History and Geology of Livermore Oil
Alan Burnham, PhD
Adjunct Professor, Energy Resources Engineering | Stanford University
In 1868, a 6.8 or so magnitude earthquake on the Hayward fault caused a small explosion on a hillside 4 miles NE of now downtown Livermore, CA, and an oily spring started up 70 meters away. Thus started the 150-year history of oil and gas exploration and production in Livermore. Oil prospecting near seeps is not unique—that was the method of choice in the 19th century. But the link to an earthquake is more unique and reminiscent of the 1960s television show, The Beverly Hillbillies, in which oil was discovered by a stray rifle bullet from a mountaineer. It turns out that Jethro on that show, Max Baer, Jr., is the son of heavyweight boxer champion Max Baer, who grew up in Livermore and has a sports park named after him.
Oil in the Livermore basin was most likely generated about the time of the rise of Mount Diablo about 4 Ma and driven by the resulting erosional deposition within that basin. Isotopic analysis of the oil indicates an Eocene source rock, variously known as the Nortonville or Kreyenhagen shale, which is contemporary to coals mined in the Altamont hills east of Livermore. The source rock was buried to oil generation depths possibly as early as the upper Miocene in some locations and possibly as late as the upper Pliocene in other locations. Oil sourced from an Eocene rock is rare in California, and the resulting API gravities in mid-twenties to mid-forties were used in the early 1900s to promote Livermore as a topic exploration prospect. Livermore residents at the time thought that discovery of oil was important for the town to prosper. Despite dozens of wells drilled near seeps and anticlines between 1868 and 1966, only a tiny gas field was found in 1952. Then, between the major seep-inspired sites, a 2-million-barrel oil field was discovered in 1967 near the intersection of the Greenville and Las Positas faults. The reservoir is in the Greenville sands of the Miocene Cierbo Formation at depths of 1000-2000 ft deep.