EconSouth (Second Quarter 2006)


Drilling Deeply Into Southeastern Oil History

Book cover: Drilling Ahead
University Press of Mississippi
ISBN 1-5780-6811-8, $35

As oil prices hit a new nominal high this year, politicians, businesspeople, and citizens have made oil and gas a frequent topic of conversation. Energy traders are hanging on every bit of news about diplomatic concerns over Iran’s nuclear policy, political unrest in Nigeria, and energy nationalization in Venezuela.

But oil is produced at home as well as abroad.

While the United States is the largest importer of oil, it is also one of the top five producers of oil in the world. And the South has played a significant role in the nation’s oil and gas business; nearly half of current U.S. production comes from the South and its offshore federal waters. Although Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf of Mexico have had the lion’s share of discoveries, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida have had their own finds and, as a result, experienced oil fever, albeit to a lesser extent than other areas did.

The causes and history behind oil fever in the Southeast might be unknown to most of us unless we read Drilling Ahead: The Quest for Oil in the Deep South, 1945–2005 by Alan Cockrell, a petroleum geologist. While Drilling Ahead doesn’t cover mainstream oil production in the Southeast, it places the search for oil—and the frequent deadends in that search—in a historical context.

Cockrell uses interviews, periodicals, and public records to depict the people behind the discoveries. He intended this book as a continuation of Dudley Hughes’ 1993 book, Oil in the Deep South: A History of Oil Exploration in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, 1889–1945. Cockrell’s book covers the peak oil production period as well as the early, large finds and their subsequent declines, particularly in Alabama and Mississippi (Florida had only one major field, the Jay Field, with less extensive overall exploration). His history does not include the much larger finds in Louisiana.

The book compiles a plethora of information about who made the oil discoveries, emphasizing the importance of the individuals behind the oil-producing wells and the numerous dry ones. Without these personalities at play, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida would never have entered into oil production. The risks were huge, but so were the potential rewards. That combination is the main driver of oil fever.

Cockrell combines facts as well as personal stories to reveal the importance of these speculators and their drive to discover and market Southern oil and gas.

The driller personality
The search for oil can be addictive, the author shows—a gamble with large payoffs for the people with intelligence, people skills, luck, the right people around them, and risk-loving behavior.

The oil and gas business has few sure bets: From not knowing what will be at the end of the well (ranging from nothing to poisonous natural gas, perfect crude oil, saltwater in the oil, or natural gas that needs a new pipeline to get to market) to political issues (such as price controls) to fluctuating international demand (based largely on the strength and demands of numerous economies) to the rapid increase of supply in other countries (especially the Middle East).

Drilling also has its excitement. Cockrell describes oil or gas bursting into the air, one geyser even ruining the paint of one observer’s brand-new car. The man did not seem to mind the loss; the paint job was well worth the thrill of seeing the thick crude oil exploding out of the earth.

Engulfed with details
For readers not already familiar with oil places and people, the book might overwhelm because of all the minute details. Instead of focusing on the life and work of a few key personnel in the oil and gas field, the author overpowers the reader with names and details of hundreds of people along with a brief history of their lives or their companies.

The important names come up again and again throughout the book and are recapitulated at the end, but keeping track of the key players in the sea of names early on is challenging. Cockrell uses chronology and location to structure the book, instead of following a select few for their entire careers.

By trying to cover the entire 1945–2005 period, Cockrell gives the reader a thorough overview of the people, the geology behind petrochemicals, the financial backing, and the simple fortitude it took to find oil. These oil players become real people with stories of friendships, superstitions, and other interesting human characteristics.

Drilling Ahead is a significant historical reference for the strongest years of oil production in Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. The book documents for future generations an important part of these states’ histories. While Cockrell’s account may try to include too much information about oil exploration in the region, it may be that the author himself has his own bit of the oil fever.

This article was written by Sarah Dougherty, an economic analyst at the Atlanta Fed.

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