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 he’s 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.
There’s supposed to be water in a drilling pit, but it’s dry. There’s supposed to be a drilling rig, but it’s still on the road. Besides Howell’s Toyota Forerunner, the only vehicle on site is a trash trailer.
The 57-year-old Howell’s 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), they’ve 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. He’ll test the famous shale, which is shallow here, but his real prospect lies above it in the San Miguel Sandstone. The majors wouldn’t 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?
It’s 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. He’s 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, Howell’s voice brims with optimism, like something deep welling to the surface.
“It’s your art. It’s 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 they’re not moving, they bum cigarettes or check their phones.
Nestor Lerma Jr., the derrick man, calls his pregnant wife. She’s 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 doesn’t 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 isn’t a shot in the dark. A nearby ranch has had continuous production for decades. Frio County’s 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 earth’s layers.
At $50,000 to $100,000 per square mile, Howell can’t 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 it’s an old-school method. But it’s found some of the world’s great fields.
“If it’s coming out of the ground now, it must mean it came from somewhere,” Potter says.
What Howell can’t tell is whether the oil comes from 2,500 feet or 10,000 feet, or if it’s 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.
Lerma’s 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. “It’s like having five newborns.”
As if summoned by the comment, a daytime rig hand pokes his head in the door. “Don’t get mad, man. The casing hole was loose.”
“It wasn’t loose,” Graham said. “Nothing’s wrong with it. It’s fine.” He shoos the man away. A “Hurt Feelings Report” hangs on the wall.
His wife has checked in to make sure he’s really at the rig. The boss has called to ask why they aren’t 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. We’ve 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 doesn’t know if he can do it forever.
“This stuff is tiring,” he says. “I’m 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, they’ll 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.”
Howell’s investors are not banks or Wall Street guys in suits. They’re 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. It’s 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.
In 1930, Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner stumbled into the East Texas Field in Rusk County and one of the world’s 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,” UT’s 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 they’re 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.
Howell’s 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.
“It’s 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, history’s biggest kicks match today’s biggest pay zones.
Library manager Mary Jane Zorola started working in 1988 at the city’s other geology library, the Post Cambrian.
“We used to go through three pots of coffee before noon,” she said. “In ‘90, it slumped. I’ve never seen so many geologists become car salesmen. It goes up. It comes down.” Zorola’s hands make the roller coaster gesture. “I think this is the biggest boom I’ve ever seen.”
Back at Howell’s 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 they’re smack in the Austin Chalk.
Background gas is kicking. The Eagle Ford is next.
“You’re getting closer to something,” Howell says.
“Hopefully, yes,” Hunter says.
An investor calls.
“We’ve had no significant shows,” Howell tells him. Drilling is erratic. “My opinion is that we’ve seen nothing economic at this point. I hate to say it, but maybe we’re drilling an Eagle Ford well.”
They don’t want an Eagle Ford well. But the San Miguel pinched out — geology speak for “isn’t there.” The Eagle Ford is 60 feet thick and profitable only if there’s 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, I’m nervous and so are you.”
The investor, who has a geology background, tells him clean dry holes aren’t 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 we’re 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.
Howell moves between the wireline truck and the mud logger’s 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. “We’re all in it together. It’s like a family,” Hunter said. “This is like it used to be.”
Outside, the company man, Jim McCracken watches rig maintenance and Howell’s movements. Now that drilling is complete, he’s Howell’s man, in charge of the site.
McCracken lost everything in the ’80s — he and his brother’s 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.
“It’s like riding a bicycle,” he says.
Howell tells McCracken he thinks it’s over. “I’m looking for a miracle because I’m here in a hole with evaluation tools.”
McCracken asks if he’s sure. “It doesn’t take much oil to pay off.”
Howell goes to the mudlogger one last time to check the serpentine. “Steven, it doesn’t look encouraging.”
“That’s what I’m 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. They’ve drilled and measured the well. Now Howell is paying for the rig by the hour.
It’s 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. “We’re burning up time. It’s costing me money.”
Howell calls his partner in the well.
“Let’s go ahead and move on to the next deal,” the man says over speakerphone. “You know me. I’m always ready to move forward.”
“You’re 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 can’t wait to see me.” In two weekends she’ll deliver a new daughter.
Howell calls an investor. “How are you doing?” he asks.
“Waiting on you to call. How’s it look?”
“It looks like we’re going to plug it.”
There’s 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 wasn’t 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.