In his 1994 autobiography, “From Prospect to Prosperity,” Paul T. Walton highlighted two prospects he had generated. One in the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait Neutral Zone resulted in the discovery of the historic Wafra oil field. It made his boss, J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world. The second prospect became the Clear Creek gas field in the Wasatch Plateau of Utah. This discovery provided a much-needed supply of natural gas for the Salt Lake City area, plus enduring prosperity for Walton.
Walton was born in 1914 in Holladay, Utah, a pioneer ranching community southeast of Salt Lake City. Since he skipped the second and fourth grades, young Paul had difficulty competing with the older boys. He was tall and thin, but competitive on his church basketball team. He spent summers at his family’s small cattle ranch near Woodruff, Utah, located on the western part of the Utah-Wyoming Overthrust Belt. Aside from his work as a ranch hand, he hunted jackrabbits and sage hens, and in his spare time, rode horses. Ownership of his own ranch was a boyhood plan, but he needed a profession to finance this goal. Frequently after work he would ride to view the outcrops of the Overthrust Belt and attempt to determine the reason for these strange formations that had steep dips adjacent to shallow dips. A degree in geology would be necessary to resolve this mystery and (he hoped) provide funds to buy a ranch.
He entered the University of Utah in 1932, majoring in geological engineering. Walton also signed up for the Reserve Officers Training Corps, which included a horse-drawn field artillery unit with about 200 horses. His ROTC unit also had a polo field. Walton wanted to give it a try, so he bought a 52-inch Meurisse mallet and showed up for practice. He made the team, having proven his horsemanship. When he finally got to play, it was a thrill he never forgot. When classes started the next fall, the School of Engineering schedule was so demanding that Walton had to quit the polo team. It would take 36 years for him to get back into the game of polo. During Walton’s first marriage, a daughter, Holly, was born in Salt Lake City in 1942. He married his second wife, Betty Baer, in 1944 and they had two children, Paul T., Jr. in 1945 and Ann in 1946.
The Great Depression and Saudi Arabia
During the Great Depression, Walton received his bachelor’s in geological engineering from the University of Utah in 1935. No jobs were available in the mining and oil industries. Oil sold for five cents per barrel. As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Walton got a job with the Soil Conservation Service to prepare topographic and geologic maps using transit and plane table methods.
In 1938, a friend, Olie Graham, owned a Standard Oil of California gas station in Salt Lake City and told Walton that Standard (SoCal) had found oil in Saudi Arabia and was looking for field geologists. Graham needed to drive to Los Angeles to attend a company meeting and invited Walton to ride along. Standard’s Los Angeles staff suggested Walton go to San Francisco to see E. C. Gester, chief geologist for Standard. Walton drove there and was hired as chief of a gravity crew in Saudi Arabia. Standard then sent him to its Houston office to meet with the district geophysicist, Ken Crandall, who later became vice president of exploration for Standard and president of AAPG. From Houston, Walton was sent to Mississippi to get some experience with one of Standard’s active gravity crews.
Walton left Mississippi on Sept. 9, 1938, and, traveling by trains and ships, arrived at Standard’s field base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 24. Max Steineke was the field boss. (See Historical Highlights, March 2023.) Fieldwork consisted of surface structural mapping and gravity surveys using a Mott-Smith gravity meter. Since there were no land surveys, the crews used a system of benchmarks in the form of squares and quadrilaterals, which were 10 miles on a side and were set up at night using a transit and Coleman lanterns on the other three sides.
In November, Walton had his first bout of medical problems, this time from rheumatic fever. By Christmas Eve, his knees and arms were so inflamed that he couldn’t turn over in bed without help. An English doctor said he was going to try an induced method to get rid of the rheumatic fever.
As Walton described:
“That afternoon the English doctor came to my room, turned me over on my stomach, and shot me with 15 cc. of boiled goat’s milk. Within a few minutes my teeth started to chatter, I got the chills and shakes, and they had to bring extra blankets to keep me warm. My temperature went up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point all my aches and pains vanished. I could move my knee and elbow without pain. It seemed like a miracle!”
