Tuscaloosa gas wealth: a trend matures

C. B. (Doc) Pennington, a dentist by training but an entrepreneur by nature, once had a hunch that there was something worth drilling for in the land outside Baton Rouge.

He bought a couple thousand acres, leased mineral rights to some of his neighbors' property, and then turned around and leased the rights to oil companies.

Nowadays Doc Pennington is said to be a billionaire who spends most of his time figuring out whom to give his money to. ''Doc,'' one of the citizenry asked him one day, ''I know you're rich. But how can you prove to me you're an honest-to-goodness billionaire?''

Mr. Pennington reached into his pocket and pulled out a check from one of the major oil companies active in the Tuscaloosa Trend. ''It wasn't in an envelope or anything,'' his questioner relates. ''It was just loose in his pocket. And it said, '$1,788,000. August. Gas only.' ''

Doc Pennington's story could be retold with varying degrees of fiction or fortune by using the names of dozens of other area residents.

The source of this rich lode of social and economic history is the Tuscaloosa Trend, a belt of mostly natural gas - but also some oil - 30 miles wide and 200 miles long, running across Louisiana. The strip is part of a geologic formation that outcrops near Tuscaloosa, Ala.; hence the name.

Louisiana is the No. 2 gas producing state, behind Texas; both produce upward of 7 trillion cubic feet a year. The Tuscaloosa Trend is one of the major gas finds in the United States in recent years, and the one that has meant the most to Baton Rouge.

The ''trend,'' as it's known locally, is at once a ''commercial for deregulation'' and a ''textbook lesson in the law of supply and demand,'' local officials will tell you.

The gas here is ''deep gas'' - 15,000 feet or more, and thus not subject to federal price controls. The high pressures and temperatures of deep gas make it exceptionally difficult, and expensive, to drill for. But in a free marketplace it sells for a price that justifies the high production costs.

That's why it is called a ''commercial for deregulation.'' Local industry officials contend it reflects what energy exploration would be like in the country without cumbersome government rules.

But there's a cloud over the silver lining here. In today's energy market, marked by oversupply on one hand and sluggish demand on the other, the gas that was recently fetching $8 or $9 per thousand cubic feet is now bringing only $5. Since wells in the trend can typically cost up to $20 million to drill, the major operators are going to be looking pretty hard at the numbers before doing any new drilling.

And that's why the Tuscaloosa Trend illustrates the law of supply and demand.

It's not over yet. After several years of intense exploration, the trend is a ''mature'' province; the easy pickings have been found. But when energy demand perks up along with the rest of the economy, the impetus will again be there for new exploration.

Chevron and Amoco have dominated activity in the trend. Chevron pioneered the exploration here in 1975, in the False River field north of Baton Rouge; a well called the Alma Plantation No. 1 - 19,800 feet deep - produced 20 million cubic feet of gas per day. Then Amoco Production Company moved in, leasing land that has been even more productive than Chevron's. An estimated 2.5 trillion cubic feet has been discovered so far, and some 250 wells have been drilled.

The Tuscaloosa Trend has been one of the few places in recent memory where ''just plain folks'' got rich - thereby allowing the trend to take its place in the American dream of energy wealth. This is partly because the active, central part of the formation lies under the property of many small landowners, unlike sites of many big energy finds out West. Reporters and television crews from here to Japan have besieged the locals with requests for interviews - usually granted in the beginning, but nowadays often declined as people learn firsthand that a little celebrity goes a long way.

''Everybody knows a cop on the beat, or a schoolteacher, who had bought a little piece of property outside of town as a retirement home for someday, and they leased their rights to Amoco or Chevron, and now they're making $15,000 a month,'' a young state employee observes.

A young stockbroker tells about farmers coming into his office ''all dressed up in their Sunday go-to-meeting clothes'' and handing him checks for $1 million or more. ''What should I do with this?'' they ask.

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