The History of Oil in the Williston Basin
Early History - 1951-1955
(By James Key, "Word & Picture Story of Williston & Area", 1962)
The Williston Basin gets its name, obviously, from the City of Williston. However, it was named by Dr. W. T. Thom, Jr. It seems Dr. Thom was a sophomore studying geology when he happened into a creek bed in the area of the Cannonball River in ND. It was his discovery of coral that led him to believe that the area was once inundated by an ancient sea - this occurred in 1912.
Continuing study of the Basin in 1922 led him to conclude that the Basin was of a sedimentary nature. Further studies showed that the major depth of the Basin was near Williston, North Dakota, thus the name took hold in 1924.
About 40 miles east of Williston, a small town or village known as Nesson became the visible reason that the principle feature in the Williston Basin became known as the Nesson Anticline. Between 1924 and 1951, there were 23 serious attempts at the discovery of oil. Plans for drilling what was to become the "discovery" began in 1946. It was through 1949 that the leases were acquired by two men, Thomas W. Leach & A. M. Fruh. These leases were assigned to Amerada Petroleum Corp.
The well was begun on the Clarence Iverson farm south of Tioga in August, 1950 and was a novelty and curiosity to residents in the area. Drilling became routine and skeptics scoffed, particularly since the closest supply company was located more than five hundred miles away at Casper, WY.
The year 1951 came in with a snowstorm. January 4, a pint of oil was recovered at the Clarence Iverson farm. Drilling continued. The bits had now dug to the depth of 10,500 feet. Weather shut down the operation and snow clogged the roads. Operations resumed on April 4, 1951. About 9:30 p.m. on April 4 a new industry was born in North Dakota. The Clarence Iverson became the discovery well of the Williston Basin.
This was the first major discovery in a new geologic basin since before World War II. Williston, the county seat, felt the immediate impact of the petroleum industry's beginning operations.
By May 20, thirty million acres of North Dakota were under lease. This was accomplished in 45 days - just think 30 million acres leased out of a total 44.8 million acres in all of North Dakota!
Since the discovery of oil in the Williston Basin in 1951, several major oil companies have impacted the local economy, including Texas Co., Hunt Oil Co., Standard Oil of Indiana and Amerada Petroleum Corporation. On February 4, 1952, Standard Oil of Indiana announced plans to build a 15,000 barrel per day refinery in the State of North Dakota. By February 6, forty-two oil supply firms and service companies had moved representatives and were constructing buildings to supply the oil industry from the center of the Basin, Williston, North Dakota. On June 26, 1952 Service Pipeline announced it would build a pipeline at the refinery. By September, Standard Oil Co. announced it would double the capacity of its refinery bringing the market to 30,000 barrels of oil per day.
On November 15, 1952 the millionth barrel of oil was produced. The producing counties to that date were Williams, McKenzie and Mountrail with five fields total. There were 24 rigs running. By December 31 this was the score: Production: 356,000 barrels per month; Number of wells: Amerada - 74; Hunt - 9; and Concord- 2. By the end of 1952 there were 163 wells started in North Dakota.
The State of North Dakota experienced great benefits from this new industry, including tax dollars and the creation of many new jobs and businesses that provided services to the oil companies. Additional oil or gas refineries were built in Dickinson & Mandan and in 1953 Amerada signed a contract with the Signal Oil and Gas Co. of Las Angeles to build a $15 million gas plant in Tioga, ND. Construction of oil pipelines to carry the finished product also created an economic boon for local economies and the State.
The year 1954 started with what was the beginning of many hearings regarding the utilization of natural gas from the North Dakota oil fields. It started January 28 with coal, utilities, pipeline and oil men gathered making their proposals before the ND Public Service Commission. A Basin plan was to lay a system of pipeline from Tioga through eastern North Dakota, serving Grand Forks and Fargo and intermediate stops, with a potential use of natural gas in the iron industry in Northern Minnesota.
On February 23, the Great Northern Oil Co. announced plans to build a $20 million refinery to take Williston Basin crude oil. The plant would be built at St. Paul, MN. The next day the Industrial Commission set a policy that would encourage wildcatting in the state. It set an allowable for a discovery well at 200 barrels of oil per day. This discovery allowable would be continued for an 18 month period following the discovery of an oil field, or until such time the fifth well was producing in that oil field.
On March 12, Service Pipeline Co. set up a district office in Williston. March 19, Amerada Hess made two new field discoveries simultaneously. March 29, Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. applied to serve SW North Dakota cities with ND natural gas. By the end of March, competition loomed from our neighbor to the north. A Canadian pipeline firm announced plans to build to the Twin Cities.
On April 4, 1954 the third anniversary of the discovery at the Clarence Iverson farm, there were 15 oil fields discovered and being developed with Williams County having 210 producing wells, Mountrail County with 58 and McKenzie County, 10. Total crude oil recovered stood at 8.2 million barrels.
Meanwhile, the Garrison Reservoir was being filled and on May 28, ferry service was started across the river south of Tioga, connecting between the major areas of interest in a direct line, rather than a detour of 120 miles.
On October 2, the Signal Oil & Gas Co. gas plant at Tioga went into full production. The Mandan Refinery went into production on November 3 and price of crude oil was increase to $2.90 per barrel. On the 13th of December, Williams County received its first share of the oil tax. Out of a total $79,000 collected, Williams County was given $53,189.
By June of 1955, the oil tax yield to the state totalled $355,000. Final plans were also announced in June by MDU that they were going to utilize the Tioga area gas and would be building a 110 mile pipeline between Tioga & Minot and between Williston and Tioga.
On the 21st of September, 1955, the Westland Oil Co. bought the Williston Refinery physical plant and announced that it would expand the capacity of the refinery. The price for the plant was $150,000. On the 24th of September, the 1000th oil well permit was issued by the ND Geological Survey. It was Amerada Petroleum Corp. ND "C" No. 7 in the Beaver Lodge Field.
On December 6, 1955, Amerada's capital stock hit an all-time high on the New York Stock Exchange at $181.50 per share. The oil score board at the end of 1955 looked something like this: Spent for the year by the industry: $43 million; 72 wildcats discovered 7 fields; 22 dry field wells. Production for 1955 was 11,218,948 barrels. Total production since discovery exceeded 25 million barrels. The investment made on North Dakota's oil potential during the year was computed at $43,176,000 by a survey conducted through the state's press.
Maps of the 17 oil & gas producing counties.