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Through a 40 Acre Choke

I wrote this three years ago and it sure was fun. This is a cool story, one that you will likely remember because of... chicken feathers.

I spoke once in Calgary about the history of well control and had to be very mindful of a proud City and the role that Safety Boss, Inc. has played in Canada's oil history and in worldwide blowout history. I caught myself just in time, several times, wanting to talk up the role that Texas played in the blowout business and focused instead on some big jobs that Safety Boss had done all over the world, particularly in Kuwait. It all worked out good and I drove my rental car up toward Edmonton one afternoon to look at this Leduc area. Alberta is neat place in a big, grand country.


Alberta's first significant oil discovery occurred in Leduc Field south of Edmonton in 1947 when some really juicy Devonian reef was found by Imperial Oil Company at 5,000 feet in its No. 134 well. A geologist named Ted Link was responsible for the discovery and an engineer named Vern "Dry Hole" Hunter completed it.

Mr. Hunter, I believe, got a bum rap with that handle as it was Ted Link's geology that led to 133 consecutive dry holes in the basin before well No. 134 found some grease. Vern said he was use to "plugging wells, not completing them," but the new well ended up having potential for 300 BOPD and Alberta was on the world oil map. The Leduc well is a neat story that can be read here, on Oily Stuff.

Imperial Oil, Leduc No. 134 in Alberta, Canada.

Frank McMahon, left

A gentleman named Frank McMahon, operating under the name Atlantic Oil Company LTD, quickly snagged a 160 acre lease from a farmer named Rebus, for five bucks an acre and a 1/8th royalty (take THAT, Aubrey!), about a mile away from the Imperial discovery well. The Atlantic No. 1 was completed open-hole in the same Devonian reef as Imperials discovery at a depth of 5,135 feet. The well IP'd for 2,900 BOPD on October 2, 1948.

A quarter mile east of the No. 1, the Atlantic No. 2 was completed in December in a section of the reef called the D-3 zone, for about the 2,650 BOPD. The well had lots of lost circulation problems and took numerous gas kicks in the top of the reef before reaching TD.

The No. 3 well was spud in late January, 1948. In spite of well control issues in the No. 2 well, only 296 feet of 10 3/4 inch surface casing was set and nippled up with a penche sort of blowout preventer called a Hosmer Button that was designed in California for shallow, low pressure stuff. The Hosmer Button is better described on Oily Stuff, here.

The No. 3 well was drilled to 5,331 feet TD by March, in the D-3 zone, and open-hole logged by Schlumberger. During a clean up trip complete circulation was lost and shit hit the fan when the well came to see them and the Hosmer BOP failed.

The well blew out of control for days, then calmed down enough to get tied onto the kelly and a massive 11,000 sack cement squeeze was pumped by Halli to kill the well. Story was that numerous hands quit that day, tired of toting around and ripping open 90 pound sacks of cement for twelve straight hours, which I get, completely. Besides, in late March it was probably still cold enough in Alberta to freeze snot.

The squeezed failed but slowed the flow down enough for Atlantic hands to get the Hosmer Button off the casing head. A bladder type Hydrill was then nippled up and pumping down the drill pipe was re-commenced, again, to kill the well.

In March 90 sacks of mud were shoved in to the No. 3 well along with 43 tons of cotton seed hulls, 21 tons of sawdust, water, mud, lime and almost a half ton of chicken feathers. I am not kidding.

Daily drilling report, March 8, 1948, after the well first started blowing.

The drill pipe plugged at the bit, probably with chicken feathers, and the well could no longer be circulated. The DP then became stuck. Myron Kinley showed up and stayed for a week. His young protégé, Red Adair, came up from a job in Colorado and joined him a few days, then left to go back to Houston. A 'macaroni' string of 1 1/2 inch pipe was run inside the 5 inch drill pipe to wash out the obstruction. That failed. The 1 1/2" got stuck inside the DP. It was shot off, pulled, the drill pipe was perforated and everything but the kitchen sink was pumped downhole, again, to try and kill the well. Nothing worked.

The blowout flow then broached the surface casing shoe at 296 feet. A crater formed 50 yards from the well and oil started bubbling up everywhere. Things were getting worse by the day. Kinley left over a disagreement on how to proceed and went back to California. In late May, the Province of Alberta ran off Altantic Oil and took over well control efforts.

Myron Kinley on the Atlantic No. 3 rig floor, far left behind the pressure gauge, wearing his all too familiar gingham wool cap.

