Oil prospects fuel Texaco bid on Faulkner field

November 04, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Sun Staff Correspondent

FAULKNER -- It's been more than a century since John Wilkes Booth and David Herold hid out in a meadow near here as they fled south after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

And if you can blot out the telecommunications tower and the occasional brick rambler among the old, frame houses in the farm fields, it doesn't take much to imagine how it must have looked back in 1865.

But all that could change rapidly if Texaco Inc. finds natural gas or oil 10,000 feet below the surface of a soybean field about a half-mile off U.S. 301 and 1 1/2 miles from the Potomac River. Within months, the fields would sprout drilling rigs instead of corn and piping the size of telephone booths to remove the fuel.

Already, the firm has received zoning approval from Charles County, along with other local, state and federal permits to sink a test well in a field now brown with the stalks of harvested plants. The last hurdle is a state drilling permit.

The Department of Natural Resources will hold a public hearing on that permit at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the Bel Alton fire hall near La Plata and could issue it within two months.

The proposal has stirred little opposition among nearby residents. In fact, most are all for it.

"Strikes me that it would be good for everyone to get some industry in here that isn't liquor stores or restaurants," said Charles Butler, who grew up on the farm where Texaco plans to drill and now lives next door.

Besides, he added, he could get royalty checks if the company finds what it's looking for in quantities worth producing commercially.

Texaco pays royalties for mineral rights not only to owners of the property where its well is drilled but also to neighbors on the theory that some of the minerals it is extracting come from beneath their land as well, company spokeswoman Deborah Alford explained.

The firm has leases for mineral rights with 100 property owners in Charles County and has leased some 40,000 acres throughout Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, she said.

What appears to be the only opposition to the Charles County well comes from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, whose members fear that such wells could damage the environment.

"The process of drilling has problems," fretted William C. Baker, foundation president. "Habitat problems, toxic problems, a whole host of things."

But Texaco officials say they have learned over the years how to prevent the accidents and environmental damage foundation leaders fear.

"We recognize that when we find resources, they often are in areas that need special protection," Ms. Alford said. "But we have the technology now to protect those areas. We, if anything, are heavy on the prevention side. We'd rather put our money into prevention than cleanup."

She pointed to a test well Texaco drilled and capped in 1989 just across the Potomac in Westmoreland County, Va., that foundation leaders agreed exceeded safety standards.

"Without a doubt, what you'll see on the Maryland side will be the same well site as across the river," Ms. Alford said. "We hope that would give them some level of comfort."

But Roy Hoagland, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation lawyer in Virginia, remains skeptical. "What they're saying is, 'Trust us,' " he said. "Our concern is that their Westmoreland County site was a Cadillac of drilling. We want to make sure their other sites aren't Chevys."

Texaco and Exxon Corp., working in a joint venture, ran seismic tests for several years around the Chesapeake Bay, one of the last areas in the continental United States with untapped reserves of oil or natural gas, before Texaco sank the well into the Taylorsville Basin in Virginia.

The basin -- which dates from the Mesozoic period, which ended 65 million years ago -- stretches from near Richmond, Va., to Annapolis, according to Kenneth N. Weaver, head of the Maryland Geological Survey. Similar basins lie under Queen Anne's County and parts of Delaware, he said.

Most of the information the survey has about the basins comes from the sophisticated seismic testing the oil companies did in the late 1980s and information gathered from drilling water wells in the area.

"Whether there are hydrocarbons there, we don't know, and they don't know either," Mr. Weaver said. "And what they're doing is the only way to find out."

Ms. Alford said the company found natural gas in the Virginia well; not in commercial quantities, but at least in reserves large enough to make executives curious about what else might lie beneath the surface. They have applied for permits for three more wells in Virginia, as well as the one in Charles County.

It is likely that they will find more natural gas, but oil also could be lurking beneath the surface. And that makes environmentalists particularly nervous.

"Natural gas is much less troubling," Mr. Baker said. "But if it's oil, the cheapest and easiest way to get it out is to barge it out. And the Chesapeake Bay is way overdue for an oil spill."

Worse, he added, other companies would flood the region if oil is found, increasing waterborne traffic and building refineries on the shores "because that's what happens when you discover oil."

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