Petroleum Exploration




Pre 1900

The history of the petroleum industry of Trinidad and Tobago can be traced back to 1595 when Sir Walter Raleigh landed in Trinidad and caulked his ships at the La Brea Pitch Lake. After the British captured the island from the Spanish in 1797, the Pitch Lake aroused the interest of Lieutenant RalphAbercromby andLord Thomas Cochrane. This led to Dr Nicholas  Nugent,  an eminent  member  of the British Geological  Society, being dispatched to Trinidad in 1807 for the specific purpose  of studying the Pitch Lake. For almost fifty years after, there was no follow-up of Dr Nugent's efforts.  Then in 1855 arrangements were made for a geological survey of Trinidad, with specific reference to the Pitch Lake.  The survey was conducted by Georges Parkes Wall and James Guy Sawkins who published "A Report on the Geology of Trinidad in 1860. The survey stimulated interest in the possibility that oil might be produced from the pitch of the lake or from formations surrounding the lake itself. Records show that the Merrimac Company, registered in 1857, attempted to produce oil by distillation of pitch and in that same year drilled a well to a depth of about 280 feet from which oil was produced. 


Industrial Era Begins


Around 1865, American civil engineer Walter Darwent, succeeded in convincing a number of merchants in Port of Spain to invest in the Paria Oil Company. In May 1866, having drilled a dry hole near San Fernando Street, San-Fernando, theDarwent groupcompleted a successful well at a depth of 160 feet in the Aripero estate. Mr Randolph Rust and John Lee Lumbegan operations in 1901 at Aripero.

Rust and Lee Lum, who owned adjacent properties in south-east Trinidad, attempted todevelop Guayaguayareinto a commercial oil field in 1901, with the backing of Canadian finance. Rust and Lee Lum, triumphed over many logistical difficulties, to begin their first well in May 1902, using the Canadian Pole System of percussion drilling. The well was completed three months later at a depth of 1,015 feet, with oil being produced at the rate of 100 barrels a day. Eight more wells were drilled with reports in the early drilling logs indicating that, in some cases, rotary drilling was used at depths below 600 feet. After five years of sustained effort, Rust and Lee Lumabandoned Guayaguayarewithout making any commercial shipments after it proved impossible to transport theoil out of the field.

Asa result of Rust’s efforts, in 1904 the Colonial Governmenthired  geologist,  Edward  Hubert  Cunningham-Craig   to map the  geology  of Trinidad,  with  the  primary  objective  of locating  oilfields. This decision paved the way for the arrival Arthur Beeby Thompson, an engineer with experience with British oilcompanies in Russia.  Cunningham-Craig's  survey  had   directed  interest  to  the  Point  Fortinregion,  prompting  Beeby  Thompson  to  start building  a base for the Trinidad  Oil Syndicate  in late  1906. Drilling commenced in May 1907, yielding a number of shallow producers in1907 and 1908 by percussion drilling. History records Fortin West 3, in Point Fortinas the first well to produce oil in commercial quantities.  Given its December1907 completion date, 1908 is recognised as the first full year of commercial oil production in Trinidad and Tobago.

In early 1910, Trinidad  Oilfields  Limited  was formed  as a public  company,by then Beeby Thompson had secured more acreage including the area known as Parry Lands. In 1911-12 a number of prolific wells were drilled in this area, one of which flowed 10,000 barrels per day from a depth of 1,400 feet. Thus, Trinidad's first commercial success was achieved by Trinidad Oilfields Limited. In 1913, some of those properties were taken over by United British Oilfields Trinidad Limited (UBOT), a majority-owned subsidiary ofthe Shell Oil Company.

