“Hundreds of gigantic oil derricks, black toothpicks, 20 feet square at the base and as hight as a 10-story apartment house. To the back of them mighty mountains, the Carpathians, cutting the sky. In front the vast grain-laden plains throught which the Danube is flowing to the Black Sea. Underneath hills of black sand tossed up in all sorts of shapes, with black oil oozing from them and black streams and pools of oil here and there. Huge, flat, round iron tanks 50 feet high in groups each holding tens of thousands of barrels of petroleum. Iron pipe of all sizez lying on the ground, stacked in piles, and being carried by long teams of white bullocks to this place and that. Donkey engines pumping and bailing and a myriad of dirty men and women toiling away at all sorts of strange jobs. These are some of the features of the oil fields of Romania which lie here within gunshot of Ploiesti in southeastern Europe, not far from the Balkans.
Oil of Romania
The oil of Romania cuts a large figure in the markets of the world. This country ranks sixth among the great oil producers. She is now taking out almost two barrels of every hundread which are mined throughout the world, and the bulk of her product comes from this little region where I now am.
The Romanians oil deposits lie in three zones. One is in Maramures along the Tisa river valley. Another is in the county of Valcea, but the most important is that of Prahova, lying within two hours by motor of the capital, Bucuresti, and on the southern foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Here in a district, 10 miles wide and running for 100 miles along the slope of the hills are something like 1,000 oil wells, which are producing from 7,000,000 to 9,000,000 barrels of oil per year.
The oil lies in great pools scattered here and there throughout this 100 miles. They are in fields about 10 in number, and the most important of all is the Moreni-Tuicani field which I describe in this letter. It is a small territory. Put it all together and it would not cover more then four 100-acre farms. Nevertheless, it yields more then half the Romanian oil activity today. Not far away is the district of Baicoi, which I also have gone over and in addition are eight or nine other fields, all of which contain pools of petroleum.
Ploiesti and its refineries
Ploiesti is a city of 70,000 in the center of the oil producing territory. The fields run in a great semi-circle around it, covering an area of perhaps 40 square miles, and the oil is piped here to be refined. There are a dozen or more different refineries, the largest of which has a capacity of 20,000 barrels a day. You can see the tank farms on every side of the city, and the rich smell of petroleum fills the air.
The refineries belong to the great oil companies which are working the territory. These are know largely by the nations to which they belong. The Steaua-Romana is the German company; the Royal-Dutch, is the Dutch-English, commonly known as the Royal Dutch Shell, and the Romano-Americana is the Standard Oil company of the United States. In addition there are a dozen or smaller establishments, for more then 100 companies are operating in the territory.
The Standard Oil refineries are the best in the country. The machinery is all new, for it was built since the World war and there is no modern process of oil reduction and production which it does not possess. It is now refining something like 10,000 barrels daily, and it has very large holdings in several fields. It was in company with Mr. J. P. Hughes, the director of Standard Oil company here in Romania, that I went over the fields, and to him and Mr. E. J. Dailey, the manager of the Moreni field, and Mr. Fredericks, the manager of the Baicoi, and other of the Standard Oil men employed here, that I am indebted for much of the information given in this letter.
Great Pools of oil
In the first place, the oil formations are different from those of the United States. In America the oil lies largely in a hard rock strata and the crude petroleum flows or is pumped to the surface. Here the oil lies in great pools from 1,000 to 3,000 feet below the surface and is mixed with sand as fine as flour and with the natural gas which permeates the whole. When oil is struck the gas forces the sand out with the oil. Sometimes nothing but sand will come for several hours and even days and then the mixture of oil and sand bursts forth. Even after the wells have been producing for a long time, there is so much sand mixed with oil that it is impossible to pump it. For this reason when the wells stop flowing the oil is taken out by dropping a long bailing bucket, such as is used in the making of any artesian well, allowing it to fill with oil, which is held in by a valve in the bottom, and then raising it by machinery to the surface and emptying the mixture of oil and sand. These bailers are driven by machinery or steam and the bucket, which is as big around as a quart measure and sometimes as high as a five-story building, is raised and lowered, carrying up a number of barrels each time. With a bailer 50 feet long as many as 500 barrels of oil are thus raised in one day. Some of the bailers I saw carried two and a half barrels at one load.