By mid June estimated flow rates were pegged at 11,300 BOPD. Over 700,000 barrels of oil were recovered from the crater during the ensuing months and pumped down a pipeline. The crater ultimately grew to over a hundred feet in diameter and Frank McMahon mouthed off to the press about his well "producing thru a 40 acre choke."

In the mean time, all wells in the entire field were shut down and two relief wells were initiated on opposing sides of the blowout well, south and west, the westerly most well, the Leduc No. 148, was initiated by a very pissed-off Imperial Oil Company whose wells were getting the hell drained out of them. Both relief wells almost blew out. One well was deviated by Eastman, the other by Homco. The southerly most relief well lost circulation constantly and twisted off the drill pipe on two different occasions. I am pretty sure by then everyone involved in the Atlantic No. 3 blowout was feeling snake bit.

The oilfield can be a bitch and about the time things seem like they can't get any worse, sure enough, they do.

Monday morning, naturally, September 6, 1948 the Atlantic No. 3 was blowing big chunks of shale and reef up thru the rotary table on the rig and something caused ignition to occur. The well caught fire, as did the entire crater of oil.

Atlantic No. 3, September 6, 1948; a discussion underway of what in the hell to do next. These sort of "meetings" are quite common in the business of oil well problem solving. In the two photos above one can see both the west, and southerly most relief wells in progress.

Frank McMahon's well on a "40 acre choke" is now on fire and burning 40 acres of solid oil.

Ironically, within a day for the well catching fire the westerly most relief well drilled into the same D-3 section of Devonian reef the Atlantic 3 was suspected to be producing from and they started cramming 30,000 barrels of water per day into the formation from a nearby river. The fire started to diminish immediately. Two days later the opposing relief well on the south side of the blowout also intersected the D-3 zone and it too started pumping water into the reef. The fire went out.

Under the supervision of two fellas named, Tip Maroney and Charlie Visser, the south relief well then started pumping mud, LCM, including more chicken feathers, and a cement/lime mixture called Calseal into the reef section. A poor bastard ultimately nick-named Andy "Can't Seal" Hamilton, with the Calseal Company, miscalculated BHT and cemented up the entire string of 5 inch drill pipe in the south relief well, top to bottom. He was shown the cattleguard, the pipe was pulled for fence posts and a new string of drill pipe was run back in the hole.

Over the course of the next two months the south relief well squeezed cement into the D-3 reef section under the Atlantic No. 3 using a sort of a check valve thing in the drill pipe called a "bazooka." At least nine different squeezes were made, drilled out, and re-squeezed. While all this was going on the No. 148 westerly relief well was still draining the nearby river into the same zone.

Finally, in early November, the Atlantic No. 3 was officially pronounced dead. A new well head assembly was placed on the well and monitored for pressure buildup. Both relief wells were ultimately turned into producers, the vast crater was filled in and farmers were allowed to return to their nearby homes. Inquires, blaming and lawsuits got underway. Most of the criticism of this blowout, as one might expect, focused around insufficient depth to the surface casing shoe and poor well design.

Dead and buried, with tombstone in place, Atlantic Oil Co. "mourners" don't seem all that upset.

The Atlantic No. 3 blowout lasted over nine months. Well control and relief intervention costs totaled 946,645 Canadian dollars. Royalties and damages paid to surface owners and Imperial Oil Company were an additional $561,558. That was a lot of bucks back in those days.

An estimated 1,407,000 barrels of oil were produced from the Atlantic blowout and about 998,000 barrels of that was recovered. That's a lot of oil from one well. That oil was sold for $1.35 per BO. The rest went up in smoke, super saturated the soil, re-painted local horse barns and/or was sucked out of the crater and pumped back down the relief wells after intersection. Over 2,500,000 BO and 30 BCF of natural gas were estimated to be permanently lost as a result of reservoir damage and loss or "re-distribution" of bottom hole pressure into other zones in the field.


Men like Frank McMahon, and thousands like him over our unique history, had huevos. They spent their own money and lived and died by their own sword. The oilfield today is run by bean counters that mass manufacture $8MM wells on 40 acre spacing, using other people's money, for 5% IRR's. Phfttttt. This story is real oily stuff and I had fun writing it.

I relied heavily on data from the Alberta Petroleum and Natural Gas Conservation Board, some notes I have in my Kinley files and the excellent work of S.A Kerr in his book titled, 'Atlantic 1948 No. 3.' There are a lot of articles written about this well on the internet and for those interested there is even a YouTube video somewhere about this blowout. There has always been some confusion about whether Adair worked for Kinley in 1948. He did, as a full time employee.


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