The man who is the first in the world to propose oil production in the sea
By experts’ estimates, up to 35% of the total volume of oil is produced in the sea. And although the first project for the construction of oil platforms was proposed by a colleague of Robert Nobel back in 1896, the document merely lay on the shelf for more than 50 years.
Pole Witold Leon Julian Zglenitsky is often called a Polish-Russian geologist and is called Victor, and sometimes Leonid Zglenitsky. The fact is that his activities are inextricably linked with the progress of science and industry in Russia, Poland, and Azerbaijan (the two latter in the 19th century were under the rule of the Russian Empire). In fact, Zglenitsky influenced the success of the entire world extraction of hydrocarbons from the seabed.
He was born in 1850 into a noble family in the village of Stara Vargava, located in central Poland. The position and connections of his parents allowed the boy to get into the governor's gymnasium in Plock. The educational institution was opened back in 1180 and was considered the most prestigious in the region. Having brilliantly graduated from it, in 1866, Witold entered the physics and mathematics department of the Warsaw Main School (today the University of Warsaw). After 5 years, the young man, already being a certified specialist, decided to consolidate his education abroad. Of all the possible options, he chose the Mining Institute in St. Petersburg. The university had a good reputation outside the Russian Empire, attracting not only promising students, but also teachers. Professors from Western Europe, mostly from Germany, lectured here. But, above all, foreigners went for the sake of Russian scientific beacons. So, having assessed the abilities of Vitold Zglenitsky, shown by him during his studies at the Mining Institute, Dmitry Mendeleyev offered the young man a place of an assistant in his laboratory.
After graduating with honors from the oldest technical school in Russia, the newly minted mining engineer began to work. He returned to his homeland and soon became the head of a metallurgical plant in the town of Mroczków on the Kamienna River. Ten years later, he moved to Riga and got a position in the Mountain Council. In 1891, he was offered the tempting position of chief engineer in the Donbas. Next came another invitation: to become a specialist in the assay office in Baku. Zglenitsky chose Azerbaijan, where the oil industry was rapidly developing at that time.
The region attracted more and more people every year, including such big entrepreneurs as brothers Alfred, Robert and Ludwig Nobel and Alphonse Rothschild. In 1901, the Baku oil fields provided 50% of the world and 95% of Russian oil production. But the center of world hydrocarbon production was perceived by many as a place of exile: from the point of view of everyday life, the city was far from comfortable. Due to the lack of running water and sewerage systems, epidemics of diphtheria, typhoid and cholera regularly broke out there. It was Vitold Zglenitsky who initiated the construction of a municipal water supply system in Baku.
Within a few years, the Polish geologist became the head of the assay office, but he spent all his free time on geological research and the invention of devices that would effectively extract natural resources. On the territory of Azerbaijan, he discovered deposits of iron ore, pyrite, molybdenum, cobalt, barite, coal, manganese, copper, rock salt, gold, silver, arsenic. The specialists’ attention was also paid to the apparatus he designed for measuring the curvature and deviations of oil wells. It prevented the occurrence of explosions and wild fires, which then occurred with a high frequency in the vicinity of Baku, and made it possible to increase the speed of drilling operations due to early detection of the curvature of the shafts.
However, his lifework was offshore oil production. From 1893 to 1896, the mining engineer explored the bottom of the Caspian Sea near the Apsheron Peninsula and established oil-bearing areas promising for development. In particular, it was about the Bibi-Heybat Bay. For the first time in world practice, offshore oil reserves were discovered. Witold sent his research to the alma mater and submitted to them a revolutionary project: a new method of drilling. The idea was to build a special waterproofing platform 12 feet (up to 4 m) above sea level. It was proposed to install the site on wooden piles driven into the bottom. In case of gushing, oil would be stored on an iron barge moored to the platform with a capacity of more than 3,000 tons of oil, and then transported to the shore on it. All that remained was to get plots for the construction of experimental platforms and the drilling of exploration wells. And exactly with this issue the problem arose.
First, with his proposal, the geologist applied to the State Property Department of the Baku province and Dagestan region. The request was denied on the grounds that the seabed was not their responsibility. Then Witold turned to the Ministry of Agriculture and State Property.
It must be said that the graduate of the St. Petersburg Mining Institute was not the first to try to get permission from the local authorities to explore the depths of the sea. Twenty years earlier, Robert Nobel, whose family had amassed a huge fortune in the Baku oil fields, had already applied to the Mining Department with a similar request. His desire caused a storm of indignation from local oil owners. The owners of plots on the shore of the Bibi-Heybat Bay convinced the governor of Baku that the wells would prevent their ships from delivering the necessary materials for the extraction of black gold to the berths.
The same atory repeated again. Zglenitsky received another refusal to his application. Among the arguments was the high cost of offshore mining compared to onshore mining. In addition, the Ministry believed that the organization of oil production in the Caspian Sea would damage fishing and become an obstacle to shipping.
There was also good news: the Baku Mining Authority recognized the seabed near the Apsheron Peninsula as oil-bearing, and the platform project as an interesting, albeit too bold and premature solution.
In 1900, by order of the Baku oil industrialists, Witold identified 165 promising areas in terms of production on the Apsheron Peninsula. The project was published in the specialized journal “Oil Business,” and the authorities accepted it for implementation as a work plan. In 1901, the government agreed to extract oil found by the mining engineer on the seabed, but in order to accomplish this task, it was decided to first cover part of the coast with earth.
Zglenitsky was promoted to the rank of colonel for his professionalism, hard work and discoveries made and given the right to acquire two oil-bearing areas on land and in water at his own expense. It would seem that the long-awaited implementation of innovative ideas was so close, but at the age of 51 he found out that he was terminally ill with diabetes. Then, following the example of his friend Alfred Nobel, whom he met in Baku, the geologist drew up a will. Most of his very solid fortune was transferred to the Jozef Mianski Foundation (the oldest fund for the support of Polish science) for the payment of prizes for the best works in science, art and culture. Today, for this act, the mining engineer is called the “Polish Nobel.”
In 1904 he died in Baku. He was buried in the village of Wola-Kelpinska in Poland.
The geological community recognized Witold Zglenicki as the founder of oil extraction from the seabed. All of today’s offshore drilling platforms date back to his invention.
The first exploration wells on bulk land in the Bibi-Heybat Bay were drilled only in 1922. The following year, an oil gusher from the bottom of the Caspian Sea hit from a depth of 460 meters.
In 1946, an expedition of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences conducted a study of the bottom of the Caspian Sea at a distance of 40 km from the coast, which led to the discovery of huge reserves of black gold. All discoveries made by the Polish geologist have been confirmed. After the end of World War II, the Soviet Union was in dire need of oil, and the right time to develop offshore fields has finally come. In 1949, 42 km offshore, the first well was drilled with a 100-ton daily flow rate, and active development of the field began. Over the years, a city was built here on stilts Oil Rocks, included in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest offshore oil platform.