Getting the oil out of the sand is a large parte of the production of crude petroleum in Romania. Every bit of the oil comes up loaded, and in a flowing well it poures forth in a mush as thick as molasses, as black as ink and loaded with these fine rock particles. The particles are heavy, however, and they rapidly sink. The flowing well runs out into a great vat half the size of a city lot and below this is a succession of a half-dozen other vats descending in terraces. The oil flows into the first vat and much of the sand is deposited as it passes into the second vat through holes an inch or so in diameter. There more sand is dropped and the oil grows purer and purer as it flows on through vat after vat until at the bottom it has no sand at all and can be pumped by an engine through pipes into the great storage tanks.
As the black, sand-loaded pitch flows from the well it deposits much sand around the edges. This is scooped up by bare-legged, bare-footed women, who stand ankle deep and often half deep, in the hot, slimy mixture and ladle the mush out with scoops into holes or little pits on the banks of the pool. Other girls lift the mush from these pools just above, the oil draining out as they do and finnaly at the top, perhaps 10 or 15 feet above the great pool below, they raise the now almost clean sand and empty it into a steel car in which it is carried away over a track to the sand pile.
In this field there were hundreds of derricks, each over an oil well, and were mountains of sand here and there and everywhere among them, all of which had been lifted out in this way. I asked as to the wages of these girls and was told that they got 15 cents for a day of eight hours, or less then two cents an hour for this back-breacking, filth-scooping labor under the hot semi-tropical sun.
I took some pictures of the women at work. They were almost in rags and some of them modestly arranged their short skirts as camera snapped. A large part of the labor in the oil fields is done by women, and here, as throughout the farming district, there are far more women workers than men.
The wages of the men are more then those of the women. Drillers get as much as 75 cents a day, but the common laborer seldom recives more than 20 or 30 cents. The labor is not nearly so efficient as that of the United States. The cost of living is very low and the people think they do well.
The sand mixed with oil entails difficulties in drilling which we do not have in the United States.
The sand is as sharps as that of a carborundum grindstone. It cuts like diamond dust and when a gusher is struck it comes out with such force that the mush-like mixture will saw its way through iron and steel. It will spray itself over a large part of the surrounding country, and it is for this reson that the derricks are not left open as in the United States, but boarded in from top to the bottom. In order to break the force of the geyser of oil and sand a sheet of steel rails such as are used for railways is hung about 20 feet above the mouth of the well. Every other rail is inverted and the whole makes a solid block of steel.
Sometimes a cap of iron, weighing three tons, or as much as three horse can haul, is poised above the well and the sand cuts its way throught it as though with a saw, the well shooting grindstones as it were.
The other day there was a man on top of a derrick when one of these wells burst loose. He was 100 feet from the ground, but the mixture of sand and oil lifted him 30 feet higher and when he fell it was on the side of a soft sand pile, copiously tarred and ready for feathers. Strange to say, he was not injured and got up and walked away.
Slides like Panama
I stopped at some of the wells and watched the drilling. The wells are never shot here with dynamite or other explosives, as in United States. This is an account of the sand. The drilling is difficult also on account of the different degrees of density of the various strata, which causes the earth to slide in much the same way at it does at the Panama canal. This forces the drill out of the perpendicular and often to such an extent that a second hole is put down or the bent drill is cut through and the hole extended. The soft earth formations add to the difficulty of carrying the casings, and in a deep well the pipe sunk down at the top may be 25 inches in diameter. After some distance a smaller casing is run down from the top and the drill continued, growing smaller and smaller until the last casing which strickes the oil is perhaps so small that a cat could nit run through it without striking off electrical sparks with its fur.
I asked as to the cost of drilling and found that the average expense of the well is 50,000 or 60,000 dollars, whereas 15 years ago oil was usually struck at a cost of about 15,000 dollars. Thirty years ago, I am told, the cost of drilling a well at Lima, Ohio, was about 1,000 dollars.
