The Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists celebrated its centennial during the past year. In a boom-and-bust industry with more cycles than the Tour de France, it’s been an institution that Rockies geoscientists have always been able to rely on.
The early 20th century was an exciting time to be a petroleum geologist. Structural fields around the world proved the value of the anticlinal theory of petroleum accumulation and innovative companies quickly adopted it. Numerous geologists were sent out to map surface anticlines and many large oil and gas fields were discovered. Following the end of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic, a global oil boom ensued. Demand for gasoline exploded with the rising popularity of the automobile and petroleum geologists became indispensable to successful hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation.
The First Quarter-Century
Colorado had been an important petroleum province since oil was first commercially produced at Florence Field in 1881. Denver’s petroleum geologists needed a local forum to exchange ideas about the latest innovations and discoveries. So, on Jan. 26, 1922, 50 of them came together to found the Rocky Mountain Association of Petroleum Geologists. Meetings were subsequently held on the first and third Thursdays of the month and were “open to all persons interested in the petroleum industry.”
Later that year, Max Ball, the first president of RMAPG, was elected vice president of AAPG. He invited AAPG to Denver for a regional meeting that October – the beginning of the long association between the two groups. AAPG was incorporated in Colorado in 1924 and, in September 1926, a second regional AAPG meeting was held in the Mile High City. Field trips date back to at least that year, with a train ride to Rifle, Colo. to visit the U.S. Navy’s oil shale operations. Ball became AAPG’s president in 1923, the first of at least 23 RMAGers in that role so far, including the 2022-23 president, Steve Goolsby.
During the Great Depression, RMAPG membership levels stagnated along with the economy, but several important new fields were found. In 1933, oil was discovered in the Weber Sandstone at the giant, remote Rangely Field. In 1937 came the first of 65 guidebooks; that year's volume was for the Big Horn Basin-Yellowstone Valley Field Conference.
RMAPG was ahead of its time in 1941 when Ninetta Davis was elected its first woman president. In 1942, RMAPG hosted its first AAPG annual convention, with Davis serving as the finance chair for that meeting. The demand for oil during and following World War II led to another boom. Jobs for geologists were plentiful and, by 1947, RMAPG had doubled to 100 members. The first bylaws and constitution were adopted, and the name was formally changed to the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists.
In 1949, the Ohio Oil Company drilled the Mary Egging No. 1 well on a seismic high in Cheyenne County, Neb. This D Sand well kicked off the first big drilling boom in the Denver-Julesburg Basin (a.k.a. D-J Basin or Denver Basin), which continued throughout the 1950s and into the early ‘60s, driven in part by the accessibility, relatively shallow depths, low drilling costs and high gravity oil of the D and J sands. Tens of thousands of wells were drilled, and millions of acres were leased as the play moved from the Nebraska Panhandle into northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming.
Elsewhere in the Rockies, new pipelines constructed in the 1940s and ‘50s provided much-needed markets for big fields in the San Juan, Piceance, Uinta and Green River basins, which accelerated drilling activity in those areas as well. Large oil companies established division offices in Denver and maintained smaller district offices in surrounding states. Uranium prospecting in the Four Corners was also hot, due to the arms race of the Cold War.
In short, it was a good time to be a geologist in the Rockies.
The momentum from this activity had a profound impact on RMAG. In 1950, membership had doubled again to about 200 members; at the end of 1960 it had increased fivefold to 1,050 members. By 1964, it was second in membership only to the Houston Geological Society. The organization grew and thrived. The first member roster was printed in 1951 and was followed in 1955 by the first photo directory.
In 1954, RMAG was formally incorporated as a non-profit, led by President Robert Munoz. That same year RMAG became an affiliated society of AAPG. RMAG hosted AAPG annual meetings in Denver in 1948 and 1961.
Programs were integrated into the weekly luncheon meetings in 1950 to improve attendance. By 1964, the luncheons had moved to Friday at the “old” Petroleum Club in downtown Denver, and attendance averaged around 165 members. As RMAG President and Colorado State Geologist John Rold remembered, “Every geologist in the Oil Patch knew that if they were in Denver on a Friday, they could come to RMAG, meet their friends and hear a good talk.”
