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Prospectors have found oil in Harding County, but even greater riches are just across the state line.
Prospectors have found oil in Harding County, but even greater riches are just across the state line.

Share That Black Gold

Jul 15, 2015

If it weren’t for “The Lone Ranger” theme, otherwise known as the “William Tell Overture,” I wouldn’t know any classical music. I don’t know much about jazz, gospel, hip-hop, rock, country or bluegrass, either, but I do remember every note of “The Beverly Hillbillies” song.

Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed

A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,

Then one day he was shootin’ at some food,

And up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea.

Well the first thing you know ol’ Jed’s a millionaire,

Kinfolk said “Jed move away from there”

Said “Californy is the place you ought to be”

So they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly.

Hills, that is. Swimmin’ pools. Movie stars.

When you combine those poetic lyrics with Elly May’s hourglass figure you’ve got some pretty memorable television.

For the first few years of that show, at least, I thought a bullet fired into the ground could actually reach oil. Then I saw a diagram of an oil well alongside an upside down Empire State Building, which everything tall (or deep) got compared to in those days. The up/down thing made the comparison somewhat confusing, but I got the general idea: oil wells are pretty deep. Jed’s bullets could never reach oil, I reasoned. Unless he was using an atomic gun, of course.

What’s an atomic gun, you ask? Well … like many Americans of that era, I was terrified by the atom bomb. Advertisers made use of this emotion in a rather odd way: if they wanted to suggest something was really powerful they put “atomic” in the name. Atomic breakfast flakes. Atomic toilet bowl cleaner. Even professional wrestlers embraced the concept. They employed atomic leg locks, atomic chokeholds, and my personal favorite, the atomic pile driver, where a wrestler put his opponent’s head between his knees and fell backward, driving the unfortunate’s head into the floor. My nine-year-old brain naturally assumed there was such a thing as an atomic gun, and it could shoot to the center of the earth.  

But I digress. Jed’s good fortune and the subject of oil wells in general came to mind recently when I read of Rex Energy Corporation’s plans to drill for oil in Laramie County, which is in the southeast corner of Wyoming. The most interesting point of the article was that they are planning to drill 6,000 feet down and 4,000 feet sideways. I had always assumed well drilling was strictly a straight up and down affair. This new technique gave birth to a great idea.

As I mentioned, these wells are being drilled in eastern Wyoming, which is right next door to western South Dakota. Do you see where I’m going with this? Why can’t we set up a drilling rig in Fall River County and start drilling down and sideways until we hit that pool of black gold?

While we’re at it, they are also finding lots of oil and natural gas up in North Dakota. Those honyockers are making so much money they don’t know what to do with it all. Have they even thought about sharing the wealth? No! We’d share with them if we had anything they wanted, wouldn’t we? Is that fair? Let’s poke a pipe from Harding County north and see what we find.

This might seem a trifle dishonest, but I’ve been doing research in various Internet chat rooms and I think I’ve discovered a legal loophole. As any lawyer will tell you, that’s just as good as being honest in the first place. In the landmark case Bluto v. Popeye, where Bluto ran a pipe underground and siphoned off the oil before it reached Popeye’s drilling rig, the court held that Bluto was entitled to the oil because of the long-established common law principle dominus vobiscum. I have no idea what that means, but I’ve discovered that if you say something in Latin people are so impressed they quit arguing and concede your point. Maybe that’s true in court, too.

At the end of the day, Popeye ate a can of spinach, stuffed Bluto into his own pipe and made oil gush out his ears, which rendered the court’s judgment moot, but you can see how this precedent applies to our current situation. I hope.

In any case, drilling a well and siphoning off a few million barrels of our neighbors’ oil wouldn’t be that much different from what states do, or try to do, every day of the week. Poaching businesses from other states is our national pastime, and every town in South Dakota is a player. We promise businesses looking to relocate the moon and the stars and a conscientious labor force that will work for next to nothing. We tout our quality of life and low taxes. With all of that going for it, I’m amazed Our Fair State doesn’t win this game every time and have a car factory on the edge of every corn field.

Sometimes states simplify things and bypass the whole wining and dining and bribing with tax breaks process: they entice the citizens of neighboring states to cross the border and leave their money behind. South Dakota has been hugely successful at this, thanks to our natural and unnatural wonders.

We’ve got to face facts, though. Sooner or later, everyone who’s interested will have seen all our attractions. Then where will we be? We need to start drilling. Today. Swimmin’ pools and movie stars await.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the November/December 2010 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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