SHALE TO THE CHIEF: Founder and CEO Trevor Rees-Jones has put his Chief Oil & Gas up for sale. The rumored price tag is $2 billion. photography by Dan Sellers

The Barnett Shale Millionaires

Much of North Texas sits atop a gold mine of natural gas. A new breed of wildcatters like Trevor Rees-Jones and independents like him stand to make millions, if not billions. Here’s how.

GAS MAN: Many credit George Mitchell’s patience and persistence for the success of the Barnett Shale gas play. photography courtesy of GPM, Inc.
Today, the Barnett Shale field has expanded to cover around 7,000 square miles and as many as 21 counties. Steward believes that years from now, gas production in North Texas could surpass Kansas’ gigantic Hugoton field to become the largest producer of gas in the continental United States, and the technology is improving every day. “This is a technology play,” Steward says. “The wells are getting better not worse, and the field is expanding.” But more importantly, experts say, George Mitchell’s gamble on Barnett Shale has cracked open the possibilities on shale plays the world over.

“It’s a hell of a field,” Mitchell says. “And now people are trying to duplicate this big play in other places.”

Lynda Field doesn’t know how the gas that lies below her home got there, how seven square miles of land in Tarrant County can hold one trillion cubic feet of gas—nearly five percent of the country’s annual gas needs, although only 15 to 20 percent can be extracted with current technology. All she knows is that at 67, she and her husband Billy couldn’t pass up the deal XTO Energy was offering her.

Field’s grandfather moved to the area in 1931, at the height of the depression, and purchased a 40-acre tract, which the family used to grow peaches and build homes for the children. Eventually he sold 20 acres, but he left homes for his children. The house that Field now lives in originally belonged to her grandfather’s hunting friends, until she bought it back in 1999. Her daughter lives just across the street, her cousin has a house on the family acreage, and her son is her next-door neighbor. “It’s nice to have a place the entire extended family can call home,” she explains.
It’s even nicer when that place sits on a gold mine of natural gas. When her well begins producing, XTO Energy will hand Field a royalty check for around $4,000 a month—around $1,000 per acre per month.

Improved extraction techniques and rising gas prices have led to a land rush. Leases on possible drill sites have climbed up from around $200 an acre in Denton in 2001, to an excess of $1,500 an acre today. In Johnson County, lots that leased for $40 an acre five years ago can now fetch as much as $3,000. And recently, acreage in Fort Worth has been sold for $10,000 in competitive bidding.

 Gas wells are sprouting like particularly lucrative wildflowers all over the Dallas-Fort Worth area. What began as a few experimental wells in north Tarrant, Wise, and Denton counties, has now extended to cover a great part of Dallas-Fort Worth, with much of the gas trapped below the similarly fast-growing exurbs, suburbs, and, yes, the city of Fort Worth. Thanks to the advent of horizontal drilling, siphoning the gas from below populated communities is a real possibility.

Four Sevens Oil, headquartered in downtown Fort Worth, sees that possibility as the future. Partner and exploration manager Larry Brogdon followed the Barnett Shale play from its unprofitable beginnings to the current boom. The nonprofit Oil Information Library in Fort Worth was falling on hard times. As oil production dwindled, so too did support from the local oil and gas industry. Brogdon suggested a Barnett Shale symposium to help the library. On Sept. 28, 2000, the symposium was held at the Petroleum Club of Fort Worth, where wildcatters and energy company representatives packed the room, all eager for a piece of the action.

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