Working and Living in Alabama’s Biggest Oil Patch

Conecuh County lies about half way between Montgomery and Mobile on I-65. Hop off the interstate at Evergreen, the county seat, and you’ll be right at the factory where 150 workers make Conecuh Sausage. Meander through the town and you’ll come across the county’s other large employer, Knud Nielsen Co., where 350 workers make dried flower arrangements for shipment around the world.

Smoked pork and wildflowers, plus pine logs snaked out of the woods on skidders: Conecuh County, former cotton country, is still mostly country. And its newest enterprise is tied to the land too, hidden far off the interstate, back in the woods.

Fourteen miles south and east of Evergreen, near the Sepulga River, bordering Covington County lie the most productive oil fields in Alabama — the Little Cedar Creek and Brooklyn fields.

“Little Cedar Creek has over 100 wells, ” says David Bolin, deputy director of the Alabama Oil and Gas Board, and production for each well “ranges from 200 to 400 barrels a day. A newer field, just south of the Little Cedar Creek, is the Brooklyn Field. It is the same type of play. There are around 20 wells there.” He says the two fields now account for “right at 50 percent” of Alabama’s annual 7.4 million barrels of oil.

Oil prospecting in Conecuh County goes back to the early ’80s, but the prospectors were mostly looking in the wrong places.

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“Nobody ever dreamed that the southeast part of Conecuh County had any oil and gas, ” says Rogene Booker, who has been probate judge of Conecuh County since 1989. “The thinking was that if there was any oil, it’d come up here out of the Jay Field in Florida. All this changed in the mid-’90s, and later in the ’90s it just took off wide open. Their first well was down in Johnsonville, off of Highway 29.”

That discovery well was drilled in 1994 by Hunt Oil Co., legacy of the famous Dallas oil brothers H.L. and Lamar Hunt.

But even the legendary Hunt boys didn’t know what they had when they punched a hole that pulled 108 barrels of oil and 49, 000 cubic feet of gas a day. It seemed relatively small potatoes to Hunt Oil, based on the assumption that, like most oil deposits, this was an isolated pool trapped by a geologic structure — such as a fault leaking up to a cap of hard rock.

Given the trouble it takes to find such a hole, this was not a big enough gulp for Hunt Oil. So they walked it around the streets of Dallas and finally sold the prospect to another, smaller company, one of the independents. That was Midroc Operating Co., owned by Donald Clark and Jimmy Harris, a football legend at the University of Oklahoma who became a standout geologist.

“I got a geology degree. Back in the old days, you had to get degrees because going to the pros sure weren’t going to make you any money, ” Harris told ESPN in a 2003 interview. He was quarterback of the Sooners from 1954 to 1956, under coach Bud Wilkinson, racking up a spotless record, 31-0. “I would have liked to have that kind of record in the oil field drilling wells.”

Martha Dornish researches mineral titles in the Conecuh County Probate Court. An increasing number of women fill the job traditionally called “petroleum landman, ” independent agents helping exploration companies assemble units of land where a well can be drilled.

It was Harris who took a closer look at the lay of the land down below eastern Conecuh County, and it was here he just about matched his gridiron record.

“The success rate is extraordinary, much higher than typical. One out of two wells are successful ordinarily, but these are 90 percent or more successful, ” says Bolin.

What Harris discovered for Midroc was that the geology surrounding Hunt’s discovery well was not the usual kind of structural trap that oil companies had been focused on in the region. The nature of the deep rocks yielding the oil was, instead, stratigraphic — extending throughout a whole bed, or strata, of rock formation, making the prospects much more widespread.

“The play in the Little Cedar Creek Field and the Brooklyn Field is generally an extension, to the updip limit, of the Smackover formation that you have in the Escambia County area, ” says Bolin.

Lying around 15, 000 feet deep, the Smackover is what made the Jay Field — mostly in Escambia County, Fla. and a little in Escambia County, Ala. to the north — a bonanza of an oil field when it was first tapped in the ’70s.  The Smackover and adjacent Norphlet formations also are the production zones of the offshore gas wells in Alabama waters.

Little Cedar Creek Field extends across 22, 000 acres, with more than 100 producing wells, spaced by the Oil and Gas Board at one well to every 160-acre block. An adjacent field to the south and west — considered separate because of a little bit different theory of its production source — is the Brooklyn Field, extending over 4, 500 acres, with 26 producing wells. Taken together the two fields have produced more than 17 million barrels of oil and, beginning in 2005, have reversed what had been a steady decline in Alabama’s annual production of oil.

“Our Alabama wells have become a significant asset for us, ” says David Barlow, president of Shreveport-based Sklar Exploration, the second big player in the Little Cedar Creek/Brooklyn fields. “We are active in a number states— Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas — but the activity in Alabama has become quite significant for us.” 

