December 10, 2008
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Home / Issue Archive / 2006 / August #8 / Head for the River and Don't Forget the Samovar! Oilmen's Day is Coming!

№ 8 (August 2006)

Head for the River and Don't Forget the Samovar! Oilmen's Day is Coming!

September is coming and the PR departments in oil and gas companies across Russia have started to puzzle over how best to mark the "Day of Oil and Gas Industry Workers".

By Anna Arutiunova

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We at Oil&Gas Eurasia have always joined - like everyone else in the industry - in issuing congratulations to friends and colleagues connected with the industry. But like many holidays, we never really asked "why" we do what we do.

So this year, we decided to inquire into the historic reasons behind this PR department panic. In the industry's jargon, "Oilmen's Day" is celebrated on the first Sunday of every September, which falls this year on the 3rd of the month.

Unexpectedly, acquiring information on the roots and history of this holiday turned into a "mission nearly impossible". Besides numerous directorial congratulations of years passed that seemed to amount to one big "hurrah!" we could find nothing of use in cyberspace, except the fact that the holiday was officially established by an order of the Supreme Soviet Presidium in 1980. We found also that oil and gas workers in Tyumen pioneered the celebration some 40 years ago. Having failed to find any more clues on the Internet, we turned to a lower tech device - the telephone.

Internet Can't Help, Try the Telephone

Name a Russian major, we telephoned them. Here's a sample of the answers we got. TNK-BP press office: "We haven't the slightest idea." Sibneft's press office: "There are no specific legends associated with the holiday, only guesses. Maybe it's in September because people come back from vacation. Or because the winter is close. Anyway, it was there in the Soviet times." LUKOIL PR: "I have a little statuette sitting on my desk that I got last year. It says 'Happy 40th anniversary of Oilmen's Day'."

Then we called the Ministry of Industry and Energy, and were told to "call us when you find out; we wonder too." Overheating the phone with hours of talk, we did finally succeed in finding an oil and gas industry historian at another publication, who could tell us everything we wanted to know - if he hadn't been on vacation.
Thus, having no access to primary sources of information, we decided to put forth our own theory of this holiday's existence. What we offer here is pieced together from a few facts we were able to glean in our research.

A Little Creativity Never Hurt

On Sept. 21, 1953, a gas fountain burst to the surface in the ancient Siberian town of Beryozovo, marking the beginning of a new era - that of Western Siberian oil and gas production. Technically, you could call this the birth of the modern Russian oil and gas industry.

Having been offset by previous failures to discover gas in Siberia, Alexander Bystritskiy's team did not take the necessary precautions against a spontaneous eruption of hydrocarbons driven by internal reservoir pressures. They simply didn't know they'd hit the reservoir while drilling one last well on the outskirts of Beryozovo. For one thing, most of the work was finished and a sense of defeat hung in the air. That last well was in fact an accident - the drillers did not drill where they had been instructed to drill. They just drilled one last hole for the heck of it!

But as the team was withdrawing their equipment, water and gas shot skyward, expelling in seconds, everything the drillers had been working with downhole. The rush and roar of pressurized gas and liquids bursting up from the earth shattered the silence of the taiga, and soon disappointment turned to joy, as the oil workers beheld a black-and-blue-gold fountain over 50 meters tall.

The End is Near - A Samovar for the Afterlife

Yuliya Lytkina, a research fellow at the geology, oil, and gas museum of Khanti-Mansiysk, expanded on what happened next: "Many inhabitants of the town, having been scared out of their wits, abandoned their homes, grabbed their samovars, and ran to the river, thinking that the end of the world had come. The unsettling roar could be heard 10 kilometers away. Salt water, spewed out along with gas, precipitated as rain for hundreds of meters around. The nearby woods died out."
The event Lytkina describes was certainly memorable enough to have resulted in the declaration of a holiday in the relevant month - September. But in this history of Russian oil and gas, there were other equally important events, as we at OGE learned from our little research exercise.

Scholars surmise that there is a certain peculiarity about the historical development of Russia's oil industry in that its development is characterized by "regional waves", that is, a single region seems to dominate production for a time, only to be later eclipsed by a new region.

Not Russia, but China is considered to have been the first world power to extract oil and gas. The first written mention of oil in Russia came from the Ukhta River in the north of the Timan-Pechora region in the 15th century (where companies such as LUKOIL and ConocoPhillips produce oil today). Local inhabitants gathered oil from the river surface with buckets and used it for medical purposes, as a lubricant, and to administer blessings. In 1745, Fyodor Pryadunov got permission from Empress Elizabeth to begin extracting oil from the Ukhta River bed. In February of 1866, the first oil fountain in the country gushed forth in the Kudako River valley of the Kuban region.

