George P. Mitchell missed by six weeks the chance to see an unmistakable example of how he changed the world. In early September, President Barack Obama pushed Congress to authorize air strikes against Syria, roiling the international community and igniting a firestorm on Capitol Hill. In the past, the mere hint that a U.S. president was considering military action in the largest oil-producing region in the world would have been enough to drive traders into a frenzy and send prices soaring.
It was around one in the afternoon on a Wednesday in August, and another bustling lunch hour at the Petroleum Club, in Midland, was under way. “I don’t come here as much as most people,” Jason Hoisager told me as he walked up the marble staircase. “Maybe twice a week.” Hoisager is a dimple-cheeked up-and-comer. He was riding the high from having recently hit a 1,200-barrel-a-day well, which, based on current prices, will make $10 million by next fall.
In 1981, when my father was 26 years old, he quit his job at a chemical plant near Houston, loaded his family into the car, and moved us back to Big Spring to get rich on the boom. It was a journey similar to one his own father had made during the Depression, when he’d struck out from Georgia in a T-model Ford and headed for West Texas and the sea of oil that lay beneath it. My grandfather found work as a roughneck and derrick man and started his family in a shotgun house owned by Conoco.
Sometimes it pays to start at the bottom. Rod Lewis began working for Stampede Energy in 1978 as a gauger—a tough job that required him to keep oil and gas wells running—and in the early eighties he used that experience, plus $13,000, to buy a sluggish well and jump-start its gas flow. Since that time, Lewis, now the CEO of Lewis Energy Group, has become the second-wealthiest person in San Antonio (after Charles Butt).
The great-uncle of brothers Sid, Ed, Robert, and Lee was the wildcatter Sid Richardson, who, the legend goes, borrowed $40 from his sister during the Depression and hit it rich in the Keystone oil field, west of Odessa. When he died, in 1959, he left a tidy sum to his sister’s son, Perry Bass, an oilman in his own right. Perry grew his inheritance into a vast fortune and groomed his four sons, who all attended Yale, to take over the family business.
H. L. Hunt’s third-born son lost his fortune in the early eighties after joining his brother Bunker and several Saudis in a bid to corner the world’s silver market, buying up 60 percent of the U.S. supply before prices collapsed. He wound up filing for one of the largest bankruptcies in the nation’s history, but after years of living quietly, Hunt made his way back into the ranks of the world’s billionaires last year with new success in the old family business: oil and gas.
In 1984 Trevor Rees-Jones gave up his career as a lawyer to search for oil. Then, in the late nineties, everything changed. With his venture Chief Oil and Gas, Rees-Jones was among the first to develop, on a large scale, a technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the Barnett Shale. He soon found himself a major player in one of the largest oil and gas booms in history. By 2005 Chief was the second-biggest producer in the Barnett, delivering 100 million cubic feet of natural gas per day.
Jeffrey Hildebrand founded Hilcorp with two partners in 1989, after a career at Exxon. Like many oil patch start-ups, Hilcorp grew by buying proven fields that larger competitors considered too small.
The four children of Dan L. Duncan found themselves thrust onto this list after their father died of a cerebral hemorrhage, in 2010. Duncan, who was the richest man in Houston at the time of his death, was born poor in the East Texas hamlet of Center. He experienced tragedy at age seven, when his brother died of blood poisoning and his mother died of tuberculosis; as a teenager he followed his father’s example and went to work as a roughneck. Later he became an accountant for Wanda Petroleum.
One of H. L. Hunt’s fourteen kids, Ray Hunt inherited a wildcatter’s sense of how to make a play from his dad. So while his half brothers Bunker and Herbert were sitting on silver and going bankrupt in the eighties, Ray was growing H. L.’s original company, Hunt Oil. And now he’s a twenty-first-century global wildcatter, with huge holdings in places like Yemen and Peru.