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Petroleum Exploration Potential in North America c. 1859


As the 1850s came to a close, the pre-modern oil industry was in a state of flux after the collapse in whale-oil production due to overharvesting. The manufacture of coal gas for municipal lighting and heating systems was a mature industry in North America and Europe, and efforts to maximize the by-product yield of liquid oils through modification of the retort process and the choice of raw materials had become a rapidly expanding focus. Thanks in large part to state and provincial governmental surveys, knowledge of North American geology was improving rapidly. By the end of the 1850s a few hundred publications had documented the natural occurrence of hydrocarbons in 25 American states and 5 Canadian provinces (using modern political boundaries), with natural flows of petroleum or carburetted hydrogen (methane) gas reported from wells in at least 8 of them. Commercial production of oil at Enniskillen in western Ontario was already underway, initially from surface excavation and hand-dug wells. Even in the absence of the 1859 Drake well at Titusville or the proprietary Silliman report on which it was based, it is likely that a play concept for petroleum exploration using wellbores would have arisen in the near future. A hypothetical approach for North American exploration would have been initial literature research to establish which geographic regions were most prospective, based on the distribution and type of hydrocarbon occurrences, the quality and availability of published descriptions, and market access to population centers. This high grading would have been followed by field research to locate local prospect areas for leasing and drilling. Using these criteria, New York State would have ranked at the top, in part because of numerous shows near outcrop belts of the Marcellus, Utica and similar shales. Next on the priority list would have been the Ohio - (West) Virginia boundary area along the Ohio River, Ontario, Kentucky, and California. Familiarity with international literature would have led to a serious review of regions associated with volcanoes and/or earthquakes. Many of the states that developed significant oil production, such as Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana and Kansas, probably would not have ranked in the top ten in this initial review.