Technical publications were becoming a key part of RMAG’s contribution to the scientific community. A committee of several RMAG members revised and updated “Possible Future Petroleum Provinces in the Rocky Mountain Region” and published it in the AAPG Bulletin in February 1951. That May, an RMAG research committee published “Types of Oil and Gas Traps in the Rocky Mountains” in the Bulletin. In 1954, RMAG published the guidebook “Oil and Gas Fields of Colorado,” which sold 1,700 copies and was the first of its kind published for the Rocky Mountain region.
By the early 1960s, RMAG members were generating a landslide of high-quality technical papers and there was a growing need for a venue to publish them. So in 1964 RMAG established “The Mountain Geologist,” a quarterly peer-reviewed journal that is still focused on Rocky Mountain geology.
The “Geologic Atlas of the Rocky Mountain Region” (a.k.a. “The Big Red Book”) is probably RMAG’s most notable publication. Edited by Bill Mallory, the Atlas was started in 1967 and published in 1972 at great expense. John Lockridge, who became RMAG president the following year, provided a personal guarantee to secure a loan and 100 RMAG members formed a committee to provide additional financial support. The Big Red Book was ultimately a significant money-maker for RMAG. It remains an important reference for anyone working the Rockies.
John Haun served as RMAG president in 1968 and AAPG president in 1979-80. He was the co-founder and first editor of “The Mountain Geologist.” Haun edited the AAPG Bulletin from 1967 to 1971 and is credited with starting the EXPLORER. Robert Weimer followed him as RMAG president in 1969 and served as AAPG president in 1991-92. Both men received the Sidney Powers Memorial Award from AAPG. In 1970, Margaret “Peggy” Fuller Boos became the first woman to receive Honorary Membership in RMAG, the organization’s highest honor. Co-author of “Tectonics of Eastern Flank and Foothills of Front Range, Colorado,” published in the December 1957 Bulletin, Boos was named the “First Lady of Petroleum” by the American Petroleum Institute in 1971.
One of the most significant events for hydrocarbon exploration in the Rockies took place in 1969, when the Union Pacific Railroad agreed to lease 7.4 million acres in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah exclusively to Pan American/Amoco for $9 million. This “UP Strip” acreage flanked the railroad in a checkerboard, 20 miles on each side. A resurgence of drilling activity in the DJ Basin soon followed, and the giant Wattenberg Field was discovered in 1970. Within two years, Wattenberg was Colorado’s largest producer of wet gas. Spindle Field, the second largest oil field in the DJ Basin, was discovered in 1971.
Denver once again became an oil boomtown, and new skyscrapers popped up throughout downtown.
Boom and Bust
The late 1960s to mid-‘70s were a “golden age” of petroleum exploration throughout the Rocky Mountain region. The discovery of Bell Creek Field in southeastern Montana by Sam Gary in 1967 kicked off the Muddy Sandstone play throughout the Powder River Basin that continued actively through the 1970s. The play extended south across the state line into Campbell County, Wyo., which quickly became one of the busiest drilling areas in the Rockies.
American Quasar Petroleum set off the Overthrust Boom in 1975 when they drilled the Newton Sheep Co. No. 1 on a farmout from Amoco on a portion of the UP strip in Summit County, Utah. This well was completed in the Nugget Sandstone as the discovery well for Pineview Field, and exploration persisted into the mid-1980s with the discovery of some of the most prolific fields in the Rockies.
In the Denver Basin, Amoco continued its development of Wattenberg Field throughout the 1970s and set a world record in 1974 when it fractured a J-Sand well with more than 1 million pounds of sand. Wattenberg became one of the ten largest fields in the country, in terms of remaining reserves of both oil and gas. Farther west, interest grew in the oil shale resources of the Piceance Basin. A consortium of companies developed the Colony Shale Oil Project, a mine and pilot shale oil plant, which was later killed by Exxon due to high costs and low oil prices.
