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Offshore Oil Drilling Pioneers Celebrate 40th Anniversary

November 15, 1987

MORGAN CITY, La. (AP) _ Charlie Howard, a landlubber, was drilling for oil on the firm terrain of Utah when he got the call 40 years ago to go where no oil man had gone before.

Kerr-McGee Corp. was facing tough competition from much larger companies, and was taking a $300,000 gamble by building ″KERMAC 16,″ the first oil rig out of sight of land, Howard recalled during a weekend reunion with his KERMAC 16 colleagues.

″They called me up and told me I had to be in Morgan City, La., three days ago,″ Howard recalled Friday. ″I told ’em I’d let them know whether I’d go at all tomorrow.″

Howard soon found himself more than 10 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico on a 40-by-70-foot platform big enough to hold drilling equipment and little else. Moored to the platform was a 260-foot supply barge on which the rig crew would eat and sleep.

″At that time it was the most expensive and the most hazardous drilling operation that had ever been undertaken,″ Howard said.

It was 40 years ago Sunday that Kerr-MdGee announced oil had begun flowing from the well.

Howard said he wasn’t frightened by the assignment, but David Chauvin, who was 27 at the time, confessed to some fear.

Working with heavy drilling equipment was dangerous enough on firm ground. Chauvin, a drilling novice, had to learn the business with rough seas crashing about him.

″I was so scared and so sore from slipping so much that I wanted to quit the first week,″ Chauvin said. ″Then I looked at the other three roughnecks working with me and I said, ‘Hell, if those little ol’ scroungy fellas can do it, I can do it too.‴

E.J. Richard had signed on as a driller, one of the men in charge of the rig’s operation. He also remembered some fear, when the first storm hit.

During the storm, a tugboat was sent to pull the men ashore aboard their barge. But the tow line linking the tug to the barge broke, Richard said. The tug’s skipper told Richard to put his men on the tug, but Richard took one look at the little boat tossing about and said no.

Instead, the men rode out the storm with their barge anchored securely by the rig platform, said Richard, 77.

That the platform survived was a tribute to Ferdinand Hauber, the engineer who built it.

″There was nothing comparable to it anywhere in the world,″ said Hauber, 80. The platform not only had to hold tons of machinery, but also withstand Gulf hurricanes.

″Now, there were other platforms off shore, but they were only about two miles off,″ he said. ″Water depth for them was only about five to eight feet and the water depth for this one was about 20 feet.″

The man behind the offshore platform was Dean A. McGee, 83. He was a geologist and executive vice president of Kerr-McGee when he decided to drill offshore in 1945.

″We looked around the areas that were most successful and found the most oil and gas was on the Gulf coast,″ recalled McGee, a member of the company’s founding family. ″We looked at Louisiana and it was highly competitive on land. So we thought we would try to explore in the ocean in a virgin area.″

The well began operating Sept. 9, 1947, and oil followed just over a month later. The well produced 1.4 million barrels of crude and 307 million cubic feet of natural gas before it was plugged 37 years later.

The well’s success gave rise to what is now the multibillion-dollar offshore industry. It began with a $300,000 investment, an unheard-of risk in 1947.

McGee admits that risk made him nervous at the time, ″but in the oil business, you have to gamble.″

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