Let the data crunch begin

South Dakota Primps for Shale Suitors

Derric Iles
Derric Iles

Staffers at the South Dakota Geological Survey these days are probably digitizing in their dreams.

Actually, they are working on a project that could be something of a dream come true for petroleum hunters frustrated by the dearth of data in a promising but under-examined region.

South Dakota hasn’t been a big player in the current U.S. energy mix, but State Geologist Derric Iles said he believes activity in the hot Bakken Formation is poised to move south – and he wants to be ready for it.

Let the data crunch begin.

Putting decades of paper well data online is "chewing up half my staff," Iles said.

The benefit to the industry "could be huge," said former AAPG president Steve Sonnenberg, professor of petroleum geology and head of the Bakken Research Consortium at the Colorado School of Mines.

Wildcats have been drilled in South Dakota since at least the 1950s. Despite some producers and plenty of oil and gas shows, the real action was always back in the Bakken.

"Plate tectonics cheated us," Iles said.

The Bakken pinches out just north of the state border, the encompassing Williston Basin and several related units extend into northern South Dakota, he said.

"There are plenty of rocks there" worth looking at, Sonnenberg said.

AAPG member Dudley Bolyard has had his share of disappointments in the state, but believes oil is there to be found.

"The number 30 sticks in my mind ... it must be the number of dry holes I drilled up there," Bolyard said.

"I'm retired and don't intend to go back,” he said. “But because I'm retired, I can speak frankly – the hydrocarbon shows indicate good potential."

Small But Significant Precedent

The area's complex geology includes "spectacular drainage anomalies that need seismic evaluation,” sand and chalks that could be “prime targets for biogenic gas," and numerous other intriguing features, Bolyard said.

Because the Red River Formation was production-proven, those other shows were "just rocks in the way of the pay zone," Iles said.

Promise lies in the Minnelusa, Englewood and Three Forks formations, among others, he said.

"The Tyler Formation is all the rage in North Dakota right now,” Iles said. “The Minnelusa in South Dakota is the same formation. Maybe the states should get together and use the same names.”

Water wells long have been a source of gas shows in the state.

Near the state capitol in Pierre is the "Flaming Fountain" veteran’s memorial. Workers excavated a lake to be filled by artesian water. When the well was drilled it produced enough gas to fuel a perpetual flame – "an awful lot of gas for a water well," Bolyard said.

In the early part of the century, gas from the so-called "Pierre Gas Field" heated and lighted the city.

"I can't even find a map of the Pierre Gas Field today," Bolyard said.

While South Dakota hasn't been drilled as densely as some other states, it still has year’s worth of historical drilling records.

Iles' staff is busy organizing and scanning all types of relevant records to be accessible through a user-friendly website with plenty of bells, whistles and "cute tools," he said.

January is the target date for completing a "one-stop shopping site" for consultants, industry and regulatory users, Iles said.

It incorporates three main data sets:

  • Map browsing by field, operator or company name, oil and gas geophysical logs, regulatory permits, drillers' logs and similar information.
  • Information pointing to deep potential deep thermogenic or shallower biogenic deposits – including 5,000 to 6,000 geophysical logs scanned and to lithological logs.
  • Some 62,000 records from the state's Water Rights Program, including reports from private farm, ranch and other wells.

"We have turned our activities upside-down at the Geological Survey to make this happen," Iles said.

The petroleum initiative has had the full support of two state administrations and is being done with no increase in funding, he said.

Activity Is ‘Picking Up’

Some features are available online and were showcased at a recent New Horizons in Oil and Gas Conference at the South Dakota School of Mines in Rapids City.

Iles expects the finished product to be a boon to operators looking to access under-explored and bypassed resources.

At present, South Dakota's yearly petroleum output is surpassed by its northern neighbor each week, he said.

That may be changing.

Iles said land activity is picking up, though actual drilling hasn't, yet.

"North Dakota is going gangbusters,” he said, “and it is moving south.”

He expects the state to begin promoting the digital database in earnest once it is complete.

The sole purpose of the Oil and Gas Initiative is to sell South Dakota," he said.

Bolyard and others also believe there are many promising spots for successful, economical ventures.

"If I were a younger man,” he said, “I'd be back in there.”

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