A short history of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico

January 24, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

By Doris Burke

Out of the bayou … on oyster shells

Fossil fuels were first extracted from the marshes and bayous of southern Louisiana in the 1920s and '30s. Soon after, oilmen edged into the gulf, often in homespun fashion: wooden platforms built on a foundation of oyster shells. In 1938 the Creole field—with a 30,000-square-foot platform about a mile offshore in 14 feet of water— became the first producing property in the gulf. Offshore drilling (often using war-surplus barges converted into platforms) began booming after World War II , as the need for oil soared with American prosperity. In 1947, Kerr McGee, now part of Anadarko, became the first operator to drill "out of sight of land."

Whose gulf is it?

Drilling was so lucrative that governmental squabbles developed over who owned the rights. The fight was resolved when President Eisenhower signed the Submerged Lands Act in 1953, giving states most rights to natural resources within three miles from their coastlines. The feds could then auction leases for gulf blocks outside the states' jurisdiction. At that time there were about 70 platforms in water of up to 70 feet.

More and deeper

As oil prices surged after the embargo of 1973, companies drilled ever deeper, passing the 1,000-foot mark in 1975. During the '80s, the Reagan administration expanded the area available for development. Then, in 1987, as 3-D seismic technology assisted exploration, the "ultra-deepwater" era began with another discovery by Shell in water depth of 5,286 feet.

BP in the lead

By 2001 there were 211 deepwater wells, with six reaching through 7,500 feet of water. Today more than 80% of the oil produced in the gulf comes from deepwater wells. BP became the largest producer and leading leaseholder in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009.

Back to BP: 'An accident waiting to happen'

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