New Oil: The Giddings Gamble

The Austin chalk is the most perverse, contrary, incorrigible oil field known to man. The big oil companies tried it and gave up. But one man learned the way to make the chalk yield its secrets—and its oil.
New Oil: The Giddings Gamble
When the boom hit, housing got so scarce that even overturned oil tanks looked cozy.
Photograph by Lon Cooper

The day after the Arabs and Israelis started their October 1973 war, C.W. “Chuck” Alcorn, Jr., drove through the heart of Central Texas hoping for an oil well. Things did not look especially promising. The sky was gray and dreary. The gently rolling cattle ranches and peanut farms of Lee County appeared barren and unyielding. But Alcorn still harbored a cautious optimism. That morning his tool pusher had called to tell him that the Halliburton crew was pumping acid down the throat of the No.1 City of Giddings. By late afternoon the job would be complete. Alcorn wanted to be on hand to see what happened next — if anything.

At first glance Chuck Alcorn looked like a Hollywood version of the vanishing Texas wildcatter. A lanky six feet four inches tall and forty years old, he had prematurely gray hair and a handsome boyish face. He was third-generation Texas oil patch, the son of an independent drilling contractor. Alcorn had paid for his college education by roughnecking in the oil fields during the summer and had graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in geology, which he had put to practical use ever since. Earlier in the day he had doffed his pin-striped business suit and changed into his oil field clothes: a khaki shirt, khaki pants, muddy brown cowboy boots, and a battered brown cowboy hat with a narrow, curled-up brim. Crammed in behind the wheel of his four-door Ford, he personified the quixotic spirit of all great Texas oil finders.

Of course, as Chuck Alcorn would cheerfully admit, he was not a true wildcatter. He had made his career in what he called “the unromantic side of the oil business.” Having begun with Gulf Oil, he was now the owner of an oil well salvage company based in Victoria. Rather than exploring for new fields, he specialized in buying up old wells and rejuvenating them with special stimulation treatments like acidizing. He was, in essence, the oil business equivalent of a used-car dealer.

Alcorn liked his work even though these were tough times for Texas oilmen. The world was glutted with foreign oil. Prices were under $4 a barrel. Drilling activity was at a twenty-year low. The major companies were selling many of their old onshore properties in order to put more money offshore or into investments other than oil, and independent operators appeared to be a dying breed. Alcorn was glad of any business he could get.

He regarded the No. 1 City of Giddings as a routine salvage job. One of only four marginally productive wells in the southern two thirds of the country, the No. 1 City had been drilled back in 1960 by Union Producing Company, which later became a part of Pennzoil. As Alcorn had the story, the No. 1 City was intended to test a potential oil-bearing layer called the Austin chalk. At first, the well had looked pretty good. It came in flowing at a rate of slightly less than one hundred barrels of oil per day and making what appeared to be a fair amount of natural gas. What was more, Alcorn was told, the oil from the No. 1 City was not the same color and consistency as the oil from its sister well, the nearby Preuss No. 1, or from the Jenke, the other productive well in the county at the time. Instead of being black and full of tar, it was an unusual light yellow, the color of honey.

Unfortunately, Union Producing had killed the flow of the No. 1 City in order to remove the drilling rig and install the proper production equipment. This was done in the usual manner: by plugging the hole with several thousand gallons of drilling mud. When it came time to start production, the mud pack was repunctured, but the flow never resumed its original rate. Instead of producing almost a hundred barrels per day, the No. 1 City coughted up only five or ten, and getting even that much out eventually required the installation of a pump jack.

Union Producing ultimately blamed the behavior of the No. 1 City on the tricky, frustrating, and often cursed Austin chalk. A stratum of fractured limestone running from Mexico through Texas and on to Florida, the Austin chalk got its name because it out cropped near the city of Austin. The part of it that interested oilmen was a band about ten to twenty miles wide and anywhere from 200 to 800 feet thick that was located at depths of 8000 to 12,000 feet. The Austin chalk was only slightly porous, which meant that it was not, technically, an oil-bearing sand. What oil the chalk contained appeared to be trapped in systems of faults and fractured in the rock. Oilmen had drilled the chalk as far back as the thirties, when the first so-called Austin chalk oil boom began, and as recently as the early seventies, when a chalk boom got started in South Texas. But chalk wells all seemed to have one bad thing in common: they came in like barnburners and rapidly gave out. A chalk boom always turned into a bust. No one really knew why Austin chalk wells acted this way, but the obvious answer was that the Austin chalk did not contain very much oil.

When Chuck Alcorn had gone round to Union Producing in 1972 looking to buy some old production, the Union men had offered him what they called “two old chalk dogs” — the Preuss No. 1 and the No. 1 City of Giddings. Alcorn bought the two wells for about $27,500, which was more or less the salvage value of the production equipment in place. His plan was to shock them back into better production by pumping 10,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid down their holes. The acid, he hoped, would clean out some of the rock crevices and allow more oil to come up, although he did no expect much from either well. He would be satisfied if

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