Jeff Sparks, the COO at Discovery Operating, has been discovering new horizons and operating on multiple fronts, including a director’s role at PBPA and a seat on the Midland City Council.
“It is like getting on a treadmill that is running up to 10 mph but you can only run 6 mph,” he quipped. “No matter how hard you go, you keep falling behind.”
Sparks wears a number of hats. Not only is he an area vice president for the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and chief operating officer for family-owned Discovery Operating, Inc., but he is also serving his second term as a member of the Midland City Council.
“I stay busy,” acknowledged Sparks, who admitted that serving on the city council has been a challenge during the remarkable growth that Midland has experienced during the current oil boom.
“The growth has been enormous,” he commented. “The city has just exploded. There is no possible way to keep up with infrastructure and housing with the influx into the city. It is disappointing not being able to keep up, but we have a lot of projects in the works, with apartment complexes and houses being built. We are running as fast as can be. We have had as organized growth as one might have while staying true to our conservative values and continuing to have a robust petroleum industry.”
A robust petroleum industry, of course, is vital to all facets of Sparks’ interests. He grew up in Midland, where his father Don Sparks started Discovery Operating 40 years ago. His two brothers, Kevin and Todd, are involved in the family-owned business, along with Jeff and their father.
Doug Scott, who recently retired from Halliburton, has known Jeff Sparks for more than 20 years.
“He’s very inquisitive. He listens well,” Scott says. “He’s a detailed person when it comes to the engineering and the operations he takes care of. He listens to the input of people around him and I think that that is what has made him successful.”
Another longtime Sparks peer, Midland Fire Chief Robert Isbell, knows Sparks the public servant, and thinks of Sparks as “one of us.”
“Jeff is unique in that he may be an oil and gas man, but he is just down to earth, just a regular guy,” Isbell said. “And that’s why I’m so impressed with him. He will call me and there may be something on the city council agenda that touches the fire department in some way and he will ask questions and see what I think about it and let me know the direction of his thoughts. So that when I get to council, I’ll know how to speak to the topic.”
Sparks said he returned to Midland and joined the family business in 1983 after earning a degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Texas. He and his wife, Val, have four children and one grandson. Their oldest son graduated from UT and is a petroleum engineer in Houston. Their second son graduated with a chemical engineering degree from Texas and works for Ortloff Engineering in Midland. A third son is a senior at Texas A&M and their daughter is a sophomore at Blinn College.
He admitted things are much different now compared to when he returned to Midland in 1983.
“Things went bust in 1986,” Sparks recalled. “It has a completely different feel now. Then, it was ‘How can we save money?’ Now, everyone is running and gunning, trying to keep up with everyone else. It is exciting.”
The Wolfberry play has brought drilling into the city limits of Midland, especially around the airport and on the north side of the city, something that hasn’t been seen since the 1950s, but Sparks said he is pleased that drilling within the city has not created many problems.
“The companies that have drilled in the city have done a good job getting along with neighbors,” he stated. “There have been very few complaints with oil and gas companies that moved in and put wells on production. When it is all said and done, neighbors have said it was not as bad as they thought it would be. I am tickled that companies that have drilled in the city have been conscious of neighbors’ needs and have done a good job.”
Much of Discovery Operating’s activity in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s was gas wells in Schleicher County, southwest of San Angelo, and in the Texas Panhandle, according to Sparks. But because of the weak gas market, Discovery “hasn’t done a lot in either area in the last 10 years,” he said. Instead, Discovery is currently active in Midland, Upton, and Andrews counties.
“I was involved in the Wolfberry in 2000, but we didn’t call it that,” he said of the vertical drilling and commingling of the Spraberry and Wolfberry zones. “We just called it the Spraberry/Wolfcamp. In the 1980s, Spraberry became a bad name when the price of oil fell to $8 a barrel and it didn’t look as good. But people came up with a clever name (Wolfberry) and all of sudden it looked more attractive.”
Sparks said it has been interesting to be a part of the Wolfberry play that has evolved into the engine that is powering the current Permian Basin boom.
“Horizontal wells look promising in the Wolfcamp, too,” he continued. “The technology that has changed since I was in college is remarkable. We get more out of the rock than we used to, but we are still leaving half of the oil in place. Something new will come along 20 years from now and we will be able to get even more oil out of the rock. We learn as we go. The Permian Basin is going to be prolific for years to come as we get better at getting the oil and gas. We know it is in place—we just have to learn how to get more of it out.”
Sparks said Discovery Operating, which typically has one or two rigs running, is hopeful it will be drilling its first horizontal well within the next year.
“Midland is going to be an oil center for at least the next 100 years,” he claimed. “The Permian Basin has several horizons that are oil-bearing and several natural gas horizons. We have lots and lots of space, and we know the oil is there. We just have to find new and better ways to drill and complete wells. Discovery will continue grow methodically. We are privately held, and we plan to continue to grow at a relatively constant but measured pace.”
Meanwhile, the Permian Basin’s growth continues at its current frenetic pace with no signs of slowing down, like Sparks’ description of a treadmill stuck on high speed.