As a child, Harold Hamm picked cotton until Christmas or the first snow — now he’s the 90th richest person on the planet and the 33rd richest American. Forbes ranks Hamm at No. 90 on its billionaires list — with his total worth at $11.3 billion.
After a 20-year decline and apocalyptic predictions of a choking U.S. oil supply, the spigot is open full-bore. Today, the U.S. is pumping out 7.7 million barrels of oil per day — and will pass Saudi Arabia and Russia as the No. 1 oil producer in the world in 2015. Just seven or eight years back, oil and natural gas were in a nosedive — but no more.
Fracking and horizontal drilling have swelled the flow of what is probably the second biggest oil boom in history and the unlikely Hamm has been involved in some manner every step of the way, an improbable road from sharecropper to wildcatter to oil tycoon.
Fracking is used in 33 states for gas and oil extraction, but the epicenter is North Dakota, a state with arguably the most robust economy in the nation. Hydraulic fracturing through dense shale is responsible for 90 percent of new oil and gas wells in the U.S., and Hamm believes North Dakota’s famed Bakken field will yield 24 million barrels of oil within decades. Hamm has become the biggest oil man in America, and leads the pack in North Dakota. The big boys — Chevron and Exxon — missed out on the initial boom, while wildcatters like Hamm dove in.
But don’t expect a Daniel Plainview or “I drink your milkshake” type of character. From the National Review: “Anyone expecting or hoping for a swaggering oilman is likely to be disappointed. Hamm is bookish and somewhat shy.”
Hamm, 68, was born in 1945, in Lexington, Okla., the 13th child in a family of poor sharecroppers — they owned no land. As he tells NR: “We went wherever the cotton was good. Usually, whoever you were pulling cotton for had some kind of housing. Some folks lived in tents. We’d pull cotton till Christmas or the first snow, and then we were out of there.”
During high school he worked 50-60 hours at the Potter Oil Company and after graduating, started his own company — Harold Hamm Tank Truck Service — with a single bobtail Ford truck. Next came the Shelly Dean Oil Company, which Hamm began in 1967: “… my first hit came when I was 25, in 1971, when I made my first find — in the Oswego formation, in Northwest Oklahoma,” he tells Forbes. “… I drilled the Eldon Cook No. 2, my first well. It was a success, producing about 20 barrels of oil an hour. My concept was strictly amateur at the time, but it was a good idea. It still produces, and paid all the bills. It turned out to be the 6-million-barrel Oakdale field … The second well was a wildcat 5 miles from production. It produced 75 barrels of oil per hour, and everyone took notice.”
Hamm’s first oil company morphed into the present Continental Resources and the past decade saw him leap from millionaire to billionaire. (Hamm is often the object of a media circus as he may soon break all records with the most expensive divorce in history. Rupert Murdoch set the mark at $1.7 billion in June of 2013; Hamm’s wife, Sue Ann, may get much more.)
It’s been 40 years since the benchmark OPEC embargo, yet the U.S. is now producing more oil than it imports, and the unlikely path carved out by Hamm — from cotton field to oil field — is integral to the tale.
For more on the fracking explosion and Hamm’s story, see The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters
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Image from Wikimedia Commons, Joshua Doubek