GILLETTE, Wyo. — Looking through an office window across the expansive grasslands of his family’s South African ranch, Craig Knight could spot kudu, impala and warthogs foraging across the range land his family used to raise beefmaster cattle.
He came to the United States in 1988 and began to seek out knowledge from American ranchers about the beef industry he could take home.
Traveling from West Lafayette, Ind., Knight made his way from ranch to ranch learning as much as he could.
Then he arrived in Wyoming. Something about the Powder River Basin’s wide-open grasslands reminded him of South Africa.
Looking across the mineral-rich basin, Knight saw more than cows, antelope and ranches; he saw opportunity.
Coal mines were increasing production and environmental reclamation and the natural gas industry was just getting started.
Mineral companies needed skilled mappers to plot and locate facilities, drainages and help plan development.
So, he ended up staying and undertook a new career in computer-aided drafting and geographical mapping. He now has his own company, Knight Technologies Inc., which he runs with his wife.
Now, looking out the window of his office in Gillette, Knight has the privileged perspective of seeing those early opportunities realized, even beyond what he expected.
“I knew coal-bed methane was going to take off, but I had no idea it would take off as it has,” he said. “I don’t even think the operators knew.”
“For this mapping business, the goal was the coal mining, to develop site mine plans and do reclamation work,” Knight said.
While coal mines are the mainstay of the business — Knight Technologies has all but two of the basin’s coal mines for clients — work in the coal-bed methane industry is what is allowing it to grow.
Knight Technologies is looking to double its staff to six, with an administrative assistant, an engineer and a computer-aided design and geographic information systems specialist.
It has grown out of the cozy 1,500 square-foot office and is preparing to move into a 2,600 square-foot office space nearby.
New development is the key to Knight Technologies’ coal-bed methane business. For every new coal-bed methane project targeting federal minerals, operators must submit a water management plan that details the location of the wells, pipelines, roads, water discharge points and reservoirs.
Surveyors send Knight e-mail attachments or computer disks full of unformatted data x, y and z coordinate points, relating with near pinpoint precision longitude, latitude and elevation of the land, wells, pipelines and roads.
Knight Technologies takes that information and, depending on the desired output, maps or plots the raw data on a grid, topographic map or aerial satellite photograph.
John Dolinar is an engineer with William H. Smith, a surveyor company from Green River, who has been in Gillette on a temporary coal-bed methane job for the past year and expects to be here another year.
The company has used Knight Technologies for the last year to map and plot all the projects that its draftsmen can’t handle.
“Primarily we use them because we need additional help. They assist us in preparing maps by placing the data we generate,” he said. “I think they’re the only ones in the area doing that. The rest are engineering consultants that work in Gillette ... They have a better way to integrate with different systems than most of us do.”
Pennaco Energy has started making more use of not only the mapping capabilities of Knight Technologies, but also its database management skills, as well.
“This is the only company that I have seen in the area that make databases talk to each other and they are probably one of the better ones,” said John Kawcak, Pennaco’s drilling and construction manager.
Knight has just completed a project that allows Pennaco’s GIS “smart maps” to automatically update weekly, inserting nested data into the map, like layers in a cake.
With data from local conservation districts and independent soil scientists, “smart maps” also can nest information on soil chemistry and susceptibility to erosion.
Methane companies can use these maps to help determine where to discharge water and where not to, Knight said.
But it is not just the mineral industry that have found the services useful.
Knight has been approached by ranchers and landowners who are interested in doing an inventory of their lands before methane wells start producing.
Knight uses infrared satellite images taken from space to map vegetation and drainages that can be used as a baseline measurement once methane development begins.
While coal-bed methane activity has allowed Knight Technologies to expand, recent price drops and volatility in the natural gas market don’t have Knight too worried.
“I don’t think that the price is going to affect growth, because we’re all targeting the long term and diversifying,” he said.
Five years ago, they said it would last five years, and now they’re saying it will last another five to 10 years still, he said Knight said his plan is to stick around and grow.
“I love it out here, it is a small town with wide open spaces and very similar to parts of South Africa, except for the winters.”
End ADV for Dec. 29-30