While companies such as Chesapeake Energy focused on natural gas, using fracking in places such as Pennsylvania, Continental Resources has focused on oil. And while natural gas prices have collapsed, oil remains near record levels.
So Continental is thriving. It expects to grow nearly 50 percent in 2012. Capital spending is expected to hit $2.3 billion, up from $1.8 billion, with most of the increase concentrated in the Bakken play, according to Barrington Research. The company is also expanding in similar places, including the Anadarko Woodford play in Oklahoma.
Hamm can’t resist a little dig at natural gas and wind promoter T. Boone Pickens, who bought hundreds of turbines, then had to sell them when he couldn’t complete a project. “Banks were giving them away with toasters,” Hamm jokes.
‘We cleaned it up’
Alhough backing Romney may be Hamm’s first major foray into national politics, he has played at the state level.
In North Dakota, where the legislature only meets every other year, Hamm backed then-Gov. Edward T. Schafer (R), who drove a bus around the state advocating a reduction in state oil taxes. When oil prices are below a certain threshold, no taxes need to be paid for two years, and Bakken wells produce much of their oil in the first two years. Hamm later put Schafer on the Continental Resources board of directors.
Hamm blames politics in North Dakota for charges brought by U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon against Continental Resources and six other companies for causing the deaths of 28 migratory birds that landed in waste pits from drilling activities. Though Continental was charged with only one of those deaths, which would be a misdemeanor, Hamm chose to fight the charges in court and won.
Now that he is backing Romney, he has come under scrutiny from environmental groups for everything from spills to waste pits to his use of hydraulic fracturing and the disposal of used fluids.
“Our air was polluted, and we cleaned it up,” says Hamm. “Our rivers were polluted, and we cleaned them up. What’s going on with fracking? What’s the problem? There’s not a problem. The regulatory aspects should be with the states, with the North Dakota Industrial Commission. . . . None of us wants to pollute any of our water. If it meant not fracking another well, I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t safe.” Environmental groups reply that state agencies don’t have enough inspectors or regulators to monitor the thousands of wells drilled every year and the pipelines and other oil infrastructure.
Many of the things Hamm says in casual conversation might not stand up to greater scrutiny. He once said that the Dickinson, N.D., McDonald’s was the second-busiest in the world, which isn’t the case. More important, he says that the U.S. government could make $12 trillion in royalties from oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters. Assuming the current 13 percent royalty rate, production on federal lands and waters would have to exceed current worldwide oil production for the next 25 years.
In elaborating on his unhappiness with Obama, Hamm has complained that millionaires are qualifying for food stamps and that under Obama individual freedoms are in danger.
Yet for Hamm, whose family received federal food aid when he was young and poor, life has never been better. And he has the money to promote his views.
Asked whether he felt it was fair that wealthy people like him could write million-dollar checks to sway a national election, he said: “I see President Obama go to a West Coast movie star’s place and raise $16 million in one deal, so it’s six of one, half dozen of another.” He added, “Those are the rules today. I don’t know if they’re right or wrong or what kind of impact it will have. We’ll have to see how it plays out.”
Instead he likes to talk about how the world has more oil in the ground than it has produced. “I tend to look at the big picture,” Hamm said. “That’s what I do. All this other stuff, throw it aside. That’s the prize.”