The wildcat world of indie oil drilling

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When I reached the site, drilling chief Bob Graves had just fired a motor hand for nearly ruining one of the massive diesel mud-pumping motors. And the drill bit's underground location had become an ongoing and disquieting mystery.

"Drill bits can oscillate," Graves explained to me over dinner. "They'll wobble like a cowboy's lasso, making a circle as much as ten feet in diameter, and you'll never know until it's too late."

On the evening when the bit was scheduled to hit its target, Herndon determined that it was coming in too high. Without adjustments, it would miss the Skinner Sandstone entirely. Several times that night, like an air traffic controller, he directed the drillers to adjust their course.

Then, at 3:45 A.M., with the drill 88 degrees from vertical, Herndon made the call of his life - the bit was still coming in high. EEC's Porter looked over his shoulder at the drilling logs as the lights buzzed quietly overhead.

"That's it," Herndon said. "We're going down another 16 feet, so we can land in the middle of the zone."

Porter nodded, and that was that. The decision was made.

'That's a live oil stain'

After daybreak I walked across the site to the mud-logging trailer, where Herndon sat looking at rock samples through a microscope. He hadn't slept for 24 hours. Joel Knight, the mud logger, whose job was to collect rock samples at regular intervals, walked in carrying a wet canvas pouch containing the most recent cuttings from the bottom of the well.

"Put your nose in there," Knight said to me. The rock - black and crushed as fine as grain - smelled powerfully of oil.

Knight dried the sample in a cupcake tin. Using tweezers, Herndon carefully placed tiny specks into a ceramic dimple dish. Under a black light, he dabbed a few samples with lighter fluid. They streaked like a comet's tail.

"That's a live oil stain," Herndon said. Joel Knight beamed. By 10 A.M., everyone at the location was smiling. They had a working well.

I found Herndon sitting on the steps of the trailer enjoying a celebratory smoke. Porter was ecstatic. "I have to tell you, that's the hardest trick I've ever seen in the oil business," he marveled. "To hit that zone, flat!"

For the next two weeks Herndon would guide the bit horizontally through Skinner Sandstone so saturated with oil that it glowed like butter beneath the mud logger's black light. On June 26 they finally opened the well; the first oil poured up at an initial production rate that made everyone stop in their tracks: 1,800 to 2,000 barrels a day, a screamer indeed.

"In all my years I've never seen anything like it," Herndon told me over the phone. He'd popped a bottle of champagne but was quick to add a pessimistic note. All wells, he said, produce strongly at first, then taper off.

"This one," he said, "could easily fall on its ass" and decline precipitously. Everything depended on the thickness of the pay zone, and the only way to determine that was to let the oil flow and see what happened. Meanwhile, they would choke the well back to 500 barrels a day - worth about $50,000 at current prices - just to keep the pressure high.

Herndon now stands to make about $60,000 a month in royalties from the project. His partners will try the best they can to keep the good news to themselves. "This is a tight hole," Herndon said, using the oil industry's term for drilling news kept under wraps. "For now we're not even letting the investors know. They tend to talk."

Much remains to be done before anyone knows the full extent of the strike. There's probably at least a year's worth of development work, more leases to acquire, more horizontal wells to be drilled in other directions through the pay zone - a second horizontal well is slated for October. But all signs indicate that Herndon has struck oil in significant quantities where none was thought to be.

In the world of small oil, his find was truly a company maker. But if Mark Herndon's saga is part of a larger effort to increase domestic oil production, he sees it in its proper context.

"At current national rates of oil consumption," he told me, "the amount of oil we've found should last about an hour and a half."  To top of page

What do you think of the Stillwater Project? Talk back here.

Photo gallery: Herndon's oil quest

How they did it: Drilling a horizontal well

Rigged for success: Rising oil prices lift some companies higher and faster than others.
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