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GeoLegends: Harry Jamison (Part 1)


Harry Jamison - Discovery of Prudhoe Bay Field, North Slope, Alaska, Part 1

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I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, lived in St. Louis, Chicago, Columbus, Ohio.

My parents moved back and forth quite a bit, it was during the depression.

Jobs were hard to come by and my dad was in the crime survey statistician business in both Illinois and Ohio, and then later became an agent of the FBI and moved to Chicago as a special agent in 1933, which was really the beginning of the Dillinger era. He stayed there for about two years and then we went back to Missouri.

In the mid part of my high school career, I was put under the guardianship of my paternal grandmother, and she decided to move to California and so I finished my high school in Southern California.

I really grew up in the United States Navy during World War II.

About two weeks after I graduated from high school, I was in boot camp in San Diego, was fortunate enough to qualify for radio technician school.

Spent the next nine months or so in various locations, including three months at Texas A&M so I’m an Aggie officially.

After that I was made a third class petty officer, radio tech specialty, and sent to the east coast where I joined the pre-commissioning of my ship, which was a small gun boat, 153 feet long called an LCS, Landing Craft Support, Large. It wasn’t very large, but we went down the east coast at the end of 1945, of the Pacific, staged in the Philippines, and were involved in the invasion of Okinawa in – on April 1, 1945, which also happened to be Easter Sunday. We were assigned to radar picket stations around the island for some 30 or 40 days, and participated in a number of battles, actually one of the highlights was rescuing 44 sailors from the sunken DD Bush destroyer that was sunk on radar picket number one in – on April 6th, five days after the invasion. After about a month of radar picket duty we were sent to in-shore duty looking for suicide boats, which we called skunks.

At the end of the campaign we had shot down three Japanese planes and sunk thirteen suicide boats.

Then we went back to Saipan for R&R, my skipper put me in for officer’s training back in the States, and I was fortunate enough to be sent back from Saipan to the States early in August, right before V-J Day.

Then sent down to Oregon State College as it was in those days and spent an academic year there in electrical engineering.

We only had three choices; pre-med, engineering or business, and with my background as a radio tech, why you could figure out what I chose.

And that pretty well brings me up to the beginning of my geological career, which occurred when we left Oregon State, went down to Southern California and I enrolled at UCLA. I’d become interested in geology, actually interested in mineralogy and fascinated with crystals for some reason when I was in junior high when we made a rock and mineral collection, and that stuck with me.

I remember as a senior in high school there was a career day option, and my choice was to listen to a presentation by a petroleum geologist.

He made quite an impression upon me with his stories of the various places he’d been and the adventures he’d had.

So when I went down to UCLA there was no question in my mind of I was not cut out to be an electrical engineer by any means, and geology sounded very attractive so that was my major. Three years later I graduated with honors in geology from UCLA.

And after a semester of graduate work I was fortunate enough to get a job with Richfield Oil Corporation. The job was out of Bakersfield, California.

I was to be a well site geologist, and well site geologists for Richfield and people in those days does not ring a bell with people who have done normal well site geology.

John Wiese who some of you may know took me out to Cuyama on one day so I knew where it was, and I came back and the next morning I climbed into a car and drove out to Cuyama and was responsible for sitting on 15 wells. About half and half exploration and development wells. I’d actually been on a rig floor once in my life before that, but this was a learn it as you do it, sink or swim operation, and fortunately most of us were able to swim after a few weeks. But it was a great education because we were responsible for many wells, many different geological plays including the development of South Cuyama, catching ditch samples, all the cores, witnessing the electric log runs and the sidewall sampling, formation tests, running casing, production tests, and the whole gamut of oil field exploration and production operations.

Even today I would consider that an invaluable education.

Interviewer: I was curious if Mace hired you?

Yes, actually he was. He was district geologist in Bakersfield at that time, came down to L.A. and I interviewed with Mace and with Rollin Eckis who was chief geologist at that time. Worked for Mace directly years later as his assistant, and I would say he was probably the primary mentor in my early career and gave me a leg up here and there in giving me assignments that were meaningful.

He was a great guy, a wonderful geologist, and a wonderful person to work for.

One and a half years out in Cuyama and about six months doing subsurface work primarily in the southern San Joaquin Valley under the supervision of Stan Conrad whom many of you may know from the Denver area. Stan also was a great boss and a good mentor for me, and after six months there he and I were sent to the Pacific Northwest to initiate a follow up really program for Richfield who had done some work and drilled a couple of wells during the war years in Oregon. We located in Olympia and we were doing field work primarily in western Oregon and Washington, out in the rainforests and extremely difficult conditions, horrible, horrible weather conditions, and almost total lack of outcrops where you needed them. It was a patchwork of difficult geology to put together believe me.

But we got it done and eventually we drilled a well at Grays Bay, which is on the Washington side of the Columbia River about 20 miles inland from the mouth of the Columbia. Unfortunately, that was my first effort and it was a dry hole! And that hurt pretty badly at the time I remember.

