As a geologist, I often visit drilling wells. When I do, more likely than not, the mineral owner will regale me with a familiar story that usually sounds something like this:
"An oil company drilled a well on the south forty back in ‘52," the farmer might say, pointing at the rolling hill near his fence line. "They struck oil and lots of gas but plugged the well anyway."
"Why did they do that?" I always ask, even though I already know the answer.
"Probably because the crooked operator oversold the well. He didn’t have enough interest to go around so instead of going to jail he plugged it as a dry hole so no one would ever know."
I’ve heard the story many times, a rural legend told and retold by disappointed mineral owners dreaming of vast oil wealth but faced with the reality of only endless barrels of saltwater underlying their property. Years ago in a Kansas wheat field, I helped propagate the legend.
As a young exploration geologist with Cities Service Oil Company, I was sitting a well near Dighton in Lane County, Kansas. The wildcat well was running "low" with little hope of finding oil or gas. It was a gorgeous summer day, the clear Kansas sky robin egg blue. The old "double" rotary rig had just made a connection when I heard a horrible screech. A hundred feet from the rig, I turned to see what was happening.
As I watched, the pipe dropped thirty feet in less than thirty seconds. Knowing what had just occurred, I headed for the rig floor, yelling as I ran.
"Pull up! Pull up!" I screamed, out of breath after climbing the steep stairs to the doghouse.
The driller had already anticipated my orders, pulling up on the drill bit and circulating the bit in the hole.
There are no caverns at 4000 feet but we had just drilled into a thick zone so porous that the bit had virtually dropped thirty feet in thirty seconds. There is no empty porosity at that depth and I knew we had encountered a previously unknown reservoir hopefully filled with oil. I drove to the nearest phone and called for a drillstem test to find out.
A drillstem test is an open hole test to determine what kind of fluid or gas is trapped within a particular zone. It measures quantities and pressures and is a good indication of a well’s potential productivity. It is simply a tool attached to the drill pipe. It has a packer at the top of the tool that isolates the zone of interest. When the tool is rotated, it releases the hydrostatic pressure and whatever fluid or gas is in the zone rushes into the drill pipe. I liken the procedure to putting your finger on the top hole of a straw and lowering it into a glass of water. When you remove your finger, water enters the straw.
It was a clear Sunday morning as the tester prepared to open the tool. Word had spread of the potential oil discovery and many cars filled with interested Kansans faced the drilling rig. When we opened the tool, they got what they came for.
The tester had rigged a pipe that pointed out to the mud pit. If anything came out of the zone, it would flow up the pipe for all to see. I was standing on the rig floor and could hear the rumble from below as the tool was opened. Within seconds I smelled the pungent odor of crude oil. Then I heard the scream of natural gas as it exited with great velocity from the pipe. The gas subsided, followed quickly by thick black fluid shooting from the pipe into the mud pit. Oil, I thought, my heart racing. The well was flowing at a rate of at least a thousand barrels a day. We had a major discovery on our hands, possibly the biggest in a decade. My elation lasted only a moment.
The tester caught some of the fluid in a bucket. He frowned after tasting the liquid from a sample on the tip of his finger. "Saltwater," he said. "Nothing but saltwater."
Not wanting to believe him, I plunged my hand into the bucket and licked the black fluid from my palm. He was correct. The contents of the bucket held nothing but black stagnate saltwater that reeked of oil. The mineral owner was on location and asked, "Am I rich?"
"No, it’s only saltwater," I said.
He didn’t believe me. Neither did the excited Kansans exiting the location in a trail of dust to tell their friends and family of the new oil discovery they had just witnessed. We plugged the well several days later and I’m sure the mineral owner and everyone else that saw the incident thought that Cities Service Oil Company had plugged a monster oil well on purpose for some nefarious reason.
Today when I see a mineral owner approach, I just listen to their story and nod my head. I’ve heard it all before and, yes, I guess I’m part of that rural legend that somehow never seems to go away.