The aches and stiffness soon returned, so the doctor induced the fever once more. After several more weeks in the hospital, Walton was allowed to join his gravity crew in February 1939.
Walton’s crew completed gravity surveys over several structures. At Dhahran Dome, which was producing oil from the Jurassic “Arab Zone,” gravity showed a positive structure for the shape of the dome, but a negative anomaly at the top. Steineke suspected this was due to a salt plug. The Abu Hadriya structure showed a positive anomaly only after removing the regional gradient (there were no computers in 1939). The survey at Ma’gala, 100 miles west of Abu Hadriya, had a positive anomaly like the surface structure; however, the gravity anomaly was four miles to the east. At that point, surface structures were better lead areas than gravity anomalies.
By the start of summer in 1939, Walton was unusually tired, probably due to heart damage from the rheumatic fever. The doctors believed he only had a few months to live if he stayed in Saudi Arabia. Standard’s medical department in San Francisco ordered Steineke to send Walton home. He left Saudi Arabia with no job and only $3,000 in the bank. Walton thought he was coming home to die, but on the way, he toured Europe. He was shocked to see the military buildup in Germany and elsewhere.
Second Adventure in The Kingdom
Standard of California terminated Walton’s job, and the Soil Conservation Service didn’t have a job for him either. So, he went back to school: he earned a master’s in geology at the University of Utah in the spring of 1940 and then a doctorate in geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1942. His MIT dissertation was “The Geology of the Cretaceous in the Uinta Basin.” After two years with Texaco in Denver, he joined Pacific Western Oil, a J. Paul Getty company, as division geologist in Casper, Wyo. In late 1948, Walton got a message from the president of Pacific Western that Mr. Getty wanted someone to go to Saudi Arabia to represent him and bid on a concession for the Saudi interest in the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait Neutral Zone. If interested, Walton was to call Mr. Getty.
This was a dilemma, of course, because Walton had been sent home from Saudi Arabia in 1939 due to his bout with rheumatic fever. However, Walton couldn’t pass up this opportunity to negotiate for a concession there, so he called Getty in New York City. Getty asked Walton if he had worked the northern part of Saudi Arabia near the Neutral Zone. “Yes,” he said – he had run gravity surveys, seen seismic work and mapped surface geology just south of the Neutral Zone. Additionally, the Neutral Zone should be a good place to look for oil because it was near the Burgan field in Kuwait, the largest field in the world at that time. Walton was shocked at Getty’s proposed top royalty bid of 56 cents per barrel. When Walton cautioned that 56 cents was a huge percentage of the crude price when Aramco was only paying about 25 cents, Getty said, “Oil isn’t always going to sell for a dollar thirty-five.”
The temptation was too great not to take on an obvious adventure like this, so he said he would go. Walton arrived in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 5, 1948. This would be the base for negotiating with the Saudi finance minister, Sheikh Abdullah Sulaiman, and his advisers.
As soon as negotiations began, Sulaiman asked what Getty could bid. Walton offered an $8.5 million bonus, a 50-cents-per-barrel royalty, $1 million-per-year guaranteed royalty, and 25-percent net profits in any refinery built.
One of Sulaiman’s advisers then asked Walton, “Do you have the authority to increase the bid you have given us?” Walton said, “I do, but only if there is geological evidence which makes me believe there is oil there. If a fly-over appears favorable, I can increase the bid.”
This seemed to interest Sheikh Sulaiman, so he requested the use of an airplane from King Ibn Saud. A flight to the Neutral Zone was approved Dec. 9, and the aerial survey first flew over the Burgan field in Kuwait. There Walton spotted some outcrops on the north end of the oil field that looked like an anticline. The plane made four passes over the Neutral Zone and Walton saw a set of outcrops that might be the crest of an anticline. After the flight, Walton told Sulaiman that the surface outcrop was enough to raise the bid to a $9 million bonus and a royalty of 53 cents per barrel.