Caspian Legacy Saved by Lenin's NEP

An oil well was also drilled in 1846 on the Bibi-Aybat oil field near Baku, then part of the Russian empire. The southern regions, such as the North Caucasus and Baku, set the main stage for the beginning of development of the Russian oil and gas industry. Then followed the Russian revolution, oil fields were nationalized and the industry nearly destroyed. Restoration of the Baku fields occurred in the early 1920s, when under Lenin's New Economic Policy, some foreign companies were invited to the USSR to help. Today clearly visible from the road leading from Baku's airport to the city are 80 year old western style cottages built as an "expat village" to house these foreign workers.

The Caspian remained the center of the Soviet oil production until World War II, fueling the industrialization of Russia. Gaining control of the facilities in Baku and cutting off oil supplies to the Soviet Union was one of the main goals of Hitler's army in World War II. In the 1950s, Russian oil and gas production was dominated by the region of Uralo-Povolzhye (Bashkiriya and Tatarstan).

In the 1960s and 1980s, revolutionary changes took place in the industry, which put the USSR, and later the Russian Federation, at the top of the energy power chart of the world. While some scientists in the Soviet Union were conquering the cosmos by launching the first artificial satellite and in the early 1960s, and the first man into space, other Soviet scientists were venturing deep into the earth interior.

Surviving Against All Odds to Bring West Siberia on Stream

The Western Siberian region was first explored by Vitaliy Zenchev, who died in a tragic accident at the Glubokiy Sabun river embranchment in 1955. As the country aggressively developed its automobile, aviation, railway, and building industries, and demand for plastic and synthetic materials grew, the Communist Party established The Third Program at its 12th meeting, demanding that oil and gas workers drastically increase hydrocarbon production to meet the country's growing demands. Thus, assisted by geologists, oil industry workers discovered fields in Shirotnoje Priobje (Megion, Mamontov, Samotlor), as well as enormous gas reserves in Yamal. The decision to venture into Western Siberia was a difficult one to make for the Soviet government, but Tyumen geologists fiercely fought for the risky enterprise, although the positive outcome put them into unbearably difficult climatic conditions at temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit).

Work could only be done in winter as the impassable Siberian swamps froze up enough to support heavy machinery. Geologists lived and worked without means of communication, homes, food, or entertainment, at a constant danger of losing their jobs in case of failure. Most of the building efforts were concentrated on industrial constructions related to oil extraction and transportation, while workers lived in gullies, mud huts, trailers, and even tents.

Academician Andrei Trofimuk describes in his memoirs "Forty Years of Struggle for Siberian Oil Development," "Having explored the fields myself, I watched oil men, field men, and construction workers pursue their heroic conquest of the untrodden expanse of Western Siberian lowlands, while huddling with their families in gorges permeated by frosty winds. The plans of building schools, kindergartens, shops, and other necessary institutions were not being fulfilled. Concern for people lagged way behind concern for meeting drifting borehole goals, oil and gas extraction, and construction of industrial objects."

Saluting Those that Went Before Us

Despite the inhumane conditions, the Soviet Union was able to increase production from the region at an astounding rate. Glavtyumenneftegaz, which produced some 0.9 mln tons of oil in 1965, increased production by the 1980s to 352.7 mln tons of oil. Gas acquisitions grew from 127.7 to 643 bln tons in this time period. According to official statistics, export of oil and gas products grew from 75.7 mln tons in 1965 to 193.5 mln tons in 1985.

As the "black gold" from Western Siberia was of a superior grade, light and sweet (low sulfur) - if not mixed during pipeline shipment with high sulfur, high paraffin content crudes from Tatarstan and Bashkiria - Soviet planners prioritized maximizing short-term rather than long-term oil recovery, disregarding proper reservoir management practices and thus overproducing the fields and setting the stage for the industry's eventual decline.

Today in Beryozovo, where the so called "Pioneer of Western Siberian Gas" well was drilled, there is a model of an oil derrick made of steel pipes, set in memory of the 40th anniversary of the discovery. Mikhail Lomonosov, a renowned Russian scientist, once said that "Russian might will accrue with Siberia." On this year's "Day of Oil and Gas Industry Workers," we salute the might of those brave enough to venture into it - and those who today have inherited their legacy.
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