These plays provided content for well-attended RMAG luncheon presentations as well as material for field trips and continuing education programs. The resulting guidebooks were published yearly, beginning in 1974, and became important sources of revenue in the years that followed. RMAG hosted its fourth AAPG annual meeting in 1972, with 3,000 attendees.
Recognizing a need for educational, charitable and scientific activities outside its normal functions, RMAG established the RMAG Foundation in 1975 as its philanthropic arm. The Foundation has supported graduate and undergraduate geoscience students in Colorado and around the country with grants of more than $250,000 in the past decade alone.
The Oil Shocks of the 1970s meant that petroleum geologists were in high demand again. Most of the large U.S. oil companies had prominent offices in Denver and required their geologists to join RMAG. Many of these new members were women, due in large part to the affirmative-action policies at the larger companies. Although there was a 100-percent increase in the number of women members between 1972 and 1974, it was still less than 2 percent. By the mid-1980s, the proportion of women members had reached 12 percent, and they were taking on more leadership roles in the profession. When Susan Landon served as AAPG treasurer in 1992-94, she was the first woman officer to be elected to the AAPG Executive Committee. She went on to become RMAG’s second woman president in 2001, 60 years after Ninetta Davis. Robbie Gries was the general chair of the AAPG annual meeting held in Denver in 1994, the first woman to hold that position. In 2001, she became the first woman president of AAPG.
The period 1979-81 marked the peak of the boom. Attendance at many RMAG weekly luncheons ranged between 200-300 members. The AAPG annual meeting in Denver in 1980 had nearly 10,000 attendees. The Wyoming-Utah Overthrust Belt field trip chartered two turboprop planes for an overflight and was perhaps the peak of RMAG field trips. In 1983 the monthly newsletter became “The Outcrop,” taking the format that is still used today. Membership peaked in 1984 at 4,524 members, and by 1985 the RMAG had more than 50 committees and the office had three full-time employees.
But the good times were not to last.
In 1982, OPEC cut oil prices, and West Texas Intermediate dropped to $10 a barrel in early 1986. There was a near-total collapse of the petroleum industry in the Rockies and elsewhere. More than 40 companies in Denver either enacted major staff reductions or closed their offices completely. The RMAG Board set up a counseling/resource center for unemployed members and supported the creation of the Denver Earth Resource Library in 1987, largely to serve those RMAG members who became newly minted “consultants” as a result of losing their full-time employment.
RMAG survived these difficult times through the active engagement of its members. The low-key “On the Rocks” field trips were born in 1986. Luncheons were held every two weeks, rather than weekly, and attendance shrank. Although membership dropped on average more than 7 percent per year in the late 1980s, it stabilized at around 1,900 members by the mid-1990s.
New technologies, additional pipeline capacity and the deregulation of natural gas prices led to tight gas sandstones becoming the new “hot” play in the Rockies in the early to mid-1990s. Several Denver independents secured the rights to the Codell Sandstone in the Wattenberg area from Amoco, which led to a third drilling resurgence in the DJ Basin. The basin-centered gas accumulations of the Mesaverde group in the greater Green River and Piceance basins, the Wasatch and Mesaverde in the Uinta Basin, and numerous Cretaceous horizons in the San Juan Basin were being actively exploited. Coalbed methane also emerged as a significant resource play during the 1990s, including Drunkard’s Wash field in Utah as well as Fort Union coals in the Powder River Basin, the Fruitland Formation in the San Juan Basin, and the Raton Basin of southern Colorado. Two large gas discoveries in Wyoming – Jonah and Cave Gulch – became very popular topics at luncheons and symposia.
The 1990s were characterized by price volatility. All the supermajors closed their Denver offices and departed the Rockies, mostly for good. Smaller companies that didn’t go bankrupt reduced staff further. RMAG membership suffered as a result, but the organization continued to generate high-quality publications and host well-attended events. One of RMAG’s most successful efforts was the annual 3-D Seismic Symposium, founded in 1995 and co-hosted with the Denver Geophysical Society. The inaugural event had 500 attendees, and peak attendance was more than 750 in 2008.
