Working in arduous desert conditions and leading a team of explorers in the 1930s and ‘40s from the company that would come to be Aramco, Max Steineke put Saudi Arabia on the world petroleum map.
A definitive, book-length biography of Steineke is yet to be written, but what follows outlines his career and contributions to petroleum geology and exploration during a period and in places far from the comforts, facilities and technologies enjoyed today. And yet, his exploration output from a single basin remains unparalleled, and his story offers valuable insights.
An American Upbringing
Max’s father Julius Steineke and his mother Minnie Krahl emigrated from Germany to the United States in the 1880s. They met and married in Crescent City, Calif. in 1889, and later moved to Brookings, Ore. They ran a farm and had nine children, of whom seven survived beyond infancy. Max, the fourth child, was born on March 8, 1898, in Brookings, where he also finished his primary schooling. Max was a self-made man: hardworking, smart and physically strong. At age 13, he left home and went back to Crescent City where he worked at a lumber mill. His roommate was a schoolteacher who recognized talent in Max and helped him with his education in the evenings. He also helped Max to find a job at a chicken farm near Sebastopol, Calif., and suggested that Max study at the high school there. While at Sebastopol, Max also attended the Army student officers training camp in San Francisco, and he so excelled in marksmanship that much later people in Arabia admired his shooting and hunting skills.
He graduated from high school in 1917, and immediately enrolled at Stanford University. Being fond of outdoors (“I’m no son of a bitch for civilization,” he once remarked), he chose to major in geology at Stanford, and graduated in 1921. He took classes from eminent professors like James P. Smith (paleontology), Bailey Willis (geological engineering) and Cyrus F. Tolman (field geology).
Steineke was soon hired by a consulting geologist, Carl Beal (himself a Stanford graduate), and was sent to Alaska to map for possible drilling prospects for North Star Oil Syndicate. In June 1922, he joined Standard Oil Company of California (Socal, today’s Chevron) and remained with that company for life. From 1922 to 1928, Steineke worked and mapped in Colombia. In 1928 until 1932, he was stationed in San Francisco, doing structural and aerial geology mapping in California. He was then assigned to work in New Zealand. All of these experiences earned him the reputation of a geologist who would do excellent fieldwork and mapping in difficult terrains.
In 1932, Socal, which had purchased Gulf Oil’s concessions in Bahrain, was drilling a well on an anticline called Jabal Dukhan (“Mountain of Smoke”), and in June that year, the well struck light crude from Cretaceous limestones at depths of only 700 meters. Bahrain is an island in the Persian Gulf only 30 kilometers from the shores of Saudi Arabia. One Socal geologist, Fred A. Davies, had a visionary realization: similar reservoirs lay under the Arabian sands only miles away. He wrote to his home office in San Francisco, and Socal took up the idea. On May 29, 1933, the company’s representative, Lloyd Hamilton, and Saudi finance minister, Abdullah Suleiman, signed a historic concession. Socal founded the California Arabian Standard Oil Company, or Casoc – a subsidiary to undertake its operations in Saudi Arabia. The first Americans arrived in Arabia in late 1933 and included Krug Henry, Bert Miller, Soak Hoover, Tom Koch, Art Brown, Hugh Burchfiel, Dick Kerr and Felix Dreyfus.
In the spring of 1934, while the American team was in their first field season in Arabia, Steineke, then in New Zealand, wrote a letter to Chief Geologist Clark Gester in San Francisco, expressing his interest in joining the exploration team in Saudi Arabia. Gester wisely agreed. By October 1934, the American team had increased to 13 members, including Steineke, who in 1936 was appointed Casoc’s chief geologist in Arabia – a position he held until 1946 when he returned to the United States.
The American pioneers were first based in the port town of Jubail, but within a year, they moved to a new headquarters in Dhahran. Casoc’s concession was located in the Eastern Province, or Al-Hasa.
The landscape was very different in those days. As Steineke’s wife Florence wrote home in December 1937, “All we can see as we look out our door is sand, rocks, more sand, more rocks, and perhaps some black sheep, and a camel.”
Using Bahrain as analog, the geologists looked for jabals (rocky hills), and Dammam on the western slope of Jabal Dhahran was their first target. The first well, Dammam No. 1, was spudded in April 1935 and penetrated the Eocene “Bahrain Zone” with only minor shows of gas. No. 2 was drilled in February 1936 but struck only brine. No. 3 offered very heavy oil (good enough for paving desert roads). No. 4 and No. 5 were both dry. No. 6 was never drilled because Steineke had spotted a better location for No. 7, which was spudded in December 1936.
By then, Socal was restless and worried. They had spent millions of dollars, and those were the Great Depression years. They wanted to know Steineke’s honest opinion about any promising prospect.
Steineke suggested that no more drilling should be done until they had a good understanding of the regional geology and entire stratigraphy of the Arabian Peninsula. In the spring of 1937, therefore, he took a team of geologists, guides, drivers and cooks, and decided to construct an east-west geological map and cross-section from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea. This field trip took place from March 13 through April 11.
It is one of the most important mapping projects in the history of petroleum geology, although its results, understandably, were published much later.
The field work was both deadly serious and full of fun and stories. One of the team members was Max Thornburg. For days, Thornburg had noticed that Steineke opened dates for lunch, ate some parts of each date, and threw away the rest. Finally, Thornburg asked Steineke about it. “Because, some parts of the dates are wormy,” came the reply. Thornburg, who been eating dates entirely, touched no more dates thereafter!
