Skip to comments.Wildcatter bets big on Eagle Fordís fringe
Posted on 02/11/2013 4:48:35 AM PST by thackney
FRIO COUNTY, Texas Harvey Howell arrives first to the field where he hopes to turn $1.3 million into a whole lot more money.
As he paces the orangey sand where hes looking for oil, the only sounds are birdsong, the soft rush of a cool winter wind and the buzz of insects.
Nothing much happening, Howell says. Which is the first problem.
Theres supposed to be water in a drilling pit, but its dry. Theres supposed to be a drilling rig, but its still on the road. Besides Howells Toyota Forerunner, the only vehicle on site is a trash trailer.
The 57-year-old Howells well-to-be is a modest metal stake near deer tracks. X marks the spot.
He calls his engineer back in San Antonio, the guy coordinating logistics, to ask where everyone is.
He wanted to know if I had a bow tie and a suit on, says Howell, who wears jeans and boots.
Howell, a third generation wildcatter, is nibbling at the edges of the Eagle Ford shale oil and gas field, hunting profitable oil where no one has found it.
Multinational companies known as the majors and super majors are drilling to the south. Having made their discoveries (or having bought out someone who has), theyve leased hundreds of thousands of acres where small, independent prospectors like Howell once reigned. Companies with the best positions in the region drill deep, horizontal wells that cost $5 million to $10 million each, and do it 20 to 30 times a month.
Howell will drill a shallow vertical well once this month. Hell test the famous shale, which is shallow here, but his real prospect lies above it in the San Miguel Sandstone. The majors wouldnt bother with it.
They call these oil fields. Think of farming, Howell says. This is a small mom and pop trying to hang on when the big conglomerates are running around.
Read more: Is the Eagle Ford for real?
Its taken two and half years to get here. Researching old well logs. Leasing acreage. Exploring and testing it. Finding investors willing to pour money into a hole.
A beep carries across the field and Howell drives to meet the first of many trucks. Hes a geologist and a numbers guy who knows the odds stink. But the prospect has gotten under his skin.
As trucks and trailers erase deer tracks, Howells voice brims with optimism, like something deep welling to the surface.
Its your art. Its like a painting, he says. I want someone to like it and want it.
He puts his odds at 1 in 10.
Thursday, Jan. 17
Within minutes of arriving, the rig hands move in a choreographed routine as though the circus has come to town. They park trucks. Set out more stakes. Shout and use hand signals.
Big rigs are set on an expensive caliche base, but this rig is smaller a double where two lengths of 30-foot drill pipe are connected and lowered into the ground at one time so it sits on sand. Which is thick. The crew struggles to align the base of the rig.
A friend of the surface tenant, who is at a cattle auction, arrives to turn on the water. He thinks this is likely a big waste of money. The derrick starts to rise from horizontal to vertical. The rig hands stake the cable they call Geronimo, which lets the derrick man working at the top of the rig rappel off in an emergency.
In the rare moments theyre not moving, they bum cigarettes or check their phones.
Nestor Lerma Jr., the derrick man, calls his pregnant wife. Shes having contractions a month early in a Corpus Christi hospital. But Lerma will work 12-hour days, bunking on site and only leaving if he must. She was kind of sad, he says.
They work on rig time, which doesnt respect weekends or pregnant wives. Tick tock. They must drill 4,000 feet as quickly as possible.
This spot is good for cattle grazing, peanuts and vegetable farming, but putting a well here isnt a shot in the dark. A nearby ranch has had continuous production for decades. Frio Countys Bigfoot fields by late 2010 had yielded 26 million barrels of oil.
The majors place wells using 3-D seismic data, which bounces sound waves to create a detailed view of the earths layers.
At $50,000 to $100,000 per square mile, Howell cant afford that on this project.
Instead, he looks at the geology and geochemistry. Oil and gas is always escaping from the earth, and at the X, tiny molecules of oil and gas over geologic time have made it within a meter or so of the surface.
