A couple miles west of Hays at a new oil well drilling location in the Smoky Hills, Shawn Epp with Southwind Drilling Inc. on Wednesday was setting up a geolograph.


A mechanical device with a counter that rolls over, the geolograph, once it’s up and running, will tell the rig hands how far vertical into the earth the rig’s rotary drill has penetrated.


Four days prior, Matt Schreck, owner of Cyclone Dirt Works, Hays, started building the location. Schreck leveled the ground out for the rig to set on, then dug pits Southwind needs to drill the well.


Building a drilling pad typically takes a day and a half, Schreck said Wednesday, but this time it took longer in the grassy pasture in the rolling hills about a mile off Old US-40 highway.


“It’s unusual, because of the rock,” Schreck said of all the limestone he had to dig. “Just breaking the rock out, usually we’re digging in dirt, as opposed to solid rock. You get in these hills and it’s pretty tough.”


The well is among the first drilled in Ellis County since the local oil industry retreated a few months ago. COVID-19 stopped travel, sending oil prices to historic lows, even negative.


Ellis County oil producer Tom Denning said Wednesday, however, that the time was right to drill now.


“It’s pretty slow in the oil patch, but some of the drilling contractors are offering price incentives to keep busy and keep their employees, so I thought it would be a good time to drill,” said Denning, owner of oil and gas producer TDI Inc. of Hays, which is drilling the well.


“Prices have creeped up,” he said. Checking the market Wednesday, where a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude is the benchmark, Denning said “just a little bit ago, on the spot market, oil was $36, so that means Kansas was about $26. And then most oil operators get a bonus on top of that, which is $4 to $5, so around $30.”


That’s better than what it was, he added.


“We’re not making money,” he said. “But we’re probably able to make expenses.”


The well west of town is the second that TDI has drilled in as many weeks, the other one being eight miles south of Hays, off U.S.-183 highway. That one, drilled to 3,750 feet, was a dry hole.


The second will probably be about 3,950 feet, said Denning, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service about 10 years ago and went from part-time oil operator to full-time with creation of TDI.


“You always hope for that well that you’re gonna make 50 or 100 barrels a day on. Those are considered very, very nice wells,” he said. “At today’s oil prices, you really probably wouldn’t want anything that would have an initial production under 15 barrel a day. But you take what you get.”


Earlier Wednesday, Southwind of Ellinwood trucked its rig from the previous location 15 miles away, with Hertel Tank Service Inc. of Hays hauling drilling mud.


“We go to the old location where the rig’s sitting. We tear it down,” said Southwind tool pusher Frank Rome, who coordinates rig up and drilling. “It takes about two hours and we bring it over here. Takes about three, three-and-a-half hours to set it up, on a good day.”


To cut through limestone, Rome brought a 12-1/4-inch button bit to the rig. The toothy head of iron sat in the bed of Rome’s pickup truck Wednesday, as two crews of four hands set up the rig.


The rig is pretty typical for Kansas, said Rome, with a variety of components, among them a mud pump, drawworks, doghouse, steps, fuel tank, water tank, premix and baskets. Halfway up the derrick, a crew hand was unbridling the blocks.


”They’re connected to the bridle line and that allows us to raise and lower the derrick,” Rome said. “After we get the derrick in the air, he has to unhook from the bridle line so we can travel the blocks up and down through the derrick.”


When will they start drilling?


“Hopefully by 5 or 6 o’clock this afternoon,” he said.


From then on, crews of four will work eight-hour shifts around the clock.


First the crew sets surface pipe, Denning explained, in this case, a short string about 200 feet.


“We cement it on the backside of the pipe, between the pipe and the hole that we drilled,” he said. “We drill a 12-1/2- or 3/8-inch hole and put 8-5/8-inch casing in it. And the distance between, we pump that full of cement, and that protects all our fresh water, so we don’t contaminate fresh water. After that we’ll go in with a 7-7/8-inch bit and then we drill with that.”


A piece of drill pipe is 31- to 32-feet long.


“You drill down that deep and you gotta put another one on, make a connection, and put another pipe on,” he said. “It keeps the hands busy because every half hour they’re out there making connections.”


Drilling commences through various rock, soil and shale layers of the earth. Denning thought they’d hit the Topeka zone around noon on Saturday, then the Toronto, and later the Kansas City, in between stopping to condition the hole and running drill stem test. The Kansas City and Arbuckle are the two zones in Ellis County with the potential for producing oil, he said.


When will they know if they’ve struck oil?


“We’ll just start getting in the nitty gritty on Saturday,” Denning said, “so probably two to three days after that.”