WILLISTON, N.D. — Harold Hamm once drilled 17 wells without finding any oil. That is the longest string of dry holes he's ever drilled and was back in the 1980s, more than a decade before he made billions leading the way in tapping into North Dakota's rich oil fields.
So what's the longest streak of oil-rich wells he has drilled? "It's probably in the thousands," he said, before adding with muted laughter: "Knock on wood." (Click here for National Journal Daily's full interview with Hamm.)
As founder and CEO of Continental Resources, an independent oil company that was the earliest and still is the largest producer of oil in the vast Bakken oil fields spanning Western North Dakota and parts of Montana and South Dakota, Hamm is one of the most influential thinkers in the oil industry today and one of the wealthiest people on Earth. He is worth $11.3 billion and ranked the 90th richest person in the world, according to Forbes.
The 67-year-old Hamm has a quintessential American rags-to-riches story, which was told over and over during the 2012 election when he was advising Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The youngest of 13 children in a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers, Hamm started out after high school in Enid pumping gas and fixing cars while taking college classes in geology and engineering. He never got a degree.
"I would have tried to have gone to college out of high school somehow," Hamm said when asked what advice he would give his younger self. He was quick to add: "I never look back and second guess."
He started his own company in 1967, Shelly Dean Oil Company, named after his first two daughters. It was later renamed Continental Resources. In 1971, he drilled his first well. The second was a gusher. "It produced 75 barrels of oil per hour," Hamm wrote in a Forbes op-ed in December 2012. "And everyone took notice."
Hamm doesn't look or act like a billionaire. Wearing Carhartt jeans, a blue Continental long-sleeve shirt, and matching hat, he helped himself to biscuits and gravy for a breakfast interview at the Holiday Inn Express off an ugly industrial highway in Williston earlier this month.
With the foresight that the Bakken oil boom wasn't going bust any time soon, Hamm's company bought a house here in Williston a year ago. "We found out a long time ago that instead of depending on motel rooms and the lack of them that we'd have a place to hang our hats," Hamm said.
Over the past year, his story has taken new twists. His involvement in the Romney campaign, including a $985,000 donation to the super PAC supporting the Republican's candidacy, has vaulted his name outside of the energy and finance world into politics, where the limelight brings constant scrutiny. He isn't eager to get back into the fray.
"I don't think my political future is bright," Hamm said with a quiet laugh. "I just have so much that I have to do, and if I can help, certainly I'd be glad to." He didn't have any specific suggestions as to whom Republicans should nominate in the 2016 presidential race: "We'll just have to see who wants to take that abuse."
Another unforgiving limelight is shining on him now, one that could cost him half his fortune. Earlier this year, Reuters reported that Hamm and his second wife, who have been married since 1988, are getting a divorce. It's unclear whether the couple signed a prenuptial agreement, and Sue Ann Hamm, who was an executive at Continental, could get half of Hamm's billionaire fortune. Hamm could lose controlling stake in the company he created from nothing and go down in history as having the world's most expensive divorce settlement. The estranged couple have two grown children, and he has three children from a prior marriage.
"I don't know how much I want to talk personally," Hamm said, after a long pause, when asked about his divorce. "I've tried to seek a balance in life like everybody does. I'm very focused on my work. And I've been able to remain focused on my job, and the work that I have to do here."
He indicated his divorce proceedings aren't having any effect on his company's success. "I want the company to do well, and it is. That's maintained my focus, I'm glad." As for all of the attention his divorce is getting in the media and elsewhere, like Wall Street, he shrugged it off. "There have been folks blowing it out of proportion," Hamm said.
While half of $11.3 billion is not a small proportion by most standards, Hamm has his eyes set on an even larger goal. He wants to triple the amount of oil Continental is producing over the next five years. By 2020, he wants to be drilling 300,000 barrels of oil a day. "We're well on the way," Hamm said.
He is unabashedly devoted to oil, over other fossil fuels and renewables. Hamm acknowledges that the environment and climate change are concerns, but he doesn't think taxes or regulations on the fossil fuels exacerbating the problem are the way to go. In fact, the father of five has an even bolder idea.
"Overpopulation is probably the biggest concern for the environment," Hamm said. "Are we going to provide rules to stop overpopulating areas in Africa? Middle Eastern countries? Probably should. China did. Stop overpopulating areas with people. Should we in the U.S.? Maybe we should think about that, if we're truly concerned about that."
Hamm is going in the opposite direction of many energy companies today. Instead of diversifying his energy portfolio and touting an "all of the above" approach like what President Obama espouses as he seeks to combat climate change, Hamm is all about the oil. The majority of his company's production — 75 percent — is oil. The rest is natural gas.
"I'm an oil-o-crat," he said, having to repeat himself because his Southern accent made comprehending the new word Hamm had coined a challenge. "It's the most efficient fuel on Earth today. You refine it to make a whole lot of products."
As Hamm and a small number of other people in the global oil industry have learned, you can make billions of dollars with it, too.