Eric Potter, a program director with the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin, said its an old-school method. But its found some of the worlds great fields.
If its coming out of the ground now, it must mean it came from somewhere, Potter says.
What Howell cant tell is whether the oil comes from 2,500 feet or 10,000 feet, or if its profitable.
After midnight, drilling begins. They reach 475 feet by 7 a.m.
Saturday, Jan. 19
At 8:30 a.m., the cement crew that worked overnight rolls away, having poured an 864-foot barrier designed to protect the groundwater from future well leaks. Wispy clouds blanket the bright sky. Diesel fumes hang in the air. The crew does maintenance and waits for the cement to set.
Lermas wife is back home in Freer, back on schedule for a February delivery. He climbs the rig to grease the crown. You can see real nice houses back on these ranches.
Chris Graham, the tool pusher in charge of the drilling rig, rubs his eyes. He sleeps with his trailer door cracked open to listen to the rig, but the overnight crew is driving him crazy.
They woke me up every hour on the hour, he says. Its like having five newborns.
As if summoned by the comment, a daytime rig hand pokes his head in the door. Dont get mad, man. The casing hole was loose.
It wasnt loose, Graham said. Nothings wrong with it. Its fine. He shoos the man away. A Hurt Feelings Report hangs on the wall.
His wife has checked in to make sure hes really at the rig. The boss has called to ask why they arent drilling faster.
This is a turnkey job. Howell paid a flat rate for a well.
Anything happens to this hole is my ass, Graham says. The faster we do this job the more we make. We use less chemicals, less man hours. Weve got to burn and turn. I got cussed out this morning because we took too long last night.
Graham would rather work as a driller operating the rig. But a tool pusher earns more. In busy times Graham, who dropped out of school at 15 to work in the oil field, earns $8,000 a month. He doesnt know if he can do it forever.
This stuff is tiring, he says. Im only 28 years old, and I feel like an old man.
But he likes the brotherhood of the rig. He makes fun of roughnecks who work on the brand-new rigs the majors operate. He calls them softnecks. Sunday morning, they drill below 2,100 feet and into the Wilcox and Escondido sandstones. That night, theyll reach the main target, the San Miguel.
Wildcat wells are spectacularly risky.
In 1948, folklorist J. Frank Dobie wrote, A wildcatter is a person who drills for oil in a place oil is not known to exist. Bankers consider his business about as safe as buying lottery tickets.
Howells investors are not banks or Wall Street guys in suits. Theyre retired oil industry executives and business owners in need of a tax shelter.
Retired schoolteachers are not going to empty out their savings to invest in one of these. Its riskier than farming, which is risky, Howell says. The shazam of this business is that you can become colossally successful literally overnight.
Wildcatters south of Beaumont in 1901 hit Spindletop, with oil spraying out of the ground in an uncontrolled mess.
Read more: Oilmen hope to make new history at Spindletop
In 1930, Columbus Marion Dad Joiner stumbled into the East Texas Field in Rusk County and one of the worlds great discoveries. The field produced around 1.5 billion barrels in 10 years.
But plenty of wildcatters have gone broke, some repeatedly.
These are the gamblers, UTs Potter said. How many people, if they were starting a small business, could handle knowing that they had just a 10 percent chance for success, and each of those 10 chances would cost them $1 million? This is a special breed.
Houston, Midland, Tyler is full of these guys. You look at any major city in Texas and theyre part of the landscape.
Howell came to wildcatting through family. Other kids got taken to play football with their dads, he says. We went to the rig.
His grandfather, Hansel Hamilton Howell, started building wooden derricks but later salvaged marginal wells and started a drilling business. In 1938, he struck a new field near Alice.
Howells father, John Howell, found fields near Eden and Hallettsville. Howell found and named the Dare I (Hope) field in Concho County.
This week, though, the third Howell grows nervous. Late Sunday night, nothing shows in the San Miguel Sandstone.
Tuesday, Jan. 22
The tan, low-slung Balcones Energy Library in San Antonio has rows of file cabinets organized by county, artwork of oil rigs and South Texas geologic maps.
