Giant rigs drilled to record depths in Oklahoma during the 1970s.
The Anadarko Basin extends across more than 50,000 square miles of West-Central Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. It includes some of the most prolific – and deepest – natural gas reserves in the United States.
Beginning in the late 1950s, when technological advances allowed it, Anadarko Basin wells in Oklahoma began to be drilled more than two miles deep in search of highly pressurized natural gas zones. By the 1960s, a few companies began risking millions of dollars and pushing rotary rig drilling technology to reach beyond the 13,000-foot level in what geologists called “the deep gas play.”
Although most experts disagreed, Robert Hefner III believed immense natural gas reserves resided even deeper, three miles or more. Hefner and other independent producers formed GHK (Glover-Hefner-Kennedy) Company, Oklahoma City, to drill expensive, ultra-deep wells into the heart of the Anadarko Basin.
The first attempt began in 1967 and took two years to reach what at the time was a record depth, 24,473 feet. The well found plenty of natural gas, according to historian Robert Dorman, “but because of price controls, the sale of the gas could not cover the high cost of drilling so deeply — $6.5 million, as opposed to a few hundred thousand dollars for a conventional well.”
Undeterred and “in hopes that the economic equation would change,” Hefner drilled another ultra-deep well, Dorman notes. In 1972, the Baden No. 1 well near Elk City, Oklahoma, set a new world-record depth of 30,050. The steel pipe alone that went into the well weighed more than 1.2 million pounds.
1974 World’s Depth Record
Drilling at such great depths required new technologies – and big rigs. “Hefner and his associates learned a good deal from the Baden well, which they proceeded to apply to their next, most renowned project: Bertha Rogers No. 1,” Dorman explains in the 2006 book, It Happened in Oklahoma. “Bertha Rogers pushed the technology envelope even further.”
Using specially designed extra-wide pipe, GHK and partner Lone Star Producing Company began drilling in November 1972, averaging about 60 feet per day. A string of 14-inch diameter casing weighing in excess of 106 pounds per foot was cemented in the well at 14,198 feet. The 1.3 million pounds of casing was the heaviest ever handled by any drilling rig in the history of the industry.
On April 13, 1974, Bertha Rogers No. 1 reached a total depth of 31,441 feet – where it encountered liquid sulfur. According to Lone Star Producing Company, the bottom hole pressure and temperature were an estimated 24,850 pounds per square inch and 475 degrees Fahrenheit respectively. It required about eight hours for bottom hole cuttings to reach the surface almost six miles above.
“It was the deepest hole in the world until it was surpassed by a well in the Soviet Union several years later,” Dorman reported. “Even so, Bertha Rogers reigned as the deepest well in the United States for three decades, finally exceeded in 2004.”
Drilling strained the giant rig’s equipment to the limit (the well had to be “fished” 16 months after drilling began, see Fishing in Petroleum Wells). Because of dangerous downhole conditions, including corrosive pockets of hydrogen sulfide, Dorman adds that the historic Oklahoma well had to be completed at a shallower depth.
Although no gas was produced at its record depth, the well was successfully competed as a natural gas discovery at 13,000 feet. “Like its predecessors, the Bertha Rogers as a business venture was a losing proposition,” he notes. “It cost $7 million but yielded relatively little gas. Some observers classified it as an ultra-deep dry hole.”
However, Dorman concludes, Hefner’s belief in the deep Anadarko Basin would prove true as drilling technologies improved by the 1990s. Decreases in drilling times by as much as two-thirds helped contain costs. By 2002, Oklahoma’s deep wells had produced more than six trillion cubic feet of natural gas – with trillions more yet to be found. In 2004, gas passed oil to become the state’s most valuable energy commodity.
Parker Drilling Rig No. 114
Another Anadarko Basin giant drilling rig has made a lot of history. With one of the tallest drilling masts in the world, today the former Parker Drilling Company rig attracts tourists passing through Elk City, Oklahoma.
In 1969, Parker Drilling Company signed a contract with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to drill a series of holes up to 120 inches in diameter and 6,500 feet in depth in Alaska and Nevada for nuclear bomb tests. Parker Drilling’s Rig No. 114 was one of three special rigs built to drill the atomic wells.
Founded in Tulsa in 1934 by Gifford C. Parker, by the 1960s Parker Drilling had set numerous world records for deep and extended-reach drilling. The company developed and tested new deep-drilling technologies that would become industry standards.
The Parker rigs tested nuclear bombs. A separate government program used down-hole nuclear devices in New Mexico and Colorado as part of a wider set of experiments.
The experimental nuclear well fracturing program, which included Project Gasbuggy for increasing petroleum production from shale, was established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957. It was part of a wider effort to explore peaceful, constructive uses of nuclear explosive devices. Learn more in Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear “Fracking.”
Following completion of the nuclear-test wells, Parker Drilling modified Rig No. 114 and its two sister rigs to drill conventional but record-breaking wells, some reaching four miles deep. After retiring Rig No. 114 from service, Parker Drilling loaned the giant to Elk City, Oklahoma, as an energy education exhibit next to the Anadarko Museum of Natural History.
Since 1991 the 180-foot rig (still one of the tallest in the world) has welcomed visitors traveling on Route 66 or I-40 to Elk City and the now closed oil museum. An independent producer and advocate for petroleum history, in 2006 John West preserved artifacts in the Anadarko Basin Museum of Natural History, which was later closed due to a lack of support.
“Because it sits on a small lot, the rig could not be laid out and assembled on the ground, then raised into position, as rigs are built in the oil fields. Instead, pieces were raised by crane and pinned by Parker employees who climbed the rig as it grew taller,” noted a January 28, 1991, article at NewsOK.
Superman and the World’s Deepest Oil Well
The risk of drilling too deep highlighted the theatrical release of the first full-length Superman movie on November 23, 1951. “Superman and the Mole Men,” which earned good reviews, featured reporters Clark Kent (George Reeves) and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) on assignment in the town of Silsby, “Home of the World’s Deepest Oil Well.”
The National Oil Company had been making news at its “Havenhurst Experimental Number One” drilling site — especially after the drill bit had “broken into clear air” at a depth of 32,742 feet. “Good heavens, that’s practically to the center of the earth!” Lois exclaimed. (In fact, the deepest U.S. well in 1951 reached 20,521 feet.)
After finding organisms on the drilling equipment, oil company executives concluded there must be life, perhaps even a civilization, far below the surface. Alarmed, the company attempted to cap the well — but small humanoid creatures emerged from the borehole. The townspeople fear a mole-men invasion. It would take the steady nerves and compassion of Superman to resolve the crisis. He calmed the mob, saved the Mole Men, and returned them to the safety of the well. In a spectacular conclusion, the derrick collapsed in flames, forever closing the connection between the two worlds.
Back in the real world, among the deepest wells ever was the “Kola Superdeep Borehole,” a 1989 experimental well drilled the Soviet Union. It reached 40,230 feet deep. In 2008, an oil well was drilled to 40,318 feet in Qatar. In 2011, a 40,502-foot well was drilled offshore of the Russian island of Sakhalin.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Join AOGHS and help maintain this energy education website, expand historical research, and extend public outreach. For annual sponsorship information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Anadarko Basin in Depth.” Author: AOGHS.ORG Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/anadarko-basin-depth. Last Updated: November 20, 2020. Original Published Date: July 24, 2014.