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The First Venezuelan Geological Oil Map: The Ralph Arnold History 1911-1916

Duarte-Vivas, Andres
[email protected]

When Dr. Ralph Arnold first travelled to Venezuela via the Island of Trinidad, he was 36 years old and married, had no children and lacked experience overseas. Prior to this he was a consulting geologist with the USGS in Washington, D.C. .After his first appraisal of the Island of Trinidad’s oil assets in late 1911 he was hired by the General Asphalt Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to survey mainland Venezuela, separated by only 15 miles from Trinidad.

Arnold hired 54 young geologists to assist him in this venture that lasted half a decade, most of whom were recent graduates of his Alma Mater, Stanford University. This undertaking would be the first time in history that the oil industry utilized geologists on such a large scale to initiate a surface hunt for oil. Over the next few years Arnold and "his boys", as he was accustomed to call them, were exposed to disease, accidents, and the possibility of early death. Arnold survived all these risks. He accompanied his men on their travels to eastern part of Venezuela, its arid northwest in the Guajira peninsula, the shores of oil-rich Lake Maracaibo, and the tepid jungles that border with Colombia where later a number of oilmen would die at the hands of the hostile Indians. They walked countless miles of uncharted wilderness. In 16 months time Arnold submitted his report but no action was taken as the General Asphalt Company was in financial difficulty following the death of its president. No one in the United States was willing to advance further capital for the complete survey still to come. This report did circulate extensively in the American oil patch, nevertheless.

The Company turned to Europe for financial backing and the young President of Royal Dutch Shell, Henry Deterding, agreed to invest ten million dollars in the project. The details of the deal were kept secret and ownership in the Company was 75-25%, not 51-49% as was publicly stated. However solvency allowed Arnold to continue his work, and between 1911 and 1916 he visited Venezuela six times. He and his men were unable to take extended work tours of duty, due to the prevalence of malaria, dysentery, typhus and yellow fever, and the total lack of availability of clinics in the oil rich zones, as only the neighboring island of Curacao offered a safe haven.

The surface prospecting initiative was successful and large oil fields were predicted and discovered in eastern Venezuela and the full potential of the lake Maracaibo basin also received detailed attention. All this field work soon was confirmed in November 1914 by the blowout of the Zumaya # 1 exploratory well, near the village of Mene Grande on the eastern shores of Lake Maracaibo producing between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels of oil per day, only to be followed by the building of oil camps at Tarra, Mene Grande, Inciarte, La Paz, and other locations which transformed the Maracaibo basin into Venezuela’s largest oil producing area for over seventy years. One of Arnold’s boys (Charles "Chas" R. Eckes) drilling in the waters of Lake Maracaibo discovered large deposits. Another geologist was upset when the Caribbean Petroleum Company (Shell) sold the rights of the eastern oil camps that he had prospected, to Standard Oil of New Jersey, which would become Standard Oil Company of Venezuela and the company’s greatest source of revenue in Venezuela for over ten years, until the 1930’s.

After 1916, Arnold was paid a retainer by the Caribbean Petroleum Company, as means of securing his know-how, but with no specific responsibilities. Many of his former employees returned to the United States where they became petroleum consultants, tool inventors, oil prospectors, etc. Over 20 of them would die young due to the diseases they contracted in the Venezuelan jungles. While a few became bitter about their experiences, most were accomplished professionals, and at least four became founding members of AAPG: Richard A. ‘Dick’ Conkling, (1885-1952), Charles R. ‘Chas’ Eckes (1885-1952), Lewis, J. Whitney, and H. Harper "Harp" McKee. Arnold himself was a longtime AAPG member.

On his return to the United States Arnold went back to prospecting, and also spent time in Mexico. He later was active in California politics with the Republican Party and supported Herbert Hoover, then a successful mining engineer and politician, and a friend of past Stanford days. Politics and the Big Depression affected Arnold deeply for the rest of his life, never financially recovering. Early in the 1940s his wife died, and their two only daughters were away from home. In this solitude he decided to start writing his autobiography and with the fine advice of two of his young colleagues, A. Faison Dixon and H. Harper McKee (AAPG members), he wrote about his geological exploits in Venezuela and other countries. For the next 10 years would cajole and entice stories, photographs, and information from 21 of his surviving colleagues spread out over the world about the "Venezuelan experience",. The task was difficult as a number of them had become ill and unreachable. Arnold was also a great photographer and had a collection of about 5000 pictures of Venezuela, Trinidad, Curacao, and Panama, many of which he used in his first publication in English. It was his intention to publish 500 of the photographs but only 330 were included on his book. In 1957 he sought financial assistance from the Venezuelan government for getting the manuscript published in Spanish but that effort failed. The original book was published in English in 1960, one year before Arnold died. Never a title said it so straight: The first big oil hunt.

The Spanish edition which finally came out in 2009 is more than a mere translation. The pictures were enhanced and a more added; typo mistakes were found and corrected; and the names of people and places were correctly spelled out and completed. Research was done at the Huntington Library in California, depository of Arnold’s manuscripts most importantly, there is still a large collection of original photographs that need to see the light of day , and be published. We are continuing this work, in order to honor Venezuela's pioneer oil geologist, Dr. Ralph Arnold.


AAPG Search and Discovery Article #90166©2013 AAPG International Conference & Exhibition, Cartagena, Colombia, 8-11 September 2013