The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

September 21, 2012

Wealthy Oil Driller Finds a Voice in Politics

LEXINGTON, Okla. — Harold Hamm sat in a corner of the Railhead Diner, having polished off a plate of meatloaf and savored a bite of the fried pie with chocolate filling.

Hamm, who grew up just across the tracks, has a lot to savor these days. As the youngest of a sharecropper's 13 children, Hamm spent his earliest years nearby picking cotton until the first snowfall or Christmas, whichever came first. Then he would scramble to catch up in school. Later, after the family moved to this small town, he delivered newspapers and played baseball in a lot that's still here. Since his home had no television, he would go across the street to watch with neighbors. His surviving sister, Fannie, still lives in a modest home here.

Today, the 66-year-old Hamm is a multibillionaire who could buy the entire town several times over. An early believer in the notion that the techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing could be merged to unlock new layers of oil, he is the chief executive of Continental Resources, the leading exploration company in the booming Bakken Formation, which stretches across Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. His 68 percent stake in the company is currently worth $7.7 billion, and Forbes recently ranked him the world's 76th-richest person.

Now Hamm is exploring politics, too. He hosted a fundraiser for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and recently donated $985,000 to Restore Our Future, a super PAC devoted to supporting Romney's candidacy. While super PACs are supposed to be independent, the former cotton picker has also become a member of Romney's energy advisory team, feeding the candidate optimistic assessments about U.S. oil production. Hamm is trying to take the lessons of the Oklahoma and North Dakota oil patches and apply them in Washington for the nation's benefit — and his own.

The Romney energy team, whose full membership list has not been disclosed, holds weekly conference calls, Hamm says. But Hamm is not bashful about his views. His rarely updated website says, "Since President Obama's election three and a half years ago, he and his administration have done everything in their power to stop fossil fuel usage." Hamm, by contrast, has lauded the virtues of keeping tax incentives for oil exploration companies such as his, even as Romney has opposed such incentives for wind energy. Hamm has also criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for rules that will phase in safer, cleaner hydraulic fracturing practices. Such guidelines, he says, should be left to states. And he supports the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would ease the transportation crunch for North Dakota oil.

Most of all, Hamm promotes a vision of oil plenty. "There are two separate camps," Hamm said. "One of them is that the oil and gas resource is very scarce and running out; that the glass is not half full; that it is drying up. And the other [camp] being one of abundance and what's really here."

He said, "The one of scarcity, that's just wrong. It's been overtaken basically by the technology that's gone on with horizontal drilling."

Not everyone shares Hamm's optimism. Oil output in North Dakota has jumped sixfold over the past seven years, perhaps the biggest single increase in oil output worldwide, but that hasn't stopped prices from soaring. Hamm believes that the Bakken area holds 24 billion barrels, nearly as much as the proven reserves in the rest of the country put together — seven times as much as the most recent U.S. Geological Survey report (now being revised) and more than Prudhoe Bay. By 2020, similar geologic formations and drilling techniques could push U.S. oil production to 6.7 million barrels a day, a level not seen since 1994, says Barrington Research.

Even that wouldn't be enough to quench U.S. consumption and fulfill Hamm's vision of energy independence for America.

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