Sklar expanded the east Conecuh County play in 2007 with the discovery well of what has become the Brooklyn Field. The company has 42 producing wells in the area, comprising 95 percent of the company’s production.

Shreveport is an oil and gas town like Jackson and Natchez, Miss., or New Orleans and Lafayette, La. Alabama doesn’t have an equivalent. Shreveport’s oil history goes back to 1906 and the development of three big fields that stepped off north of the East Texas Field, the granddaddy of U.S. oil fields. H. L. Hunt’s fortune began as a landman in the East Texas play.

Landmen (and women) are middlemen between the exploration companies and the landowners. They assemble oil and gas leases as agents of the drilling companies or — like H.L. — free agents angling for a position.

After researching an area for geological prospects, an oil and gas exploration company next sends petroleum landmen to the courthouse to research who owns the mineral rights. The title search goes back to Spanish land grants, and handwritten records reflect the antiquity. Probate Judge Rogene Booker (above) has been presiding over the record room in Conecuh County since 1989.

The new courthouse that Conecuh County built in 2006 largely with oil and gas severance revenue is weekly populated with landmen researching the title to mineral rights.

“On some days, my record room is full of people, ” says Cathy Garner, chief clerk of probate court. “It goes in waves. Some days it’s packed, like little ants going at it.”

Midroc’s Donald Clark headed up that company’s landman/leasing side of the business in Conecuh County, until the death of his geologist partner, Harris. Largely retiring from operations, in 2011 Midroc turned over field management of its Alabama production to Jackson, Miss.-based Pruet Production Co., which owns a nominal 1 percent of the production and runs things for the Texas owners, which have 70 wells in Little Cedar Creek. Midroc began a secondary recovery program in the field in 2007 as wellhead pressure dropped, injecting gas to top up yields.

“Some wells are pretty straightforward as to what we’re supposed to do. Others are problematic, and we struggle to keep them flowing, ” says Skip Schexnayder, production superintendent for Sklar. “Here in Alabama, we have a natural flow on some and artificial lifts on others.”

Schexnayder, out of Lafayette, La., oversees six “pumpers” who maintain Sklar’s 42 Conecuh County wells. “The pumpers are the guys who go out daily and check all the wells, record the data and calculate production volumes and try to maximize production and maintain a safe operation, ” he explains.

Far from the wild waste days of East Texas gushers, today’s oil field is a carefully measured operation that walks the bottom line.

“Our biggest challenge is trying to take care of business the way we need to without spending a bunch to make it happen, ” says Schexnayder. “The biggest expense we have is equipment maintenance, pumps and electric motors. We run a lot of PLC (programmable logic controllers), and the biggest risk involves damage from electrical storms.”

The pumpers who tend the wells live within 50 miles of the wells, and all have oil field experience, says Schexnayder. Two of them were former offshore workers, refugees of the BP spill, glad they’re now working a well at the end of a dirt service trail into the pine woods.

Both the “Christmas tree” pipes that stick up at the well sites and the pumpers who tend them are mostly out of sight, even to the landowners.

“They normally don’t even talk with us, unless the well has fallen off considerable, ” says Eddie Ralls, whose family trust owns 1, 000 acres in the two oil fields, in which four family members have a share in seven producing wells.

Ralls runs a road building company named after his father who started the business, Grady Ralls and Sons, in 1958. “We live in the country, 14 miles from the courthouse, ” he says “Two sisters and a brother. We live in the oil patch.”

Handwritten records in Conecuh County

Ralls says the family trust is getting “almost 18 percent” royalties on most of the mineral leases on their land “and one lease is getting 25 percent.” That compares to royalties of 12.5 percent that were commonly offered in Conecuh County in the early ’80s. 

“In this area, there are some very sophisticated landowners, ” when it comes to leasing mineral rights, says Sklar’s Barlow, an attorney by training, like a lot of oil company executives, coming out of the landman side of the business. “Some of them are timber companies that know a great deal about oil and gas exploration and even have technical people on their staff.”

The Ralls family doesn’t have any geologists or attorneys on staff, but they’ve done well enough just keeping their ear out. “It’s just word of mouth, ” says Ralls. “We talk to different ones, other people the landmen are talking to.”

Ralls’ road business these days takes him up to Wetumpka in Elmore County, repaving Highway 14 northeast of Montgomery. But his office and shop are on the same land where four generations have lived.

“My grandfather, Ed Ralls, came here, had a grist mill on Bottle Creek. He ground meal, shelled peanuts, planted row crops, ” says Ralls.

“We get a check every month, ” for the trust’s share in seven wells, he says. “It’s made a difference. We’ve certainly been blessed.”

But not such a difference, he says, to have changed their lifestyle.

He laughs a little at the word “lifestyle.”

“No, our lifestyle hasn’t changed any. We’ve always worked hard. Every day at work at 5 o’clock and don’t get in till 7 o’clock.” 

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

Chris McFadyen

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