Back to Dammam No. 7, which was being slowly drilled throughout 1937. The well penetrated Miocene, Eocene and Cretaceous carbonates, which respectively had yielded commercial oil accumulations in Iran (1908), Iraq (1927) and Bahrain (1932), but were barren at Dammam. Steineke, however, pressed on: “Drill deeper.” On March 4, 1938, Dammam 7, at a depth of 1,441 meters (twice the depth of the previous wells), gushed with light crude. The reservoir was the Kummerian-age Arab Zone carbonates, the equivalent of which Steineke had mapped in Tuwaiq Mountains in central Arabia in 1937.
The success of Dammam 7 sparked an intense development of the field as well as exploration of nearby oil fields. Dammam was a giant field. From 1940 to 1949 a few other, even larger fields were discovered: Abu Hadriya, Abqaiq, Qatif, Ain Dar, Fadhili and Haradh. In all of these fields, the Upper Jurassic Arab zone was the producing reservoir for crude of 30-38 degree API gravity. Of these, Ain Dar and Haradh need a special note. These were not only the first post-WWII discoveries but also the first drilling into a field that in 1953 was defined as Ghawar – the largest conventional oil field in the world (see “Finding Ghawar: Elephant Hid in Desert,” in the June 2011 EXPLORER).
During World War II, the number of Casoc personnel in Saudi Arabia dwindled to what Philip McConnell called the “Hundred Men” (the title of his book). These were the men who stayed behind to protect the oil fields. They did not drill new wells but instead ensured that production of 14,000 barrels a day supported the needs of the Allied war effort and the Saudi budget. During this time, Casoc also offered social services in Arabia, ranging from farming and drilling water wells to fixing equipment and health care. Steineke was one of the Hundred Men. McConnell writes that Steineke loved driving his car up and down sand dunes and had perfected this sport.
The Legend of Steineke
Paul Walton, a geologist from Utah who worked for Casoc in 1938-39, in his 1994 autobiography “From Prospect to Prosperity,” records his first meeting with Steineke: “Dick Kerr met me and took me to supper. He told me that Max Steineke, who would be my boss, was in the field and would be back in a day or two. Dick told me that Steineke was one of the best reconnaissance geologists in the world. In a few days Max Steineke arrived from the field. I liked (him) immediately.”
Walton continues that he explained gravity surveying to Steineke, and they agreed that it should first be applied at Dammam Dome, which Steineke believed to be a salt dome. The gravity survey showed both a positive gravity anomaly at the base (basement uplift) and a negative anomaly (salt dome) at the top.
Steineke was the first geologist to apply the structural drilling method to oil exploration in the Middle East. This started in 1936 and involved drilling shallow wells (a few hundred feet) to core and examine the lithology, age and strike-dip of underlying strata. Many of these wells became water wells given to the Bedouin tribes.
Steineke valued data and evidence more than opinion. He would easily change his own opinion if evidence suggested so. Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and historian, quoted a geologist colleague (probably Thomas Barger): “Max wanted to know exactly how you knew what you thought you knew.” Once he collected reliable data, he would then perform a masterful job of integrating fragmentary pieces into a working theory. He was open to all sorts of data: outcrop, well, geophysical and aerial photography.
In “Out in the Blue: Letters from Arabia 1937 to 1940,” Thomas Barger writes that Khamis ibn Rimthan, the popular Arab guide, once said to Steineke that there was a box-shape jabal in Wadi Dawasir; its name was Um Ruqaibah (“Mother of the Neck”), but the Bedouins had changed its name to Usba Steineke, meaning “Finger of Steineke,” in his honor. Steineke thought of this as the Bedouin equivalent of an AAPG award. (This seems to be a local, unofficial designation, as online search does not find it.)
In 1946, Steineke, suffering from poor health, left Saudi Arabia and returned to California. Although he continued to serve Aramco as a consulting geologist, his departure was really the end of an era. Wallace Stegner called it the “Closing of the Frontier.” In the post-war years, intense production, rapid modernization and new political forces changed the Arabian landscape and working environment. Everette Lee DeGolyer, who had visited the Middle East in 1943 and met Steineke, remarked that “Max was one of the greatest working geologists” he had ever met, probably implying that Steineke worked on and knew far more than what he had published. After his return to the United States, Steineke luckily found some time to write and wrap up his findings, even though some of his writings were published posthumously. With M.P. Yackel, he contributed a chapter on "Saudi Arabia and Bahrein" (sic) to the 1950 “World Geography of Petroleum”; his “Geological Map of the Western Persian Gulf Quadrangle, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” (1:500.000) was published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1958. On March 25, shortly before his death, he completed his notes on the Mesozoic rocks of eastern Saudi Arabia, which were incorporated in a chapter “Stratigraphic relations of the Arabian Jurassic oil” in “Habitat of Oil,” published in 1958. And finally, “Aramco Handbook,” by Roy Lebkicker, George Rentz and Max Steineke came out in 1960.
Max Steineke died on April 13, 1952, in Los Altos, Calif., at the age of 54. As a testament to his prominence, the New York Times published his obituary. Two months later, Aramco named its guest house in Dhahran “Steineke Hall.” Fred Davies, who had suggested Arabian exploration back in 1933 and had just been appointed as Aramco’s CEO, gave a speech at Dhahran, and ended with these words: “We are here to dedicate this very beautiful building to Max’s memory. I think it is fitting that this building will house many people, many different kinds of people. After all, those of us who knew Max know that he loved all kinds of people.”
The author expresses his gratitude to Max Steineke’s grandson, Chris Goad; Tim Barger of Selwa Press, son of Thomas Barger, former CEO and president of Aramco; Don Lewis, retired Chevron geologist; Saudi Aramco; University of Utah’s Marriott Library (the Wallace Stegner Papers), and AAPG.