Britain's Low Key First Success

Author: Mr Jeremy Cresswell

Date Added: 25-Sep-2007

It was US oil corporation Amoco (later consumed by BP) that made the first oil find in the UK North Sea. The month was September, the year 1969.

The story really begins on September 14 when the crew of the semi-submersible Sea Quest rig encountered a pocket of oil about 130 miles east of Aberdeen in what was later to be named the Arbroath field.

It was the first Amoco well spudded in the North Sea and the going had been difficult. Well 22/18-1 had encountered a difficult shale formation. Indeed it was the worst that former Amoco drilling superintendent Brendan McKeown had ever had to deal with.

“At 5,000ft a choice had to be made either to pull out altogether or increase the weight of the drilling mud to hold back the shale and risk the well walls collapsing,” said McKeown.
Money was no object. They continued to battle on, with the drillbit getting stuck from time to time. It took four months to get past the 12,000ft mark. It was hellish work. The well seemed doomed to fail.

However, tests had been run at regular intervals to discover whether there were any appreciable traces of oil or gas. It was in a payzone between 8,296ft and 8,360ft that the event everyone had been waiting for happened. North Sea oil started to flow in ‘appreciable’ amounts.

Throughout the drilling programme, confidentiality had been critical. Daily radio messages back to shore gave well depths based on American college football teams.

LSU – Louisiana State University, punctuated by Notre Dame, followed by Rice (referring to Houston’s Rice University) was one example that McKeown remembers, referring to a particular depth to which the drill-bit had penetrated.

Daily drilling reports were locked away in safes onshore before onward despatch to Amoco’s then UK headquarters in London.

When it became evident that something significant was about to happen, the message went back to the Sea Quest. WQB – wait on Brendan, it said.

There was to be a secret test of the discovery. Problem was, Sea Quest was on charter from BP and there were many people on board. Keeping that kind of secret was a tall order in such exciting times. In addition, it was realised that the rig lacked the equipment necessary to test the discovery.

Back came the message from the shore: “Just tell us what you’ve got!”

And so they did. But there was nothing to put a sample of the oil into, so a pickle jar was appropriated from Sea Gem’s galley.

This, McKeown personally couriered ashore, only to be met by sceptical boss Mitch Watt, who poured some of the jar’s contents into an ashtray and smelled it.

Watt declared it to be “sweet”, meaning high quality.

“That’s it. It’s oil!”

A few days later, after testing the well, Sea Quest was sent scurrying to the Firth of Forth for shelter by a North Sea storm. Compared with the semi-submersible rigs of today, the BP unit was decidedly puny and much less able to ride out the bad weather.

Unfortunately, Arbroath was too small to warrant development at that time and it was not until the late 1980s that it became viable, thanks to advances in technology.

Britain’s first oil discovery came onstream in 1990.


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