How a 1901 flood gave Louisiana its oil industry
After his rice fields flooded in late 1901, Jules Clement noticed bubbles rising to the surface of the floodwater. Because he had heard about the Spindletop well in Texas — which had triggered the Lone Star State’s oil boom some nine months earlier — he decided to try an experiment: He put an old stove pipe over the bubbles and threw a match down the pipe. The gas from the bubbles ignited, signaling an oil deposit beneath. When word reached Jennings, businessmen quickly leased 2,000 acres around the seepage and formed S.A. Spencer & Co. The Louisiana oil boom had begun.
The oil and gas industry has become a mainstay of Louisiana’s economy. A 2014 economic-impact study by Baton Rouge consultant Loren Scott showed it has a total economic impact on the state of about $73.8 billion, which includes taxes, royalties, fees and salaries. However, the price of oil is as volatile as those fumes Clement ignited in 1901, and Louisiana feels the pain every time they drop. Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said in 2015 that every time the price of a barrel of oil drops by $1, the state’s economy loses $12.5 million.
- Scott Heywood, a Texas wildcatter, signed a contract to drill on Clement’s land. After weeks of frustration, not to mention such summertime annoyances as heat and mosquitoes, oil was discovered on Sept. 21, 1901.
- That well on Clement’s land six miles northeast of Jennings was the first of more than 220,000 drilled in Louisiana.
- Money from the oil-and-gas industry and other mineral activities accounts for 10 percent of Louisiana’s gross domestic product and 9 percent of the state’s tax revenues, according to a study by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, which is part of the State University of New York.
- In 2013, 64,669 Louisianians were employed in the extraction, pipeline and refining industries, according to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. That’s approximately equal to the entire 2012 population of Acadia Parish.
- The impact of the oil industry hasn’t been all positive. In addition to periodic spills, oil companies long made a habit of cutting ditches through the state’s southern marshes to access shallow-water wells. The resulting maze of criss-crossing channels is blamed with contributing greatly to the erosion of the state’s coastline.
- In 1948, the docudrama “Louisiana Story” focused on the oil industry in southern Louisiana. Commissioned by Standard Oil, the film offers an unsurprisingly rosy view of the industry. Regardless, it was nominated for an Oscar for screenwriting, and Virgil Thompson’s score won a Pulitzer Prize.
Think of Louisiana and the oil-and-gas industry as partners in a long-term marriage, with all that that implies: For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health. The fruits of that union are widespread — energy-related jobs are in every parish, Loren Scott found — and the industry has pumped billions into state coffers, but the slump in the price of oil is putting a strain on the marriage — and on the state’s budget.