Book Review - Oil in Texas

The Olien’s new book traces the first half century of oil in Texas from Spindletop through East Texas and the Permian Basin. The size of the oilfields is matched with larger-than-life cast of entrepreneurs, lawmakers and a few geologists. A great read.

There are three reasons why you should buy Diana and Roger Olien’s book ‘Oil in Texas’*. It is nicely-produced, with lots of illustrations. The writing is unobtrusive and authoritative. But best of all, it is a great tale which encapsulates, if not all, at least a fair sized chunk of humanity, big and little oil, some science, government, regulation, and the environment. In fact the first Texan discoveries in Corsicana led to environmental legislation as early as in 1899. These imposed open-hole casing requirements, although the concern was more for the well-being of the reservoir than for aquifer pollution.


The 1901 Spindletop discovery at Beaumont really got things moving - after the lease had changed hands three times, and an ‘expert’ geologist derided the prospect as ‘idle dreams or insane notions’. Spindletop produced over 17 million barrels of oil in 1902! At the time, non-geological theories of prospectivity abounded. Former Texas governor James Hogg was asked what made up ‘oil land.’ Hogg replied “If it hain’t no good for nothing else, it’s a good sign; and if the title is bad, it’s a cinch.”


Texas politics shaped the oil industry from the outset. Ever suspicious of things out-of-state, Texas became the heartland of anti-trust legislation. What in some ways was a propaganda war against the ‘monopolistic’ majors, led to the establishment of a healthy Texan oil industry.

Railroad Commission

Local industry was also bolstered by the powerful Texas Railroad Commission (TRC), which by the end of the 1940’s ‘exercised far more influence over [worldwide] crude oil prices than OPEC does today’. The TRC’s regulations, on matters such as gas venting, and water encroachment, frequently went un-policed. It was left up to individuals and companies to enforce regulation through the courts.

East Texas

By 1920, geological theories had evolved beyond the salt dome ‘fixation’ to trends, anticlines and stratigraphic traps. Gravity prospecting, refraction and later reflection seismics, introduced by Everett DeGolyer’s Geophysical Research Corporation, came in slowly with mixed results. In fact the big one - the East Texas ‘colossus’ of oilfields was found with 1930 with no help at all from science. The East Texas field, with estimated recoverable reserves of 7 billion barrels (of which 2 billion remain today!) is a pure stratigraphic trap with no surface manifestation whatsoever.

200,000 bopd

Other tricks of the trade were discovered in this early period. Independent Cullen drilled for oil in fields abandoned by the majors, and sometimes located newer reserves in deeper horizons. Some of the discoveries beggar belief. One well in the Permian Basin’s Yates field produced at a rate of 200,000 barrels per day. A photo shows the drilling crew looking rather philosophical as they pose, drenched in black gold.


The boom and bust cyclical nature of the industry was established from the earliest days. The National Guard was called in to quell the trouble resulting from the total collapse in the oil price that soaring production from East Texas created. More legislation followed - against ‘hot oil’ from out of state.

River of oil

Oil in Texas’ only failings are the rather skimpy maps and the near-absence of any geological sections de l’époque. Actually there is one - a marvelous section from the Houston Post of 1901 showing an underground river of oil flowing from Corsicana, through Beaumont and out into the Gulf. Makes you wonder - if you project out into the deepwater - maybe it ends up feeding Crazy Horse!

* ‘Oil in Texas - The Gusher Years 1895-1945’. Olien and Olien, University of Texas Press 2002. ISBN 0-292-76056-6. Buy online from

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