Arizona, known for its abundant copper deposits, also hosts a modest amount of oil and helium deposits.
Oil discovery in Arizona dates to 1905 with the drilling of a 2,000-foot well in the Chino Valley, 20 miles north of Prescott. A series of speculative ventures and explorations in oil drilling occurred over the ensuing decades, followed by the discovery of helium, an industrial gas that has become a major industry in the state.
Developed in the early 1960s, the Dry Mesa and Teec Nos Pos fields produced 830,000 barrels and 486,000 barrels of oil, respectively, before being plugged or abandoned in the 1990s.
Many of the oil deposits have been found on land belonging to the Navajo people. Established on June 1, 1868, the early boundaries of the Navajo Reservation resulted from a treaty signed by the United States and the Navajo Nation. The Navajo government became centralized after oil was discovered on the reservation in 1921.
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The first Navajo Tribal Council, created by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1923, was established to grant mineral leases. Approved leases to American oil companies for exploration followed.
Navajo Reservation land includes 16 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
The largest producing oil field in Arizona is Dineh-bi-Keyah, which means “The People’s Field.” It’s 36 miles south of the Four Corners Monument in the Lukachukai Mountains at the north end of the Chuska Mountains near the border with New Mexico.
The Kerr-McGee Corp. discovered an igneous sill (intrusive rock formation) full of oil in 1967 on a large anticline (a geologic fold structure sought after by petroleum prospectors for oil). The sill, on the Navajo Reservation in Apache County, now occupies 3,000 acres at an elevation of more than 6,800 feet.
The discovery well, Kerr-McGee Navajo No. 1, was drilled in excess of 3,864 feet. The next several decades saw the completion of more than 30 productive wells averaging 3,600 feet in depth on 80-acre spacing.
The completed wells’ costs averaged $130,000, and the Texas-New Mexico Pipeline served as the market outlet.
Helium-rich gas has been extracted from Devonian strata (a layer of sedimentary rock dating back 375 million years) in the Dineh-bi-Keyah field. Although discovered at the Dineh-bi-Keyah field in the late 1960s, it wasn’t until 2003 that helium was produced there.
Other than being used to inflate balloons and blimps, helium is used in low-temperature cooling systems, welding and leak-detection systems for pipes.
The Kipling Petroleum Co. discovered helium at Pinta Dome, 20 miles east of Holbrook, in 1950. Pinta Dome produced gas containing 8 to 10 percent helium and is the only field in the world where helium is the exclusive product.
Commercial production of helium in Arizona began in 1961 with the state’s first helium extraction plant producing 9 billion cubic feet of gas over 15 years.
The Dineh-bi-Keyah field produced a total of 18,703,386 barrels of oil from January 1967 through Jan. 1, 2013.
Today, Nacogdoches Oil and Gas Inc. operates the Dineh-bi-Keyah field, which produced 49,972 barrels of oil in 2012.
Arizona is credited with having produced 51,949 barrels of oil from 21 producing wells that year.
The quest for oil and helium deposits in Arizona will undoubtedly continue as more wells are drilled at prospective sites throughout the state.
William Ascarza is an archivist, historian and author. His latest book, “The Chiricahua Mountains: History and Nature,” is available at Barnes and Noble online. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: John A. Masters, “The Slow Discovery of Dineh-bi-Keyah,” The Mountain Geologist, (April 2000); David E. Newton, “Chemical Elements From Carbon to Krypton” (1999); Henry Fred Pohlmann, “The Navajo Nation and Dineh-bi-Keyah,” New Mexico Geological Society-Eighteenth Field Conference; Steven L. Rauzi, “Arizona Has Oil and Gas Potential,” Arizona Geological Survey (February 2001); Steven L. Rauzi, “Annual Oil and Gas Activity in Arizona 1959 to 2012” (February 26, 2013) Arizona Geological Survey; Stephen L. Rauzi, “Dineh-bi-Keyah Oil Field Apache County, Arizona,” Arizona Geological Survey Publication OG-15 (February 2013).