Key ARCO Geologist Harry Jamison Shares Prudhoe Bay Discovery Credit with Exxon

By: Steve Quinn For Petroleum News

Prudhoe Bay historians routinely identify H.C. "Harry" Jamison as the central figure for discovering Alaska North Slope oil. Jamison, then a young geologist with Richfield Oil Co. (predecessor to Atlantic Richfield, or ARCO, and subsequently ConocoPhillips) however, refuses to accept so much credit. He quickly identifies three people at Humble Oil and Refining Co., a predecessor to what is now Exxon Mobil Corp., as equally key figures. They are JR Jackson, Dean Morgridge and Ken Fuller, Humble’s team located just across from ARCO’s Los Angeles’ offices. A meeting among the four was the foundation for a partnership that ultimately led to the first discovery of Prudhoe Bay oil.

The risky venture cost Humble about $4.5 million back in 1964, but the push by these men with three diverse backgrounds has helped Exxon reap billions since. Still, it wasn’t easy and success wasn’t instant upon securing leases. And it almost ended within a few years of the partnership starting.

Began with a sales pitch

It began with Jamison’s sales pitch to these men that helped bring the two companies together. But Jamison says the deal came down to Jackson, Morgridge and Fuller keeping a steadfast "open mind" despite "sketchy information" that proved to be a turning point in moving forward. Morgridge was a geologist who was long bullish about the prospects of pursuing oil north rather than focusing on just Cook Inlet to the south. Jackson served as the office’s exploration manager and is remembered by many for working with Humble’s senior management and board in the company’s North Slope pursuits. Fuller was a geophysicist who brought depth to the technical discussions when information was sparse.

Three of the most important people

"They are what I consider to be three of the most important people in the whole process," Jamison said. "They were instrumental not only in our meeting, but furthering the process with the Humble organization with the senior management and the board of directors." ARCO was ready to move forward on North Slope development, but it would not come cheap. The company needed a financial partner and was unsuccessful in courting Chevron, so it turned its attention to Humble. Humble and Richfield had been successful with several joint ventures in some California oil-rich basins.

So after coming up short with Chevron, ARCO’s chief geologist Mason Hill dispatched Jamison to talk shop with Humble. "Richfield simply didn’t have the funds available back then," Jamison said. "Humble seemed like a natural fit. "In those days, Richfield and Humble had a good relationship at several different levels. "We all knew each other; there were some friendships that developed and those things develop a confidence back and forth. A mutual trust, I guess you would say."

Humble still smarting from failed Alaska Peninsula dry hole

But Humble was still smarting from a failed effort in the late 1950s that led to a permanent withdrawal from Alaska. After coming up dry with a well at Bear Creek on the Alaska Peninsula, Humble had had enough. The company suffered a $7 million setback in what was believed to be one of the most expensive wildcat wells to be drilled at the time.

Still, with other zzmajor players eying Alaska’s North Slope, Humble saw that it could be left out of a potentially huge prize. "Dean was quite knowledgeable about North Slope geology," Jamison said of Morgridge. "And JR trusted Dean’s judgment.

"He was bullish about Alaska and wanted to get back in after Humble’s disastrous experience; they had a bitter taste from that particular well. "Dean was one of the people who was able to bring his knowledge and enthusiasm and convince JR this was a viable exploration project.

"That was still the days of paper records. The technical knowledge of Ken Fuller was probably more demanded at that time than it is now. "Most geologists and certainly management people were not capable of looking at paper records, and really understand how they were put together. Ken was."

Convincing colleagues whose respect you’ve earned is one thing. Getting them to convince their senior management and board of directors is another.

Few Facts, but Lots of Faith

Compared to today’s science, the three men had very little data to haul up the corporate ladder. But the collective belief in the North Slope seemed to work and by 1964, Humble had half of Richfield’s interest in the North Slope — half the lease interests, half the geologic data, half the equipment. Half of everything. "You had to have a lot of imagination and vision in order to put together any kind of picture in your mind from what was a limited amount of information," Jamison said.

"This was a risky far out proposition for everybody concerned," he said. "We were real pioneers in that sense. The data were very limited. We didn’t have the well data. "This was a very sketchy initial approach to exploration in that particular area. Nobody else had been in there to do that kind of work.

"You had to have the knowledge about the North Slope, its overall geology and extrapolate about what might be occurring up there. "It’s flat and featureless. The only thing you had to go on those days was old-fashioned seismic data before the time of digital. "We didn’t have the benefit of plate tectonics in those days. It was a pretty primitive type of effort when you look at the 2010 compared to 1964."

Mull: Jamison a ‘real sparkplug’

"Harry was the real sparkplug," said Gil Mull, a field geologist who worked for Richfield then Humble. "He got Richfield involved against some amount of opposition within the company," Mull said. "Everybody was saying, ‘What are you doing all the way in northern Alaska when all activity is in Cook Inlet?’

"There is no question he sold the idea of northern Alaska operations to Richfield, then sold the idea to Humble. Still for all that he’s done, Jamison routinely defers to others, even if they don’t work for the same company. "I’ve been a proponent of letting people know that effort up there was a team effort and it involved a lot people from both companies," Jamison said. "They do deserve credit," he said. "It’s easy for their names to be passed over or forgotten, but they shouldn’t be."