Montana and North Dakota have more than 160 years of oil and gas history. The first recorded mention of oil and gas in Montana goes back to 1864, when the members of an immigrant train stopped to repair a tire on a wagon.
While some of the men worked on the tire, a different group went looking for water and discovered an oily sheen on a pool of water about 12.5 miles northwest of where the Bozeman trail crosses the Big Horn River.
The men skimmed some of that oil off the surface and used it to grease their axles.
That wasn’t too many years before the nation’s first intentional oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, with the express purpose of finding and producing oil.
North Dakota’s first recorded exploration in 1910, meanwhile, was hampered by both limited knowledge and inadequate tools. They couldn’t really dig deep enough at the time to reach productive layers, let alone the Bakken, and they lacked the technological knowhow that would force shale to give up its tightly held oil.
Below is a timeline of various developments, some of them national and even global, that mattered most to the development of the oil and gas industry in Montana and North Dakota.
1859 — America’s first oil rush in Pennsylvania. The Drake well was the first drilled with the intention of finding and producing oil and gas. The oil was marketed to consumers as kerosene for lamps, and as naptha and benzene to painters and cleaners, as well as those few who needed gasoline for a motor.
1865 — Civil War Veteran Col. Edward A.L. Roberts receives a patent for an exploding torpedo, used in Pennsylvania to improve oil production by up to 1200 percent.
1892 — Natural gas reported in southeastern North Dakota in an artesian well, producing from the Dakota Formation sandstone. This was common in a belt that extended from Jamestown to Merricourt. Some people collected and used this gas for lights, cooking, and heating.
1899 — first organized drilling takes place at Kintla Lake Field in Missoula, organized by Butte businessmen, who sunk $30,000 into the enterprise. The field could not support commercial production.
1902 — Montana Coal and Fuel Company drilled a well 14 miles south of Dillon. While the well was not commercial, it showed that other parts of Montana also had potential.
1903 — Somes hits oil at a depth of 500 feet, touching off an oil boom in northern Montana. The company had 12 wells going by 1906, but only five produced in paying quantities, and the production declined very quickly. Somes ran out of money and abandoned the field.
1912 — W.T. Thom., Jr., a sophomore studying geology, finds coral in clay and sandstone beds exposed on the banks of the Cannonball River, along with two other geologists at the time, leading him to believe the area was once inundated by an ancient sea. He spends a decade defining the limits of this Cannonball Sea Basin.
1915 — A group of people from Bainville organize the Pioneer Oil and Gas company and begin to drill the Pioneer oil and Gas No. 1 well near Williston. It was abandoned as a dry hole at a depth of 2,107 feet in 1920. Meanwhile, in Montana, the Ohio Oil Company struck oil in a well on the Montana side of the Elk Basin, opening up the state’s first permanent oil field. The oil was allowed to run into dammed up coulees and given away.
1918 — A.J. Collier publishes a paper describing the Nesson Anticline, building interest in drilling test wells in the 1920s.
1921 — Miles City is home to the first refinery in the state, running at 2,000 barrels per day.
1922 — Oil is discovered at the Miller Ranch in Toole County in the Kevin Sunburst Field. It holds first place in crude oil production for several years.
1923 — North Dakota’s state geologist issues the first permit for oil exploration in North Dakota. Des Lacs Western Oil drills a well to a depth of 3,980 feet in the Lone Tree Field. Meanwhile, W.T. Thom Jr. presents a paper on his discovery of coral in the Cannonball River to the Geological Society of America. In the paper, he refers to his discovery as the Williston Basin.
1926 — Sunburst Refining Company builds a refinery at Great Falls, with capacity of 3,000 barrels per day, to handle production from Kevin Sunburst field.
1930 — Annual output of oil in Montana is worth $5 million and the state’s biggest trouble is finding a market for all the oil it’s producing.
1937 — The first horizontal wells are drilled in Yarega Field in the Soviet Union.
1938 — California Oil Company using rotary drilling and seismometers spuds the Nels Kamp #1 well in Williams County, down to 10,281 feet. It is abandoned one year later. It’s the first test well in North Dakota where an electric log was run.
1942 — The nation’s oil production is put under federal supervision, causing disruptions, but ultimately, the war created a large demand for Montana crude oil and refined products. Elsewhere in California, there is a major advancement in horizontal drilling techniques using flexible drill pipe and downhole motors.
1944 — Montana crude oil production declines with the end of the war, from 8.6 million in 1944 to 8.4 million in 1945.
1949 — Deeper drilling in Cat Creek touches off a new oil burst there. Meanwhile, in North Dakota, Continental Oil and Pure Oil Company arrive with a lease for more than 1.5 million acres.
1950 — Drilling begins on Sept. 3, 1950 on the Iverson family farm. The project is met with some skepticism.
1951 — Clarence Iverson Well #1 starts producing oil at 12:55 a.m. April 4. Five miles away, additional wells are being drilled on the Henry O. Bakken farm by the same company, Amerada, which will eventually become Hess. Later that year, oil is discovered on the Montana side in the Williston Basin, on July 13, 1951.
1954 — Montana forms the Oil and Gas Conservation Committee to oversee its oil and gas industry.
1959 — Discovery of oil in the North Dakota Badlands at a depth of 9,399 feet spurs a wave of immediate leasing in eastern Montana. Nationally, President Eisenhower imposed mandatory oil import restrictions to encourage domestic oil production.
1965 — Oil production in Montana ranks 11th among 31 petroleum states with 32.8 million barrels. The industry employs more than 6,000 Montanans, with an annual payroll of $31 million. Taxes on petroleum products bring in more than $21 million — 30 percent of state revenue.
1968 — About 20 exploration wells are drilled in Richland County, all of them going deep. The cost of drilling a wildcat well in Eastern Montana was $125,000 at the time.
1970 — North Dakota oil boom begins, which will peak in 1984 at 150,000 barrels per day.
1973 — OPEC forms and places production controls. Prices begin to increase throughout the 70s. This fuels investor interest in oil and gas exploration.
1980 — Horizontal drilling techniques are becoming more common, but OPEC overproduction in 1985 tanks prices, causing a bust.
1987 — The first horizontal Bakken test wells were drilled from 1986 to 1987.
1990 — Iraq invades Kuwait. World prices surge briefly, but rapid deployment of the military deflates prices quickly.
1991 — Success rates for Bakken wells are 97 percent and climbing. The wells decline more rapidly than expected, making it hard to recoup their costs.
2006 — Another boom takes hold in North Dakota, thanks in large part to advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
2014 — Saudi Arabia boosts output, tanking prices again, prompting layoffs and bankruptcies.
2020 — The oil and gas sector had barely begun to recover when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, crushing demand for oil worldwide by 30 percent. On top of that, Saudi Arabia and Russia started another price war, flooding the market with oil.