Oklahoma: 1971 vs. 2011

National Geographic published a story about Oklahoma 40 years ago this month. We look at some of the same issues today.
BY KEN RAYMOND kraymond@opubco.com Modified: August 30, 2011 at 11:20 am •  Published: August 30, 2011

Forty years ago this month, National Geographic magazine published a sprawling piece about Oklahoma.

Across 41 pages, the article detailed writer Robert Paul Jordan's monthslong tour of the Sooner State. He met with then-Gov. David Hall, ventured into the oil fields, explored Oklahoma City's stockyards and marveled at the working oil wells on the grounds of the Oklahoma Capitol.

The piece is exuberant. By all indications, Jordan had a great affection for our state and its people. Nowhere is that affection more explicit than at the end, when he describes pulling into a rest stop along the Indian Nation Turnpike.

“I walked along the right-of-way,” he wrote. “A covey of quail rose from the brush at my approach, wings whirring. Back at my car, I glanced idly at the license plate. OKLAHOMA IS OK, it assured me. All of the license plates say it. OKLAHOMA IS OK.

“No, I said, it is not. Not at all. Oklahoma is tremendous. Put that on your license plates.”

Reading Jordan's article, we wondered: How different is our Oklahoma, today's Oklahoma, from the one he detailed in 1971? What has changed? What remains the same?

What follows is a look at some of the highlights of the National Geographic article, along with contemporary accounts of those same issues.

Biggest problem

I called on newly-elected Governor David Hall one pleasant afternoon last January at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. It was his first day in office. ... I asked what he considered the state's biggest problem. “Education,” Governor Hall replied, leaning forward, hands on knees. “That's our first priority. ... We've got to spend more on our schools. I am convinced that education is the greatest problem-solver of the 20th century.” — “Oklahoma, the Adventurous One,” National Geographic, August 1971.

We posed the same question to Gov. Mary Fallin: What is the state's biggest problem?

“Our biggest challenge in Oklahoma right now that I'm focusing on is growing Oklahoma's economy to create more and better jobs in this state,” Fallin said. “Especially at this time when we've had an economic downturn ... attracting new jobs and investments and retaining jobs is vital.”

That isn't to say that the education problem has been solved. Far from it.

“Certainly the last three years have been challenging with the economic downturn that we've faced in our state,” she said. “Education has suffered. We've taken some cuts because we can't spend money we don't have.”

Next month, she said, Oklahoma will join a National Governors Association initiative that aims to prevent college students from dropping out. Among other things, “Complete to Compete” calls for states to adopt common performance measurements and change first-year course work, according to the association's website.

One reason college students fail to flourish in higher education is inadequate preparation during their K-12 years.

“We still have way too high of a remediation rate when our high school graduates enter college,” Fallin said. “Forty-three percent of them need remediation in reading and math when they go to college.”

One bright spot, she said, is the state's record enrollment in colleges and universities, even if it is due to the struggling national economy.

“More of our young folks and even adults are going back to college,” Fallin said, “and that's good news for Oklahoma.”

Oil industry

Oil built Oklahoma. ... I looked long at a well drilled in 1941 on a slant beneath the State Capitol. Sooners love it — and 17 others on the capitol grounds, about half of them still producing. Unfortunately, oil and gas wells eventually play out, depleted. New reserves must be found. ... The average Oklahoma gas well comes in at 8,000 feet and costs $125,000. — National Geographic

Forty years of inflation has changed the price of drilling, said Cody Bannister of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association.

“Those wells out in western Oklahoma around Elk City now cost $3 million to $8 million,” Bannister said. “The reason is there's a lot of gas out there, but it's really deep so it's hard to drill down to it.”

Improved technology means drillers are able to reach deposits they couldn't reach in the 1970s, he said.

“Now you can drill down 8,000 feet and then go sideways another 10,000 feet,” he said. “That's something you were never able to do before.”

Oil and gas remain the lifeblood of our state.

The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board recently released a study conducted by researchers at Oklahoma City University. According to the study, companies in our state pumped and marketed 67 million barrels of oil in 2009 and 1.85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making Oklahoma the sixth largest oil producer and the third largest natural gas producer.

More than 71,000 Oklahomans work in drilling and production, and more than 228,000 work in support roles, accounting for more than $14 billion in income.

In 1971, National Geographic described Robert A. Hefner III, then 36, as the most optimistic driller of all time. In the article, Hefner spoke confidently about potential reserves near Elk City.

He was right, of course.

“In the oil and gas industry, people have referred to him as many things, including the Pioneer of the Anadarko Basin, which is what the area has become known as,” said his grandson, Robert Hefner V, 25. “It's been produced like no other.”

The elder Hefner, whose mother went into labor during dinner at the White House, became an energy legend. In 1971, the deepest well drilled was a 25,600-foot hole in Louisiana; later that decade, Hefner III bored a hole more than 30,000 feet deep. He was inducted into the Explorers Club in New York City, and he continues to advocate for energy interests today.

Is his grandson as optimistic?

“I'm nowhere close,” Hefner V said, laughing. “I'm pretty optimistic, but I'm ... still young and trying to make a name for myself. He's all over the world. He's in Singapore. He's in London. He has a place in Aspen. He's constantly promoting oil and gas.”

Urban development

I could see a moiling metropolis straggling to the sky's rim. Beneath me, where the city had been born, I stared at something else. Destruction. Devastation. Steel headache balls smashing the ribs of the dismal, worn-out business district. I could see, too, another dramatic birth, an emerging downtown section as modern and sparkling as man can devise. ... That, I thought, is Oklahoma City for you, past and present. “The City of Tomorrow,” her boosters modestly proclaim. — National Geographic

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