The  first well  to  be  drilled  entirely  by  the  rotary  drilling  method  wasParry  Lands No.  D4 completed to a depth of 580 feet in 1914.By this time there were other companies exploring in Trinidad. These included Trinidad Leaseholds Limited (TLL) which was founded in 1913 and which would later become Texaco Trinidad. In 1914, TLL drilled and produced Helena1, the discovery well for the Forest Reserve Field. Among the other newcomers was Trinidad Central Oilfields which was formed as a private company in 1911. In1914, Trinidad oil production passed its first one million-barrel mark. Over the course of almost one hundred years, the Forest Reserve field, one of the many identified in Cunningham-Craig's   geological mapping survey, has produced more than 500 million barrels of crude, helped by enhanced oil recovery methods.  To this day, its discovery well, Helena 1, still produces a trickle.

With respect to refining, the first small crude unit was established at Point Fortin in about 1910, followed by another in Brighton.  After UBOT took over in 1913, a refinery, a jetty, houses, railways and pipelines were constructed.  The  first  export  cargo  of  crude  oil  was  loaded  from  Brighton  in  1910.Seven years later, in 1917, a pipeline was laid to transport crude oil from Forest Reserve to Pointe-a-Pierre while another was constructed to carry light crude from Tabaquite to Claxton Bay. The Barrackpore field, discovered by the Venezuelan Oil Company in 1911 and acquired by Trinidad Leaseholds Limited's (TLL), was and still is a major producer in Trinidad and Tobago. 

Trinidad Leaseholds Limited’s established a small refinery in Pointe-a Pierre in 1916-17. Like all refineries of the period, it utilised the horizontal boiler-type crude stills. In 1922, a form of the cracking plant,whose failure rendered the area uninhabitable, was introduced atPointe-a-Pierre. By then,several new companies had emerged on the horizon, including Apex, Kern and Trinidad Petroleum Development  Co. (TPD).   TPD was the most enduring of them all, by the 1930shad built a small refinery at Santa Flora to produce casing head gasoline from light crude discovered in the Palo Seco field. TPD became the key component of British Petroleum (BP) which established its head offices at Santa Flora as it took control of the many oilfields in the surrounding areas of Siparia, PaloSeco, Fyzabad and Moruga. Guayaguayare Field was successfully developed by 1925 by peak output was not achieved until the 1960s when Texaco took over the acreage. Penal was discovered by UBOT in 1936, UBOT subsequently became Shell.


Post-Independence 1962 Onward: A New Economy

The three biggest names were British Petroleum, then operating under the name Anglo Iranian Oil Company, TLL (later to become Texaco) and UBOT (Shell) together formed a company  called Trinidad Northern  Areas Limited (TNA) and acquired a license for offshore exploration  in the Gulf of Paria between the west coast of Trinidad  and Venezuela.  In 1954, TNA (later Trinmar) found oil with High Seas Well 1, nowknown as Soldado 1, and production began in 1955.

On July 1, 1969 Government in a joint venture with Tesoro Corporation acquired the local assets of British Petroleum; GOTT’s first venture into national ownership of an oil company. On August 31st, 1974 Government acquired the local operations of Shell Trinidad Limited and formed the Trinidad and Tobago Oil Company Limited (TRINTOC) All acreage onshore acreage leased to Trintopec and Texaco was first vested in the two local companies Trintoc, thenTrintopecwhose assets were bought out by the State. The Petroleum Company of Trinidad and Tobago (Petrotrin) was registered on January 21, 1993, Petrotrin is the single entity formed as a result of the merger of the state-owned oil companies – Trintoc and Trintopec.Petrotrin was granted a lease to all land acreage in 1993/4. In 2000, the Trinmar leases were added to those operated by Petrotrin.


Diagram showing Onshore Evolution of Petrotrin’s Upstream Onshore and Offshore

Offshore exploration on the east coast began in 1961 with  Pan American Oil (PATO),  Sun  Oil  and  Pure  Oil  obtaining exploration  rights  to  all the shallow water offshore acreage  on the  east coast of Trinidad  extending  up to the 600ft. Sun Oil and Pure Oil withdrew after the first two unsuccessful  wells.  After failing to get other partners, PATO drilled the next two wells on its own,discovered gas in OPR 3 and commercial quantities of oil in OPR 4.

