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Among West Virginia’s resources are abundant natural gas and petroleum, with gas being more common than petroleum. They were formed by geologic processes when sedimentary rock rich in organic carbon (commonly referred to as petroleum source beds) was buried by younger sediment, subjecting the organic source material to higher heat and pressure. This transformed the organic material into natural gas and petroleum. Gas and petroleum migrate out of the source bed and move upward through the overlying rock until they reach the surface or accumulate in a reservoir under the ground. Reservoirs consist of permeable rock topped by an impermeable seal. If migrating natural gas or petroleum encounters a seal, it will fill the underlying reservoir, resulting in an accumulation. The recent exploration and development activity in the Marcellus and Utica shales has bypassed the later steps in this process and works to extract natural gas, and in some cases petroleum, directly from the shale source beds. Activity in the Marcellus and Utica has superseded activity in the shallower, traditional petroleum reservoirs in the state.

During the recent production boom, the primary petroleum exploration target is the Devonian Marcellus Shale. The Ordovician Utica Shale is an exploration target, but it is probably of interest specifically in the northern panhandle and the westernmost part of the state. Little is known about the Utica in the rest of the state. Because it produces petroleum as well as natural gas in Ohio, it becomes a primary target when natural gas prices drop.

There has been some additional development in the upper Devonian shales, the primary targets for exploration and development using traditional vertical drilling. Throughout much of West Virginia, natural gas is much more commonly encountered than oil, and is found throughout the state west of the Allegheny Front. The most common reservoirs are the thin sandstones of the Upper Devonian and Lower Mississippian geologic periods. Other reservoirs include the Lower Devonian Oriskany Sandstone and the Mississippian Greenbrier Limestone. Oil is restricted to reservoirs located primarily in northern and central West Virginia.

First found in the Kanawha and the Little Kanawha river valleys in the 18th century, West Virginia’s oil and gas have long been important economic resources. Early in the 19th century, the Ruffner family found both oil and gas while drilling for salt brine near present Malden along the Kanawha River, and the Lemon and Creel families found oil and gas along the Hughes River, a tributary of the Little Kanawha. The extraction of oil was facilitated by tools first used by the Ruffners in salt-well drilling.

Oil was produced successfully near present Freeport, along the Hughes River in Wirt County by George Lemon, as early as 1819. Within a generation, builders of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad had discovered large quantities of natural lubricating oil along Oil Spring Run, and in 1857 they built a station where Oil Spring Run flows into Goose Creek, a Hughes tributary. They named the place Petroleum.

Two years later, Dr. R. W. Hazlett of Wheeling and his partners in the Virginia Petroleum Company successfully drilled along Oil Spring Run. Soon others commenced drilling operations in the Little Kanawha basin. Among them were Charles H. Shattuck, Gen. Samuel D. Karnes, and John C. ‘‘Cass’’ Rathbone. Karnes hit oil while drilling for it in an abandoned salt well owned by Rathbone’s father, William P. Rathbone of Burning Springs. Cass Rathbone, understanding the significance of that discovery, drilled a 200-barrel well at 139 feet. With the Drake well in Pennsylvania, these were among the very first oil wells in the United States.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, fortunes were being made in the West Virginia oil fields. The boom persisted despite the fiery Confederate raid on Burning Springs in May 1863. The first of at least six refineries was built in Parkersburg in 1861, and by 1872 more were under construction. Some of the beneficiaries of the rush to Burning Springs (Peter Godwin Van Winkle, Arthur Ingraham Boreman, Jacob Beeson Blair, John Jay Jackson Jr., and the Rathbones) were among those working toward the creation of West Virginia on June 20, 1863.

After the Civil War, another person who profited from the rush to Burning Springs, Johnson Newlon Camden, helped develop another major oil field in the Little Kanawha basin. Named Volcano, it was situated near the headwaters of Oil Spring Run along the Wood-Ritchie county line. Camden, later a U.S. senator, joined John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust in 1875 and began actions that eventually led to the closure of all the Parkersburg refineries except the one founded by Camden in 1868.

