ABILENE, TEXAS February 2006
The Texan sky was filled with a huge late afternoon light. The land was arid with cactus and brown grass, and a wind so strong that the dust it whipped up stung your face.
Phil Kendrick, a big man in a dark red-checked shirt, bent down and dipped his index finger into a pool of ink-black liquid. ‘See that,’ he said, ‘that’s a sweet smell. That’s oil. I tell you this is going to be a good, good well.’
‘So that makes you an oil baron?’ I ask.
‘No. No. I’m not an oil baron. I’m an independent stripper well operator. I’m as low on the totem pole as you get.’ He looked towards the small, creaking pumps which dotted the landscape. ‘But there’s a lot of us. Put us all together and we make a big contribution to what this country needs.’
Phil is 79 and carries the glint of a gambler looking for the next big win. On the wall of his living room is a long black and white photograph taken in 1918 of the first well his father dug.
‘He worked for the Revenue at the time,’ Phil chuckled. ‘During the week he collected taxes and at weekends he went looking for oil.’
‘America was worried about oil then. We’d only found it in Pennsylvania. Henry Ford said to John Rockefeller, I’ll keep building those cars as long as you keep looking for the oil.’
Suddenly, old-style adventurers like Phil Kendrick have become fashionable.
Oil companies have admitted that the easy-to-pump oil is running out. They’re having to head for more inaccessible supplies. Sixty per cent of America’s oil is imported costing twelve billion dollars a month. And the country’s become aware that much of it comes from Islamic countries where many people aren’t exactly pro-American right now.
As for all the talk of alternatives and new technology – well that hasn’t happened yet.
So in his State of Nation address. President Bush, who incidentally used to be an independent Texan oil operator himself, spelt it out. ‘America is addicted to oil,’ he said. ‘which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.’
He wants to end it.
‘Hogwash,’ said Robert Bryce, Managing Editor of the magazine Energy Tribune, sitting in a deep leather chair in the Petroleum Club in Houston, which they call the oil capital of the world. ‘All the talk from Washington about independent energy is just politics. It’s not based on reality.
‘There are 250 million cars in America. Converting those to fuel efficient vehicles will take decades and cost billions. Meanwhile, people still have to drive to work.’
A few miles away, another 79-year-old oil man, Gene Van Dyke, poured over a map of Africa, where his company, Vanco Energy, owns deep water exploration leases. He’s looking for a huge discovery – which he calls finding the Big Elephant.
‘There’s plenty of oil around. It’s just more difficult to get to,’ he said.
‘What do you hope for?’ I asked.
He turned over a sheet of paper and jotted down figures on the back. ‘Best case is twelve billion barrels. Worst case, I reckon, is 1.2 billion. Even that at fifty dollars a barrel, will bring in more than fifty billion dollars.’
But 1.2 billion barrels would keep America running for just over two months.
‘So that wouldn’t help the oil shortage much,’ I ventured.
‘May-be not,’ he said slowly, until his eyes lit up. ‘But it’ll certainly make a lot of money for Vanco Energy.’
The majors – that’s Shell, Exxon, BP and others – don’t do much Wild Cat exploration, as it’s known, like Gene Van Dyke and Phil Kendrick. It’s too risky and expensive. Gene and Phil try to be first, then when they strike oil, they sell the rights on the bigger companies.
Thirty or so years ago, the majors pulled out of America because all the easy oil and gas had been found. A few months ago, one of them, Shell, moved back into north west Texas. ‘They’re like sheep,’ says Gene. ‘If one comes back, they’ll all come back.’
I went with Phil Kendrick to look at an exploration rig. It was dirty, noisy, dangerous, nothing much changed since his father was drilling almost a century ago.
‘You can’t hire a rig in Texas now,’ said Phil. ‘They’re too much in demand. Everybody wants a slice of the action.’
‘What do you think,’ I yelled above the noise. ‘About all this talk in Washington on…’
The wind took my last words, but Phil guessed what I was talking about. ‘1950,’ he shouted. ‘That’s when I first went to Washington, telling them they’d better look for more oil and gas here, because those places overseas could be unstable.’
‘Did they listen?’
‘No. They didn’t.’ He roared with laughter. ‘But they’re listening now.’