Albertans began banging away with cable tool rigs in the Peace River area northwest of Calgary along oil and gas seeps. Modest deposits of natural gas and thick, low gravity oil in conventional Devonian aged sands at shallow depths were found as early in late 1916.
Ultimately these "conventional" pays led to the discovery of some 180G barrels of potentially recoverable USGS) bitumen deposits near the surface in the Peace River Basin, Cold Lake and Athabasca plays, northeast toward Fort McMurray. Today, only the KSA and Venezuela have more potential recoverable oil than Alberta, Canada oil sands projects.
Peace River, Alberta; 1914, right. Photo by Jack Martinos.
The wild, Canadian west; a town full of gold hunters, whores, gamblers, murderers, trappers and people poking holes in the ground look for oil. Imagine this place buried in -30 degree cold in the winter and the importance of warm "joints" to drink in.
In 1915 an outfit from Calgary named the Peace River Oil Company got a permit to drill its first well in the area, 100 feet from the actual river bank. In the spring of 1916, at a depth of about 1,020 feet, the Peace River Oil's No. 1 well encountered a salt water flow below its surface casing shoe. Before broaching the shoe, flow rates were estimated at 30,000 barrels of water per day.
Peace River Oil No. 1, below...
No. 1 spud party; 1915, below....
No. 1 well flowing water into the Peace River, left.
Within a few days of initial loss of control the salt water flow broached the casing shoe, the banks of the river caved in and the rig collapsed. Miraculously the well appeared to bridge off weeks later and a new derrick was erected over the well and attempts were made to get pipe into the hole.
Poking at the problem with pipe broke the bridge and the well started flowing water again. THAT rig was lost and a crater ensued. Everybody involved in the well scattered for the hills, never to be seen again.
On the left is a photograph of the Peace River Oil No. 1 well in 1924, eight years after the initial blowout. There are joints of pipe jabbed in the casing, still sticking out of the well and water flow, still estimated at 30k BWPD, is gushing out of a hole in the embankment and pouring into the river. The water is estimated to have TDS's upwards of 10,000 mg/l. Trout and char are fleeing downstream as fast as they can motor to get away from the damn stuff.
With Peace River Oil executives likely then living in Ontario selling used cars, responsibility for controlling the well and stopping water flow into the river fell on the Alberta government.
The good news was that given flow rates in the great, Peace River the high TDS water from the blowout was diluted quickly and chloride contents of the river were pretty good at sample points only a mile downstream. The bad news was that the salt water flow was found to contain fairly high levels of NORM, back then simply called, radioactivity.
A relief well was engaged in 1955 and resulted in the Peace Oil No. 1 flow being reduced to little of nothing and it was cemented and capped. The underground blowout flow was not stopped, however, and salt water continued to flow into the river. The 431 R-1 relief well was abandoned when it began blowing salt water around its casing shoe, some 60-70 feet into the air, above. It did this for several years before calming down to a constant boil near the riverbed.
A second relief, 431 R-2, well was engaged in 1982 and it was abandoned due to lost circulation and unstable soil conditions. No intersection occurred. It began leaking salt water around its surface shoe and the surrounding crater kept getting bigger.
The two relief wells and the underground blowout were turned over to the Alberta Orphaned Well Fund in the 1990's and studies were undertaken to determine the source of salt water that had the hydraulics to flow at such great volumes for 80 years. The first 1955 relief well was plugged, as was the second 1982 relief well, a massive stabilization of the soil in the area occurred that would support top kill well methods, the old casing stub of the 1916 well was found and tied back, and a rig was moved in, seen below.
The kill string into the actual old well bore was 5 1/2" OD required for estimated rates to pump the well dead. Once the blowout zone was intersected, approximately 500 bbls. of 19 pound mud was pumped at 25 BPM followed by 800 bbls. of fast setting Thixotropic cement.
In 2003 the Peace River Oil Company No. 1 well, "Old Salty," was pronounced dead and properly buried, after 89 years of continuous flow.
Total costs to plug the bastard and stop the underground blowout were a staggering $11,000,000, all born by the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board and the province.
I relied on photos from the University of Calgary digital photograph library, the Alberta Historical Society, some really cool geological data available thru the AAPG and a terrific SPE paper (90542) titled Kill on Longest Running Blowout, dated 2004. One the SPE's paper's authors was the famous, Robert D. Grace.