A Lot of Gas

Wildcatter Sanford Dvorin thinks he's hit the jackpot in quaint Coppell. But skeptics say no one's ever made money drilling for natural gas in Dallas County, and no one ever will.

In the fall of 1994, independent oilman Sanford Dvorin cracked open a Dallas County Yellow Pages and sent a letter to every person connected with the oil and gas industry. Sounding like every piece of over-the-top, too-good-to-be-true, direct-mail investment scheme literature ever written, Dvorin's letter boasted: "History is about to be made and you can be part of it!"

The mailer pitched the chance to become a partner in the first commercially viable natural gas well in Dallas County. But any oil and gas man with a shred of economic sense and an ounce of industry knowledge would tell you that you'd have a better chance of Ed McMahon showing up at your front door declaring you a sweepstakes winner than striking oil or gas in Dallas County. Rich reservoirs of primordial ooze simply don't lurk under Dallas, they'd tell you--because if they did, someone else would have already found them.

The few people who bothered to write back told Dvorin he was crazy, and those were the polite ones. Most of the responses Dvorin received were along the lines of the curt conversation he had with Michael Hart, a crusty Dallas-based petroleum engineer who'd logged more than 40 years in a rough-and-tumble business notorious for its gamblers and hucksters.

On December 12, 1994, at 10:50 a.m., according to an index card Dvorin kept on every follow-up phone call he made on his farfetched proposition, Hart told Dvorin exactly what he thought of his deal: "Dallas is not worth a flip."

But neither Michael Hart nor the 200 other industry people who'd raise serious doubts about Dvorin's scheme could deter him. He had come too far, dreamed too long. For 20 years, he had nurtured this hunch. Then, through some geological detective work, he discovered what he believed was proof that the Barnett shale, a thick rock formation that runs under most of North Texas, could be productive and profitable in yielding natural gas.

Now all he had to do was prove it.
At first, Dvorin bankrolled his hunch with his life savings--or what was left of it after the oil crash of the mid-1980s. But he needed much more money before he could even roll the dice on his Dallas County gas gamble. And he faced other hurdles. Not only did he want to drill in Dallas County, he wanted to drill in the heart of suburbia. Even if he could find someone to finance him, he still had to convince a landowner to let him set up a huge, noisy drilling rig in his backyard.

But even before that, he would have to convince the city fathers of one of Dallas' most image-conscious suburbs to bless his plans to bring the grimy petroleum industry inside city limits.

Sanford Dvorin had his work cut out for him. But he believed deeply that he was right. Of all the holes he'd punched in the ground in his 30 years in the oil business, he figured this one was the least risky.

"Nothing in the oil and gas business is a sure thing," he says. "If there was, this was it. But drill bits have made liars of the smartest people."

Much of the mystique of Texas is inextricably linked to the deeds of the oil industry wildcatters. They dared to drill where no man had drilled before, risking ridicule and possible financial ruin. But when they hit, they often hit big, changing their personal fortunes in the blink of an eye.

A wildcatter is a freelance operator who sinks a well in an area where no oil or gas is known to exist. Independent operators like these discovered the majority of oil and gas in this country and helped expand the state's economic horizons for much of this century.

But when the price of oil plummeted in the mid-1980s, the wildcatter's prospects nosedived with it. With the price of oil and gas relatively low and supplies stable, there had been little incentive for independent exploration. But technological and economic changes in recent years have set the stage for wildcatters like Sanford Dvorin to begin dreaming in earnest again.

Bolstered by an advertising campaign touting it as the "clean energy source," natural gas consumption has risen dramatically in the last decade, according to the Gas Research Institute in Chicago. While experts say there is enough gas to meet current demand, this fossil fuel, trapped in layers of rock under the earth, is becoming more difficult to find.

Government incentives have encouraged large corporations to search for natural gas in formations previously believed unproductive. And new technologies have made their searches increasingly successful, although much of that success has been enveloped in secrecy.

Large companies hunting for natural gas historically have confined their operations to rural areas, where they can lease large tracts of land from a handful of landowners. They shy away from developed areas where large parcels of land are difficult to come by and the hassles of zoning ordinances and public opposition are plentiful.

But to a shrewd, patient independent operator like Dvorin, drilling in suburbia, putting the gas well almost literally in the consumers' backyard, could be a gold mine. If you knew where to look.

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