An independent energy company based in Denver has opened its first regional office in Billings to better develop its oil-and-gas leases around Roscoe and Red Lodge and along the Big Horn Basin of Montana and Wyoming.

Energy Corporation of America chief executive John Mork said he has been exploring these Montana properties for 50 years, but like many other oil-and-gas companies, pulled out of Billings when prices tanked in the mid-1980s.

These energy reserves in Montana and Wyoming were discovered a century ago, he said, but they couldn’t be produced economically until modern drilling techniques, chiefly horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, were perfected.

“I would love to bring something like the Bakken, maybe something a little more orderly than what is going on in Williston right now, to the area in the Big Horns and other areas in Montana,” he said. “It would fundamentally change these areas the way it has changed other areas of the United States.”

The company he and his wife, Julie, started in 1963 controls 1 million mineral acres, owns and operates about 4,600 wells and 5,000 miles of pipeline. The company has been focusing in the shale oil plays in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Texas, as well as New Zealand.

Their son, Kyle Mork, is the chief operating officer and attended the official office opening at 3737 Grand Ave. Pete Coors of the Colorado beer brewing dynasty serves on ECA’s board and also attended the Billings ceremony.

“While we’ve operated in Montana for quite a long time, I realize we’re not exactly a household name,” Kyle Mork said.

In Montana, ECA plans on developing up to 50 wells in two zones on the MacKay dome near Roscoe and the Dean dome, as well as an undetermined number of wells in the Big Horn Basin of Montana and Wyoming along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone. With horizontal drilling techniques, multiple wells can be drilled from a single pad or site.

“What we know about, in a couple of years we’ll have it developed,” John Mork said. “These fields are producing wonderfully now.”

He was talking about the reserves his company has already identified before exploring for other good prospects.

Because ECA is privately owned, it can keep costs down, stay independent and take a long-range perspective, John Mork said, adding that his family has turned down numerous buyout offers.

The company has a clean environmental record, he said, and all the water used in fracking is reinjected. Fracking involves injecting water and some chemicals at extremely high pressure to break up shale rock two miles or more under the surface, releasing the oil and gas.

About 90 percent of ECA’s production is natural gas. The price of that commodity has dropped to record lows, thanks largely to the explosion of production from shale plays in North Dakota, the Marcellus formation in New York and Pennsylvania and shale in Texas.

The unexpected riches from oil shale production are a huge deal economically to the United States, John Mork said. During a recent meeting with David Petraeus, a retired four-star general and former CIA director, Mork said Petraeus estimated the shale plays could save the United States $380 billion a year, money now used to buy crude oil from often unfriendly countries.

ECA’s 300 employees are able to keep production costs low compared to other companies, so natural gas remains profitable for ECA, John Mork said.

The Roscoe and Big Horn wells are shallower and therefore less expensive to drill than a Bakken well. John Mork said his company spends about $3 million to drill each Montana well.

The Billings office will be run by Derrick Pottmeyer, ECA’s Rockies district manager.

The Mork family established the ECA Foundation in 1996, which has given $25 million to local charities. Two years ago, John and Julie Mork donated $110 million to the University of Southern California for scholarships and improving education remains a passion, he said.

“We’re looking forward to growing here, to bringing more and more good paying jobs and to continue our support of the communities where we work,” Kyle Mork said.

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