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
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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.

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