'Little Guy' Hits Big Oil

May 27, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Sidney Jansma Jr. is not quick to drop the 'B' word. So when recent media reports suggested that his company struck an oil reserve whose volume could be counted in the billions of barrels, Jansma got ready to correct reporters' arithmetic.

"The discovery itself has tapped into several million barrels of oil," said Jansma, CEO of Grand Rapids-based Wolverine Gas and Oil Corp. "We don't know how many million."

If the billion-barrel estimates proved true, Wolverine's discovery could be among the largest in the country. For comparison's sake, the U.S. Department of the Interior estimates that there are around 9 billion barrels of extractable oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"I don't know where the 'billion' came from," Jansma said. He suggests the most likely source for the inflated number was a competitor who has already cashed in on his investments in the central Utah valley where Wolverine is currently extracting 1,500 barrels of high-quality crude oil each day. The competitor, Jansma said, pumped up the hype around Wolverine's discovery, only to sell his nearby land for millions of dollars in profits.

Wolverine, on the other hand, has invested in Utah's Sevier Valley for the long haul.

The company decided to devote its resources to the area in 2000 when $140-billion oil giant Chevron decided to cut its losses on the valley.

"This one oil company drilled a couple of wells over 50 years," said Jansma, referring to Chevron. "You can't drill a well every 24 years and have an idea what's going on. You've got to work at it every day and every week."

That is precisely the commitment his company made. In what Jansma describes as "a beautiful coincidence that I attribute to God," the company's exploration manager, Doug Strickland, happened to have worked for Chevron in the Sevier Valley during grad school. With his encouragement, Jansma inked a deal to take over Chevron's leases.

So with approximately 70,000 acres in leased mineral rights and a sourcing study that Wolverine Geophysics Manager Keith Johnson said "wasn't worth the powder it'd take to blow it up," the company began the process of trying to find oil where Chevron had failed.

In a quick geology lesson, Jansma explained that four things are necessary for an oil discovery. The first, obviously, is a source. This is the layer of hydrocarbon-rich decomposed organic matter sandwiched between layers of sand and rock. The second necessary ingredient is a reservoir. Often this takes the form of sand or porous rock. The reservoir is where hydrocarbons find refuge as the layers of rock and earth around them buck and squeeze over millions of years. A seal, or cap rock, is the third required element. This is essentially a firm, impervious layer that rests atop the reservoir, not allowing hydrocarbons to escape. The fourth crucial element is the trap, an area where the underground layers fall off — bending downward to provide a lateral stopper on the reservoir layer. The trap is often an anticline, or "underground hill."

There is one more important element to making an important oil discovery: timing. There are thousands of places throughout the globe at any given moment where the four physical characteristics of a major find have fallen into place. But unless an oil company happens to be there, sinking a well at the right place and time, the other elements are meaningless.

"If you don't have these five things, you're not going to have an oil and gas accumulation that will pay your bills," Jansma said.

Wolverine's due diligence told them that they had those five elements somewhere in the Sevier Valley. The question was where exactly to drill.

In addition to the mineral rights, Wolverine's deal with Chevron also yielded two-dimensional seismic data on the land. This data, Johnson said, helps geologists understand the density of the land, which helps predict the geological makeup of the strata far beneath the surface. The data is collected by placing sensitive instruments at regular intervals along a linear path. Geologists then drill holes and drop dynamite charges deep into the earth. How the vibrations are recorded at points along the line tells scientists about the makeup of the land below.

Since 2-D seismic studies cost about $20,000 per mile, and the lines needed to be about 15 miles long in this particular stretch of land, Wolverine was glad to snap up any existing data available. The company also worked with specialists who compared samples from oil fields far to the east with shale samples from mountains far to the west. The specialists verified that both samples contained the same isotopes. That meant they came from the same source. With Wolverine's site running directly between the two sites, things were looking promising.

After two years of study, Wolverine felt confident that it had proven its source. But before the drilling could begin, there were a few more steps that needed to take place.

Once Jansma realized the potential of the Sevier Valley site, he began snapping up mineral rights in surrounding areas. All told, he contracted with the federal government, the state of Utah and almost 1,000 families to secure nearly 500,000 acres in mineral rights. That's an area roughly the size of Kent County.

Armed with the scientific data and half a million acres of land, Jansma looked to investors to make the drilling possible.

"I have a pair of khakis at home with holes in the knees from begging," he said. He showed the data to 65 potential investors. "You don't show data to 65 companies in our business."

Eventually Jansma brought 14 investors on board. Drilling began Nov. 20, 2003. On Christmas Eve, they struck oil.

As the company steadily extracts thousands of barrels of oil, it plans to begin pumping several more wells, said engineer and Development Manager Ed Higuera. Wolverine uses a somewhat unusual technique wherein several bores are drilled from one wellhead location. This minimizes both cost and, more importantly to Jansma, environmental impact.

Jansma and his cohorts are pleased at their luck thus far, and optimistic about their prospects. However, they are realistic about the limitations to the science they use in finding oil.

"We just drilled a dry hole on the north end of the structure," Jansma said. "You find out about your resource one well at a time."

Johnson has a slightly more upbeat outlook. The man who decides where to drill said the company's early success in the Sevier Valley is "just scratching the surface." Striking oil once in a 500,000-acre tract of land, he said, "is kind of like finding one ant in your kitchen. There's going to be more. They don't come in ones."    

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