Purchase photos

Roberts tours oil extraction site

4/13/2012

By AMY BICKEL

Special to The Hays Daily News

MEDICINE LODGE -- Sen. Pat Roberts wanted to see for himself what all the talk was about regarding southern Kansas' oil strike.

Therefore, on a rainy Thursday, the Republican congressman traveled from Capitol Hill to the Gyp Hills of Barber County to have a look at the gold mine of sorts buried 5,000 feet deep.

"For someone who has been a hardscrabble farmer for all his life, this is a big life change," Roberts said of the potential, through both leasing and mineral rights, for southern Kansas farmers as a crew prepared a well site for hydraulic fracturing nearby.

"This is going to be big ... for Kansas in terms of revenue coming into the state," he said.

It's here, after all, in what some call God's country -- where the rolling bluffs of prairie grass meet the sky -- that an influx of roughnecks is poking holes in an effort to find oil in the state's Mississippian Lime, an oil-rich reservoir that stretches across 84 percent of Kansas.

And, for the state, the economic potential is far-reaching as new business emerges, along with hope for landowners and jobs for those willing to work hard.

No one knows just how big an impact it could have on Kansas, said Bob Murdock, president of Hutchinson-based Osage Resources.

The company owns the well Roberts toured Thursday morning. Murdock said the economic boost and population increase could be large if the rock formation is as abundant as many suspect -- especially in border counties such as Harper and Barber.

He said 100,000 jobs -- a number projected by officials with SandRidge Energy, one of several national companies tapping into the play -- isn't unrealistic.

At the heart of the oil resurgence is the combined use of horizontal drilling and a practice called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," whereby water and sand are pumped down at a high pressure to force out oil and gas from unconventional places, Murdock said.

Murdock, an independent producer who formed the Hutchinson company in 2005, has been working to develop the area for nearly six years. He has leased more than 20,000 acres and plans to drill 100 to 200 wells in the next five to seven years.

Meanwhile, in the past several months, big players such as Chesapeake and Shell, along with SandRidge, also have taken notice of the Mississippian Lime play, bringing with them a team of workers.

Oil production, however, isn't new to these parts, Murdock said. It has been going on for more than 70 years.

Horizontal drilling and fracturing aren't new, either, said Ben Crouch, executive vice president at Osage. The technology has been around since the 1940s, with more than 1 million wells subjected to hydraulic fracturing in the United States.

The two technologies together, along with strong prices that top $100 a barrel, are helping spur the current oil recovery.

Horizontal drilling brings a drill bit into oil-bearing rock aapproximately 5,000 feet straight down, Crouch said. It then stays horizontal for another 5,000 feet.

"All the activity is 5,000 feet underground and 5,000 feet out," he said.

Thus, most wouldn't notice the activity unless they are near the well site, which is off the beaten path in the middle of a pasture, between Aetna and Deerhead. On this day, a crew with Consolidated Oil Well Services prepared to hydraulic-fracture Osage's well.

Roberts asked Crouch whether hydraulic fracturing had any environmental impacts. Some say such practices can harm the environment, including groundwater, and a government study released this week suggested a wave of earthquakes in the Midwest could be due to wastewater from oil and gas drilling injected in the ground.

"For our company, it's important to us, in general, to be good stewards of the land," Crouch said, adding he thought fracturing was getting media attention from some who wanted "face time for other issues."

Others also stressed the technology was safe.

"I don't think we can live on this planet without having some impact," said Steve Stanford, president of Consolidated. However, companies must be environmentally friendly, as well.