Shortly after we first came down to West Michigan, I was driving along M-45 Lake Michigan Drive between Allendale and Standale, and in the summer heat smelled a sharp petroleum smell. I turned my head and in the distance I could see the distinctive horsehead shape of a small oil well, it's head bobbing up and down. Nearby were a couple of big dark green tanks.
Oil? In West Michigan? Yup. As I travel some of the back roads around here, I frequently get surprised by spotting another oil well in the distance, or more commonly the green storage tanks or even the roadside pipe for offloading the oil into a truck.
I've always wondered about the oil wells. Some are quiet, some have their pump shafts disconnected, some clearly haven't been used or painted in a long time. But some are functioning, though not all the time or every day. I assumed that they were low volume wells -- a fact that was confirmed a few years ago when I read a small story about them. I also assumed that they pumped heavy sour crude oil, rich in sulfur, because why wouldn't we be saddled with "bad" oil? On that score, it turns out I was wrong. It's light sweet crude, the same stuff in the benchmark oil price so oft quoted in the news.
Micro Saudi Arabia
Two Sundays ago an article on West Michigan oil wells ran in the Sunday Grand Rapids Press. With crude oil prices high, it seems that the 1930s era oil wells around here are getting profitable again, though not in any great hurry or in any great numbers. A typical well makes about $800 a year, I guess. They pull up a mixture of oil, brine water and natural gas -- another local gas well was connected with a lightning fire this weekend.
Someday I need to go outside with a nice telephoto lens and photograph some of the wells. They are really neat looking things -- all look very similar, yet all seem very individualistic in terms of parts, fencing, paint schemes, etc. There's one I pass most mornings on a back road, nestled between two houses and just behind where they park the pickup truck. I guess the little 2 h.p. electric motors don't make a lot of racket, as the head bobs up and down and slowly pumps stuff out of the ground. All told it's not a lot of money or a lot of oil. The price they get for the crude around here is about $89 a barrel. But it's all very interesting.
And on days when the truck offloads the tanks, you can get a strong scent of petroleum in the air, summer or winter. There's money in them thar wells...