The Bartlesville Energy Technology Center, Bartlesville, Oklahoma, circa 1937.

Origins of the U.S. Government's First Petroleum Research Laboratory

By 1916 the Bureau of Mines, which had been established six years earlier in the U.S. Department of the Interior, recognized the transforming role that petroleum was playing in American society. Across the country, the Bureau had begun establishing experiment stations, each specializing in a different extraction industry - coal, metals, clay, and other minerals - and each located close to the major centers of each resource. Now, the Bureau announced its intent to establish a petroleum experiment station somewhere in the United States.

Choosing a suitable location, however, was not easy. John D. Rockefeller's mega-monopoly, the Standard Oil Trust, broken up five years earlier in a landmark Supreme Court decision, had based its operations on Pennsylvania and Ohio oil. Refineries had been built in New Jersey and New York. But the nation's surging demand for gasoline had led petroleum companies to widen their search for new oil resources. New discoveries in Oklahoma and Texas had begun to shift the U.S. oil industry westward.

Local oil men in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, were determined to convince the Bureau that their community was the logical choice as the center of the domestic oil universe. Already fiercely independent, the executives believed the new station would provide an endorsement of their intensively competitive brand of business, in stark contrast to the monopolistic era of Standard Oil.

Through the Chamber of Commerce, the oil men pledged $50,000 to assist the government in construction. One of the town fathers, George Keeler, promised to donate a plot of land for the station. The next year, 1917, oil discoveries in the Osage Indian Nation directly to the west of Bartlesville catapulted Oklahoma to the forefront of the burgeoning mid-continent oil industry. The Bureau of Mines accepted the city's offer and made Bartlesville the site of the nation's first petroleum experiment station.

In 1918, the Bartlesville Experiment Station was created. Headed by J.O. Lewis, appointed as the station's first Superintendent, headed a staff of six. The station's initial operations paralleled an upswing in oil research throughout the industry. A handful of engineering graduates from Stanford University began to concentrate on methods to improve drilling equipment; the University of Pennsylvania began a program in petroleum chemistry.

As the 1920s unfolded, oil exploration moved further westward. Wyoming soon became another industry hotspot, and in 1922, the Bureau of Mines established another petroleum field station at Laramie, Wyoming. For the next 60 years, the sister stations at Bartlesville and Laramie would collaborate on petroleum research problems, often exchanging personnel (in fact, the longest serving director of the Bartlesville center, John S. Ball -- who served from 1963 to 1978 -- had been a former employee of the Laramie center).

The 1930s created new issues about the role of Federal petroleum research. Huge discoveries of crude oil in Texas, plus reduced demand brought about by the Great Depression, created an oil glut and drove prices to as low as 10 cents per barrel. Federal oil research budgets were cut (in 1931, the federal budget for the Bartlesville station was reduced from $101,000 to $94,000 while the state appropriation was cut from $62,500 to $57,500).

To many, the oil glut had rendered research into improving recovery meaningless. But it also increased industry's interest in new technologies for detecting rates of production and the overall size of underground reserves. With oil prices plummeting and all but the largest producers facing an economic crisis, many producers had petitioned the courts for legal means to set production limits as a way of creating a floor price for crude oil. But the courts refused, citing production limits as illegal restraints of trade. Many in the oil industry hoped that better information on the size of underground reservoirs and the rates at which they were declining would give them a better case to argue that production limits were in the best interest of national resource conservation.

Petroleum research survived during the 1930s primarily by concentrating on studies of reservoir pressures, the behavior of fluids under different conditions in a reservoir, measurements of oil saturations in reservoir sands, and several other areas which could help resolve the problems of overproduction.

With the United States on the brink of war, the availability of petroleum again became a major concern. Speaking to the annual API meeting in San Francisco on November 5, 1941, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes said:
"Do not forget that petroleum is an exhaustible and irreplaceable natural resource. Not only does our commerce and our industry and our husbandry and our pleasure depend upon it, this war demonstrates that the possession of an abundance of petroleum and its products is a matter of life and death to a nation. And our own nation would be negligent of its duty, recreant to its trust, if it permitted any industry to waste such a valuable natural resource."

