GILLSBURG, Miss. — Residents living above an oil-rich shale formation that stretches across southwest Mississippi and Louisiana have been waiting on a boom for years. A steady trickle of drilling is already boosting the rural region's economy, and spending by two oil companies could make 2014 the year that many other locals finally cash in on the oil far beneath their feet.
Already, Max Lawson has spent hours watching the round-the-clock work of shoving pipe into the ground in his back pasture. The process began two years ago when Encana Corp. built a big gravel pad, but didn't take off until late last year when a convoy of 200 trucks carted in a drilling rig and other equipment to bore into the earth looking for oil.
"They call it the Gillsburg Christmas tree," he said while standing near the brightly lit rig. "It looks like a little city over here at night."
Gillsburg and surrounding Amite County lie above a prime section of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a geologic formation that stretches in boomerang shape across Louisiana's midsection and into southern Mississippi. Drillers have known about the formation north of the Gulf of Mexico for years, but affordable technology to remove the oil from the shale's tight pores was slow to develop.
Thanks partly to advances in hydraulic fracturing techniques, Encana Corp. and Goodrich Petroleum plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the area in 2014. So far, Goodrich and others have drilled more than 30 wells across the region, trying to find the right methods.
Goodrich Chief Operating Officer Robert Turnham said that number could double or triple in the area straddling the state line just this year if drillers continue to make progress.
"It's at a stage where you need more wells that have consistent results, that show the repeatable results there are in other plays," Turnham said.
Louisiana State University scientists estimate the formation holds 7 billion barrels of oil, though that total isn't proven yet. Most of it is a light, sweet crude that can be sold to refiners for more than $100 a barrel. By comparison, the federal government estimates that the U.S. has about 40 billion barrels of proved oil reserves.
Still, the exploration isn't without financial risks because of the tricky nature of the rock that holds the oil. Goodrich's stock took a big dive Feb. 20 when it announced results that failed to meet analysts' expectations. One key issue was a troublesome well Goodrich drilled elsewhere in Amite County that initially produced a disappointing 500 barrels per day.
For the region's economy, though, the drilling has already provided a much-needed infusion, even if it's not an all-out boom yet.
Heavily wooded with only a handful of small towns, Amite County has relied on forestry in recent decades. But Georgia-Pacific LLC closed a plywood mill in Gloster in 2009. Combined with other business closures, Chancery Clerk Ronnie Taylor said Amite County lost as many as 850 jobs. The county's 4,600 workers had an 8.7 percent unemployment rate in December, higher than Mississippi's average. Here and there, pastures are reminders of the county's fading dairy industry.
Bernell McGehee, an accountant in Liberty, said his family leased some forestland south of town to Encana for a $300-an-acre one-time payment. He stands to earn more in royalties if the land produces oil.
"Any debts we've had, we've pretty much been able to get rid of," he said.
McGehee is a partner in the Ward's restaurant in Liberty, Amite County's only fast-food franchise. He said sales have gone up about 10 percent over the last year, enough to persuade the owners to buy a small lot to add more parking.
Other business owners are taking a more tentative approach. Benny Vine says business at Vine Brothers Quality Meats in Centreville hasn't increased enough to merit an expansion.
"I don't know if I want to add on to the restaurant because it may not happen," Vine said.
Rhett Anderson was already planning a new house when he signed a deal to lease his mineral rights and receive royalties from Encana. He said the money means he hasn't cut any corners on the 7,500-square-foot dream house.
"I could build this home the way the dream was," Anderson said.