Saturday, August 20, 2005

Black Gold


I carried every bit of “luck regalia” I had with me. I wore my lucky hardhat, wore my lucky Yogo River sapphire ring, my Virgen de Caacupe (Paraguay) medal, Virgen de Guadelupe (Mexico) medal, and sported other assorted amulets and mojos, some from Kenya, some from Turkey and Azerbaijan. The truth was, I thought I needed them. Dad and I had put everything we had into this exploratory high-risk “rank wildcat” well.

Instead of poring over old maps, dusty books from used book stores, reprints of treasure tales, and stories from mining camps, I had decided to get back into oil and gas exploration. It was Dad’s idea, but I was pretending that it was my own. I was tired of being someone’s stooge in Paraguay, and Stanton’s games were too painful. Times had changed, and the quests for gold and treasure that used to animate our conversations were a thing of the past. Black gold was a thin substitute, but it would do. The price of oil was high, and there was a high demand for gas to fill the high-pressure pipelines crisscrossing the midsection of the country.

Dad had embarked on a 4-well drilling program. We were on the third well. The first two were marginal. We set pipe to produce the wells, and they were producing oil with associated gas, but they also produced salt water, which had to be disposed of through an injection well. It was expensive, which meant that, if we were lucky, it would break even. So much for a return on investment (ROI) of 6 to 1.

“I refuse to be depressed or defeatist,” said Dad. “Sure, this well was not what we expected, but there was a lot of encouragement. I’m using it as a chance to test the equipment. I needed to make adjustments, and have done so. It’s working really well now.”

I once heard someone say that “gold fever” was like compulsive gambling, but I came to think that explanation was a bit simplistic. A person who is enraptured with the search for gold or treasure, has an narrative that instantly intrudes and takes over one’s entire being, one’s consciousness. Poor “gold fever” victims were caught up not only with magical images of shining, glittering gold, but also with the freedom and power that such wealth seems to promise. Perhaps the true allure lay in the fascinating narratives that described the saga of the treasure, gold, loot, or booty. Not only were there fascinating plot twists and turns, one had to puzzle out aspects of human nature that are usually kept well beneath the surface.

We had drilled through our zone of interest and samples and cuttings made by the drill bit and then circulated up via the drilling mud should have reached the surface and would have been retrieved from the shale shaker by now.

This was the third well on this play. We had leased a block of acreage that covered more than two sections (each section has 640 acres), for a total of around 1,500 acres. Like most of our prospects, this was in a remote locations in Okfuskee County, near the small town of Boley, a historically African-American community, about 40 miles from the county seat of Okemah, which was once the center of “Five Civilized Tribes” while Oklahoma was still “Indian Territory” and not yet a state of the United States (or “Union” as people used to refer to the nation). At one time, the town of Okemah had a population of around 3,200 but it had been falling off rapidly. The depopulation was so severe that the town no longer had its own hospital and its major employer, Wrangler Jeans, had closed its factories in order to take advantage of low wages in Mexico, or, more likely, Saipan.

The town of Boley was almost, but not yet, a ghost town. The Magnolia Café had been boarded up, and most people grabbed coffee and slices of rubbery pizza from the convenience store gas station that also sold oil, antifreeze, potato chips, aspirin, ephedra-laced stimulants, Cokes, and beer. “Bubba’s Ribs” billowed fragrant hickory and grilled meat haze from a portable smoker. A hand-painted picture of a pig in a chef’s hat and apron, with a big smile on his face festooned the side. A long line of people waited to purchase ribs, brisket, and sausage. In the summer, a snow cone / flavored ice place also attracted long lines.

Years ago, this area prospered. There were big royalty checks, service company jobs, drilling company jobs, and employment for all those who provided support services. One could still see the signs of former wealth. There were moldering mansions in the middle of Okemah, and even a few in Boley. The big boom years were in the 1920s. However, in the late 1970s and early 80s, a boom returned. This time around, most people squandered their new-found wealth on big trucks, big flashy prefabricated homes. Most were repossessed during the collapse of the late 1980s.

Going out to the wells brought back memories of 1980-82. As a fledgling (and very over-confident) young petroleum geologist, I was convinced the boom times would last forever. I tried to convince Dad to buy a drill rig rated to 12,000 feet, a fleet of company vehicles, an office building (just a small one!) and perhaps a small plane (just a little Cessna!) to get to our more remote locations.

After I graduated with a BS in geology and moved to Amarillo, Texas, to work for Diamond Shamrock, I quickly came to appreciate the benefits of a Lear jet, although flying at 40,000 feet in a 6-passenger jet made me aware I could get quite hooked on “pulling G’s.”

Thankfully, Dad ignored the business insights and advice of his daughter and suggested that I try my hand at building my own empire instead of interfering with his. Always the calm diplomat, Dad did not say it in those terms. He was, however, very compelling. I was hooked. He would give me oil and gas prospects, loan me the money to acquire oil and gas leases, and then I would go to operators to sell working interest, or the leases outright, while retaining a royalty and/or working interest.

Being the antithesis of Dad, and very risk-averse, the oil and gas prospects I was given to invest in made my stomach fill with butterflies. They were all high-risk, potential high-return oil and gas ventures that had the potential to yield a 30 to 1 return on investment. They also had the potential for total failure, with all investors losing all the money they had put up. This was not appealing to me. However, Dad was willing to lend me $50,000 to buy oil and gas leases on prospects he had been developing over the years as he took breaks from being a gold / silver / “hard rock” geologist. Dad had been very successful over the years in oil and gas, so his track record made me a believer. The lifestyle he lived – exciting travel, interesting experiences, leading teams – excited me as well. Despite my misgivings, I plunged in.

