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Oil is where you find it - but first you have to find it

By Marshall IngwersonStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 1982

Bakersfield, Calif.

The oil-finder lives by his imagination, and he is not plagued by doubt.

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He has a certain quality, unnamable to many of those who have it, that possesses him to gamble hundreds of thousands of dollars and more on a picture in his mind's eye of how it was -- thousands of feet down -- millions of years ago.

Once it was called doodlebugging, after the ''doodlebug'' sticks oil seekers would use like divining rods. Now finding oil has grown more important, more scientific, and more lucrative than ever before. The hunt is accelerating toward the fervid pace of the early 1950s. It is drawing students to geology like moths to light. It is luring geologists from the major oil companies, where they got their experience, to independent firms, where they get a piece of the action.

What Victor Church sees as he drives the long, straight roads through the cotton fields of the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley -- California's fruit basket -- is not cotton or long straight roads. He sees ridges, pools, and slopes a mile and two miles straight down: the mountains and streams of millenniums ago.

Or rather, he imagines them. He has worked among them for years and he will never see them.

What he will do is put a pinhole in the plain -- a well -- over 7,000 feet deep and a mile away from the safe company of his present, working wells, and see if the oil field extends that far. The drilling alone will cost a quarter-million dollars. He has wanted to try it for years.

Victor Church is an independent petroleum geologist. He looks for oil. He has his own projects and he consults for others and does various combinations of the two.

What he will not discover are offshore fields or major new basins like the Overthrust Belt, Tuscaloosa Trend, or Anadarko Basin. Nor will he romp through tropical swamps and across arctic tundra with geological field parties mapping fresh territory -- that is the work of the capital-rich big companies. But Mr. Church will find oil in the well-charted ground under the cotton fields around Bakersfield, ground that doesn't draw big-company attention. He and the other independents sank 80 percent of the exploratory wells drilled in the country last year, and discoverd about half the new oil reserves.

The price of oil has made room for the little guy in the exploration business. Small leaseholdings and small oil fields are more economic to drill now. Smaller pieces allow for smaller players in the game.

One well in 50 pays for itself, estimates geologist Eugene F. (Bud) Reid. His father, a drilling contractor here (one who contracts to drill the wells of others), sank some 50 wells of his own during his career. He found oil, but never enough to recover his losses.

Mr. Reid, a widely respected explorationist, had tasted the entrepreneur's life with his father's drilling outfit. So 12 years after Occidental Petroleum had bought up the firm and Reid had become Occidental's vice-president of oil and gas operations, he struck out on his own. He took $200,000 of his own money -- ''which is nothing in this business'' -- teamed up with two friends in Denver , and started Sunburst Exploration.

That was in 1972, just before the first worldwide oil shocks, and it was a good time to get into the business. Between prices pushing upward and deregulation letting them rise, it has grown steadily better.

By late last fall, three times as many wells were being drilled as in 1971 -- the low ebb in the exploration business after what some oilmen call the ''sorry '60s.''

What does it take to find oil?

The price of admission to the oil hunt is a solid footing in the science of the earth. Most explorationists have master of science degrees in geology and many have PhD's. But the art lies in having what Bud Reid calls a nose for oil and gas.

''Some people will never get it,'' Reid muses. ''It's uncanny. They're born pessimists.'' Finding new fields or new pools demands new techniques, especially refinements in seismic sounding methods. New theories of how geologic structures form open up whole new regions. Plate tectonics theory spawned wildcat wells in Arizona, where drilling had been unthinkable a few years ago.

But give 10 geologists with the same technical background the same set of clues about a region, says Michel T. Halbouty of the Michel T. Halbouty Energy Company in Houston, and only one of them will know where to drill for oil.

Of all the geologists out looking for oil, he says with a crusty competitive edge, ''5 percent are oil-finders. The other 95 percent think they are.''