Oil in Maryland? It's just a pipe dream

People have been drilling, off and on, since the 1860s


June 29, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

What do you know about Marcellus shale, a sedimentary bedrock that underlies much of the Appalachian Basin, including Maryland's westernmost counties, and why should you care?

I didn't know anything about the black shale that was deposited about 400 million years ago during the Devonian period until the other day, when I was talking with a few Maryland geologists.

In an 1839 report, Marcellus Shales in Seneca County, James Hall of the New York State Geological Society named the shale after an outcropping of it was discovered near Marcellus, N.Y.

The reason Marcellus shale is important in this energy-conscious age is that it may well harbor about 500 trillion cubic feet of untapped natural gas, according to Terry Englander, a geoscience professor at Pennsylvania State University, and Gary Lash, a geology professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

"We've got 10 producing gas wells and 90 to 95 storage wells near Accident in Garrett County," said C. Edmon Larrimore, chief of minerals, oils and gas for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, the other day.

Some of the natural gas wells found in Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties date to the 1950s.

If there's natural gas in Maryland, is there oil?

"There is no oil in Maryland because the geological formations that produce oil are not found here. What I'm saying is that it's not geologically right," Larrimore said.

"But with Marcellus shale, there's been lots of discussion, and it's a hot topic in Allegany and Garrett counties, where there has been land speculation," he said.

The unsuccessful quest to find "Texas tea" Maryland-style began in earnest during the 1860s, spurred on, no doubt, by the discovery of oil near Titusville, Pa., by Edwin Laurentine Drake, who struck oil there in 1859.

In 1901, F. B. Hendricks, a Connecticut charlatan, arrived in Pocomoke City and, according to The Sun, was responsible for setting off "the Pocomoke oil excitement."

Hendricks told the newspaper that his perambulations near the Worcester County city "have since convinced me that it will be one of the richest oil-producing sections yet discovered."

He added: "Of course, I cannot make public how I know this, but it is enough to say that I took into my confidence three of the leading businessmen of Pocomoke City and had them walk over some of the ground with me."

Eventually, all of the high-minded talk of oil beneath the Eastern Shore sands faded, and Hendricks quietly closed his portmanteau and left town after the expected financial backing failed to materialize.

In 1913, Eastern Shore folks again were hypnotized by talk of oil and opened their pocketbooks, yielding to a group of oil speculators who promised, "Spend a dollar and make a thousand."

Bustling with enthusiasm and promises of an apparent oil boom, the company leased 5,000 acres of land, sank a pipe and began drilling.

Dreams of abundant oil riches came to a halt when quicksand and not crude was hit at 500 feet.

"Wells have been dug near Lonaconing in Western Maryland; in the Triassic soil of Frederick County; in Prince George's County; near Leonardtown, and on the Isle of Wight near Ocean City," reported The Sunday Sun Magazine in the 1940s.

"Most of the digging resulted in nothing but disappointment," it said.

In 1919, the only real "strike" came in Prince George's County, when an operating well produced a bucketful of oil every 24 hours.

Newspaper accounts at the time said it was so pure that it could be "put right into the gasoline tank of an automobile and run off with it."

Abundance wasn't in the cards, and shortly afterward, the well and its so-called pure oil went dry.

However, the talk of Maryland oil wouldn't go away, as speculators continued to whip up interest.

"The kind of science the big companies employ is not to be believed. ... Hardly a single geologic condition is favorable for the accumulation of oil near Washington. The usual requisites for an oil pool are lacking, and no reputable geologist would advise the expenditure of money under these conditions," said a 1920 report from the U.S. Geological Survey published in The Sun at the time.

In 1944, the Ohio Oil Co., after a year's exploration of the Eastern Shore, was convinced that oil lay beneath the Salisbury cornfield of Larry G. Hammond.

Oil company executives had leased Hammond's farm with the promise that he would receive "one-eighth of the value of any oil or gas produced from his land," reported The Sun.

"If they do find oil," Hammond told the newspaper, "it will do somebody some good, but I'm 68 and it won't mean much to me."

A wooden derrick towering 163 feet was built near Hammond's farmhouse and drilling commenced.

After drilling to a depth of 5,568 feet, nothing was found but bedrock. Again, no oil rushed in a black pressure-driven plume to the top of the derrick like a Texas or Oklahoma gusher.

Hammond couldn't have cared less one way or the other.

He was happy because in clearing nearby woods for the well, oilmen had cut into stove length the trees they had cut down, and carefully stacked them by his farmhouse door for use in his kitchen stove.

"In 1991, Texaco drilled some wells on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, and they were dry holes," Larrimore said. "To the best of my knowledge, there just isn't any oil in Maryland."



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