Find on Roan could help oil shale work

To vandals, they were just rocks and rubble.

To geologists, the drilling core samples and well cuttings that until recently were stored at the old Anvil Points mine west of Rifle might contain clues to help open the door to commercial development of oil shale.

A public-private partnership has moved those geological resources to a place where they no longer will be vulnerable to vandalism.

In November, the cores and cuttings were pulled from the mine high up the slopes of the Roan Plateau. They are being stored at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Core Research Center at the Denver Federal Center.

By May, the Core Research Center hopes to have the Anvil Points samples catalogued and ready for inspection by not just the industry but by the general public.

Those samples join “a fairly vast collection here that the U.S. Geological Survey has collected since 1974,” said John Rhoades, a curator at the center.

The center’s director, Betty Adrian, said the Geological Survey had moved the oil shale collection to Anvil Points in the mid-1990s, when budget cuts forced it to reduce staffing and facilities.

“They chose the oil shale samples because at that time the oil industry was at a very low point,” she said.

Rhoades said the government often receives donations of cores and cuttings when oil and gas development slows down and companies can’t afford to keep the samples they drilled for during the last boom.

“It’s a boom and bust cycle. It’s almost the reverse for us,” he said.

With the onset of an energy boom, analysis of the underground geology revealed by preserved samples can help companies discover and redevelop existing oil and gas resources and mineral deposits, according to the American Association of Petroleum
Geologists, which encourages efforts to save samples.

That group says cores, well cuttings and other samples collected over the past 150 years are worth hundreds of billions of dollars, based on what it would cost today to drill for them.

They also provide information on things such as groundwater, and they help the industry and government in determining means of protecting the environment during energy development.

The world’s largest collection of Green River oil shale cores was stored at Anvil Points, along with some international samples. The Green River formation, based in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, contains the largest oil shale deposits in the United States, which is home to half of all such deposits in the world.

The Anvil Points collection includes about 115,000 feet of drilled cores.

Adrian said her center regularly receives requests for shale samples.

The energy industry is showing renewed interest in oil shale. The industry — including Shell, which is experimenting in Rio Blanco County with a process to develop oil contained in shale — helped the Geological Survey with its relocation effort.

“This is a really key information source, having these cores,” Shell spokesman Tracy Boyd said.

Rhoades said the core center encourages industry donations of cores, and its No. 1 goal is preserving data for the U.S. scientific community at large. Some samples contain fossils that may interest paleontologists and can help date the strata in which the fossils were found.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act mandated preservation of federal geoscience data such as cores. The Anvil Points mine samples had suffered from minor vandalism. In addition, the Geological Survey learned a few years ago about the Bureau of Land Management’s plans for a tailings cleanup project at the mine, part of a former federal oil shale research facility opened in the 1940s.

Adrian began her present job in October 2007, and one of her first priorities was working on a plan to preserve the samples.

“We were frantically going, ‘Oh my gosh, we don’t want those cores to be entombed up there,’ if you will, with the closure of the mine,” she said.

Now the Anvil Points collection, with all the clues it holds, has been saved from the grave, much to the relief of Adrian and others.

“From a science perspective, it’s something we would hate to lose,” she said.


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