River of Oil - Early Oil Exploration in Iraq

Knowledgeable but squabbling geologists; summary dismissals; camel transport; ‘lagoonal’ oil; and 40m-high gushers. All in a day’s work for the first oil explorers in Iraq.
This article appeared in Vol. 12, No. 1 - 2015


In 1925, the science of petroleum geology was still evolving, the geology of the Middle East was yet to be unravelled and great oil discoveries lay in the future. The only maps of Iraq available were those drawn by Edwin Pascoe and others of the Indian Geological Survey on their reconnaissances. And yet there were some intriguing clues to the presence of oil: folds that might contain oil traps, an abundance of seepages, an oilfield at Naft Khaneh and primitive wells at Qaiyara. 

  • During World War I, German and Turkish engineers extracted up to 10,000 gallons (about 240 barrels) of oil a day from Qaiyara, where primitive bitumen wells operated. (Source: Library of Congress)

The Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC), the forerunner of the Iraq Petroleum Company (see Michael Quentin Morton GeoExpro article, ‘Once Upon a Red Line’), had obtained an oil concession for Iraq and now geologists from its multinational shareholders arrived to conduct a full geological survey, including those from US oil companies that were expected to join TPC in due course. With 18 experienced members, the survey party certainly lacked little in the way of geological experience and knowledge of other parts of the world. 

Indeed, T.F. ‘Jock’ Williamson, a British geologist seconded to the survey from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), thought that, between them, the geologists must have visited most of the countries of the world. He described those who gathered together in the autumn of 1925 in these terms: 

“One man was at the head waters of the River Amazon among the head shrinkers when he was recalled to come to Iraq; another came from Argentina, another from Mexico, still another had been in Romania, one in Indo-China, several in Venezuela and the East Indies.” 

Unravelling Iraq 

Map of northern Iraq showing the principal places mentioned in the text. (Source: M.Q. Morton and TUBS) In the autumn of 1925, they all met up at Fathah on the River Tigris, about halfway between Baghdad and Mosul. It was an unprepossessing place, reminiscent of World War I. Trenches and gun emplacements – the last vestiges of a doomed Turkish defence – still scarred the hills and banks of the river. Here the geology was clearly visible, and the low level of the water in the Tigris revealed many oil seepages on the riverbed. 

The geologists travelled in vehicles packed with provisions and equipment and used fly camps for surveys across northern Iraq. In rocky terrain, they rode on camels, horses and mules. They covered between 30,000 and 40,000 kilometres during the first eight months of the survey, ranging from the borders of Persia to Kurdistan and as far west as Rutbah. 

From the start, there were worrying signs that all might not be well with the survey party. The APOC geologists followed a particular theory known as the ‘lagoonal theory of oil’ propounded by Professor Hugo de Böckh, a Hungarian geologist who was a geological adviser to APOC. The Arabian Peninsula was considered a poor oil prospect since there was no evidence of ‘lagoonal’ rock structures on that side of the Persian Gulf, and Iraq was the subject of his stringent views. 

An experienced Alpine geologist, with an enthusiasm that could be infectious, de Böckh was well respected by his younger subordinates and certainly possessed the necessary intellectual ability to lead the survey. Yet he was also overpowering and determined in his views. In adhering to the lagoonal theory – that large quantities of oil might exist in certain rock formations derived from ancient lagoons – he risked alienating the other geologists on the survey. Concerns soon began to grow among the senior geologists, who were unhappy that de Böckh’s approach was too rigid for the project at hand. In their view, it required a more open debate between them, but this was not permitted. 

Hammers at Dawn 

It fell to geologists Arthur Noble and Eugene W. Shaw to take up their differences with de Böckh. Noble had been seconded from Shell while Shaw led the American contingent. One bone of contention was the fact that de Böckh had arranged for APOC geologists to lead the various field parties. This was particularly disturbing for the older geologists because the Anglo-Persian geologists tended to lack their wider experience in the field. In the event, de Böckh himself managed the senior geologists, with the exception of Noble and Shaw who were allowed to survey Kirkuk and its surroundings. 

In less formal settings, the field parties enjoyed lively debates. A transport manager recounted how the geologists would discuss geology at the camp dinner table each night – before, during and after the meal. “Being the only layman of the party it was all double-dutch to me,” he admitted. On one occasion, when there was a particularly heated debate, one of the geologists turned to him in the hope that he might break the tension. He plunged in, using all the geological terms he could muster, in a random order, and soon had them in stitches. But not for long – within five minutes, the geologists were back to arguing as furiously as ever. 

  • T.F. (‘Jock’) Williamson, one of the geologists on the 1925–6 survey of Iraq. He went on to take part in expeditions across the Middle East, including Oman and the Persian Gulf region. (Source: IPC)

  • Hugo de Böckh in Persia, November 1924. (Source: BP Archive)

  • Arthur Noble (1887–1979). (Source: AAPG)

Away from these moments, several concerns gnawed away at Shaw’s conscience: the mapping of the terrain, the planning of the expedition and the placing of a senior geologist in a subordinate position. Although incidental to the main survey, these issues were the symptoms of a deeper malaise. Shaw and Noble approached de Böckh about them, but they met the full force of his obduracy. De Böckh would not accept their advice or views on any subject, and they were left very disappointed. After the meeting, they wrote to TPC management in London and secured changes to the leadership of the field parties, but there was a price to pay. When they returned they found themselves banished to a vast area west of the Euphrates – the geologist’s equivalent of being sent to the Eastern Front. 

