A century ago, on Dec.14, 1922, a gusher helped transform Venezuela from an agricultural country known as an exporter of coffee, cacao and cattle into one of the world’s largest oil producers. It was front-page news on the world’s most important newspapers.
The country’s most significant 20th-century discoveries took place in the Maracaibo Basin between 1910 and 1925 and were based on surface geological exploration of concessions held by American and European companies. One of the strikes, the large La Rosa Field, was discovered in 1917 by Venezuelan Oil Concessions, a Royal Dutch Shell affiliate, on a 3,000-square-mile concession. It had been awarded in 1906 to Antonio Aranguren by the government of General Juan Vicente Gómez and bought from Aranguren by VOC in October 1913. The concession had a term of 50 years, renewable for a similar period.
In 1917 the VOC geologists, following the abundant oil seeps in the region, decided to drill Santa Bárbara well No. 2, which began producing 260 barrels per day and was the first commercial well in the region. Although this rate was disappointing for VOC, which expected a higher volume, the well was later recognized as the discovery well for La Rosa Field.
Next, they moved the rig a few kilometers north to a ranch known as Los Barrosos (which means “the mud flats”) and drilled a well named Los Barrosos-1. This well was dry. They then moved their rig to a site in the jungle slightly east of the village of La Rosa and spudded well Los Barrosos-2. On Aug. 31, 1918, VOC abandoned it, at that time a shallow well.
In 1922 VOC decided to drill deeper in this well, now called “R-4,” and work began again on July 31, 1922. On Aug. 18, the drillers reached the total depth of the original well at 539 feet. They continued drilling and encountered tar sands between 1,107 and 1,262 feet. In the second week of December, when the drill passed 1,450 feet, they struck an oil sand with considerable gas and encountered moderate inflows of oil and gas.
The VOC foreign drilling crew – six drillers and a superintendent – had set up a headquarters in La Rosa. The inhabitants had become well acquainted with them and were accustomed to their presence. They called them by their names: Señores Marchant, Oilcrease, Cole, Grimes, Cochran and the superintendent, Señor L.E. Deganais. But the villagers knew nothing of the show of oil. If the oil show caused any excitement among the crew members, it was not communicated to their new friends.
At 6 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 14, La Rosa was a sleepy little community with only a casual, irritated interest in the clanking drilling rig on the edge of town.
An hour later it awoke to terror.
The well began to flow from a depth of 1,550 feet. It came in quietly, flowing an estimated 2,000 barrels per day. This looked like a good well – not a headline-maker, but a good, profitable well.
Because it had come in unexpectedly, there was no gate valve on it and the oil flowed smoothly out of the 10-inch casing. Putting a gate valve on it to control the well appeared, initially, to be a simple task. As the minutes passed while the gate valve was being readied, the flow of oil became stronger – but that was more a cause for gratitude than alarm – at least, for the moment.
At 7 a.m. there came a mighty rumbling from the bowels of the Earth that sounded like the passage of a thousand freight trains. Suddenly, with a roar, oil erupted from the well in a spout that towered 200 feet above the derrick and fanned out in the air like a titan’s umbrella.
La Rosa came alive, and the villagers poured out of their houses. Oil sprayed them in a torrent of black raindrops. The great fan above the well sparkled in the clear sky and the people raised their eyes in awe. Fear ran through the streets and only the bravest walked hesitantly toward the well. They held out their hands and the dark, sticky fluid splattered their palms. “Petróleo!” they all shouted, with the exultation of the lookout’s cry of “Land!”
All the workers on or close to the rig were soaked in oil and could do no more than run away from it.
The sight of the oil column blowing out was visible from the city of Maracaibo, across Lake Maracaibo. Hans Karl Stauffer, a Swiss geologist employed by Shell, measured the depth, width and speed of the oil torrent flowing downhill toward the lake. He estimated the blowout rate at 100,000 barrels per day of 18-degrees API oil.
It was one of the biggest blowouts the world had ever seen. Oil covered the trees, coated the vines and in ever-growing streams flowed through the underbrush like black serpents. The streets of La Rosa looked as if they were paved and the ditches beside them ran bank full.
The drilling crew got off a message to VOC headquarters across the lake in Maracaibo. A call for help was sent to Caribbean Petroleum’s Mene Grande field to the southeast. Villagers were recruited, but by the time operations to contain the oil could get underway, the waters of Lake Maracaibo, more than half a mile away, were being stained black.
The oilmen concentrated their efforts on saving all the oil they could. Because the general slope of the land was toward the lake, they threw up huge banks of earth between the well and the water.
By the morning of Dec. 18, this job was completed.
Sumps were dug on high ground and the oil was pumped into them. However, the workers and the pumps could not keep pace with the roaring giant.
As the days passed without a sign of the flow diminishing, the early fear returned. A rumor spread through La Rosa and among the workers that the local priest had declared that VOC’s drill had plumbed the depths of Hell itself. How great must have been the courage of these technically unsophisticated people that they refused to leave their ground.
On Dec. 22, 1922, while the blowout continued unabated, the people of the town of Cabimas, devout believers in San Benito, had asked the priest for permission to carry the image of the saint in procession to the well. They reasoned that since San Benito was a black saint – the same color as the oil – he could surely help. The priest agreed and a likeness of San Benito was carried in procession to the well. While the well roared and oil covered them, they beat their tom-toms and implored the saint to stop the flow of oil. All through the night they knelt there, praying in the darkness. Daylight found them still there. Many said that they felt San Benito attempting to control the well.