The Eagle Ford play is laid out here if you know where to look.
Its already been seen, Howell says. In a corner, he steps around a vacuum cleaner and white laundry baskets filled with files to unfold a November 1982 Madison County mud log. The mud log looks like a vertical readout of a heart rate monitor, showing the drilling rate and gas kicks as the drill bit encounters hydrocarbons.
For years the industry saw gas kick in the Eagle Ford and ignored it. There was no way to crack the shale to get oil flowing. Thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which uses water, sand and chemical pumped at high pressure, historys biggest kicks match todays biggest pay zones.
Library manager Mary Jane Zorola started working in 1988 at the citys other geology library, the Post Cambrian.
We used to go through three pots of coffee before noon, she said. In 90, it slumped. Ive never seen so many geologists become car salesmen. It goes up. It comes down. Zorolas hands make the roller coaster gesture. I think this is the biggest boom Ive ever seen.
Back at Howells office on Loop 410, he learns that drilling has reached 3,545 feet.
The mud logger who catches rock samples that float up the well on drilling mud, Stephen Hunter, says drilling went slowly through the Anacacho Limestone and the serpentine, a volcanic flume that snakes underground. Hunter thinks theyre smack in the Austin Chalk.
Background gas is kicking. The Eagle Ford is next.
Youre getting closer to something, Howell says.
Hopefully, yes, Hunter says.
An investor calls.
Weve had no significant shows, Howell tells him. Drilling is erratic. My opinion is that weve seen nothing economic at this point. I hate to say it, but maybe were drilling an Eagle Ford well.
They dont want an Eagle Ford well. But the San Miguel pinched out geology speak for isnt there. The Eagle Ford is 60 feet thick and profitable only if theres lots of oil. In that case, they would temporarily abandon the well and come back to drill a short horizontal reach.
Howell puts his boots on the granite-topped desk and sighs. Unless we get one hellacious show, Im nervous and so are you.
The investor, who has a geology background, tells him clean dry holes arent bad. An obviously dry hole keeps you from throwing good money after bad.
Wednesday, Jan. 23
Around 4 a.m. drilling reaches total depth and the crew plugs the hole at 3,975 feet. They pull the drill pipe from the hole, which usually takes more than three hours. They do it in two.
The tool pusher thinks were not human, says J.B. Espinoza, working his first week on the rig but still smiling.
The pipe-less hole must be measured for hydrocarbons, and a wireline services crew lowers its tools down the well. As holes tend to do, this one tries to close. The well at 3,291 feet keeps swelling, and they push the instrument against it 20 times to finagle it through.
Read more: Strange sights fuel UFO fears near Eagle Ford
Howell moves between the wireline truck and the mud loggers trailer, where Hunter keeps a tidy row of drilled rock in a line white Anacacho Limestone, green volcanic serpentine, grayish Austin Chalk, black Eagle Ford, white Buda Limestone and so on through geologic time. The fragments get washed through sieves and photographed under a microscope, where hydrocarbons glow fluorescent.
On big rigs Hunter, the mud logger, may never talk to a geologist. He emails information. Here, he and Howell collaborate. Were all in it together. Its like a family, Hunter said. This is like it used to be.
Outside, the company man, Jim McCracken watches rig maintenance and Howells movements. Now that drilling is complete, hes Howells man, in charge of the site.
McCracken lost everything in the 80s he and his brothers drilling and production company, and the real estate investments he thought were safe.
He worked in the car business and ran a nightclub, but returned to the oil patch three and a half years ago as shale drilling boomed.
Its like riding a bicycle, he says.
Howell tells McCracken he thinks its over. Im looking for a miracle because Im here in a hole with evaluation tools.
McCracken asks if hes sure. It doesnt take much oil to pay off.
Howell goes to the mudlogger one last time to check the serpentine. Steven, it doesnt look encouraging.
Thats what Im hearing, Hunter replies.
