Meet the Billionaire Pioneer of America’s Oil Boom

Harold Hamm, Tax Reform: Impact on U.S. Energy PolicyUnited States Senate Committee on FinanceTuesday, June 12, 2012.
National Journal
Amy Harder
Add to Briefcase
Amy Harder
Aug. 19, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
UNCLEAR IF THIS WILL AFFECT POLLS
Instant Reaction: Clinton Won Debate
7 minutes ago
DEBATE UPDATE

There seems to be a clear consensus forming about Monday's debate: Hillary Clinton was the clear winner. One focus group of undecided Pennsylvania voters, conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, found 16 favored Clinton while five picked Donald Trump. In a Florida focus group organized by CNN, 18 of 20 undecided voters saw Clinton as the winner.

DIDN’T BECAUSE CHELSEA WAS IN THE ROOM
Trump Wanted to Bring Up Bill Clinton
16 minutes ago
DEBATE UPDATE

As both candidates walked off the stage, Donald Trump lauded himself for being restrained and for not bringing up Bill Clinton. "I didn’t want to say—her husband was in the room along with her daughter, who I think is a very nice young lady—and I didn’t want to say what I was going to say about what’s been going on in their life," Trump said. Trump claims he stopped himself from hitting Bill Clinton because daughter Chelsea was in the room.

Source:
REPEATS CONTROVERSIAL CLAIM
Trump: Clinton “Doesn’t Have The Stamina” to be President
11 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

At the end of the debate, moderator Lester Holt asked Donald Trump if he stands by his statement that Hillary Clinton didn't have the look of a president. Trump responded by saying Holt misquoted him, instead saying that Clinton "doesn't have the stamina." Clinton responded by saying that when Trump visits 112 countries as secretary of state, he can talk to her about stamina.

WIDELY DEBUNKED CLAIM
Trump: Clinton Camp Started Birtherism
11 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Donald Trump, when pressed by Lester Holt on why he finally admitted that President Obama was born in America, repeated his widely debunked claim that it was started by Hillary Clinton.

“AFRICAN AMERICANS” ARE “LIVING IN HELL”
Conversation Shifts to Race
12 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Hillary Clinton went point by point on how race can so often determine the treatment that people receive, mentioning recent shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte, calling for restored trust between communities and police, and demanding criminal justice reform. Trump responded by calling for law and order and touting his endorsements from police unions. He then said that “African Americans are living in hell,” saying they are just walking down the street and getting “shot ... being decimated by crime."

×