Mixing Oil and Water


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Running an oil business is no easy task. Prices can fluctuate wildly, there are no guarantees of striking it rich, and strict drilling regulations and strident environmentalists offer plenty of roadblocks.

“You have to [keep] cool under pressure,” says Laurie Cunnington, president of Ward Williston Oil Co. in Bloomfield Hills. “If you meet all the regulations, drilling a well can cost $500,000 or more. It’s a big gamble and, fortunately, we’ve hit more good ones than bad ones.”

Operating more than 200 oil wells throughout the Midwest, including Michigan, Cunnington says she’s given up on trying to predict the price of light crude. “When prices are high, we drill for oil,” she says. “When they’re low, we service other wells. It’s like juggling balls on a unicycle, perched atop a tightrope in a high wind. It’s a [real] balancing act.”

Cunnington should know. After she and her husband, Thomas, sold separate computer companies in the early 1980s, they invested in a wildcat operation that struck oil in Illinois and Indiana. Then in 1987, the pair bought a struggling oil-services company owned by descendants of the Stroh and Oldsmobile families. Soon they drilled their first oil well in Michigan, and they continue to drill here.

“Our computer backgrounds came in handy because we installed video technology so we could monitor our wells from our office,” says Thomas, chairman and CEO of Ward Williston. “In addition to owning and servicing wells, we also provide consulting services where geologists and engineers research potential oil sites.”

One recent discovery has bolstered the company’s fortunes. In April 2008, the U.S. Geological Service reported the detection of a large oil field in Montana, North Dakota, and Canada. Estimated to contain more than 500 billion barrels, the so-called Bakken field came on the heels of another gusher. (In 2006, it was reported that some 2 trillion barrels are estimated to lie below the Rocky Mountains.)

“We service wells in the Bakken because it can cost as much as $5 million to drill what is a much deeper operation, but we do have land holdings that have the potential for oil there,” Laurie says. “In one instance, we drilled a well in the middle of a river in North Dakota. And we also do lateral drilling,” she adds.

With 115 employees, the company posted more than $50 million in revenue last year, and the Cunningtons say sales are expected to rise 5 percent to 10 percent this year.

In Michigan, Ward Williston has wells around Gaylord and Traverse City, and the Cunningtons say the state is ripe for additional oil discoveries. But strict regulations prevent further drilling. “It’s too bad  because there’s plenty of oil in Michigan,” Thomas says. “It would really help our economy if more drilling [were] allowed.”

A need for the Cunningtons’ drilling prowess has been found halfway around the world, as well. The couple and several friends have drilled more than 20 water wells in Sudan and are planning several dozen more throughout Africa. Each rig provides water for 1,000 people, on average, Laurie says.

“When you see that a woman in Africa walks an average of seven miles a day to get fresh water, a well can be a life-changing experience,” she says. “We’ve been supporting feeding programs in Africa for 25 years, and the water venture has been a personal source of pride. It’s something we work on every day.”

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