6 UW projects will take on the challenge of the Mowry Shale in the Powder River Basin

This is a weathered outcrop of Mowry Shale, on the northern side of Route 30 / Route 287, about 1.5 miles west of Fossil Bone Cabin, east of the Medicine Bow River, in Carbon County. (James St. John)

GILLETTE, Wyo. — University of Wyoming professors from multiple disciplines are taking a crack at addressing the factors that make it difficult to draw from the Mowry Shale, which lies underneath most of Wyoming.

Currently, oil and gas companies in the Powder River Basin are accessing the Niobrara and Turner formations, which pose a lower economic risk compared with the Mowry Shale, University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources Sr. Director, Research Scott Quillinan said.

The biggest hydrocarbon source for the Lower Cretaceous petroleum system in the Powder River Basin is the Mowry Shale. Yet, it has two kinds of layers that pose challenges: bentonite, which is almost like peanut butter, and one with a lot of silica, which is brittle, he said. The bentonite is “basically, squishy,” he said. It swells with exposure to water, making it very difficult to keep fractures open for hydraulic fracturing.

The Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute and the SER have found new areas of production potential in the Mowry, so SER is launching a focused effort on the Mowry Total Petroleum System to improve understanding and increase production, a UW blog post said.

“It could be the next big play, and probably will be,” Quillinan told County 17. “I’m confident that at some point it will be figured out. … There’s a lot of work to do.”

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In the meantime, UW students involved in the research projects will be able to get more involved in the industry, he said. Any successes in the Powder River Basin could apply to work in other areas of Wyoming, he said.

Aiming to develop research findings, faculty expertise and students’ field work, the SER asked UW faculty to submit proposals in Shale Fundamental Studies, or physics-based modeling and experimentation to advance geomechanical and geochemical understanding of the shale relative to production or performance, and Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, or data analysis that will aid in decision-making in real-time to improve Mowry wells. SER selected projects that can increase understanding of the petroleum system, and thereby improve the reserve-base and recovery in the reservoir, Quillinan said in the blog post.

The following proposals will receive between $50,000 and $150,000 in funding from the Wyoming Energy Authority:

  • Kam Ng, an associate professor in civil and architectural engineering, leads the project, titled “Fundamental study through Experimental Investigation to Advance the Geomechanical Understanding of the Mowry Shale,” along with Vladamir Alvarado, a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, and SER Research Scientist Grant Copeland.
  • Alvarado and Saman Aryana, an associate professor in chemical engineering and the Occidental Chair in Energy and Environmental Technologies, and Fred McLaughlin, the director of SER’s Center for Economic Geology Research (CEGR), titled, “Does shale stimulation improve or hamper reservoir productivity?”
  • Soheil Saraji, an associate professor in petroleum engineering, leads the proposal, titled “Sweet Spot Identification in the Mowry Formation: A Synergistic Laboratory Characterization and Machine Learning Framework.”
  • Vamegh Rasouli, professor and department head and the LeNorman Endowed Leadership Chair in Petroleum Engineering and Morteza Dejam, an associate professor of petroleum engineering, lead the proposals entitled, “Design and Fabrication of a Cylindrical True Triaxial (CTT) Experimental Set-up for Geomechanical Characterization of Mowry Shale in Wyoming.”
  • Xiang Zhang, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering, leads the proposal, titled “Interaction between Bentonites layers and hydraulic fractures: toward modeling and design of multistage hydraulic fractures for reduced uncertainty and increased productivity in Mowry Petroleum System.”
  • The SER team of research scientists Matt Johnson, Grant Copeland, and Yuri Ganshin will lead the project, titled, “Defining Potential of the Mowry Shale in Wyoming’s Laramide Basins.” CEGR Director Fred McLaughlin will also contribute to the project. The SER team will also serve as the data repository and central data collection point for all of the projects.

The research teams must file final reports and spend the funding by June 2023.

To learn more about the Mowry Shale Project, contact the SER at 307-766-6897.