PATO was acquired by the Amoco Trinidad Oil Company andproduction from the Teak field, the first of three new large oilfields, began in May 1972. In 1971, the Samaan oilfield was discovered and the following year, a third oilfield, Poui, was identified.  Oil production rose from 9.3 million barrels in 1972 to apeakof50.3   million barrels (138,000 bopd) in 1978 taking the country to its highest annual production of 83.8 million barrels (228,000 bopd).

To fully understand the petroleum industry of Trinidad and Tobago one must return to the early 1900s for although oil was the focus natural gas though largely underdeveloped was a part of the country’s energy landscape. However in the period following World War II the drive to promote electricity sales as a means of stimulating industrialsation led to natural gas being made available as a low cost fuel for T&TEC.  In 1953, T&TEC, had introduced natural gas as a fuel for its steam generators at its Penal Power Station, located in south Trinidad, thus giving natural gas its first taste of commercialization in the country.   By the end of the 1950s, natural gas was being used in the manufacture of cement and ammonia.

Therefore by the 1960s and early 1970s Trinidad had an emergent natural gas pipeline network centered at the Penal area.  However the depletion of gas reservoirs in that area and the discovery of a significant gas province of great potential off the East Coast in 1969 provided the government with an alternative resource to crude oil and with ‘oil money’ at its disposal the means of diversifying the country’s petroleum portfolio for economic development.

1975 was a landmark year in the petroleum industry of Trinidad and Tobago as in the Budget Speech the Prime Minister announced that the government or a designated agency would be the sole seller of gas using this as a ‘trigger’ for industrialsation.   On March 6th 1975 Cabinet agreed on the formation of such an entity, and by August 7th it announced that the company’s name would be ‘The National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago Limited’.The first customer was a new ammonia plant, Tringen that had been commissioned as a joint venture between W. R. Grace and the Government and in 1977 Tringen- Commissioning activities were completed and the shipment of ammonia destined for the U.S.A. and Europe was begun. Trinidad and Tobago went on to become the single largest supplier of Ammonia and Methanol from a single site.

The second issue which prompted Government action was the volumeof associated natural gas that was wasted;over 180 MMscf of natural gas was being flared on a daily basis in the Teak and Poui marine fields located off the south east coast of Trinidad.  In July 1979, in an effort to stem this wastage, NGC was mandated to implement the ‘FlareGas Conservation Project’, which comprised the design, construction and installation of two offshore compression facilities through which a major portion of the ‘flared’ gas could be saved and compressed, prior to being transferred to land for commercial use in areas such as power generation. This project came on stream in 1982.

The diagram illustrates the daily oil and gas production of Trinidad and Tobago from 1908 to 2016. It should be noted that gas overtook oil production in 1994 and this was due to the burgeoning petrochemical industry. With the coming on stream of the ALNG trains from 1999 to 2005 gas production continues to outperform oil. 

Source: Spotlight on Energy: Our Oil, Our Gas, Our Future presented by Selwyn Lashley, Permanent Secretary in the MEEI


The history of the industry would not be complete without mention of the country’s venture into deep water exploration. It is ironic that Trinidad and Tobago acquired deep water 2D data in 1980 when deep water exploration was not yet “de rigeur”. In 1997, deep water acreage was offered and Shell, Exxon and Arco were awarded acreage. The drilling campaign did not result in the discovery of commercial quantities of hydrocarbons and it was not until 2012 that the country was able to attract exploration companies to the deep water.  There is currently one operator in the deep water acreage off the east coast of Trinidad and Tobago; BHP. Its co-ventures include bpTT, BGTT and Repsol.


Persons interested in a more detailed history may purchase a copy of the book–“From Oil to Gas and Beyond: A Review of the Trinidad and Tobago Model and Analysis of Future Challenges”

Trevor M. Boopsingh and Gregory McGuire eds