Going To (Tea) Pot

A pumpjack at Teapot Dome. (Doug Tunison/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

By Doug Tunison

What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know, goes away in the end. And you could have it all, my empire of dirt,” Johnny Cash sings in his cover of Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt. In existence since its creation by executive order of President Woodrow Wilson, Naval Petroleum Reserve #3, Teapot Dome, is going away. Little remains of this empire of dirt except exhausted wells, abandoned facilities, and employees trying to make the best of it with the resources they are given.

The property cycled through several governmental agencies with management responsibilities. The Department of the Interior (DOI) was the first manager. The DOI was fired in 1927 in the fallout from the Teapot Dome scandal, and replaced by the Department of the Navy. The Navy managed the property until 1977 when it was turned over to the Department of Energy (DOE). DOE has managed the property since then and it is now preparing to dispose of the property.

Rusted equipment at Teapot Dome

Rusted equipment at Teapot Dome. The area is no longer of use to its owners, the Department of Energy. They’re contemplating their next steps. (Doug Tunison/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The photos of Teapot Dome, Going To (Tea) Pot Photo Album, reflect the end-state of many years of government management of an oil field. Managers come and go at a government facility, with the changing of contracts. New initiatives, exciting at their beginning, are abandoned when the next new thing comes along. Continuity is difficult to maintain because DOE oversight (if not the people, then the direction) changes with the political winds. There’s no one to blame, because in true government fashion, no one is accountable. Everyone, from newest employee to the most senior manager, did the best they could with the direction and resources they were provided.

One of the few functioning oil treatment facilities remaining at Teapot Dome. (Doug Tunison/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The property is to be disposed of in 2014, according to an article in the Casper Journal. Currently the DOE is analyzing options for disposal of the property. At the moment, those options include sale of the property to a private entity, sale to a non-profit organization, transfer to the Interior, or, with special legislation from Congress, donation to a non-profit organization. While the government tries to decide what it will do with the property, oil production will continue while the property is inventoried.

Teapot Dome, non-functioning equipment

Non-functioning equipment lies sprawled across Teapot Dome. (Doug Tunison/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

I hope you take a look at the photos.  Anne Theriault, an environmental scientist working at the Rocky Mountain Oilfield Testing Center (RMOTC), said that her place of employment “can be very beautiful, and a little rustic,” after seeing them. Amen. Amid all the natural beauty at Teapot, there’s desolation. You’ll see wells that haven’t been produced in many years, waiting to be plugged. There are facilities that have been abandoned for 25 years, slowing decaying in-place, collecting debris and mice. There’s a drilling rig that has sat almost completely idle for over 3 years. Scrap from demolished facilities is pushed into piles, waiting to be hauled away.

A damaged notice at Teapot Dome lists the 10-Point Plan of former Secretary of Energy James Watkins. Watkins, who served under President George H.W. Bush, created the plan in 1989 to improve environmental protection at drill sites and waste management facilities. (Doug Tunison/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Maps and drawings have been lost and recreated and lost again. Reports unread for 30 years line dusty bookshelves. Records that existed only in the minds of staff disappeared when those employees left. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, Teapot Dome is home to many unknown unknowns.

Though established in 1915, almost no oil was produced until 1976 when the field was opened to development in response to the 1973 oil crisis. Before then, the Navy managed the property as a reserve. When development started in about 1976, the property was transferred to the DOE to manage. DOE managed the property through a Management and Operating (M&O) type of contract until 1998. In 1998, the contract type was changed to a Support Service type of contract.

The type of contract is not important and it did not change the outcome. The declining oil production from existing wells and the unavailability of appropriations from Congress to invest in new production meant that the cost of operating Teapot Dome exceeded the revenue from oil sales for many years.

Rusted derrick at Teapot Dome

Drilling rig at Teapot Dome, unused for over 2 years. The overhead costs of equipment and labor eventually overwhelmed the site’s operating budget. (Doug Tunison/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The infrastructure accumulated over the years was considerable and probably only to be seen at an oil field managed through government contracts. By the mid-1990s, Teapot Dome owned two drilling rigs, three workover rigs, miscellaneous trucks, numerous pieces of heavy equipment, and of course, the labor to operate. The overhead costs became unsustainable in a strictly production operation. That outcome was known to be inevitable and the Rocky Mountain Oilfield Testing Centerwas created in the mid-1990s as way to use the existing facilities, equipment, and other infrastructure that would otherwise be excess property.

Dirty equipment gauges at Teapot Dome

Dusty gauges at Teapot Dome. At it’s peak in 1979, the facility produced 5,000 barrels of oil per day. (Doug Tunison/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The existence of RMOTC was never sanctioned by Congress in authorization language giving it a clear mission. Since its launch, many options were explored to extend RMOTC’s life. Proposals for privatization in various forms were made and turned down. Proposals for legislation to allow RMOTC to operate more like a business were made and turned down. Its life was always questionable. It existed as long as it did through sheer tenacity of local managers. In the end, politics and budget deficits became too much to overcome. The plug has been pulled on its life support.

Production at Teapot Dome peaked at 5,000 barrels of oil per day in 1979-1980. Over 1,000 wells have been drilled at Teapot Dome, most since 1976. Now production struggles to stay over 150 barrels of oil per day produced from about 170 wells. The excess pump jacks from the hundreds of abandoned wells are lined up haphazardly around the field like drunken sailors at morning muster, or deserted in place and occasionally scavenged for spare parts.

Teapot Dome

Derricks and pumpjacks lie scattered across Teapot Dome, occasionally scavenged for parts. (Doug Tunison/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The worn out bearings of a derelict pump jack groan, trying to suck the last few gallons of oil from the ground. In the solitude of early morning, while I’m waiting for the sun to rise, it sounds like the death rattle of some otherworldly beast.

- Now retired from the director of Planning and Agreements for the Rocky Mountain Oilfield Testing Center (RMOTC), Doug Tunison managed energy-related project development, planning, execution, and technology transfer activities. As a Civil Engineer Corps officer for the U.S. Navy from 1988 to 2000, Doug served as Assistant Resident Officer in Charge of Construction, Officer in Charge of Construction, Public Works Officer, and Division Officer. Doug has a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Kansas and a Master’s Degree in Petroleum Engineering from Texas A&M University.

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Published on August 17, 2012

  • John Garrett

    If you think this is anything wait until this same federal government is in charge of your healthcare. A large amount of the oil is still there folks, just flood the formations with CO2 like they do NEXT DOOR at the Salt Creek oilfield to make the field economically viable. I’m sure Mr. Tunison knows this. Nice pictures.

  • Lauren

    There’s new Johnny Cash documentary on the internet called My Father and The Man In Black, has anyone else heard of it or seen it? It talks about a side of Johnny Cash’s story that many of us don’t know about. Anyway, the article above reminded me of the film, I thought it was pretty cool and I can’t wait to see it! Heres the link to the trailer:

  • DeweyV

    I always thought a good photo essay would be the alleged Golf Course at Midwest. When I first saw it, the fairways were dirt , the ruff was so rough only a petroleum geologist could truely appreciate it , and the greens were sand pounded flat . I recall the course being interspersed among the horsehead wells pumping, and tank batteries. They may have actually planted grass on the greens by now, but it was real ” Roughneck Golf” back then.

    That course was genuine Wyoming ” RUSTic” custom and culture . Is my memory failing ? Haven’t been back since the early 70’s.

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