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REVIEW - A Local Environmentalist/Oilman’s Energy Update from the Midwest - By Thomas E. Cochrane, Geologist

As you might imagine, an oilman morphing into an environmentalist after many years in that arena produced some clashes with others in the field – after all, I spent 25 years looking for oil and gas as a petroleum geologist in the Midwest. Much of my income has been and still is from oil and gas production as I retain several royalty interests in Oklahoma wells.

I have to admit, I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I recently returned to Oklahoma City. The trip itself was fueled by several goals: a chance to drive cross-country, seeing relatives (as that’s where I lived and raised my kids for a quarter century), and one of my sons is an owner of a business with three locations there. Since it was the setting for the bulk of my second book,Tornados, Rattlesnakesand Oil, A Wildcatter’s Memories of Hunting for “Black Gold,” a memoir of my stint in the petroleum business, an author event was hosted for me at one of the local Barnes & Noble bookstores – but I especially wanted to reconnect with some of my former oil and gas pals from the old days.

While I was in town, the timing fortuitously worked out for me to attend the monthly meeting of the Oklahoma City Geological Society, a group I had previously been involved with back in the 60s and 70s. However, upon arriving, I was surprised indeed to see it’s such a small group today. As I looked around, it turned out I only knew two of my old oil friends at the meeting. Over the course of the lunch, I learned the Society’s membership had dropped considerably and that membership in the Geological Society Library was also only one-third of what it used to be. I wondered to myself how could this be? Especially as oil and gas production continues to be one of the economic drivers of the state. In fact, as I spent time driving around and talking with my relatives and others I learned the local economy is booming, with the city expanding ― and traffic getting worse (seemingly always the mark of urban “success”).

The oil and gas industry has changed significantly since the 1970s and 1980s though. “Big Oil” has cut staff and is now concentrating on drilling offshore—currently targeting Africa and Australia. Production of shale oil and gas is mostly operated by large independent oil and gas companies. Shale oil production is making the U.S. nearly self-sufficient in oil and gas production, thus providing the benefit of decreasing our reliance on the Mideast for our energy needs.

The drilling of horizontal wells with large fracture treatments in thick shale beds has become more of a technical problem than a geological exploration problem. The cost of drilling horizontal wells is expensive, but it seems that most of the new wells are these kinds of wells. I talked with a couple of geologists working on prospects to be drilled vertically on the kind of projects I once promoted back in the day.

The expensive horizontal shale wells seem to require much less geological expertise nowadays. We know where the shale is to be found, at what depth and how thick it is. A well prospect package needs only a short geological paragraph to be included. Lease acquisition and legal appearances at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission often take a year or more to accomplish.

Oklahoma, Kansas, North Dakota and Texas have developed large wind turbine fields for electricity and are expanding 10% per year in electricity production. I was surprised to see the numbers of wind turbines operating in Kansas as I drove through the state. And you can imagine my jaw dropped in astonishment upon learning the largest wind turbine farm in North America is currently being constructed in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

However,my Oklahoma friends and family do not seem to be dedicated to adopting “green energy” ― yet it’s happening around them.However, most people in Oklahoma still don’t recycle or drive hybrids or electric vehicles. I can anecdotally report a Ford pickup or V-8 SUV with low fuel efficiency is the vehicle of choice there. However, gasoline is also half the price of what we pay here in California. Interestingly, I did find a few electric charging stations scattered around the city.

The oil industry has prevented rebates for solar on individual homes. I understand that Oklahoma does have some ‘solar farms’ but I did not see any during my visit. Much of the electricity is generated from natural gas plants and some coal-burning plants.

Air pollution does not seem to be a topic of interest. Remember Scott Pruitt was an Oklahoman transplanted to D.C. to head the EPA for a short time (with disastrous results, both for him as well as the agency during his scandal-ridden tenure). In terms of indoor pollution, many people in Oklahoma are still smokers, although they seem to have cut back to some extent — however that might be because of the cost of cigarettes. Somewhat surprising to me, restaurants there are smoke-free now, but sports bars are still hazy with smoke (my son owns three).

You might ask what about earthquakes from fracking, what about groundwater pollution, flaring of natural gas, and other practices using chemicals there?Many of these are considered by the public objectionable and even dangerous! The good news is technology is addressing all these problems and they can each be prevented or fixed — most of them using our current knowledge and resources, if applied.

Overall, I found my time back in “fly over country” to show both attrition and adjustment of the old ways, yet with some cleaving to the past ― but that was balanced by a growing acceptance that climate change is forcing one of our oldest industries to face up to the fact, and adapt, even if these modifications are not exactly being done at break-neck speed. But, especially in light of my interviews on PBS radio and TV there, I was encouraged to see the enlightened segment of the population IS making headway in getting out the message that we must ALL be responsible for pulling together in forging a cleaner and more responsible energy path forward in caring for this spinning blue marble that is, after, all, the only home we have…

Thomas E. Cochrane is a California Professional Geologist (License #6124), and was previously the editor of the Shale Shaker (Oklahoma City Geological Society’s newspaper).

He was recently profiled in The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, and also featured in interviews on PBS radio as well as PBS-TV’s Oklahoma News Report (ONR) when returning to the state to promote his second book, Tornados, Rattlesnakes & Oil – A Wildcatter’s Memories of Hunting for “Black Gold” (available on Amazon and by order at bookstore nationwide). Following the publication of his first book, Shaping the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast – Exploring the Coastal Geology of Northern California, Cochrane has become a popular regional guest speaker for clubs and organizations, most often speaking on local geology and plate tectonics.

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