The Hand of God?
Quite suddenly, at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 23, as if the hand of God had throttled the well, the blowout stopped. For a few minutes nobody spoke. Silence was the respectful eloquence of the oil people and Cabimas’ inhabitants. After nine days flowing, the well had plugged itself and the blowout ended. The geologists explained that the producing sands had collapsed and thus the flow ceased, but the local inhabitants firmly believed that it had stopped thanks to San Benito, their patron saint.
The joyful and grateful throng returned to Cabimas and San Benito was placed back in the church. The geologists said that the well had plugged itself – but the inhabitants of the area knew who had done it. They were especially convinced when a few days later they saw oil company men and their wives praying at their church.
The blowout was a major environmental disaster. About 840,000 barrels of heavy oil soiled Lake Maracaibo and its eastern shore, from Cabimas in the north to Bachaquero in the south.
While the people of La Rosa began to make their village habitable again, VOC crews took stock of what they had on their hands. Of the oil the well had produced, 350,000 barrels was in the hastily erected earthen banks. Knowing that the oil was subject to evaporation and soaking into the ground, crews built a pipeline to the lakeshore. The oil was pumped through the line and aboard tankers which carried it to Shell’s refinery on the island of Curaçao.
Two days after the well had blown out, the news was flashed around the world and the New York Times described the gusher as “the most productive in the world.” By the time the first oil was pumped aboard a tanker, Maracaibo was alive with eager strangers as every boat that landed there disgorged an army of oil workers. The blowout marked the beginning of an energetic exploration campaign that resulted in the discovery of famous fields like Lagunillas in 1926, Tia Juana in 1928 and Bachaquero in 1930.
Cleanup of the area began in August of 1925 and 8-and-a-half-inch casing was cemented in the well, now known formally as R-4. It was perforated in the interval from 1,292 to 1,520 feet and began producing 5,130 barrels per day of heavy oil. Over time, the production decreased, the lowest and final rate being 12 barrels per day. The R-4 well produced oil until October 1970 when it was abandoned because of its poor mechanical condition.
Locating the Well
Since the Barrosos-2 was such a significant well in Venezuela’s oil history, I always asked myself where the well actually was located and why no monument commemorated it. I checked history books, the magazines published by various oil companies, the National Library and the libraries of the universities in Caracas and Maracaibo. Nowhere could I find the geographic coordinates of the well.
In the 1970s I worked for Mobil Oil Company de Venezuela, which operated in eastern Venezuela. However, whenever I could, I asked my colleagues who worked in western Venezuela for the exact location of the Barrosos well. They provided me with coordinates, but upon checking those sites, the information proved to correspond to other wells.
In July of 1980, in the town of Lagunillas, while we enjoyed cold beers, I asked an older resident, Celestino Arvelo, whether he happened to know anything about the well. It turned out that he did. He had been a teenager in La Rosa at the time of the blowout and worked on a boat that hauled bananas from there to Curaçao. He saw the blowout when his boat left La Rosa and saw it again when they returned six days later.
“The well is hidden in Cabimas behind a hut close to the road between Cabimas and Tia Juana. I believe it is next to a car repair place,” he told me.
He provided me a few more details and I immediately took off. I found the hut and the repair place. I asked the mechanic, who was working on an old Chevy Malibu, about the well.
“Romelia!” he shouted, “Here’s somebody who wants to ask you something.”
Romelia Moreno came out of her home, and I asked her about the well.
“Yes, the Barrosos well, the R-4, is here. But I’m sorry to say that it is in the backyard where I keep the trash,” she said.
“I want to see it. I’ve been looking for it for years!” I replied.
There, between a toilet and a broken washer, was my beloved well, a rusty pipe sticking out of the ground, dispossessed of its former glory, with a metal marker welded on it that read “CSV/R-4/Abandoned.”
Return to Glory
The well that had been one the world’s greatest blowouts deserved a better tribute than this.
In the months that followed, I began a personal campaign to rescue the Barrosos-2 well: a whirlwind of phone calls, letters, meetings with people in oil, professional societies and government. Response everywhere was positive and Maraven, Shell’s successor oil company in Venezuela, took on the project.
After the Barrosos-2 blowout, VOC had continued to successfully drill many wells in the La Rosa field area. The discovery of oil along the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo triggered not only the construction of well-planned residential camps by the oil companies for their workers, but also uncontrolled growth on the land beyond. Over time, hundreds of contract workers built their modest houses around the production wells. Villages became towns, and the land around abandoned wells was not spared. The oil city of Cabimas grew, and the marker for well R-4 was hidden in the backyard of Señora Romelia Moreno’s house. To build the square and monument, PDVSA Maraven bought all the houses of the entire block, including hers, and they demolished and cleared the area.
Work on the commemorative plaza began in January of 1983. It was inaugurated on Dec. 14, 1983, by Venezuela’s President Luis Herrera Campins, exactly 61 years after the blowout.
The monument was enlarged in 2012 by PDVSA and has become one of Cabimas’ most important cultural and sporting centers: a now proud monument to the historic well Barrosos-2.