The History of Trinidad's Oil

The Smart Pumper

The Smart Pumper, despite its name, is not actually a “pump”: it is a device used to manage the existing pumping systems with which anyone who has visited the oilfields of south Trinidad are familiar, such as the pumping jack and the progressive cavity pump (PCP).

The Trinidad Branch of the Institute of Petroleum held its 22nd Annual Dinner at Bretton Hall Hotel on April 23rd 1960. The Chairman of the Branch, Dr. A.L. Down, addressed the assembly on the subject of “The History of Trinidad’s Oil”. As we renew our thrust to explore for new horizons and new fields, and as we approach the 1990s with guarded optimism over oil prices, it may be enlightening to look back on our past and remind ourselves of the considerable difficulties surmounted by the pioneers in the early days of exploration, and of our own proud record of having achieved several ‘firsts’ in the oil industry. With this in mind the  text of Dr. Down’s feature address at the 1960 Annual Dinner is reproduced here:
“Everyone here is aware of the importance of the oil industry to Trinidad and Tobago and of the immense benefit that has accrued to this island and its people through the efforts of the pioneers and technologists who built up the petroleum industry in this island.  But how many of our members and guests here tonight know any but the details of the beginning of the in industry in Trinidad? In spite of the efforts of certain of our members now no longer with us, in particular Mr. W.F. Penny, with the assistance of the Trinidad Branch and of the Oil Companies, there is no published history of Trinidad’s oil.

On the other hand much has been written about the beginnings of the oil industry in North America and particularly concerning the doings of a gentleman by the name of Colonel Drake, although we understand that he never saw military service and the title of Colonel was merely a subterfuge given by his financial backers in order to enhance prestige.

Last year – 1959 – saw the centenary of Drake’s well at Sugar Creek, Pennsylvania, when oil was encountered at a depth of 70 feet and in spite of claims by other countries, Canada recently in particular, that date has become by usage the starting point of the history of the modem oil industry.

Now what was happening in Trinidad in the year 1859? The Pitch Lake was of course well known, as our postage stamps remind us. Sir Walter Raleigh caulked his ships at La Brea in the Elizabethan days and no doubt the Pitch Lake was a source of wonder to the Spanish settlers, who probably considered it rather messy.   Certainly it aroused the interest of General Abercromby and Lord Cochrane when the island came under British rule following its capture in 1797. They were probably responsible for the visit of Dr. Nugent, an eminent member of the Geological Society, who visited Trinidad in 1807 for the expressed purpose of studying the Pitch Lake, and the account given to the Geological Society was published some four years later.

Little seems to have come of Dr. Nugent’s efforts until 1855 when arrangements were made for a geological survey of Trinidad, with specific reference to the Pitch Lake, which was undertaken by two gentlemen by the name of Wall and Sawkins, and they published “A Report on the Geology of Trinidad” or “Part I of the West Indian Survey” in 1860. This work is still referred to by geologists even today.  Much interest was aroused in the possibility of obtaining oil from the pitch of the lake or from formations surrounding the lake itself. The record shows that the Merrimac Company, registered in 1857, made attempts to produce oil by distillation of pitch, but furthermore in the same year they drilled a well to a depth of about 280 feet, which was a much greater depth than Drake’s well in Pennsylvania – and two years earlier – and produced oil therefrom.

In spite of their success the Merrimac Company went into liquidation, in all probability transportation was one of their major troubles, and, of course, the discovery of oil in the United States and the development of the shale oil industry in Scotland and elsewhere in the later 1850s resulted in the potential markets for Trinidad oil being supplied from closer sources.

A few years later another pioneer, this time a civil engineer from the United States by the name of Mr. Walter Darwent, interested a number of merchants in Port of Spain in floating the Paria Oil Company. Having drilled a dry hole somewhere near San Fernando, they completed a successful well in the Aripero estate in 1866-67 at a depth of 160 feet.

In the following year, another venture, the Trinidad Lake Petroleum Company, drilled a successful well in the La Brea area, striking oil at 250 feet. Darwent unfortunately died, and with his death, interest in the oil prospects of Trinidad lay dormant until the present century, with the exception of a solitary report of a hunter bringing in sample of oil collected from a seep near Moruga.

