Photo: RunRunes

We know that our oil industry hangs from a thread today. Nevertheless, we are also aware of this: It wasn’t always the case. Our energy and oil industries were born (relatively) well fed and dressed, thanks to private capital and initiative. Petrolia had a strong start; yet, its history didn’t come without obstacles.

On May 18, 1875 Cucuta suffered a devastating earthquake that nearly leveled the entire city in one minute. The quake caused viscous waters to spring up around Cerro Negro, and people started deeming it as “miraculous”. This is why Dr. Carlos González Bona sent samples to a lab for analysis, confirming the properties of these waters located around Cerro Negro in the Rubio Municipality, Junín District; where Manuel Antonio Pulido owned  estate in La Alquitrana village.

The quake caused viscous waters to spring up around Cerro Negro, and people started deeming it as “miraculous”.

With scientific information collected by his friend Carlos González Bona (1837-1911) —a renowned and well-loved doctor in the area back then— Pulido started the process to get a concession from the great state of Los Andes to “explore and exploit the mineral tar mine nearby Cerro Negro.”

On September 3, 1878, the Regional Executive granted Pulido the required license. Immediately, he founded Táchira’s Petrolia Mining Company, on October 12, 1878. The concession was granted for 50 years and extendable for another 49, until 1928. The shareholders distributed 1,000 shares with an estimated value of Bs. 100 each: Manuel Antonio Pulido Pulido 192 shares; José Antonio Baldó 250 shares; Carlos González Bona 231 shares; José Gregorio VIllafañe 109 and a half shares; Rafael María Maldonado 85 and a half shares; Pedro Rafael Rincones 87 shares, plus the 40 shares that would belong to the government by law.

The company’s Board of Directors decided to send partner Pedro Rafael Rincones (1854-1927) to the United States to investigate the best instruments for oil drilling and extraction. In 1879, he travels to Pennsylvania to study the oil industry in situ, where he purchases drilling equipment and a small distillation system: a modest refinery. He visits Seneca Oil Company’s facilities in the region, which had already grown famous thanks to Col. Drake’s findings. The following year, in July 1880, the equipment bought by Rincones arrives to La Alquitrana.

The Regional Executive granted Pulido the required license. Immediately, he founded Táchira’s Petrolia Mining Company.

In 1881, the Rubio Mayor’s Office exonerates Petrolia from paying taxes for 25 years, as a way of contributing with the incipient industry’s development. During the first months of 1882, the machines bought by Rincones are installed in La Alquitrana. Both the drilling rig and the distillation unit come to replace the simple bucket method used to collect the welling oil.

Petrolia’s first productive well was called Eureka.

By 1884, the company was extracting some 954 litres of crude per day. They refined them in the small La Alquitrana refinery, with a capacity of 2,000 litres per day and able to cover the local needs and even export the kerosene produced for public and domestic lighting to Colombia. Even now, Táchira citizens proudly remember that San Cristóbal’s main square was lit by La Alquitrana.

In the newspaper Los Andes, N° 9, of November 1895, there was an advertisement for Petrolia: “The products offered for consumption thus far are: kerosene-petroleum pure oil; diamond light, as white as the ‘water color’ of the best American factories. Blue or carboline kerosene to preserve wood and destroy termites. Machine oil. Benzine: excellent for destroying ants and curing beasts, killing worms, killing bugs and to provide light with special lamps. Mineral tar: unmatched to preserve clean roads, coffee fields and to caulk water reservoirs. Solid pitch or asphalt. Mineral coal. For everything relating to the Company, contact Dr. González Bona / San Cristóbal, phone N° 44.”

By 1884, the company was extracting some 954 litres of crude per day.

Notably, Pulido died in 1892, Baldó in 1893, Villafañe in 1894 and Maldonado in 1895. The only ones who survived several years were González Bona, who died in 1911, and Rincones, in 1927. These last two took charge of Petrolia for many more years.

The company managed to have 14 productive wells. But in order to keep growing, they required new concessions on vast territories, which they didn’t get. The enthusiasm wasn’t great either because the wells weren’t producing as expected. The output starting languishing and the concession expired in 1938, as certified by the then Development Ministry, during the government of Gen. Eleazar López Contreras (1883-1973). The area of La Alquitrana was handed over in concession to Oil Development Limited, a Shell subsidiary, but once they completed field research, they declined the opportunity of further developing the project due to costs and transport difficulties.

In its heyday, at the end of the 19th century and during the first two decades of the 20th century, the distribution of Petrolia’s products reached the entire Andean area and the towns bordering with Colombia. When the first vehicles arrived to San Cristóbal in the 1920s, they used Petrolia fuel, distributed in a truck called “El Putumayo,” like the jungle region at the border between Colombia and Ecuador. In 1891, Baldó, the company’s manager, certifies the sale of five products: kerosene, benzine, carboline oil, gasoline and tar. Since the refining equipment was small, by 1891 it allowed a monthly production of scarcely 1,600 gallons and it came in cans, most of them made by the company in a machine of limited proportions.

In its heyday… the distribution of Petrolia’s products reached the entire Andean area and the towns bordering with Colombia.

As we can see, the first Venezuelan oil company was a private initiative and had private capital, under a concession regime. Its accomplishments were modest but significant. They lacked the capital to keep exploiting wells and exploring more, and they barely managed to supply fuel for the very first vehicles, but they weren’t there to see the development of transport system in Venezuela, when roads were built and automobiles were imported at a truly commercial scale.

In 1928, Petrolia’s Assembly of shareholders meeting in San Cristóbal decided to hand over the exclusive exploitation rights to Mr. Clarence J. Brown, husband of Dolores Pulido Rubio, descendant of one of the company’s founders. Brown promised to drill 12 wells in two years and managed to drill nine, increasing output. Despite the achievements, however, these were modest conquests and the company couldn’t survive. On April 8, 1934, it ceased operations. Brown’s wife tried to renew the concession in 1937, but the government gave it to another company.

Petrolia, that small Venezuelan company lacked the financial and technological support it required then to achieve a real growth.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent narrative about this oil venture. The real reason behind Petrolia’s demise was not transport or financial difficulties but, simply, the modest size of the reservoir. This is confirmed when the concession went to a Shell affiliate and was not developed.

    • My recollection of the Oficina heavy oil sands of the Cerro Negro area is that these reservoirs are NOT small, they are huge. The problem in production is common with many heavy oil deposits; they are viscous and will not move readily without some kind of stimulation, resulting in modest production. These issues were not realized in 1875-1925 and so could not be mitigated. Even today, many of Venezuela’s heavy oil reservoirs experience similar problems.

      • Mark:
        La Petrolia is located in the state of Tachira, near Rubio. The Cerro Negro area you mention is not the Cerro Negro hill in the Rubio area but the one located in the Orinoco Belt area, at hundreds of kilometers to the east.
        The La Petrolia oil was light, the Cerro Negro oil is very heavy.
        I think you are talking about a completely different Cerro Negro,
        Gustavo Coronel

  2. I love history too and having worked in the oil and gas industry all my I really enjoyed this article. I do feel compelled to clear up the misconception that the reservoir was discovered due to an earthquake. Actually , it was discovered by a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer that barely kept his family fed. One day he was shooting at some food and up through the ground came the the bubbling crude.

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