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Old meets new in hunt for 'black gold'

Mac Gordon

Mac Gordon

I don't guess anything can cause more of a commotion -- or general excitement -- than the prospect of an oil boom in a small community.

Perhaps only the notion that gold has just been found outside town can top it. Well, in the case to which I will refer here, it is indeed "black gold."

The area from which I hail, Southwest Mississippi, some 410 miles due west of Blakely, has it -- excitement, enthusiasm, hopes and dreams, the proverbial whole ball of wax -- going on.

Oil is being found after many months of speculation in the small, dirt poor county of Amite. If all continues to go well, the discovery will bring more and better jobs to the locale and put an awful lot of money in banks and back pockets.

An earlier oil boom in the late 1950s and early 1960s brought hundreds of new people to Amite and Pike counties (the latter is my home county). That round began to play out in the mid-to-late 1960's, but it proved that the Tuscaloosa Shale Formation had plenty of oil in it.

Research on the formation conducted at Louisiana State University says: "The lower ... Tuscaloosa marine shale is a potentially significant commercial oil reservoir under a large area straddling the Mississippi-Louisiana boundary south of McComb, Mississippi and covering the Florida Parishes of Louisiana, the southwestern counties in Mississippi and extending westward through central Louisiana to the Texas border. The section has potential reserves of 7 billion barrels of oil ... Horizontal drilling could maximize production and minimize environmental impacts."

Those words are the basis for the excitement in my home region and have brought all kinds of speculators, wildcatters, leasing agents, geologists, lab technicians and more than a few environmentalists to the area.

Oil wells have mostly been drilled conventionally with vertical thrusts. Today, horizontal drilling -- also referred to as "hydraulic fracturing," or "fracking" for short -- is the method of choice, at least in the Lower Tuscaloosa.

The first wells produced by this system have brought economic excitement to an area that has gained precious few industrial jobs over the past 30-40 years. This was railroad country in days past, with the McComb yard employing up to 2,000 workers. And as with many southern towns, a textile industry that employed hundreds has also exited the scene.

Two Texas firms brought in the first two wells at slightly more than 1,000 barrels a day, a production rate that will soon slow. A well on school land arrived at about 350 barrels a day. More drilling sites are being staked out.

The first wells are located deep in the pristine wilds of southern Amite County, near a remote intersection of Mississippi and Louisiana. Backing up to one of the wells is a family cemetery that holds dozens of graves with some of the earliest birth dates recorded in Mississippi. A stately church erected in 1832 stands nearby.

"Old" is meeting "new" in the Deep South and what a sight it is to behold.

Mac Gordon is a retired reporter who lives near Blakely and writes an occasional opinion column for The Albany Herald. Contact him at macmarygordongmail.com.