The oil-finder lives by his imagination, and he is not plagued by doubt.
He has a certain quality, unnamable to many of those who have it, that possesses him to gamble hundreds of thousands of dollars and more on a picture in his mind's eye of how it was -- thousands of feet down -- millions of years ago.
Once it was called doodlebugging, after the ''doodlebug'' sticks oil seekers would use like divining rods. Now finding oil has grown more important, more scientific, and more lucrative than ever before. The hunt is accelerating toward the fervid pace of the early 1950s. It is drawing students to geology like moths to light. It is luring geologists from the major oil companies, where they got their experience, to independent firms, where they get a piece of the action.
What Victor Church sees as he drives the long, straight roads through the cotton fields of the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley -- California's fruit basket -- is not cotton or long straight roads. He sees ridges, pools, and slopes a mile and two miles straight down: the mountains and streams of millenniums ago.
Or rather, he imagines them. He has worked among them for years and he will never see them.
What he will do is put a pinhole in the plain -- a well -- over 7,000 feet deep and a mile away from the safe company of his present, working wells, and see if the oil field extends that far. The drilling alone will cost a quarter-million dollars. He has wanted to try it for years.
Victor Church is an independent petroleum geologist. He looks for oil. He has his own projects and he consults for others and does various combinations of the two.
What he will not discover are offshore fields or major new basins like the Overthrust Belt, Tuscaloosa Trend, or Anadarko Basin. Nor will he romp through tropical swamps and across arctic tundra with geological field parties mapping fresh territory -- that is the work of the capital-rich big companies. But Mr. Church will find oil in the well-charted ground under the cotton fields around Bakersfield, ground that doesn't draw big-company attention. He and the other independents sank 80 percent of the exploratory wells drilled in the country last year, and discoverd about half the new oil reserves.
The price of oil has made room for the little guy in the exploration business. Small leaseholdings and small oil fields are more economic to drill now. Smaller pieces allow for smaller players in the game.
One well in 50 pays for itself, estimates geologist Eugene F. (Bud) Reid. His father, a drilling contractor here (one who contracts to drill the wells of others), sank some 50 wells of his own during his career. He found oil, but never enough to recover his losses.
Mr. Reid, a widely respected explorationist, had tasted the entrepreneur's life with his father's drilling outfit. So 12 years after Occidental Petroleum had bought up the firm and Reid had become Occidental's vice-president of oil and gas operations, he struck out on his own. He took $200,000 of his own money -- ''which is nothing in this business'' -- teamed up with two friends in Denver , and started Sunburst Exploration.
That was in 1972, just before the first worldwide oil shocks, and it was a good time to get into the business. Between prices pushing upward and deregulation letting them rise, it has grown steadily better.
By late last fall, three times as many wells were being drilled as in 1971 -- the low ebb in the exploration business after what some oilmen call the ''sorry '60s.''
What does it take to find oil?
The price of admission to the oil hunt is a solid footing in the science of the earth. Most explorationists have master of science degrees in geology and many have PhD's. But the art lies in having what Bud Reid calls a nose for oil and gas.
''Some people will never get it,'' Reid muses. ''It's uncanny. They're born pessimists.'' Finding new fields or new pools demands new techniques, especially refinements in seismic sounding methods. New theories of how geologic structures form open up whole new regions. Plate tectonics theory spawned wildcat wells in Arizona, where drilling had been unthinkable a few years ago.
But give 10 geologists with the same technical background the same set of clues about a region, says Michel T. Halbouty of the Michel T. Halbouty Energy Company in Houston, and only one of them will know where to drill for oil.
Of all the geologists out looking for oil, he says with a crusty competitive edge, ''5 percent are oil-finders. The other 95 percent think they are.''
To be one of the good ones, he says, it takes a strong knowledge of the earth and how to interpret it, an unusual power of deduction and imagination, and the courage -- ''the intestinal fortitude'' -- to back up your theories.
Mr. Halbouty got his start as the only geologist at an independent firm in the 1930s. He had a doctorate in geology but no previous experience. He was at the site of a well that was about to be abandoned when he picked up a core sample and noticed rock in it that told him the drill bit was past the salt dome that had discouraged the drillers. He persuaded the company president to call off the abandonment and drill a little farther. The field they found, Halbouty says, has produced 150 million barrels of oil. It helped to make him one of the storied names in the business.
It is usually a team, and not an individual explorationist, that makes the big oil and gas finds. But according to Harry Jamison, now president of the Arco Exploration Company, the same spark that lights the imagination of an independent oil-finder ''sets off the synergism in an exploration team to look for oil'' in a major company.
The key to this imaginative, intuitive side of exploration, Mr. Jamison says, is ''an innate curiosity about the anomaly that doesn't quite fit.'' The oil-finder thrills to the significant quirk, the exception, rather than trying to ''force-fit'' all the data into a pattern.
Jamison himself was head of an Arco exploration team in Alaska a few years ago when a pair of anomalies aroused his curiosity. A well-known geological structure there, the Colville High, was logically the most propitious place to find oil in the area. Union Oil had drilled a well there with disappointing results, and had moved on. But in the northeast side of the lower (and therefore less promising) structure to the east of Colville, the Arco team noticed geologic subtleties that, taken together, would imply an oil trap.
That was Prudhoe Bay. Now, of course, it is well known as a major part of the nation's oil reserves and Jamison is president of Arco Exploration.
The talent exploration demands is a hard one to identify in people, Jamison says, and a hard one to nurture in a corporate environment - to give it the freedom it needs to survive.
''People that have it tend not to fit the mold,'' he explains, and a company needs to take special care not to lose them.
The big companies, generally speaking, are losing them. Bob Haynes, manager of recruiting for Shell in Houston, notes that he has no problem drawing entry-level geologists. These are usually bearers of master's degrees without experience. But turnover is high. Once geologists get their training and a few years of experience, they leave for smaller companies, where they may participate both in the profits of the oil and gas they find and help make decisions. Bud Reid puts it simply: ''Geologists will go where their prospects are drilled.'' That is, where the company will follow through on their exploration work by sinking wells.
They are enticed with ads like this one in a recent trade magazine for a geologist with four years' experience: ''You will see your prospects drilled,'' it promises -- along with a car, a $50,000 base salary, and a ''unique incentive plan.''Bob Haynes can't tell when he hires a first-time geologist whether or not he has a nose for oil. He can only look for a well-rounded person. What he hopes for is someone inventive, ''sort of a free spirit kind of person -- not just going by the rules.'
'The geologist will be trying to picture a reservoir thousands of feet down that he will never see. ''Even if you find oil, you'll never see it.'' He can only piece clues together from seismic tests and from the newest theories of the earth's structure, and try to re-create the way the earth looked several thousand years ago. He will work behind a blind made up of miles of earth and must not discourage easily -- since only 1 wildcat well in 8 finds any oil at all.
Occidental once found a reef off the Louisiana coast similar to one in Libya that contained oil, Reid recalls. They drilled. It was a mud plug.
''We decided the San Joaquin Valley was one of the best prospects we'd seen, '' he says of another Occidental disappointment. ''It just wasn't there.'' There had been velocity errors in the seismic tests.
All explorationists have such histories. But the intuitive talent that makes the good ones good comes down to optimism, Mr. Reid says. In this business, nothing is a sure thing: ''I never knew a prospect that didn't have something wrong with it.''