Trees and the towers of the Conoco-Phillips refinery compete on the skyline on the outskirts of Ponca City, Oklahoma. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
PONCA CITY, Okla. — Boom and bust has been part of the oil business from when it was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1958. Ernest Whitworth Marland was part of that cycle. Twice.
As a Pittsburgh lawyer, he made a small fortune speculating on coal and oil deals only to lose it in the Panic of 1907. In 1908, he moved to Ponca City and drilled seven dry holes at the 101 Miller Brothers Ranch.
Then, according to the ConocoPhillips Web site:
“On nearby land, Marland secured a lease from the Ponca Indian tribe to drill at the base of a sacred burial plot. The first well struck oil in 1911. The gusher provided the first real evidence of oil in the mid-continental region, sparking the equivalent of a gold rush for oil.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Marland built a refinery, drilled more wells, built service stations for the young car industry, and invested in what ConocoPhillips says was the industry’s first research division. Marland Oil Co. prospered.
This is not far from where the Keystone XL pipeline would run. It’s an area very familiar with the oil and gas industry and pipelines, some quite rusty, can be seen running in many places. There are still refineries here as there have been since Marland’s time.
Marland led a lavish lifestyle. He had a huge estate – a palace on the prairie — that is still a tourist attraction in Ponca City. The stone mansion is enormous, and it came with a three-car garage and the first indoor swimming pool built in Oklahoma, according to the mansion Web site. The mansion is 78 feet wide and 184 feet long, and has 43,561 square feet distributed over four levels. There are 55 rooms, including 10 bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, 7 fireplaces and 3 kitchens. He also introduced polo and fox hunting to local society.
The grounds, while still extensive, are a fraction of what they once were. The original gardens were big enough to accommodate what today is a substantial neighborhood of nice homes. The buildings for the workers are still there, along with the boathouse, gatehouse and satellite cottages, one of which was home for Marland’s stepdaughter, who Marland married after his wife died. The stables are now a private home.
But Marland was destined to lose much of his fortune and control of his oil company to his bankers.
The ConocoPhillips Web site recounts:
“In the late-1920s, the financier J.P. Morgan Jr. obtained control of the Marland Oil board upon providing a $5 million line of credit to the company. When profits fell in 1928, the board replaced E.W. Marland as president with Dan Moran, a hard-boiled Texaco vice president…. Moran oversaw the merger of Marland Oil Co. with Continental Oil and Transportation Co. in 1929.”
That is what later became Conoco, and still later ConocoPhillips, one of the world’s biggest oil companies.
As for Marland, he went into politics, abandoned the Republican Party and became a Democrat and staunch supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But poor relationships with the legislature made his administration largely ineffective.
The Keystone XL pipeline route ties together bits of history and the modern oil business in unexpected ways.
The vast global holdings of ConocoPhillips include three stakes in the Canadian oil sands where this journey started.
It owns 1 million net acres of land in the Athabasca oil sands region. Conoco’s operations, a 50/50 joint venture with the French oil giant Total, are southeast of Fort McMurray and use the steam-assisted generation technique, pumping steam into the ground to melt the sands and extract bitumen. We flew over the operations when we were in Alberta. The company’s Web site says its oil sands operations will eventually produce 110,000 barrels a day.
Conoco also owns half of another oil sands venture in Foster Creek and Christina Lake from which it gets 67,000 barrels a day of crude. And it owns 100 percent of other leases that it is still delineating.
Even if Conoco doesn’t send any crude oil through the Keystone XL pipeline, it will benefit from an expansion in the number of routes leading to Port Arthur, Tex. – and passing nearby Ponca City, the company’s birthplace and home to the Marland mansion.