MOTT — In a county where wheat and pheasants are king and queen, Hettinger County may draw an ace.
Oil leases are starting to show up at the courthouse in Mott, where landmen are poring through records to find out who owns the minerals under the ground.
If rigs move in and drilling and production commence, it’ll make Hettinger County North Dakota’s 18th oil producing county out of a total of 53 counties.
As an ace, it will be a game-changer and county officials are trying their best to get ready. This is the time to get the chips stacked in their favor.
“It’s not going to be the same sleepy county it was,” said county agent Dwain Barondeau.
If it comes, drilling will likely be in the Tyler formation, which geologic maps show underlies most of southwestern North Dakota at a depth of roughly 7,000 feet.
There are already about 280 vertical wells in the formation. Most of those are two or more decades old, though a few dozen were drilled in the last decade. There’s about double the number of old, dry holes, too.
State oil and geology experts think new horizontal drilling and multiple-stage fracturing could be successful in the Tyler shale, which has properties similar to the Bakken shale formation — where technology has proved to be wildly successful, even though expensive.
“We put out notice last fall that got some attention. What we’re saying is, ‘Take another look at the Tyler,’” said state geologist Ed Murphy.
The most potentially productive zone in the Tyler covers northwestern Hettinger County, which jives with the few leases in the New England area that have so far been filed in the recorder’s officer, said registrar Sylvia Gion.
She expects when companies organize their lease positions, the leases will come in a flood of 300 to 400 at a time.
That “hot” Tyler zone is a boomerang shape that also takes in parts of Stark, Slope, Bowman, Billings and Golden Valley counties.
To help farmers get ready for oil activity, Barondeau put a session on oil impacts on agriculture on the agenda for next month’s annual Crop and Livestock Improvement Association meeting.
It’s squeezed in between talks about fuel spill regulations on the farm and how to grow corn in Hettinger County’s semi-arid climate.
These are familiar topics.
Oil, for everyone, will be a whole new scene.
Historically, Hettinger County has only had one producing oil well, the Urlacher well, drilled in the southwestern part of the county in 1980. It produced 227,000 barrels from the Red River formation before being shut down in 2002.
From what Barondeau has been told, crops and hay planted near high-traffic oil roads aren’t going to produce squat.
Downstairs in the courthouse, Job Development Authority director Mark Resner is organizing an upcoming public meeting on oil development to talk about everything from mineral leases, zoning and housing to speed limits and weight restrictions.
Resner said oil truck traffic to one well could ruin the paved Enchanted Highway depending on the time of year.
“I’ve got one good line about this: This might be the biggest thing since the railroad and we must be prepared,” Resner said.
At its next meeting, the county commission will decide whether to form an oil taskforce to look over everything from housing, to zoning in a nuts and bolts approach to readiness.
“I hope it comes. We could use the boost,” Resner said.
Ilene Hardmeyer, the county’s emergency manager, said the 2010 census counted 300 fewer people in the county than a decade ago.
She said she thinks the county population of 2,397 might be low since some refused to participate in the census, but it still shows a backward slide.
Resner said he expects a packed house at the upcoming public meeting, which will be 7 p.m. Feb. 17 at the New England Memorial Hall.
“We want to manage the opportunity and get the most economic benefit while we can,” he said. “Oil leases make millionaires. Some money will stay here.”
While the leases that are on file don’t name the bonus, the word around town is that mineral owners are getting $200 an acre for a five-year lease.
Landman Bryan Thompson, who works on contract, said the land records are fascinating, like looking through a family tree of ownership. He said nearly all mineral acres in Hettinger County are not leased at this time.
County auditor Roy Steiner said the county hopes to maintain some control over development and balance agriculture and oil, if it comes.
“We’ve talked to other oil counties, and they said oil development doesn’t hurt a road, it kills it. We have to balance that,” he said.
Steiner said the expectation in the county is that drilling could start as soon as this spring.
“I’m hoping it holds off,” he said. “We’re not ready.”
(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-748-5511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)