History of ARCO/ampm

Recent history...

In 2000, ARCO joined the BP group. All of the group’s US stations west of the Rocky Mountains took on ARCO branding, and the number of ampm outlets grew rapidly. In 2013, as part of a major divestment programme, BP sold the ARCO brand along with the Carson refinery. However the story of ARCO is still well worth telling. 

Back to 1866...

The history of ARCO is really the story of two US companies, Atlantic Refining and Richfield Petroleum.

The older of the two by nearly 40 years, Atlantic was founded in Pennsylvania in 1866, the state where the world’s first crude oil had been discovered seven years earlier. Initially Atlantic concentrated solely on shipping and storing oil, but within a few years it got into the refining business, where it would really make a name for itself.

Less than a decade after its founding John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust snapped up the company. With that backing, Atlantic’s motor oil, Polainne, became one of the best-known motor oils in the country.

Richfield Oil started business in 1905 on the West Coast. It grew quickly into one of the leading gasoline marketers there.

The Standard Oil empire crumbled in 1911, by order of the US Supreme Court, and Atlantic was its own company again. Atlantic’s president at the time, John Wesley Van Dyke, is said to have urged his employees to “go find the company some crude.” And they did, making significant discoveries in the American Southwest.

Atlantic’s first service station opened in Pittsburgh in 1915. Richfield’s first station opened in Los Angeles two years later. Business was good. In the 1920s both companies moved into iconic office spaces. Atlantic opened an office in Dallas’s first skyscraper. Richfield built a landmark 12-story office tower in LA.

As of 1945, Richfield was a leading producer of high-octane fuels, while Atlantic used seismic technology techniques that it had developed in its own labs to find a large oil field in Crane County, Texas.

In 1966 the two companies merged, forming Atlantic Richfield, or ARCO for short.

Respected corporate environmentalists

Two years later a team that had been roaming remote northern parts of Alaska in search of oil there found it. Prudhoe Bay was the largest oil discovery in US history. Further along the slope, BP soon tapped into its share of the vast reservoir. In the eight years before oil flowed from Alaska, ARCO and BP worked together to assure the US government that environmental risks had been addressed.

ARCO’s chairman, Robert O. Anderson, and its president, Thornton F. Bradshaw, spoke out prominently on environmental issues and gained respect as corporate environmentalists.

In the late 1980s ARCO introduced America’s first environmentally engineered fuel, EC-1, which was designed to help reduce pollution from older cars and trucks. A year later, it launched a premium version. By 1991 these emission-control gasolines had removed over 100 million pounds of pollutants from Southern California air.

A west coast company with international ambitions

Mergers and acquisitions fuelled ARCO’s growth over the years. The company bought Sinclair Oil Corporation in 1969, gaining chemical plants, refineries and a large network of pipelines. It merged with mining company Anaconda in 1977 to become a broad “earth resources” company.

But despite this growth, ARCO remained essentially a regional company within the US, strongest in the West. Its corporate headquarters moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1972. The first ampm retail outlet opened nearby in 1978. Eventually the company pulled out of the US East Coast altogether, selling its stations and refineries.

It didn’t, however, limit its exploration activities to the same territory. In the 1980s ARCO’s international arm made the first commercial natural gas discovery off China’s coast and built a 700-kilometre subsea pipeline to pump the gas to Hong Kong. In 1996 ARCO announced a joint venture with LUKOIL, Russia’s largest oil company, to produce gas and oil in Russia and elsewhere.