Tempest in a Teapot

US history buffs will recall that the Teapot Dome oilfield in Wyoming was the center of an infamous bribery scheme in the early 1920s that shook then-president Warren Harding’s administration.

But it escaped the tabloids’ attention last month when the US Department of Energy (DOE) finalized the sale of Teapot Dome to US independent Stranded Oil Resources for $45mn, ending a century of ownership.

This 9,481-acre (38.km2) oil field about 35 miles north of Casper, Wyoming, was set aside as a naval oil reserve in 1915 and is formally known as the Naval Petroleum Reserve-3. Harding later created Naval Petroleum Reserve-4, now known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which has drawn the attention of President Barack Obama. ConocoPhillips has been trying to develop the first oil there. 

Harding’s secretary of interior Albert Fall secretly leased Teapot Dome to Harry Sinclair of Sinclair Oil and California’s Elk Hills field to oilman Edward Doheny, receiving payments of more than $400,000 in return. Fall eventually was convicted of bribery, and the US Supreme Court invalidated the leases.

For decades, Teapot Dome saw little activity, other than some exploration and offset wells. Full development of the field resumed in 1976. And in 1977, the Navy handed over responsibility of Teapot Dome to the newly created DOE.

Eventually, the field became home to DOE’s Rocky Mountain Oilfield Testing Center. The oil field, over nearly 40 years under DOE’s management, produced 22mn bl and provided $569mn to the US Treasury, DOE said.

Occidental Petroleum bought Elk Hills in 1987. Occidental last year spun off its California Resources subsidiary, which operates in Elk Hills, to create a new independent producer.

With the sale of Teapot Dome, a chapter of US political history comes to a quiet end.

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