Oil and Gas Resources in Virginia

The "burning springs" of the Kanawha River, where natural gas escaped from underground and occasionally caught fire, demonstrated the presence of hydrocarbons in Virginia. George Washington, who always had an eye for valuable real estate, acquired some of the springs in 1775.

In the 1840's, the natural gas was used to boil saline water from nearby wells to produce salt, in what was the first commercial use of natural gas in the United States. In 1860, Virginia's first oil wells were drilled near another nearby burning spring to produce "rock oil" or petroleum. (Those springs became part of West Virginia in 1863.)1

Surface oil seeps, where petroleum leaked to the surface, also alerted people to hydrocarbons in Lee County, where Virginia's two oil fields are located. The Rose Hill field opened in 1942, and the Ben Hur field was developed in 1963 (and expanded to Fleenortown in 1981). Oil comes from a 400-500 foot thick layer of the Trenton Limestone, dating back to the Ordivician Period about 450 million years ago. Depth of the wells range from 1,810 feet to 4,925 feet.2

Oil may also be collected when it condenses in gas wells.

oil and gas fields in Virginia
oil and gas fields in Virginia
Source: Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research - Virginia Energy Patterns and Trends

The one oil refinery built in Virginia was located in Yorktown. The bridge carrying Route 17 over the York River (between York and Gloucester counties) was built high enough for tankers to pass underneath to reach the refinery.

The facility could refine 62,000 barrels a day of crude oil into gasoline and diesel, as well as home heating oil and propane. Standard Oil of Indiana built the refinery in 1956, and the name of its owner changed several times since then. Standard Oil (Indiana) was renamed AMOCO in 1985, and merged with British Petroleum in 1998. Giant Industries purchased the refinery from BP in 2002, and Western Refining purchased Giant in 2007.

In September, 2010, Western Refining closed the Yorktown refinery, but kept the oil storage and shipping facilities in operation. At the time of closure, the facility was paying more property taxes than any other property in York County.3

oil refinery and power plant at Yorktown, viewed from Gloucester across the York River
oil refinery and power plant at Yorktown, viewed from Gloucester across the York River

The refinery was also the first site in Virginia where industrial re-use was permitted for treated wastewater. The refinery's closure eliminated the prime customer for the effluent from the York River Treatment Plant of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District. The refinery was buying water treated to meet industrial standards for cooling equipment, at half the cost of water treated to meet standards for drinking. The sanitation district did not make a profit on the water sales, but it did eliminate some of its nitrogen/phosphorous discharge.4

In December, 2011, Western Refining announced the sale of the facility, which had recently been connected to the Colonial Pipeline. The new owner, Plains All American Pipeline, stated that it "plans to disassemble and sell the idle refinery equipment" and the site will be used just as a terminal for storage and distribution of natural gas, biodiesel, crude oil, and refined petroleum products imported by ship, rail, truck, or pipeline. 5

Converting the refinery into a storage hub for petroleum and biodiesel products will reduce York County taxes from $4 million/year to $1.3 million/year.

Map of Major Petroleum Product Pipelines
Map of Major Petroleum Product Pipelines
Source: Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research

Virginia is a net importer of oil and gas. Natural gas is brought through pipelines from the gas fields in the Gulf region, plus a liquified natural gas (LNG) facility at Cove Point in Maryland (which imports natural gas by tanker, after gas is compressed). The Dominion Resources power plant at Possum Point in Prince William County converted some boilers from coal to natural gas, in order to reduce air pollution and to take advantage of the relatively low price of gas. The Possum Point power plant obtains natural gas from both sets of pipelines, after building a new link to the pipeline network supplied by Cove Point.

historic oil and gas fields in southwestern Virginia
historic oil and gas fields in southwestern Virginia
Source: Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Oil and Gas Exploration and Development in Virginia, 1979-1988

For the last 90 years, the transportation system in the United States has relied upon petroleum instead of horses fed with hay and oats, wind in sails, or coal in locomotive boilers. The pollution from unburned hydrocarbons emitted out of the tailpipes of cars and trucks is familiar to everyone - but before dreaming of returning to the "good ol' days," remember that undigested hay and oats came out of the back end of the horses.


looking for oil shale north of Blacksburg
looking for oil shale north of Blacksburg

practicing placement of boom to capture oil spill in Elizabeth River
practicing placement of boom to capture oil spill in Elizabeth River
Source: U.S. National Response Team, Hampton Roads Geographic Response Plan - Development & PREP Exercise


1. "Burning Springs" and "Burning Springs Oil Field," West Virginia Encyclopedia, http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/725 and http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/726/a> (last checked December 25, 2011)
2. Jack E. Nolde, "Oil and Gas Well Data and Geology for Lee County, Virginia," Publication 113, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, 1992, pp.6-9, http://www.dmme.virginia.gov/commercedocs/PUB_113.pdf (last checked December 25, 2011)
3. C.S. Bartlett Jr., "Trenton Limestone fracture reservoirs in Lee County, southwestern Virginia," Conference: American Association of Petroleum Geologists Eastern Section meeting, Pittsburgh, PA, USA, October 10 1984, http://www.osti.gov/energycitations/product.biblio.jsp?osti_id=5685772
"Well location Download," Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy's Division of Gas and Oil Data Information System, http://www.dmme.virginia.gov/dgoinquiry/ (last checked December 25, 2011)
3. "Western Refining suspending most operations at Yorktown plant," 13NEWS/WVEC.com television, http://www.wvec.com/news/local/Western-Refining-to-close-Yorktown-plant-100030339.html (last checked December 2, 2011)
4. "Water Reuse: Ensuring Wastewater Is Not Wasted Water," Hampton Roads Sanitation District, http://www.hrsd.com/firstreuseproject.htm (last checked December 2, 2011)
5. "Western Refining selling Yorktown refinery," Newport News Daily Press, December 1, 2011, http://www.dailypress.com/news/york-county/dp-nws-york-refinery-sale-1201-20111201,0,834647.story (last checked December 2, 2011)
6. "Virginia's only oil refinery becoming storage facility," The Virginian-Pilot, December 23, 2012, http://hamptonroads.com/node/663129 (last checked December 23, 2012)
oil production sites in Virginia
Source: Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy - Oil

Pipelines in Virginia
Rivers and Watersheds
Virginia Places