Salt Bed of Moreni
The queer feature of the Moreni field, the producing area of which is only about 400 acres, is a huge wedge of salt, a mile or so wide at the point and broadening out as it extends from the hills down to the plains. The salt goes down no one knows how far. They have drilled into it more than a half mile from the surface and have not found the end. The wedge runs east and west, with the oil on both sides of it, and strange to say, the oils are of different character. Those on the northern side of the wedge have a paraffin base and those on southern side have an asphalt base. Standing on the apex I could see the great derricks forming long lines on both sides of the wedge. They were all black and somber, made so by the black sand and black oil spray. This somberness is one of the features of these Romanian oil fields. The pitchy fluid paints everything the color of jet. The buidings are black, the machinery is black and even the ground is of a rich dark hue. In walking I had to look out for my steps for fear I might sink to my shoe tops in one of the oil swamps which are to be found here and there. I had to be especially careful also, as I had an appoiment to lunch with the queen the following day and had no other shoes with me but those on my feet.
What a Geologist Said
A common expression in gold mining is that the gold is where you find it. It is much the same with oil. Petroleum has been mined commercially two years before Drake well was put down in the United States. For a long time the wells were dug by hand and large basins about 15 feet square and 50 feet deep were made to hold the oil. At first the drillers were not able to go below 150 feet, and they dropped snow in the well to purify it. At least they claimed this purified it. Later wells were made by hand 600 and 800 feet deep and the oil sands were washed in large wooden vessels half filled with water. The water forced the oil out of the sand and it floated on the surface. Later still the oil was hauled out those dug wells in wooden barrels up by means of a windlass, and sometimes ox-skins were used the same way, just as they raise water in northern India today for irrigation.
After the foreing drillers came in prospecting went on everywhere and new fields were discovered. Among those tested was this Moreni field, against the advice of Geological Institute of Romania. The Moreni field is now producing more than half the output and it yeld this year something like 4,000,000 barrels.
Opportunities for Foreigners
There are but few opportunities for wildcat oil men in Romania. American prospectors come in, look over the ground, and go away in disgust. One reason is the difficulties of drilling and another the expense and last, but by no means least, is the strangle-hold which the government has on industry. Acording to the laws enacted before and since the warm all the oil taken out of the ground must be refined in Romania, and no crude oil, fuel oil, or naphtha may be exported. Two-thirds of every oil product must be sold in Romania at prices fixed by the government. This makes it possible to export only one-third of the product. The gasoline, kerosene and other oils made in the refineries have to be sold at miserable prices. For a long time the foreign companies were delivering gasoline at four and five cents a gallon, when it was selling at home for 27 and 30 cents. It is now selling here at eight or nine cents a gallon, although the export price is 19 or 20 cents. The average price of a tank car from the oil refineries is now 110 dollars in Romania, whereas the crude oil itself at home is worth 132.5 dollars. I understand also that preference is sometimes given to the Romanians as to oil concessions, so on the whole I would not advise Americans to come here to make oil investments.
In closing this letter I want to say a word or so about the Standard Oil company here in Romania. Its investments amount to upwords of 20,000,000 dollars. It was one of the first foreign companies to aid in establishing the industry and today it does a business larger than any other company with the exception, perhaps, of the Royal Dutch Shell.
I have gone over its works and they are wonders of efficiency and modern invention in a land where most of the methods are crude to extreme. It has a high class force of men, and the American colony which lives here at Ploiesti is a refreshing oasis in this great desert of East Europe. On the outskirts of the town the company has some thousands of acres, and here it has built up a settlement which might be transplanted bodily to the best suburbs of any American city and not be out of place. Beautiful brick houses of two stories each facing large, well kept lawns, decorated with trees and flowers, run for perhaps a mile on each side of a wide macadamized roadway not far from the refineries. The settlement has a good school and clubhouse. It has tennis courts, ball grounds, and its swimming pool of the purest spring water would cover a good-sized city lot. Every family has its own house, and the homes are well furnished, having hot and cold water and being lighted by electricity. The home life of the people is delightful and I am told that none of them is anxious to leave."
BL FRANK G. CARPENTER
Carpenter’s World Travels, Copyright 1924.
Toledo Blade-Mar 27, 1924