Finally, when it came to selecting sites for drilling, they found that de Böckh had already reached his own conclusions about the location of the oil reservoir and was not willing to discuss the matter further, rating Kirkuk only as a second rate prospect. To add insult to injury, Noble and Shaw were dismissed. It was only after a senior member of the TPC board intervened that peace was restored. 

A Near Disaster 

The famous gusher at Baba Gurgur with a river of oil in the foreground. (Source: IPC) With hindsight, the drilling programme agreed by the TPC board was not ideal. The objective was to reach the main limestone underlying a rock formation known as the Lower Fars and with this in mind a number of wells were spudded in during the spring of 1927: Pulkhana, Injana and Khashm al-Ahmar. But it was the well at Baba Gurgur, near the oil and gas seepages known as the ‘Eternal Fires’, that would prove to be the most challenging of all. 

Baba Gurgur No.1 produced oil shows at comparatively shallow depths in the Lower Fars but, since the well was only a short distance from the famous seepages, this was not entirely unexpected. Drilling continued at a slow rate, about 6m per day. Staff at field headquarters in Tuz Khurmatu settled down to a routine of daily reports and a dry, dusty summer. But on 23 September, the chief geologist of the company, Louis (‘Chick’) Fowle, suddenly realised that Baba Gurgur was making rapid progress – contrary to expectation, the drill bit had penetrated the main limestone at a depth of 463m. As the drillers had only cased the well to a depth of 180m, it was necessary to suspend the drilling and cement the remaining 330m of ‘open’ hole. While the cement was drying, the crew changed from rotary to percussion drilling. 

On 14 October at 3 a.m., gas and oil suddenly erupted from the well, rising to a height of over 40m. Ever since the days of Spindletop, the first strike had been every driller’s dream. In 1901, when American prospectors had penetrated the Spindletop oilfield in Texas, crude oil spurted to the surface and gushed out of the top of the derrick like a fountain, drenching men, equipment and the landscape in a thick black treacle. It was an image imprinted on every oilman’s mind; and now, at Baba Gurgur, they had found a new icon. 

In Kirkuk, townspeople gathered to watch: “The roof-tops of houses were packed with women and children gazing in the direction of Baba where a black cloud hung like an upturned umbrella,” observed one eyewitness. “Most of the men rushed to the scene on foot and in horse-drawn carriages to get a better view.” It was a miracle that, with all that oil and gas in the air, nothing ignited. 

But this was a disaster in the making. A river of oil was now flowing westwards along a wadi, winding for miles through the deserted countryside. The company drafted in some 2,000 men to build dams lower down the wadi to contain the deluge. Workers tried to approach the rig to block the gusher, but it was only when the company brought in an aero engine to blow the oily clouds away from one side of the derrick that they could stop the flow. By then over 95,000 barrels of oil a day had spilled out into the desert. 

  • Louis Fowle with Kurdish guards at Chemchemal in 1927. (Source: IPC)

Kirkuk Revealed 

Some 30km along the Kirkuk structure, Tarjil No. 1 was a deeper well that encountered the oilbearing rock at 760m compared with only 300m at Baba Gurgur. When this well encountered technical problems, Louis Fowle advised letting it stand for a while. The drillers, anxious to drill a certain amount of ‘footage’ each day, were unwilling to suspend operations. A new well site was located and, with a view to moving the derrick there, the drillers plugged the first well with mud and began dismantling the equipment. 

A tool pusher, geologist and driller around a small flow of high grade oil from a shallow well at Kor Mor in 1928. (Source: IPC) Fowle disagreed, however. After intense discussion, he persuaded them to restore the original well and clean out the mud. “This took some weeks,” wrote Fowle, “meanwhile unpopularity had to be endured.” A subsequent oil strike vindicated his decision and, by the end of 1929, the geologists could say with confidence that there was a continuous oilfield some 50 kilometres in length stretching from Tarjil to the Lesser Zab. 

This was also a time for innovation. Drilling was a lengthy process, and there was great pressure on the company to obtain data about underground conditions quickly. In the late summer of 1928, a party of eleven German geophysicists from Messrs Siesmos Gmbh arrived to undertake a series of seismic surveys. They used the relatively new technique of refraction whereby they detonated large charges of explosive and recorded the ensuing sound waves to compile a subsurface ‘map’. The procedure caused great alarm among the townspeople of Kirkuk when they first heard the explosions and, in the event, the surveys produced mixed results. 

Within three years of the drama at Baba Gurgur, the outline of the Kirkuk oilfield was established, but a new question loomed: what to do with all this oil? The next stage, the construction of an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean coast, would prove a mighty task.

  • An IPC party surveying the route for the Mediterranean pipeline, 1931. (Source: IPC)


Related Articles

GEO History Middle East

The Abu Dhabi Oil Discoveries

In the 1930s Abu Dhabi was a poor fishing village on the edge of the desert, but the discovery of oil has revolutionised the Emirate. It is thought to possess the sixth largest proven oil reserves in the world and is now extremely rich.

GEO History North America

Mexico: Onshore to Offshore

From the 16th-century Spanish conquistadors to modern times, Mexico has been bound to oil. Although no longer in the top ten of the world’s leading producers, shale gas may change this picture in the future.