#Lookback: The Drilling of the Deepest Producing Well in Wyoming

    A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
    where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
    presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

    When drilling for oil and gas, there was a time when a well going down only a few thousand feet was considered deep. That was over a century ago. Now, holes often extend deeper than 15,000 feet underground with the deepest in the world bottoming out at around 40,000 feet below the surface, having been drilled in northern Russia. Technically, the deepest well in Wyoming extends to 25,764 feet, but it’s a dry hole. When it comes to producing wells, the deepest in Wyoming exists near Lost Cabin and gives the dry one a run for its money in terms of depth. The story of its drilling is emblematic of much of the history of Wyoming’s oil and gas industry for the majority of the 20th century.

    In the early 80s, gas prices began to hit all-time highs thanks to continued deregulation of the industry which had begun the decade before. While the price cap on natural gas had been raised to $0.42 per thousand cubic feet in the mid-70s, by 1984 the same amount of gas was worth $2.66. This increase in price over that time stimulated gas exploration throughout the country, even as the oil industry was dealing with a glut caused by the over-inflated prices during the 1979 energy crisis.

    At the same time, many oil and gas producers were looking for ways to get new resources out of existing fields. Fracking, which had been around since the 40s, was just coming into its own thanks to technological improvements. However, in the measurements of some companies, rather than pushing the underground resources up towards wells with injections of water and CO2, it would be better to drill even deeper towards relatively unexplored formations.

    This may have been the calculation of Monsanto Oil Company in 1983 when it announced it would be drilling a hole of 26,500 feet in depth in order to get at gas projected to be in the untouched, five-mile-deep Madison formation under the ground in Madden Field near Lost Cabin. While this was already one of the largest gas producing fields in the state, the company believed that there were greater gas reserves further down, where nobody had drilled before in the Madison, Frontier, Morrison, and Alcova formations. 

    Drilling began on Bighorn 1-5, as the well was named, in early 1984 with 25 men working around the clock. Even so, the project took almost two years. Drill bits had to be changed periodically, anywhere from every 9 hours to around once a week, depending on the hardness of the rock and the type of bit being used. In order to do this, the drill stem, at the end of a 500,000-pound drill string, had to be drawn up to the surface. The “trip,” as it was called, took longer and longer the deeper the hole got. Towards the end, it would take as long as 16 hours just to pull the drill up and change the bit. And that’s not taking into account how long it would take to get the drill back down!

    As the hole got deeper, it also got smaller. The first 1,500 feet of the hole was cased with 36-inch diameter casing, which was put in place in order to prevent the hole from collapsing and help avoid blowouts caused by high pressure gas. Then, between 1,500 and 6,700 feet down, 30-inch casing was used. The size of the casing continued to shrink until it was only 7 and 5/8 inches in diameter. And each time the well was to shrink, the drill bit had to be changed down in size as well, necessitating another long “trip.”

    The work was slow, but ultimately successful. Gas was encountered at 24,877 feet after 670 days of non-stop drilling. Rather than continue to the planned depth of 26,500 feet and break the well-depth record in Wyoming, Monsanto decided to stop there, having already spent a whopping $26 million on the project.

    Even though it had spent all that cash, the company had to immediately shut the well in. The gas at that depth was very sulphureous and required a gas sweetener plant for processing before anyone could even think about marketing it. Unfortunately, such a plant did not exist in the vicinity and neither did the infrastructure needed to transport the gas to one further away. Monsanto had no other choice. 

    This problem is somewhat emblematic of much of Wyoming’s history with oil and gas – finding it has not usually been the hard part. The question has been what to do with it once it’s taken from the well. A lack of railroad and pipeline infrastructure slowed the oil and gas industries greatly for a large portion of the 20th century. In 1985, Monsanto faced a similar problem with Bighorn 1-5 – they had struck the jackpot, but there was no plant in the area and no easy way to move the gas.

    Less than a year later, as the gas industry followed the oil industry into a slump, also caused by inflated prices, all of Monsanto’s oil and gas interests were bought out by the much larger BHP Petroleum, an Australian oil company, which stated that it would begin drilling more holes of similar depth to Bighorn 1-5 in the Madden Field. By the mid-2000s, there were at least three different gas sweetener plants there, built at great cost in order to process the gas drilled deep underground. However, even with all these new, deep wells, Bighorn 1-5 remains the deepest well ever to have produced in Wyoming to this day.

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    May 12, 10am at the Dubois Museum, “Kids Corner: Aquatic Insects” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    May 13, 9-1 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Lander Area Petroglyph Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series

    May 17, 7 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Gold Fever in the Atomic Age: Wyoming’s Uranium Boom” by Zach Larsen, Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    December 2022-October 2023 at the Pioneer Museum, “Wind River Memories: Artists of the Lander Valley and Beyond” art exhibition

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum.  The WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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