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An Interview with Retiring NOGCC Director Bill Sydow

Bill Sydow will step down as executive director of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at the end of June after nearly 25 years in the position. We recently had a conversation with Bill about how he got into the oil and gas industry, his experience before joining the Commission, thoughts about the future of exploration in Nebraska, and what comes next.

Question: The NOGCC has been recognized as a leader among state oil & gas regulating agencies. To what do you credit the NOGCC’s high regard?

The people who work here are very loyal to the Commission and I think everybody really likes their job. There is no fat. Everyone, almost to a person, has no manager. They have a job to do and they are responsible for doing it. You gotta wear a lot of hats. They have a servant’s attitude.

Our Commission is responsive. If we have to (take an enforcement action against a producer) we will, but the industry, maybe 95%, are trying to do the very best job they can. (Effective) regulatory agencies don’t control everything. They foster and promote and encourage the development of the natural resources.

Question: What makes the NOGCC among the best, if not the best, state regulating agency?

We follow four rules in the office.

First, to have effective rules and regulations, make sure everyone knows what they are, and then enforce them as even-handedly as possible.

Second, collect data, handle it as quickly as possible and turn it around to make it public as quickly as you can and you give it away for free.

Third, have a smile on your face every time someone walks thru the door

Fourth, do your work as fast as you can because time is money.

Question: Let’s turn back the clock. Where did you grow up?

I (was born in 1953 and) grew up in Rushville, in northwest Nebraska, on a dryland family farm. Except we had two patches of irrigated alfalfa. We grew wheat and oats, and raised pigs.

Question: How did you go from growing up on a farm in rural Nebraska to working in the oil and gas industry?

I went to Chadron State College, not far from Rushville, for 3.5 years and then my brother convinced me to transfer to the South Dakota School of Minesto pursue an engineering degree. He said I could make more money as an engineer. I graduated from SDSM&T, in Rapid City, South Dakota, in December 1976 with a degree in geological engineering.

I went to work for Amoco Production Company. They would take an engineer – any engineer – and train them to be a petroleum engineer. It was during the Arab oil embargo and petroleum engineers were really in demand. In 1981, we launched a frontier exploration company, Barrick Exploration Company, but in 1986 the producing assets of Barrick were purchased by King Ranch Oil & Gas.

Then I went to work for King Oil & Gas in Midland, Texas as an on-shore exploration manager. After 2 years in Midland, the office closed and everyone moved to Houston and got involved in off-shore, drilling wells in Federal water in the off-shore of Texas and Louisiana.

Question: When did you finally end up at the NOGCC?

After nearly 10 years with King Oil & Gas, I was just being worked to death. I saw this little bitty advertisement in the Oil and Gas Journal for a job in Nebraska.

NOGCC Director Paul Roberts was retiring at the end of 1994. There were 60 plus applicants. Ten of the applicants had telephone interviews and I was one of three finalists to be interviewed in-person. I was offered and accepted the Director position. The result was a $70,000 pay cut and we starved to death for a few years.

Question: What have been some of the highlights of your time at the NOGCC?

Electronic records. Starting in 1998 digital well files were set up. We worked hard to get them set up and we have the best database of any state in the United States and really anyone in the world. I’d put us up against the Canadians and Scandinavians.

(The NOGCC is) here to help people. Government is (supposed to be) here to serve people.

We permit wells in a few hours ….. there isn’t anybody who does that. (I believe government should not make it) a burden on people to comply with rules and regulations.

Question: What are your thoughts about the future of the industry in Nebraska and elsewhere?

I think the industry is still needed regardless of what people on the coast think. (Oil and gas are) a required feedstock in society. I’m concerned about the number of horizontal plays and that people aren’t exploring for new reserves. We’re back in old basins and yet I think there are places in other basins that should be explored. I see the industry going forward but I don’t see enough exploration.

We could potentially see some horizontal plays come into Nebraska, but Nebraska is still a place where exploration works. The cost isn’t too high (and maybe people can make it work financially).

If I have my way, there’s going to be oil in new areas (in Nebraska). I think it’s there, I just can’t tell you where it is yet.

(The industry has changed a lot since the boom in the 1980s.) There were 335 production companies then versus 105 production companies in Nebraska today. Back then there were 38 different drilling companies (but today) you can hardly get a drilling company in the basin (there are less than 10 companies).

Question: And what comes next for you, Bill?

I’m going to set up a little LLC for me and my wife, Karen, and get some wells drilled (including) maybe some here in Nebraska. They are going to be wild. I think there are opportunities (in addition to Nebraska) in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Nevada worth exploring.

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