Gas in the Rockies
Throughout the late 1990s, tight gas reservoirs continued to be the primary focus of exploration in the Rockies. Many of the vertical Codell wells that were drilled in the early 1990s in the greater Wattenberg area were part of a large-scale refrac program that started in 1997. Piceance Basin operators began exploiting the tight sandstones of the Mesaverde Group with S-shaped directional wells to minimize surface footprint and rig moves, improving the play’s economics. The shallow Niobrara biogenic gas play in eastern Colorado had a resurgence, due in part to the availability of reliable 3-D seismic.
Natural gas prices started rising in early 2000, reaching $5.77 that December on their way to $10.79 in July 2008. In some circles, the Rockies was touted as the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” It seemed like an opportune time for a gas-themed publication, so in 2001, RMAG published what was to be its last printed hardbound guidebook, “Gas in the Rockies.” Gas-themed digital guidebooks that followed included the Piceance Basin 2003 guidebook, “Gas in Low Permeability Reservoirs of the Rocky Mountain Region” in 2005 and “Gas Shale in the Rocky Mountains and Beyond” in 2008.
Oil in the Rockies
Horizontal drilling was first used widely in the Rockies in the Bakken Formation in the Williston Basin and in the Niobrara Formation at Silo Field in Laramie County, Wyo. As WTI prices rose – eventually to $147 a barrel in July 2008 – another drilling boom kicked off throughout the United States. In the Rockies, the target shifted to oil and natural gas liquids. The trifecta of high prices, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing transformed tight source rocks into viable reservoir targets. By November 2008, there were 89 rigs drilling the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.
EOG Resources utilized its horizontal experience in the Bakken and Barnett to drill the Jake No. 2-01H north of Wattenberg in late 2009. This well, with an estimated flow rate greater than 1,500 barrels of oil per day, reopened the Niobrara oil play in the DJ Basin and set off a land rush. Following the success of Noble Energy’s Gemini No. 1-99HZ well, situated between tightly spaced vertical wells in the heart of Wattenberg Field, horizontal drilling of the various benches of the Niobrara quickly accelerated. This resulted in the fourth resurgence of the DJ Basin. By year-end 2022, well over 10,000 horizontal Niobrara wells had been drilled and completed in Weld County, Colo. alone.
RMAG capitalized on this trend by publishing a series of oil-themed digital guidebooks, starting in 2011 with “Revisiting and Revitalizing the Niobrara in the Central Rockies” and “Bakken-Three Forks Petroleum System in the Williston Basin.” An updated “Oil and Gas Fields of Colorado” followed in 2014 and “Hydrocarbon Source Rocks in Unconventional Plays, Rocky Mountain Region” in 2016, both available as digital downloads.
The Unconventional Revolution
Many of the low permeability reservoirs in the Rockies proved responsive to horizontal drilling, and the success of the Niobrara play in the Denver Basin renewed interest in other Rocky Mountain basins. EnCana, WPX and others drilled game-changing horizontal Niobrara wells in the Piceance Basin. In late 2012 WPX drilled their GM No. 701-4 HN1 well, nicknamed “The Beast” when it tested 16 million cubic feet per day and produced 1 billion cubic feet in its first 100 days online. High-volume Mancos oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin followed in the Rosa and Lybrook areas of New Mexico.
Several operators turned their attention to the Powder River Basin, with its multiple stacked Cretaceous pay zones in both shales and tight sandstones. Others revisited the oil shales of the Green River Formation in the Uinta Basin. Between 2010 and 2015 U.S. oil production nearly doubled, from 5.4 to 9.4 million barrels of oil per day and reached an all-time high of 12.8 in 2019 thanks in large part to horizontal drilling in the Rockies.
Building on success of the 3-D Symposium, a one-to-two-day symposium format gradually replaced RMAG’s business model of publishing guidebooks to generate revenue. Topics have included the Coalbed Methane Symposium, which was held six times between 1999-2007, as well as other popular themes such as basin-centered gas in 2000, fractured reservoirs in 2001, petroleum systems and reservoirs of southwest Wyoming in 2003, low-permeability sandstone reservoirs in 2005, shale gas in 2006, unconventional reservoirs in 2009, horizontal drilling in 2012 and hot plays of the Rocky Mountain region in 2016.