If the truth were to be told, I was overwhelmed by the attention. It was something I had craved for years.

My preference was to buy existing production and to extend old fields. By using new techniques, I wanted to recover more oil out of the old, low-production wells. This business strategy annoyed my normally placid dad.

“No way,” Dad said. “I hate that kind of business approach. There’s never any pay-off. You’re just trading dollars. Plus, you get nothing but problems with these old wells. You’ll never make any money, but you’ll always have big bills for operating these dogs.”

Certainly some people had gotten burned by buying old fields and old production, and no one wanted to tangle with some of the environmental issues that lurked out there. My senior-level environmental science final project involved a detailed study of a well, the Hospital Lake #1, located on the edge of a large spring-fed pond on the grounds of the Griffin State Psychiatric Hospital in Norman, Oklahoma.

The lake was ringed by native cedar trees and prairie grasses. In the summer and spring, wildflowers bloomed, and redbud trees blossomed. Although the topsoil was thin, it was lushly carpeted with thick, springy grasses, except for the place where an old tank battery had leaked, spilling oil and saltwater into the topsoil. What was worse, the spills traveled down gullies and small tributaries, effectively poisoning fish and disrupting the pH of the water. Stanton and I hiked around the property, took pictures of endangered migratory birds.

We tried to imagine what we could to do stop the vicious cycle of erosion and further contamination. By the time we visited it, the area of contamination was marked by deep gullies, which had cut into the iron-rich, blood-red Garber-Wellington formation. The Garber-Wellington was one of the mid-continent region’s most important aquifers. There was always the possibility that contamination could enter it and then travel for miles. So, saltwater spills impacted not only the vegetation, the pond, and the ecosystem (which included endangered migratory birds that nested here), but also the aquifer.

Back in Okfuskee County, The lease road to the well was partially graveled. Where it was not graveled, there was soft sand. It was treacherous when dry, but fairly firm when wet. The toolpusher had planted watermelons on the old drilling locations, where there was good drainage and sand. The watermelons thrived beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. They were absolutely magnificent – the size of the Black Diamonds you could purchase from the watermelon-growing sand deposits along the old braided stream channels of the South Canadian River. Each summer, Rush Springs had an annual watermelon festival. It was well-attended by watermelon aficionados, quilters and crochet-doily makers.

Surprisingly enough, the Watermelon Festival seemed to attract bikers of all kinds – from the scenery-loving retirees on Honda Gold Wings, to highly tattooed Harley owners. Some may have been Hell’s Angels, but I had no way of knowing. Stanton and I visited the Rush Springs Watermelon Festival on one of our road trips together.

Although watermelons grew well here near Boley, Oklahoma, in the heart of Okfuskee, County in east-central Oklahoma, it would be a challenge to organize anything and to attract people.

In the meantime, part of my job included negotiating “surface damages” and developing a plan to restore the land to pre-drilling condition. Unfortunately, I found out that there were unexpected damages, not just to the land, but to any number or type of livestock. Would you believe that the sound of a drill rig, the clang of big metal tongs on drill pipe during a connection, the shouts of roughnecks as they muscled the big pipe and chains, could make a prize bull lose its mind and become sterile? Who would imagine that the presence of a seismic survey team would make hogs go insane and unable to eat a good meal, thus losing weight?

Stanton laughed when one woman told him that her prize bull had become impotent after a seismic survey. “He was really high strung and after that, he could never maintain his concentration,” she said.

“Who cares about concentration. There’s something else that has to be maintained,” said Stanton to me afterwards. We laughed, pure joy in the knowledge that we were now married.

“Why don’t you pretend to be a seismic-traumatized bull tonight?” I asked, laughing.

Earlier, I had stopped at a local QuickieMart to fill my 4-wheel-drive khaki and gold Suburban with gas. When I went in to buy bottled water, something about the cashier reminded me of Stanton, and I felt very lonely, very alone.

The mood in the geologist’s trailer was jubilant. To be honest, I was shocked. I expected the usual atmosphere of resignation and grim determination.

“Check it out, Ophelia” said Dad. He handed me a bag with samples.

Dad was leaning over the microscope, and dropping little beads of xylene on the samples that sat in what looked to be a miniature pie pan used for panning for gold.

“The oil just streams from it. Good cut, great porosity. I’d say 30 percent, easily. Great fluorescence. Just smell that oil and gas – strong, isn’t it, Ophelia,” said Dad.

“Wow,” I said, weakly. This is what we had been waiting for, dreaming for, putting our hopes and dreams in. In this area, each well could potentially produce a half a million barrels of oil. There could be as many as 12 wells in this field.

“You think you can live on your revenue from this well?” asked Dad, laughing. Mentally, I calculated what my monthly revenue would be for just an average well in this area. It was a shame that Stanton could not be here to celebrate with us.

It was good. I scooped up some of the cuttings that were bleeding oil, put them into a little glass vial and placed a stopper in the top. I had a new amulet, a new lucky charm, a new mojo.

Tomorrow was going to be a good day. I could feel it. Tomorrow would be a great day. Perhaps Stanton would come back into my life.

1 comment:

arr said...

The episode is a story of Ophelia as a young woman in the real world as opposed to her "magical" world as a youngster. In spite of her success and aggressiveness in oil drilling business, she was still longing for human love, in the person of Stanton who only gave her pains in the past.

No amount of money, wealth, and success can really replace love. However, we should be careful whom we love. Love can either be a taste of heaven or a taste of hell here on earth.

I hope that the love between Ophelia and Stanton would turn to be an experience of heaven on earth.