At the start of the present century the name of Mr. Randolph Rust, regarded by many as the father of the Trinidad Oil Industry, first appeared on the scene. In association with Mr. Lee Lum, who owned adjacent properties in the area, the long uphill fight to develop Guayaguayare into a commercial oil field was started in 1901 with Canadian financial backing.  Until the last few years during which time road communications have greatly improved, it was to many people quite an adventure to visit the southeast comer of Trinidad. It needs. but little imagination to appreciate at least some of the practical difficulties with which Rust had to contend in getting equipment into an area such as Guayaguayare. Everything had to be towed around from Port of Spain on lighters ‘ which were probably worked at high tide over the bar of the Pilot river to a roughly prepared landing stage from which the equipment was hauled by men through the bush or over rough clay roads.  The drillers employed were Canadians, and three or four expatriates with a group of Trinidadians, mainly from Mayaro and Guayaguayare villagers, starting with nothing that they had not brought in with them, and certainly with none of the general amenities of the civilised world at that time, got to work in the forests.

They overcame many difficulties and ill health and in May, 1902 the first well was begun, using the Canadian Pole System of percussion drilling. Three months later the well was completed at a depth of 1,015 feet, and oil was produced at the rate of 100 barrels a day. Eight more wells were drilled and there are reports in the early drilling logs that in some wells rotary drilling was used at depths below 600 feet. In spite of finding a number of producers and making a sustained effort over a period of 5 years, funds were exhausted and Guayaguayare was abandoned without making a commercial shipment, transportation of the oil out of the field being one of the major difficulties.  One of the results of Rust’s early efforts was interesting the Government to bring out an eminent geologist, Mr. Cunningham-Craig, in 1904 to map Trinidad geology with the primary object of locating oil fields. A third personality, as dynamic as Rust and Cunningham-Craig, arrived in Trinidad in January 1906, A. Beeby Thompson, an engineer with experience with British Oil Companies in Russia. At this time the great oil fields of the Middle East and Venezuela were undiscovered and the greater part of world oil production was divided about equally between U.S.A. and Russia.

Cunningham-Craig’s survey had directed interest to the Point Fortin region, and Beeby Thompson started building a base in this area for the Trinidad Oil Syndicate in late 1906. Conditions were unhealthy, staff and employees suffered severely from malaria and in April 1907 there was a serious outbreak of Yellow Fever. Drilling, however, commenced in May 1907 and with swelling and heaving clays, in spite of which a number of shallow producers were completed in 1907 and 1908 by percussion drilling. 

Productivity of the field being thus demonstrated, thoughts were entertained on forming a larger company, and this at a time when the Admiralty were getting anxious to secure oil supplies under British control for the Royal Navy, whose new ships were almost entirely oil burners. As a result Trinidad Oilfields Limited was formed early in 1910, Beeby Thompson having meantime secured further acreage, including the area known as Parry Lands.  In 1911-12 a number of prolific wells were drilled in this area, one flowing 10,000 bbls/day from a depth of 1,400 feet.  Thus Trinidad’s first commercial success was achieved, by the Trinidad Oilfields Limited, which was taken over in 1913 by United British Oilfields Limited, now Shell (Trinidad) Limited.

At the same time as this development in the Point Fortin area, and encouraged no doubt by the successes of Trinidad Oilfields, others started drilling in the neighbouring areas. The Trinidad Lake Petroleum Company drilled a successful well to the south of the Pitch Lake in 1909 and three years later extended their operations into Vessigny where they brought in a number of good producers. Well No. 42 caught fire in October 1912, when producing oil at a rate of 30,000 bbls/day.

Owing to the pressures encountered, troubles with blowouts were numerous and fires occurred all too frequently. The records tell us that in 1912 Mr. Stollmeyer, drilling in his Perseverance Estate near Guapo, struck oil at 250 feet, but the well blew wild and some 80,000 bbls of oil escaped down the Vance River, and one can imagine the pollution problem that resulted. With the high pressures encountered in these shallow wells, it seems to have been the generally accepted thing that gushers would be encountered.