But I had great experience up there. The last year and a half I was a one man office, because Stan had gone down to Peru and besides working western Oregon and Washington, I spent one summer with a graduate assistant help over in eastern Oregon and Washington.

So I got quite an education about the Pacific Northwest. Following that I was sent to Los Angeles doing staff work- after a couple of years I was appointed the assistant to Mason Hill who was the manager of exploration at that time. And in December of 1960 I made my first trip to Alaska being asked to troubleshoot a program that we were operating for BP and Sinclair in southeastern Alaska in the Cretaliak- Etaga area.

We’d been drilling unsuccessfully and they thought maybe I could put a fresh viewpoint to it. I did that, but we were still unsuccessful after about another year or two drilling several more wells. But that was my introduction to Alaska just about a year after they became a state.

In 1961 I was named the regional exploration supervisor for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and with that appointment one of my good friends, Ben Ryan, was sent to Alaska to be the district geologist, and a little later on we acquired Charlie Selman from Western Geophysical to be our geophysicist.

The expansion of the office up there was primarily due to the fact that in 1957 Richfield had made the initial discovery of commercial oil and gas in Alaska with the drilling of the Swanson River Unit Number One on the Kenai Peninsula, and that began the real oil rush that succeeded the gold rush in Alaska and it had a tremendous impact on the eventual granting of statehood in 1959.

Interviewer: I don’t know if you’ve seen it- but believe it not the AAPG published a memoir of that oil field.

I did see it and the day [] edited it and I have a copy of it in the room in there, and I just spent two weeks with Dave and Gil Mull up in Utah looking at rock hardened geology and scenery.

Interviewer: Gil’s the one in Santa Fe? Yeah, he’s in Santa Fe.

Interviewer: So you were telling us about the Swanson River discovery and early statehood. So how did you get up to the North Slope Prudhoe?

That was one of the major triggers for oil industry interest- not only the Kenai Peninsula or Cook Inlet Basin, but throughout Alaska. So the next several years I saw a tremendous influx of companies and field parties in the various basins of Alaska during the summers.

1958 marked the first entry of field party onto the North Slope, and that was by Sinclair.

Many of the companies were interested in the North Slope because of the background that had been developed by the U.S.G.S. up there in exploring NPR Four for the Navy during the war years from 1943 and up to 1953.

The timing of entry into the Slope was determined by the BLM, which rescinded PLO (Public Land Order 82) and that was done in 1958. Prior to that time there was no entry allowed.

Sinclair was the first company to do field work up on the North Slope. You’re talking about how people are well aware of what happened first with the U.S.G.S and then also with the NPR – later it was NPR 8, but it was NPR 4.

HJ: NPR 4 to start with yeah.

Interviewer: So that was a lot of the early work in there, but it’s a very, very large area. I’m just curious why did companies start focusing on? Did they feel like because of expanses people always said they went elephant hunting; that’s why they went to Alaska.

I think that’s part of it, but remember in those days the general framework of Alaskan geology was fairly well known, but the details were very remote and many of the companies had no experience whatsoever in Alaska.

So it was almost like throwing darts at a dart board as to where you would go. But when the PLO 82 was rescinded then that focused interested on the area between the area Colville and Canning River, and they announced that they were going to release for simultaneous filing, not for competitive leasing. Simultaneous filing in about four million acre increments over the next several years.

Large blocks of land between the Colville and Canning River. Now, the reason that’s important is that to the west on – west of the Colville was NPR 4, to the east of the Canning River was the Arctic National Wildlife Range as it was in those days.

That was an eight million acre withdrawal, but PLO 82 had withdrawn the entire North Slope so there was no entry into it.

But during the Navy exploration they had found the Umiat Oil Field, which was estimated to have perhaps 100 million barrels of recoverable reserves, and the Middle Cretaceous _____ Group.

They also found the Gubik gas field to the east of Umiat and that field was estimated at somewhere are 6-900 BCF.

Well obviously, neither one of those is economic on the North Slope in the middle ‘50s and so nothing was ever followed up directly on that. But that’s certainly better than an oil seep or a gas seep some place.

So that was part of the impetus that brought the companies up there, and the other part was the North Slope was really an extension of the same types of geology that we saw along the Rocky Mountain front, from the United States all the way up through Canada and into northern Alaska with the Brooks Range being the comparable part to the Rockies and the cretaceous foothills and the coastal plain being the equivalent of the foothills and the Great Plains of the western U.S. and Canada for that matter.

So there was a parallel and another comparison that could be made that would look favorably upon that area in general.

I think there were four triggers to the industry really getting into the North Slope, which led to the eventual discovery. The first trigger of course was the discovery of Swanson River; that said that we have commercial oil in Alaska. The second trigger, although not understood very well at the time, was the granting of statehood. With statehood the state was allowed to select 105 million acres for their own ownership and benefit.

