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Unlocking the Tight Oil Reservoirs of the Powder River Basin, Wyoming
Project Number
Last Reviewed Dated

The goal of this field-based research project is to establish a tight oil field laboratory in the Powder River Basin (PRB). The field laboratory will be used to characterize and overcome the technical challenges of developing two large, emerging unconventional/shale oil formations, the Mowry Shale, and the Belle Fourche Shale, with the challenging tight sands of the Frontier and Niobrara formations serving as additional objectives. 


University of Wyoming - Laramie, WY 82071
Advanced Resources International, Inc. - Arlington, VA 22203
Battelle Memorial Institute - Columbus, OH 43201
Goolsby, Finley & Associates, LLC (GF&A) - Casper, WY 82604
Len Paugh Consulting - McMurray, PA 15317
NSI Fracturing, LLC - Tulsa, OK 74136
Occidental Petroleum - Denver, CO 80202
Piri Technologies, LLC - Laramie, WY 82071
Southern Illinois University - Carbondale, IL 62901
Wold Energy Partners, LLC - Denver, CO 80203

Nitro drill pad during drilling operations.
Nitro drill pad during drilling operations

The PRB is an oil-rich basin in northeast Wyoming. While still in the delineation to early stages of development, the PRB is experiencing double-digit production growth with a forecasted production of 136,000 barrels/day. The PRB is unique in both the number of proven horizontal targets (at least 14), the thickness of the pay column (5,000 ft), and the variety of overlapping producing reservoirs. Reservoir types vary from heterogeneous sandstones with near-conventional trapping and reservoir properties to true unconventional resource plays including source rocks/targets. The PRB is emerging as a new, active industry target for tight oil development. The bulk of the recent oil wells have been drilled into the tight and non-tight sandstone formations, such as the Parkman and Turner. However, attention is also being paid to the two deeper shale oil reservoirs, the Mowry Shale and the overlying Belle Fourche Shale/Third Frontier Formation, and the extensive Frontier tight sand. The Mowry and Belle Fourche formations are estimated to hold most of the unconventional oil resource in the Basin and serve as the source rocks for the overlying tight oil sandstone reservoirs in the PRB.
The wells testing production from the Belle Fourche are highly variable, and there are few core samples available to explain the reasons for this variability. The Mowry and the Belle Fourche have high bentonite clay content, creating geomechanical issues for completion and stimulation as well as variable oil and water saturations. The porosity and permeability distribution for the tight sandstone of the Frontier formation appears to be strongly controlled by an environment of deposition and diagenetic effects, resulting in the need for improved completion and stimulation practices that can mitigate the impact of permeability and porosity degradation.
The goal of this project is to improve oil and gas recovery from Powder River horizontal wells through an improved understanding of the geological and geomechanical systems within the basin and use this understanding to engineer improved well completion and stimulation protocols to increase hydrocarbon recovery from unconventional plays. 


Optimized fracture designs, implementation of new well completion technologies, and improved field development methodologies will be developed for the PRB that will ultimately result in fit-for-purpose well completion and stimulation programs within the PRB. This will accelerate development and improve tight oil recovery, thus contributing to U.S. oil production and energy security.

Accomplishments (most recent listed first)
  • Conducted project review in October 2022 with all team members at Oxy’s Denver offices. Project status and future plans were discussed.
  • Established fracability estimates based on electric log data and core measurements from the pilot well.
  • Laboratory investigation of Mowry and Frontier/Turner core at U. of Wyoming began in early 2023. The Mowry core work at Southern Illinois University is on-going. University of Tulsa (NSI Fracturing Lab) analyzed geomechanical properties of the Mowry and is working on the Frontier/Turner and Niobrara formations.
  • Initiated establishment of the Field Laboratory in the southern Powder River Basin: the pilot hole is complete, and the completion of the two horizontal wells (Niobrara and Frontier/Turner) is scheduled to be finished by Q3 2023. Production testing and data collection and reduction will follow.
  • Finalized preliminary completion design of the horizontal wells for the PRB field laboratory.
Current Status

Efforts toward full establishment of the PRB field lab continue with preparations for the drilling of horizonal lateral wells. Two horizontal wells are planned: one in the Frontier/Turner using microseismic for data collection and one in the Niobrara shale outfitted with permanent fiber optic cable. The DoE and data collection will be done on the Niobrara well. The two horizontal wells are anticipated to be drilled in Q1 of 2023 and completed in Q2/Q3 2023. The geologic and engineering models will continue to be updated based on our improved understanding of the geologic features discovered from the ongoing analysis of the Mowry, Frontier/Turner, and Niobrara formations. Further fine tuning of these models will be done based on results of the production test data once the horizontal wells are drilled, completed and production is initiated.

Project Start
Project End
DOE Contribution


Performer Contribution


Contact Information

NETL – Eric Smistad (

University of Wyoming – Eric Robertson (

Additional Information
Figure 1.  A view of the core being laid out in early January at the Nitro drill pad during core retrieval.
Figure 1.  A view of the core being laid out in early January at the Nitro drill pad during core retrieval.
Figure 2.  A view of the Mowry shale core inside a liner just after retrieval from the well and before wrapping/packaging for transport to the laboratory.
Figure 2.  A view of the Mowry shale core inside a liner just after retrieval from the well and before wrapping/packaging for transport to the laboratory.