RMAG hosted the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition meetings in 2001, 2009 and 2015. As the host society of these events, as well as AAPG Rocky Mountain Section meetings, RMAG received a portion of the revenue, which was a significant contributor to its operating income.
Historically, the majority of RMAG’s members have worked in oil and gas. Consequently, RMAG’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the ups and downs of the petroleum industry. When the price of oil goes up, so does the number of members, and when the price of oil drops (and stays down for an extended period), the number of members drops as well. By 2012, coincident with the boom in unconventionals, membership reached a secondary peak of 2,978.
In 2011, the luncheon program shifted from bimonthly Fridays to monthly first-Wednesdays. Three years later, the price of oil began once again to decline, and by February 2016, WTI had reached $25.62 per barrel. Consolidations and layoffs became common in Denver and RMAG members felt the blow. The Membership Committee initiated the mentorship program in 2016 to benefit geologists at all stages of their careers.
The Great Reset
Among the most profound changes over the past 25 years are the digitization of data, advances in computer technology used for interpretation and the development of GIS-based software that was specifically designed for the oil and gas industry. This resulted in an insatiable demand for all forms of digital data, including logs and maps. RMAG adapted to this by publishing all guidebooks since 2001 in digital format. The Big Red Book was re-released in pdf and georeferenced tiff format in 2006 and then converted to GIS format in 2014. “The Outcrop” became digital in 2012 and “The Mountain Geologist” followed in 2014.
By the mid-2010s, much of the data necessary for oil and gas exploration and development was readily available digitally, which, combined with the proliferation of cellphones and laptops, meant that physical proximity to operations was no longer necessary. More than 22 percent of RMAG members were working the Permian Basin when RMAG hosted its first-ever Permian Basin Symposium and core workshop in January 2019.
By April 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was well under way and all in-person activities in Denver were locked down. This had a huge impact on RMAG, as much of the organization’s operating revenue is derived from symposia, short courses and the monthly luncheons. The 2020 Board quickly pivoted to online events and the first remote luncheon filled up in two hours. Virtual luncheons and field trips were offered to members at no charge, which had the fortunate side effect of adding new members far from Denver.
The nominal price for WTI crude went negative for the first time in history in April 2020. This was followed by a record drop in rig count in May and more layoffs. RMAG and other groups formed the Members in Transition Committee to assist those in need of a career transition. Over the next two years, this group provided 39 free webinars for members who had lost their jobs and were looking to pivot to other industries.
The world began turning to the “new normal” in late 2021, so RMAG gradually resumed in-person field trips, workshops and luncheons. RMAG also acted as host society for the inaugural AAPG-Society of Exploration Geophysicists International Meeting for Applied Geoscience and Energy hybrid meeting (replacing ACE meetings) in October 2021. This event was moved to Houston for the next five years, removing a significant revenue stream for RMAG. In September 2022, the Board subleased its office space and RMAG moved into shared quarters at the Denver Earth Resources Library, an arrangement expected to benefit both organizations.
For the past 25 years women have greatly increased their representation and visibility within RMAG. Since 1997, 77 women have served in Board positions, including seven women presidents. Over the last decade, even as overall membership numbers have declined, the percentage of women members has increased to more than 16 percent. However, the drop in RMAG membership that started 10 years ago accelerated during the COVID pandemic. Membership dropped to around 1,200 members from more than 2,100 in 2014. Many of these former members have left the industry altogether, either through retirement (a.k.a. the “great crew change”) or a career pivot to other related fields, including geothermal, helium and carbon capture.
Organisms adapt to changing environments by evolving. Organizations also evolve to meet change. RMAG has thrived in good times and survived in bad times over the past 100 years because of the resiliency and adaptability of its members. RMAG’s viability over its second century will require the early recognition and enthusiastic embrace of the vast changes to come.