That was a slow process and wasn’t done except in increments over many years. In fact I think they’re still selecting.

The third trigger was as I mentioned the opening of the North Slope by the rescinding of PLO 82, which made approximately 19 million acres of prospective lands on the North Slope available to industry to explore, and eventually to lease, depending on who won the lottery when you have a simul-filing, but the companies could also go in and lease from whoever obtained the primary lease.

And the last and certainly from the State of Alaska’s viewpoint, the most important trigger was the fact that under Tom Marshall, who was the state land selection officer and the petroleum geologist for the state of Alaska- Tom, against much opposition finally convinced the state in 1964 to select 1.616 million acres along the Beaufort Sea Coast in the northern tier of acreage between the Colville and Canning River.

Of course, that was where eventually the discovery of Prudhoe Bay was made and made the financial fortunes of the State of Alaska. So those are the four very important triggers I call them to the eventual discovery of Prudhoe Bay.

Interviewer: So why did Tom specifically select that area? Was there geophysical input for the - why he chose? I guess it gets to the question I was going to ask when did the collection of seismic activity – the collection of seismic data?

The seismic activity began in ’62, and that was first with – well before that, of course, there was seismic activity in NPR 4 by the U.S.G.S. and the Navy. The first industry activity on the North Slope was in 1962 by Sinclair again, primarily in the northern foothills area where the surface outcrops had indicated these tremendous, long, cretaceous mostly, anticlines on a generally east/west, north/northwest, east/southeast trend. Some of those anticlines are as long as 50 miles.

The further north you go from the Brooks Range, the less intense folding occurs in the cretaceous rocks, and the idea was if you moved out on the northern portion of the foothills maybe these structures would be broader, more gentle, and therefore more likely to be favorable for not only reservoir rock, but trapping and closure to give us a structural definition for those anticlines to be oil accumulations.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but Sinclair initiated the seismic work with what turned out to be United Crew 562, and I’ll get back to that one a little later.

Interviewer: Were the data being collected in the summer or winter?

Most of the data was acquired in the winter, but actually some of it was done in the summer, much to the detriment of the surface of the tundra, and it was a gradual process of learning to use the frozen tundra in the winter and to avoid being out on that soggy tundra in the summertime. Even later on the industry used what they called rollagons, which were huge, inflated tires with sort of a tractor arrangement to pull the wanagons across the tundra. It still damaged the tundra and eventually all that had to stop, and then of course it has stopped today. As a matter of fact the state strictly regulates the entry in the freeze-up generally in November or early December, and break up in the spring. It’s a very rigorous process now.

But most of the seismic was done in the federal lands south of the state selections. And I don’t know of any lines that had been shot north to the coast before 1964. And Tom had advocated state ownership of that land long before 1964.

So I really don’t think that seismic had much to do with it. I think it was more intuition, gut instinct if you will. But of course, we knew that the Barrow Arch was along the coast in that area.

And that was the high structural point on the northern extent of the North Slope. And there was the Barrow gas accumulation that supplied a little bit of gas to the village there.

And I don’t know I guess I would just have to say it was more than blind luck certainly. I think it was probably a pretty well rationalized decision. And Tom deserves an awful lot of credit from the state of Alaska and all its people for having made that decision. I’ve often thought in retrospect what would have happened had the state not selected that land. And it had been under the administration of the federal government which would have said instead of having competitive sales on the North Slope we would have had simultaneous filings along the coast between the Canning and Colville River, which would have been a much more chaotic situation. And then the administration of the development of the eventual discovery Prudhoe Bay would have been a totally different can of worms if I may use that phrase.

Interviewer: Okay. So, you’re talking about how Sinclair really was the leader up there and collected some of the first seismic. Walk us through some of the early wells, kind of key wells that kind of led up to Prudhoe.

Okay. Sinclair and BP had a partnership on the North Slope. Sinclair had been quite bullish on entry up there primarily under the supervision of a fine geologist and good friend of mine named Loren Ware.

Loren had pushed that activity and with some success in Sinclair to the extent that I think they were pretty much the leader of the Sinclair BP partnership. Their focus was on the foothill structures which, as I had mentioned earlier, gradually reduce in intensity of folding and faulting and thrusting as you move from the Brooks Range north towards Coastal Plain. But what was really not known in those days was the fact that these were footless structures and we would call them monstructures that were floored by thrust faults. And the structure did not extend into depth into the Jurassic and older rocks. Sinclair and BP drilled six wells, some people say seven, but I characterize it as six in that province. And all were dry holes. Very, very discouraging result from the- what you might call—well definitely call the pioneering efforts to get into the North Slope on the part of industry.

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Leader of the Atlantic Richfield team of explorationists that discovered Prudhoe Bay Field, the largest conventional oil and gas field in the United States. Show More

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