On Dec. 31, 1948, after several cables to Getty and more negotiations, the revised terms were acceptable: a bonus of $10.5 million and 55 cents per barrel. Further negotiations were to take place in Cairo where the agreement would be written by Walton and Barney Hadfield, Getty’s attorney. Hadfield thought the agreement would be completed and signed in about two weeks.
Five weeks later, by Feb. 12, 1949, the agreement was ready for signature. Unfortunately, both Walton and Hadfield were suffering from dysentery. After they signed the agreement, King Ibn Saud signed it in Riyadh on Feb. 20. Still sick with terrible cramps, Walton received a cable from Getty asking him to remain in Saudi Arabia for a few more weeks to do geologic work and to locate the first wells to be drilled in the Neutral Zone. This was another opportunity Walton couldn’t pass up. Surface work focused on two areas: a possible extension to the Burgan field and finding the top of a possible anticline seen in the aerial reconnaissance, which he now thought was the best place for the first well. A gravity survey would be needed before making the location, but Walton was too sick to stay to do it.
Dave Staples, president of Pacific Western Oil, told the company operation committee that Walton was not a good corporate man for not staying another month to do the gravity survey. The next day, Staples sent a cable to Walton, ordering him to come home. Walton’s bonus for the 1948-49 foreign assignment was only $1,200.
In 1961, Walton met with Getty at his Sutton Place manor in London and found out the result of his work on the Neutral Zone. A 1968 paper by P. H. Nelson would later tell the story. The first well was drilled in December 1949 on a large gravity high and was abandoned at 5,020 feet. Wafra No. 2, drilled in 1950, had a small showing of oil in the middle Cretaceous Wara sand, but was plugged after a failed production test. Seismic surveys and a shallow core hole program were conducted over most of the Neutral Zone in 1951 and 1952. Wafra No.3 was drilled on the south fringe of the field and was dry. Finally, Wafra No. 4 was completed in what is now the central part of the field in the Wara sand for 2,400 barrels of oil per day. The field produces oil from four main zones: the first two in the Eocene, the third in middle Cretaceous sandstones and the fourth in the lower Cretaceous Ratawi limestone at a depth of 6,500 feet, the most prolific reservoir.
Wafra is a multibillion-barrel giant field. Walton said it was Getty’s “biggest single asset.” The business magazine Fortune described the discovery as “somewhere between colossal and history-making.”
Clear Creek Gas Field
In 1948, Walton left Pacific Western and moved from Casper to Salt Lake City. He entered a partnership with the Morgan family and Tom Kearns. The partnership made and sold exploration plays in the Uinta Basin, the Powder River Basin and east of the Black Hills in South Dakota. None of these plays resulted in any significant production.
When he first returned to Utah, Walton made a down-payment on a two-acre lot south of Salt Lake City near Big Cottonwood Creek. Later, when finances were still “shaky,” construction began on his house. He was surprised when he was told by Mountain Fuel Supply Company that no natural gas was available for new homes in the Salt Lake Valley. An oil-burning furnace was installed with fuel costs three times more expensive than gas.
Clearly, what Utah needed was a new supply of natural gas.
In the Rocky Mountain region, most of the natural gas came from Cretaceous rocks, so Walton focused on the Cretaceous strata and structures on the Wasatch Plateau of Central Utah, a southwest extension of Uinta Basin. In 1949 and 1950, using aerial photos, plane table methods and surface geology, Walton mapped the plateau from Soldier Summit on the north to Salina Canyon on the south – about 100 miles. He mapped a large, faulted closure near the town of Clear Creek (Section 33, T13S-R7E) and several other possible fault closures to the south. They checked federal and state records, and all tracts of interest were available for filing. The partnership filed on nearly 100,000 acres for $25,000. The Clear Creek structure covered at least 25,000 acres and was closed on the east side by a big graben valley.