In 1890, Michael L. Benedum, who would become the most famous ‘‘wildcat’’ or independent driller in the state’s history, entered the industry as an employee of Standard Oil. In 1893, Sistersville became the nation’s premier oil field boomtown. In 1898, West Virginia’s oil production passed that of Pennsylvania. In 1906, the state’s natural gas production exceeded that of any other state, a position it held for 18 years.

Success after 1889 was due in large part to the application of the anticlinal theory of oil and gas location, developed by geologist Israel C. White of West Virginia University. White’s theory was first tested at Mannington in 1889, and when applied along Sand Fork of the Little Kanawha at the Copely well in 1900, it sparked the Lewis County boom. Thereafter the industry began to shift from western West Virginia toward the north-central area. The companies benefiting most from the shift were the South Penn Oil Company (now Pennzoil) and the Hope Natural Gas Company (now Dominion Hope), both controlled by Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.

Nearly a century later, oil and gas are still major industries in the Mountain State. They were responsible in 1999 for the employment of more than 15,000 people and help to keep the state among the nation’s major suppliers, storers, and transmitters of energy. Although Pennzoil, which was founded in 1889, significantly curtailed its West Virginia operations within a few years of celebrating its centennial, Hope continues to operate from its base in Clarksburg, as does another Dominion Resources company, Consolidated Natural Gas Transmission, an interstate pipeline and storage company.

Although Standard Oil closed its Parkersburg refinery in 1936, a major refinery built in 1913 at St. Marys by a Standard competitor was operated by Quaker State until the 1980s. The carbon black industry, which produces carbon by the incomplete combustion of natural gas, was pioneered in Calhoun and Wirt counties near the end of the 19th century by Godfrey Cabot and continues to have a significant presence in the state. Development of the oil and gas industry received a boost in 1911 when the Blue Creek field was discovered along a tributary of the Elk River. The Charleston-based United Fuel Gas Company, later Columbia Gas then Columbia Gas Transmission and the independent Columbia Natural Resources and its successor companies; the Elk Refining Company; Hope; and Pennzoil would become major developers of the field. Three years later, Pure Oil Company, founded by the Dawes family of Marietta, Ohio, would commence development of a major oil field in another part of the Kanawha Valley near Cabin Creek before being absorbed by a competitor.

As of 2002, West Virginia produced about 180 billion cubic feet of natural gas every year. Production occurs in just about every county west of the Allegheny Front. This volume has been maintained consistently through the last 20 years. Oil production declined steadily through the latter part of the 20th century and is generally between 1.5 million and 2 million barrels per year.

Active oil fields, where drilling is still being done, are limited to parts of Wetzel, Tyler, Ritchie, and Pleasants counties. Gas wells are being drilled in many parts of West Virginia. The oil and gas industry drills about 800 to 1,000 wells per year. Most of these are to shallow (less than 5,000 feet deep) targets in the Upper Devonian and Mississippian sections. Exploration for deeper targets (including the Oriskany) generally requires greater expense and higher technology. Most recently, new exploration in the central part of the state has brought in new gas production in the Ordovician section at depths exceeding 10,000 feet.

This Article was written by Bernard L. Allen and David Matchen

Last Revised on June 27, 2017

Related Articles


Ambler, Charles H. & Festus P. Summers. West Virginia: The Mountain State. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958.

Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.

Cardwell, D. H & K. L. Avary. . 1982.

Haught, O. L. . 1964.

McKain, David L. & Bernard L. Allen. Where it all Began: The Story of the People and Places Where the Oil and Gas Industry Began. Parkersburg: David L. McKain, 1994.

Thoenen, Eugene D. History of the Oil and Gas Industry in West Virginia. Charleston: Education Foundation, 1964.

Cite This Article

Allen, Bernard L. and David Matchen "Natural Gas and Petroleum." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 27 June 2017. Web. 01 June 2023.


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