To a nation now seeking to boost its domestic oil supplies, the research sustained at the Bureau of Mines experimental stations at Bartlesville and Laramie throughout the "oil glut" of the 1930s now proved its worth. Studies of oil field waterflooding would allow some fields to maintain or increase production. Research into drilling muds which would lubricate and protect drill bits would save much steel for the war effort. Studies of fire hazards, evaporation losses, and the corrosive effects of water would improve petroleum transportation and storage.

War time would add two new efforts to the Federal petroleum research, primarily at the Bartlesville station - the study of high octane aviation gasoline and a means for converting hydrocarbons into synthetic rubber. In 1942, the Bureau established a thermodynamics research section at Bartlesville to develop basic data on converting butane and butene gases to butadiene, the basic component of general purpose synthetic rubber. Although by war's end this thermodynamics group had barely gotten underway, it symbolized a new direction for the station in the post-war era.

By the mid-1950s, the Bartlesville thermodynamics laboratory had become a major center for the generation of basic data on hydrocarbons and sulfur and nitrogen compounds, and was known throughout the world. Coupled with the chemistry and refining work related to the aviation fuel program, this petroleum thermodynamics activity helped to move Bartlesville in the direction of a research center rather than an experiment station.

The postwar oil industry in America faced a new set of challenges. The war had caused a major upsurge in petroleum demand, and the nation's new found prosperity continued to increase oil consumption. In 1947-48, for the first time, the nation imported more petroleum than it exported. At the same time, production from the once-prolific fields of Oklahoma and Kansas was peaking and beginning to decline. Producers and state commissions in these states began to look for ways to halt the declining production. Interest developed in "secondary recovery" - ways to sustain production as the effectiveness of primary recovery means, i.e., field pressures or artificial lifts, began to decline.

For more than a decade after the war, the Bureau of Mines at Bartlesville hosted "waterflood tours" to give small independent producers, and some specialists from larger companies, a first-hand look at a promising new approach for keeping oil fields in production. As many as 125 cars, carrying 400 to 500 participants and escorted by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, would visit several waterflood projects - a traveling technology transfer convention.

At Bartlesville, research into secondary recovery in the 1950s included: locating abandoned wells through use of metal detectors, study of water-conditioning plants, analyses of the effects of dissolved gases on corrosion of metal, studies of rates and pressures of water injection, core and water analysis, and uses of radioactive isotopes as tracers in secondary recovery projects.

Users of tracers to study the flow characteristics and patterns of crude oil and brines through reservoir rock extended in the 1960s under joint funding from the Bureau and the Atomic Energy Commission. By the mid-1960s, the use of radioactive tracers in petroleum secondary recovery operations had become generally routine and much of Bartlesville's pioneering work was widely accepted.

For much of the Government's mainline petroleum research, however, the 1960s proved to be a struggle. The Nation's major oil companies had seen the benefits of research into new oil production and refining technologies, and most had established major research capabilities. In Bartlesville, for example, work at the federal center was largely overshadowed by research at the much larger Phillips Research Center, run by the Bartlesville-based Phillips Petroleum Company.

The 1970s were to dramatically reshape America's views about energy. But even before the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo shocked the American economy, oil and energy were rapidly on their way to becoming, as Daniel Yergin put it in The Prize, "the hottest cauldron in national politics." In 1971, in line with the Nixon Administration's growing emphasis on national energy issues, the Bureau of Mines changed the designation of the Bartlesville and Laramie centers again - this time renaming them from "petroleum" to "energy" research centers. Yet, the Bartlesville center largely remained focused on petroleum matters, and in fact, the name change caused considerable internal uncertainty as to how diversified the center's research portfolio should become.

The Federal Government, however, was changing its posture on research with the private sector. Rather than the primary activity being experiments at federal laboratories, the bulk of the funding was to "pass through" the sites to industry partners working in the Nation's oil fields. In 1974, the Bartlesville center opened major contracts in chemical flooding of oil fields already exhausted by waterflood techniques. From 1974 to 1982, more than $96 million in government funding for advanced oil recovery projects was more than matched by private sector outlays of $130 million. In addition, new projects studying aspects of chemical and thermal enhanced oil recovery were added, sending federal funds to a wide range of universities and private companies across the Nation.

In 1975, when the Energy Research and Development Administration began operations, both the Bartlesville and Laramie Energy Research Centers were transferred from the Bureau of Mines into the new agency.