Drilling commenced on the Clear Creek structure in September 1951. By October, they had taken cores in the first 300 feet of the Cretaceous Ferron sandstone, the main objective – hard, tight and no shows.
Walton’s heart sank. He returned to Salt Lake facing the agony of a dry hole. The next day the rig engineer called and said, “I need a pitot tube!” When Walton arrived at the well, the flare from a depth of 4,704 feet was 60 feet high, out of a 4-inch tubing. Drilling continued to 4,734 feet where the well lost circulation. After regaining circulation, a Halliburton drill stem test was run. No gas showed for an hour, then after seven hours, a lot of gas, and at the end of an 18-hour open, the flow was at a rate of 7.5 million cubic feet of gas per day.
Two more wells were drilled in 1952. The H. E. Walton No. A-3 (named for Walton’s wife, Betty) was completed for 150 million cubic feet of gas per day and the H. E. Walton No. 1-X came in for 136 million cubic feet of gas per day.
“It looks like we have a major gas field,” Walton said.
At that time, Clear Creek was the highest gas field in the world, at an elevation of 10,000 feet. The field has produced about 115 billion cubic feet of gas.
Snake River Ranch and Polo Ponies Again
Clear Creek provided a nice income for Walton and his partners for many years. Walton’s share was less than a million dollars, but it came when he needed it. With royalties from his successful Utah exploration efforts, Walton’s dream of owning a ranch became a reality in 1958. Paul and Betty bought a 1,740-acre cattle ranch on the Snake River in Jackson Hole, Wyo., with classic views of the Teton Range. They developed the property into a showplace by draining several hundred acres to make bountiful hay meadows, building ranch facilities and raising a large herd of ranch horses. To preserve this magnificent property for ranching only, they deeded a conservation easement to the Jackson Hole Trust.
Walton’s return to polo was a fluke. While taking one of his mares to be bred, he met a local rancher who said, “We are having a polo game this afternoon. Why don’t you come and see it?”
At the end of the game, his friend said, “Here’s a horse, helmet and mallet. Get on!”
Walton resumed polo at age 55 and played competitively with passion until he was 75.
A Lifetime of Exploration
In 1957, Walton was drawn back to the Utah-Wyoming Overthrust Belt by an uncle who claimed there was an oil seep by an old sawmill site. No seep was found, but there was evidence of several low relief anticlines in the Tertiary formations. Federal records were checked and most tracts were open for filing. Together with El Paso Natural Gas, Walton mapped the surface anticlines, did a little seismic in the Ryckman Creek area of Wyoming and formed the Bridger Hills Unit. El Paso drilled two dry holes that found no shows in the Tertiary or Cretaceous formations. Walton recommended that El Paso drill an additional 1,500 feet to the Jurassic Nugget sand. El Paso’s management refused to spend any more money and the 180,000-acre unit was dropped. Nineteen years later, in 1976, Chevron did additional seismic and drilled a well to the Nugget within a mile of the El Paso dry holes. They found a major oil field, Ryckman Creek, with cumulative production of about 20 million barrels of oil and 275 billion cubic feet of gas.
Walton was a member of the AAPG, GSA and the Utah Geological Association. Apparently, he never received an honor for his unique role in several discoveries from any of these organizations. Daniel Yergin, in his authoritative history of the oil industry, “The Prize,” said that the drilling rig in the Neutral Zone “struck oil where Walton had thought, all along, that oil would be found. To call it a major discovery would prove an understatement.”
In the preface to his own book, Walton succinctly described how oil and gas exploration can last a lifetime:
“I am currently working on several more ‘plays,’ one of which is bound to pay! In the view of many oilmen, exploration for oil is not a profession; it is a disease for which there is no permanent cure. And so, on we explorationists will go, to the offshore areas, to the Disturbed Belt, to the inaccessible corners of the earth, to look for oil and gas!”
Paul T. Walton died in Salt Lake City in 1998 at age 84.