No oil boom here

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Even with the high cost of oil products in this country, local oil workers say this area shouldn’t expect a return to anything resembling an oil production boom in the foreseeable future.

Although area oil workers are making more money than they have for a while, Marion County has two strikes against it when it comes to a prosperous future in the oil business, they said.

First, local oil fields are old and “matured” in what they can supply, and it isn’t likely that any new discoveries or techniques will come along to boost production, the workers said.

Second, the “rough necks”-experienced oil-field workers-who used to be available for companies to expand employment aren’t around anymore.

Many of them who got laid off during the 1980s when prices fell-what industry spokesmen call “the oil crash”-are retired men in their 60s and 70s now, or they are deceased.

Jim Cloutier, manager and owner in Shawmar Oil & Gas Co. at Marion, said, “There aren’t enough experienced hands to train new people if you can get new people.

“There are issues in knowing how to handle the equipment, and there are safety issues when people don’t have the know-how,” he added. “You saw it last week in southeast Kansas when they hit a gas pocket that blew up.”

Roger Schulz, who runs Schulz Welding Service Inc. at Canton, has his own oil wells, and provides services for other companies in the field.

He said “the old-time guys” who used to take in new workers in apprentice-like situations to learn the work “are just gone.”

Where once he used to run with 25 men, he now runs with 12, and he “can’t get help for more than that.”

Schulz said it’s also hard to attract new workers in the trade.

“They worked very long, hard hours outside, so it was often cold or hot,” he said. “It usually was hard, dirty work-not very good working conditions. They might not know when they could go home because they couldn’t until the work was done.

“These days, most people want to work regular hours for a good paycheck under good conditions-we don’t have any of the above,” he said.

Most of the oil fields in the region are “pretty well played out,” Schulz said.

Some of the local oil fields were first opened in the 1920s, he said.

There aren’t as many oil rigs as there used to be. Schulz said he still keeps enough shallow-well equipment “and a couple of guys who can drill for shallow stuff” to put in one or two new wells a year.

Cloutier, who said he has been in this area for 40 years, doesn’t see much possibility of any new oil to be found.

Some of his efforts also are concentrated on new gas wells, many in neighboring Chase County, but with no change in routine drilling for gas either.

Sometimes what appears like drilling activity to the untrained observer, Cloutier said, may actually be work to attach an existing gas well to a line.

Such was the case in the last month on Kanza Road between Hillsboro and Marion, he said.

Cloutier recalled that 10 years ago the price for Kansas oil was down around $10 a barrel. Then, in the last couple of years, the price began to rise, putting many companies back into a positive cash flow after years of dealing with deficits, cutbacks and other adjustments.

Cloutier’s statistics showed that last year oil averaged around $37 a barrel; so far this year, the average is $46. Gas is staying reliably around $4 to $5 a cubic foot with the supply going into the general home and industrial pipelines that serve everyone, Cloutier said.

Prices tend to be higher in the summer because of air conditioning. More electrical generation companies buy natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal, he said.

Schulz said in many cases, the higher oil and gas prices really only mean that a producer has a higher likelihood of getting his investment back.

He said inputs for the producers are high, with “steel really horribly up-it’s three times higher than it was two years ago.”

Ironically, these oil and gas producers also are faced with the same cost increases that everybody shares when it comes to energy-it costs them more for fuel to drill for their product and to transport it.

Schulz said he sees a few new oil and gas wells going into this area, mostly around Hillsboro and Lehigh. But more are going into the west, where the fields are bigger, he said.

For example, he is aware of drilling in Rice County, near Windom.

Schulz said a typical investment for a gas well or an oil well in Marion County is around $160,000.

“The casing alone costs about $5 a foot,” he said.

The average depth for a gas well in Marion County is about 3,000 feet, he added.

The oil is deeper further west. Around Windom, wells are drilled to around 3,600 feet, he said. This means that the price of a Rice County well typically could exceed $200,000.

Schulz said that in some ways oil wells are easier to maintain these days. All that is required is a storage tank and a road for a truck to get to it.

Most gas producers try to get near a pipeline, if they can, for a good way to haul their product away, he said.

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