This may come as a surprise to a number of industry participants, but Utah is home to the largest oil sand resource in the United States.
Largest, as in an estimated 16 billion barrels of bitumen and heavy oil.
Light sweet crude, it’s not.
At least 50 deposits are known to be within and flanking the petroliferous Uinta and Paradox basins in Utah, according to AAPG member Steven Schamel, president at GeoX Consulting in Salt Lake City and current chair of the EMD Bitumen and Heavy Oil Committee.
Even so, fewer than 10 of these deposits are of commercial consequence.
“During the three decades preceding the collapse in oil price in the mid-1980s, Utah ‘tar sands’ were the object of continuous exploration activity by the petroleum industry and development research by U.S. Department of Energy laboratories and DOE-funded university teams,” Schamel said.
“Since then, this significant domestic energy resource largely has been neglected,” he noted.
No one has yet produced it for fuel or on a commercial scale, only in construction for roads.
“They scoop it up from an outcrop and put it on where they want a road paved and run a steamroller over the top of it,” Schamel said. “The main pits are being used for that purpose.
“It’s a resource waiting there for someone clever enough to be able to figure out where to exploit it,” he continued. “I’ve had clients in the past who I thought had the right technique, but either they couldn’t get the leases they needed or drilled wells in the wrong places, or whatever, leading them to leave the state before having a chance to test their method or the resource.”
At press time, he noted that a company likely was on the brink of beginning a development project. As with most industry projects today, though, there’s a tad of “wait and see” at work here, given the still-dismal oil price picture.
‘Waiting to Be Developed’
Schamel provided a straightforward summery of Utah’s oil sands, which represent a variety of geologic ages, including lower Eocene, Cretaceous and Triassic-Jurassic:
- Despite the off-the-charts number of 16 billion barrels, the bitumen resource is quite lean overall, except for a few areas: Bruin Point and Seep Ridge on the south flank of the Uinta Basin, Asphalt Ridge and Whiterocks on the basin’s north flank, and the center of the Tar Sand Triangle located in southeastern Utah in Wayne and Garfield counties.
- The reservoirs are sandstones, and the bitumens are quite viscous, meaning recovery is complicated. The sandstones are porous but have low permeabilities.
- Bitumen saturations tend to be low, perhaps as a consequence of the arid climate. This plays a role in low-grade bitumen in many locales, such as the Tar Sand Triangle.
- Past failures to produce bitumen are a result of external commercial or technical problems rather than an inadequate resource.
- Later efforts must focus first on intrinsic properties of the deposits, such as the character of the bitumen and reservoir along with bitumen concentration.
Business savvy along with adequate funding – in other words, deep pockets – will go a long way toward keeping a company on site for the time needed to refine its methods to be sure they work.
“This is a resource waiting to be developed,” Schamel emphasized.
He cautioned, however, that many deposits are in regions with exceptional scenic attributes and, consequently, high environmental/conservation values. This leads to added regulatory and legal obstacles.