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A south Texas nail-biter

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Corpus Christi, Texas, May 1966. I’ve just finished a cup of coffee when I get a buzz from Orville Nolan, the Exxon regional exploration manager.

“Come to my office, Richard.”

Mr. Nolan is waiting for me in his outer office. “Richard, come in and sit down. We have a problem on a wildcat we’re drilling just out of Cotulla.”

Well, I know Cotulla. It’s an old cattle roundup town where the herds met to start cattle drives, about 100 miles northwest of Corpus Christi.

“Richard, from your work in Libya, you are the most experienced geologist in the office when it comes to looking at samples. Let me get right to the point: We have a mud-logger on the well, and he can’t find his [backside] with both hands. He doesn’t have a clue as to what we are drilling in. I want you to head up to Cotulla and run samples. See if you can come up with where we are. And get moving. That big rig is costing us an arm and a leg.”

“Yes, sir. I’m on my way.”

An hour later Vertis and I are roaring across south Texas at about 110 mph in a company car on a farm-to-market road that’s straight as an arrow. We make it to Cotulla in an hour, where I drop Vertis off at the Green Lantern Motel.

The drill pipe is in the hole and the kelly—a long square or hexagonal steel bar with a hole drilled through the middle for a fluid path—is rotating as I walk into the mud-log trailer to check samples.

“Hi, I’m Richard; Corpus office sent me over to run samples.”

“My God, am I glad to see you. I ain’t never seen nothin’ like these samples.”

I focus the microscope and peer down at the ground-up rocks. What am I looking at? The samples don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen on a drilling rig. It’s been about an hour when it dawns on me: I’m looking at igneous rocks!

I have figured it out. The rig is drilling below 10,000 feet heading for TD (the depth of the bottom of the well) at 15,000—that’s basement, the rock layer below which economic hydrocarbon reservoirs are not expected to be found—and I decide that they drilled out of sedimentary rocks at 8,759 feet and into an igneous plug. The drilling should stop immediately. Oil is never found in igneous rocks.

However, I know what I’m about to tell the exploration manager is going to upset him and shock some of the geologists and geophysicists who proposed this test. Basement is supposed to be at 15,000 feet, and my recommendation and sample interpretation is going to be challenged by the senior exploration geologist and the area geophysicist.

They have more than 50 years of exploration experience between them, and I have been an exploration geologist for only a year. I’m more than a little nervous when Mr. Nolan’s secretary puts him on the line.

“Orville, the McCrery No. 1 is drilling at 10,100 feet—in igneous rocks, and has been since 8,759 feet.”

I hold my breath and pull the phone away from my ear as Mr. Nolan yells, “What? Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir. The samples are full of quartz, feldspar, and basalt.”

It takes me 15 minutes to go over everything, and Mr. Nolan tells me to hold while he gets the senior geologist and geophysicist to talk with me. I know my interpretation could be wrong, because geology is not an exact science.

As I think back on my Igneous Petrology course at the University of Arkansas, I can almost hear my professor, Dr. Jackson, slowly drone off the mineral composition of a granite porphyry. Yeah, that’s what we’re drilling in. But there’s a possibility that my examination of the fragments of rock I’m calling igneous rock is just flat wrong.

I’ve been on the phone an hour, and the senior geologist and regional geophysicist have challenged and quizzed me repeatedly about my sample interpretation.

“You’re dead wrong, Richard! Basement is below 15,000 feet, and the seismic control is excellent,” says Don Harkins, the senior geophysicist.

“Don, my call is that we’re drilling in a granite porphyry.” I could barely get those words out.

“A what?”

I can hear Don mumbling about a junior geologist not knowing the area.

“Give me the phone, Don.” Mr. Nolan is back on the phone.

“Richard, I’m sending a courier to pick up the samples and drive them to the Exxon Research Center in Houston.”

The top geologists in the country work there. Sweat has popped out on my forehead.

“Yes, sir, I’ll have the samples ready,” I manage to choke out.

“Richard, we’re talking big money here, so we want to be sure you’re right. Pull the drill string up into surface casing and wait on orders.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Stay in Cotulla until we get the report back from Houston. Goodbye.”

Vertis is looking at me, knowing I have been defending my call on the well for the past hour. She can tell I’m worried. That’s an understatement.

I have just returned from the rig after loading the samples in the back of the courier’s car and getting them to pull up into the surface casing. Vertis is reading an old magazine when I walk into the motel room.

“Hey, why don’t we have a steak at the Green Lantern Cafe tonight? “

“Like we have a choice?” quips Vertis.

It’s 6:30 p.m. when we walk into the cafe, but before the waitress stops by our table, a very attractive lady comes by. She smiles and says, “We have a private club in the back. Would you care to have dinner there?”

We nod, smile, and follow her to the back. When she opens the door to the back room, my mouth drops open. It is a lavishly decorated, dimly lit room with a gorgeous layout and soft classical music playing. The idea that such a place could exist in the old cowtown of Cotulla is hard to believe.

After a wonderful dinner I ask the hostess a few questions. “There is a successful rancher—a very good friend of mine—who helped me put this place together.” She didn’t need to say another word.

It’s the next morning when the phone rings. My hand is shaking so badly I can hardly hold the phone. It’s Orville Nolan.

“Richard, you’re right. Your sample descriptions match the Research Center’s. Hell, they even called the rocks a granite porphyry. Call the logging company, run logs, and bring them with you. There are some red faces on the sixth floor.”

Six hours later we’re heading for Corpus with a strange-looking set of logs that prove I was right. Who would have ever thought that a non-oil related course in igneous petrology I took at the University of Arkansas would save Exxon a ton of money?

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email richard@ gibraltarenergy.com.

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