They duck into the trailer anyway, turn off the lights and turn on the microscope. Howell looks at the volcanic rock and sees a dry hole.
The pressure shifts to McCracken. Theyve drilled and measured the well. Now Howell is paying for the rig by the hour.
Its 3:30 p.m. and McCracken must call the Texas Railroad Commission before it closes to get the OK to plug the hole. He needs to hustle the rig off site as quickly as possible.
Call em. What are you waiting for? Howell asks. Were burning up time. Its costing me money.
Howell calls his partner in the well.
Lets go ahead and move on to the next deal, the man says over speakerphone. You know me. Im always ready to move forward.
Youre a good man. Howell tells him.
Howell sits in his SUV mulling this well and the next one in another county, but the mood outside brightens.
Hunter has worked 21 days and anticipates a week off at home in Gonzales County.
The day crew, who lack TV and have mostly spent nights off watching the rig, are getting sick. But at 7 p.m. they start three days off.
Lerma beams when he sees a message from his wife. She sent a picture of my two little girls. She said she cant wait to see me. In two weekends shell deliver a new daughter.
Howell calls an investor. How are you doing? he asks.
Waiting on you to call. Hows it look?
It looks like were going to plug it.
Theres silence, then a long, Hmmm.
Is that all you want to know, or do you want the blow by blows? Howell asks.
Give me some blows, the man says.
Howell does. Already the crew breaks down the pipe. By early Saturday, the circus will leave and reassemble someplace else.
Howell hangs up. We just lost a million something dollars. It wasnt just investors. Howell threw money down this well, too.
At 3:51, the wireline truck drives off and Howell waves.
He will follow it soon, making calls all the way back to San Antonio.
Oops, mean’t uncle on the brake. I am a terrible proof reader before I post. :-)
Takes me back to the stories of my Grandfather and great Uncles and their wooden derricks.
Remember a picture that hung in my grandfathers study of several oilfield types leaning on a bar with captioning about “another dry hole” and the dejected looks on their faces.
Men of characters and characters of men.....
Thanks for posting that thackney, I’ve been in his boots. We plugged one last year that we spent way too much money on trying to salvage. Shot new perfs twice, one more frac and then an acid job. We’ve got 8 wells all within a mile of this one, never thought it would be dry.
Thanks for posting but I hate to read it. I’ve been in the same place too many times.
They really only got one thing wrong...it is a Geronimo Line not just Geronimo. It is like a very steep and very fast zip line to exit the top of the derrick in an emergency.
We used to knock down a little well like this for $200K or less. I remember writing Kansas AFE’s for something like $98K DH.
The Geronimo line was invented by the same guy who invented the Ditch Witch ditch digging machine from Perry, Ok. My father was drilling superintendent for a contractor drilling near Perry at the time and I remember the Geronimo line being brought out to the rig to be tried out. The derrick hand, Clarence “Catline” Dunbar was the first to try it out. Catline had broken his back a few year earlier when a derrick collapsed. Perhaps a Geronimo line would of prevented that.
The costs of drilling well has really gone up. The last 2 1800 ft verticle wellsl I participated cost $300,000 a piece.
I know where all that is.
Once a line was anchored to a barrel of concrete. Big ‘ol indian boy down at Apache bailed out of the derrick, too heavy, the barrel came closer as he slid down at an every faster speed. He hit the ground, rolled a couple of times and took off.
Drilling rigs lighting the night here of late!!
I was gonna say :) I'm currently trying to get on with a big drilling company, myself. The job I've had for the last twelve years has gone to pot, and a good friend is a tool pusher (I didn't ask him to, but he put in a good word for me). Not that I really want to go back to roughnecking- but I figure that if I'm gonna work like a farm animal twelve hours a day, I should get paid a decent wage for it!
Actually I remember crews using a piece of hose over a cable to slide down from the derrick before that. They would hang from the cable with their hands and would squeeze the hose as a brake. The Geroimo line had an upside down T that hung from the cable that you set on and had a lever that operated brake.