Oil & Gas
The most important aspect of the area’s history was the discovery and development of oil. Although the explorer Captain Bonneville first recorded the presence of “tar springs” in 1832, it wasn’t until the 1870s that oil prospecting began in Natrona County. The first drilling was recorded in 1888, about 3 miles northwest of Casper. Beginning in 1889, oil from the Salt Creek field was hauled to Casper by strings of horses hitched to wagons. By 1894-95, Casper boasted its first refinery, which produced 100 barrels of oil daily.
By 1920, three oil refineries were operating in the Casper area, and the nearby Teapot Dome oil field became the focus of a national scandal. The Teapot Dome Reserve, one of the largest known light oil field at the time, had been established in 1914 and named after a nearby rock formation. The Teapot Dome scandal of 1921 embroiled President Harding’s administration. The Secretary of the Navy transferred control of the reserve to the Secretary of the Interior, who leased it to private oil operators in exchange for interest-free “loans”. The Secretary of the Interior ultimately was fined and imprisoned and the U.S. Supreme Court restored the fields to the federal government in 1927.
During this period, Casper grew to be the hub of the oil and gas industry for the Rocky Mountain region. By 1922, the Standard Refinery was the largest plant of its kind in the world, producing 615,000 barrels of gasoline per month. Casper and the small oilfield settlements of Lavoye, Salt Creek, Midwest, Teapot, Edgerton, and Snyder were boom towns, where money flowed like gushers and fortunes were made and lost overnight. Roughnecks, truckers, refinery workers, and railroad employees poured into town along with bunko artists, underworld characters, ladies of the evening, and oilfield drifters. Many of the latter established an underworld element along the North Platte in an area called “The Sand Bar.”
During the 1920s Wyoming raised more sheep than any other state and Natrona County was home to some of the nation’s top wool producers. The Depression hit Casper hard. But, WPA civil works programs put more than 400 Casper men to work on area projects including the NCHS stadium, Casper Mountain Road, Fort Caspar’s restoration, and many area roads. During World War II, an Army Air Corps training field was constructed that later became our current airport. An earlier airfield is now the site of a small community called Bar Nunn.
In 1948, oil wells in the Lost Soldier field of Sweetwater County brought another boom. By the 1960s, nearly every major oil company had established exploratory offices in Casper. Standard Oil’s complex processed some 50,000 barrels of crude daily. Four interstate pipelines originated or passed through Casper, and three of Wyoming’s nine refineries were located in the county. Uranium discoveries northeast of Casper, near Pumpkin Buttes, led to the development of 5 uranium processing plants. Then, as oil prices dipped in 1964, Shell, Pan American, and Sinclair Oil relocated to Denver. Confirming the bust, Mobil announced that it would also close its local refinery.
A mid-1970s economic boom brought another population influx and generated considerable new housing starts. 1980 started as a promising year with 150 deep hole-drilling rigs working in Wyoming. Casper’s city budget was $55.1 M, however, a new ‘bust’ was around the corner. In 1981, oversupply coupled with rising cost of crude produced more oil than buyers. The city lost close to 5,000 residents between 1982 and 1983 as more large refiners, such as Texaco closed their operations. Impact on supply and service companies exacerbated the situation and the “bottom of the bust” occurred around 1986, when crude prices plummeted 50% in response to increased Saudi Arabian production. Since then, Casper has attempted to diversify its economy and its population has steadily grown.
An example of Casper’s recent civic “can do” attitude is the successful conversion of the former Standard Oil refinery, which closed in 1991 after 77 years of operation. In 2002, Casper and BP Amoco signed an agreement by which, in exchange for BP Amoco’s cleaning up its former refinery site and Soda Lake area to a “brownfields” standard rather than a residential standard, the city would receive $28 million over ten years for commercial and recreational projects.
In January 2002, BP and the State of Wyoming signed a Remedy Agreement detailing the cleanup plans for the properties. By 2005, the brownfield development transformed the former refinery into 350 acres of business park and recreational property, a 250-acre industrial park and a 2,000 acre wildlife refuge. The whole site is known as the Platte River Commons. A central feature is the Three Crowns Golf Course. The course was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and is built atop the ongoing remediation project.
In 2004, Casper was selected as a 50th Anniversary Sportstown by “Sports Illustrated Magazine” and the National Recreation and Park Association. Decisions were based on criteria that demonstrate the community's involvement in facilitating and enhancing quality sports.
Oil production in the state of Wyoming has been on decline since the 1960s, although in 2006 and 2007 Wyoming did see a slight increase for two main reasons. First the associated liquid production from the two large gas discoveries at Jonah and Pinedale, and second increased production from enhanced oil recovery projects like Anadarko's carbon dioxide (CO2) flood project at Salt Creek.
On the other hand natural gas production for the state has been on a constant rise since the 1970s. In the past decade gas production has nearly doubled. The State produced nearly 2.2 TCF of gas in 2008. This ramp up of gas production has been fueled by 4 major contributors. First and second are the Jonah and Pinedale developments. Third is the River Basin tight gas sand development. Last is coal bed methane production in the Powder River Basin north of Casper.
By 2008, steadily climbing gas and coal production yielded a $1 billion Wyoming budget surplus. Coal sold for $13 per ton. Oil prices climbed to over $120 per barrel in Wyoming. Natural gas sold for slightly over $10.00 per thousand cubic feet, and uranium yellowcake became commercially viable exceeding $50 per pound.
In the fall of 2008 all of these commodity prices saw a marked decrease. With the national economy hovering at 10% unemployment rates Natrona County is fending much better with just 3.4% unemployed. Oil and gas activity in the state and region has slowed and will affect the local economy, but few see a bust; on the horizon. As the largest exporter of energy in the nation, Wyoming will continue to play an important role in this industry.
Wind farm development and other alternative energy efforts are becoming more common in Wyoming. Many parts of the state have excellent wind resources including the southeastern, southcentral, and northeastern regions. Chevron Global Power Co. is slated to build an 11-turbine wind farm on the Texaco property near Evansville north of the North Platte River. This will be the first commercial wind farm in Natrona County.