Consequently arrangements were made to salvage as much of the oil that gushed as possible; hence whilst drilling was in progress earthen dams and drains were  constructed to contain the oil. Since no one knew when oil was likely to be encountered, if it was encountered at all, an emergency crew was kept on hand with pumps, spades and picks. Since some of these wells, when they did produce, made as much as 10,000 bbls/day for several days, as one contemporary writer put it, “the emergency crew had to rush around quite a bit”. Invariably the wells quit through sanding up or through collapse of the casing and as much of the oil as possible was then pumped away to storage. Some of the early drilling logs make most interesting reading and I quote:

“Well blew two joints of five-inch above crown block”

“Had to close down owing to gas rocks coming out of the hole”

“The pressure lifted the rotary table less than 30 feet up into the derrick’

“Well blew five joints of eight-inch casing up into derrick bringing down travelling block and crown block”

“Well flowed tools out of the followed up with oil and sand shooting rocks out of the hole”

Mention has already been mad rotary drilling, and the first well drilled entirely by this method was Parry Lands No. D4 completed to 580 feet in 1914. About this time in the y immediately preceding World War I number of other companies, who with us today, made their appearance Among them, Trinidad Leaseholds Limited, now Texaco Trinidad founded in 1913, who brought in the first producer in Forest Reserve in 1914, the discovery well for that field and Trinidad Central Oilfields, form by Alexander Duckham as a private company in 1911, with headquarters Tabaquite. The year 1914 – the outbreak of World War I – saw Trinidad oil production pass the 1 million-barrel mark for the first time.  Colourful as is the early history oil production in Trinidad, one in remember that production is only stage one, to be followed by storage, transportation, refining and marketing.

Early storage of crude oil in Trinidad was in underground earthen tank Some must have been of considerable size. Rust records 300 bbls being stored in one in the early days in Guyaguyare are, and there is a report that a pony fell into one and drowned, being unable to swim in crude oil. In 1914 a report showed 30,000 bbls of crude in earthen storage tanks in Forest Reserve. There are few details of storage tanks prior to this time although in 1910, six large 64,000 bbl tanks were erected Brighton.   The first export cargo of crude oil was loaded from Brighton in 1910 Later, pipelines were laid to load crude oil at Pointe-a-Pierre and Claxton Bay the former from the Forest Reserve Field and the latter, the light crude from Tabaquite.

Concerning the former there is an interesting account concerning the Admiralty tanker Masconomo, the date August 16th 1916. The captain went ashore and asked the manager: “Have you got any oil?” The manager replied: “Not at present, but if you care to wait a day or two, we’re drilling a well and we’ll give you all it’s got if it gets any!”

The captain decided to wait and with some of his officers made a trip to Forest Reserve to see the well brought in. Fortunately, the initial flow was sufficient to complete the cargo, and oil was pumped straight from the well into the ship, no doubt plus water and sand.  On the refinery side, the first small crude unit was established at Point about 1910, followed by Brighton. A number of other units were built to supply local requirements of gasoline and burning oil, and in 1917 the refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre was started. like all refineries of the period the basis was the horizontal boiler type crude stills. The year 1922 saw the introduction of a cracking plant at Pointe-a-Pierre, rather before the days of the cracking art, as the following description would indicate, – “Trees in the vicinity of the plant, when it was in operation, exhibited glorious autumn tints as a preliminary to dying, birds passed away in the atmosphere of hydrocarbon vapours and hydrogen sulphide, silverware turned black with prolific deposits of silver sulphide, and the whole neigbourhood was rendered uninhabitable”. After a few attempted runs the unit was changed over to topping duties.

These brief glimpses into the past have already advanced us to the 1920s which saw other companies (Apex, T.P.D. and Kern) now with us become established, the eventual successful development of Guayaguayare as an  oilfield, and great technological advances in both producing and refining.

We all know that, whereas to the economy of Trinidad and Tobago,the oil industry is of greatest importance, on a free world basis our volume contribution is small – about 1/2% percent. However, on a technological basis the contribution of Trinidad’s oilmen has been significant and the efficiency of the producing and refining operations highly commendable. The industry here has recorded a number of notable “firsts”, to quote but two: – gamma ray well logging on the producing side and commercial n-butane isomerisation in the refining industry.

Most of the colour of the early oil pioneering days has long since gone, but the challenge to the oil technologist in this dynamic and highly competitive industry is greater today than ever before.”

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