The Niobrara Shale in the United States has ramped up into a hot play that could soon bring an explosion of horizontal drilling in Colorado and Wyoming. The combination of horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing is transforming the Niobrara from a target that has been drilled vertically and primarily for gas for nearly 100 years into a liquids-rich play that is capturing considerable attention. Speaking at the 2011 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in Denver, John Ford, general manager of Colorado’s Wattenberg field at Anadarko, described the growing Niobrara activity as “really the next big thing.”

That optimism was understandable. In November, Anadarko announced that its leases at Wattenberg may hold more than a billion barrels of recoverable oil and natural gas. The statement noted company drilling success in 11 recent wells at the field, including the Dolph 27-1HZ horizontal well that showed initial production of more than 1,100 B/D of oil and 2.4 MMcf/D of natural gas. These latest wells have given the company confidence that it can drill between 1,200 and 2,700 wells in northeast Colorado, with approximately 160 wells planned for this year. Based on results so far, the company expects ultimate recovery of between 500 million and 1.5 billion bbl of oil, natural gas liquids, and natural gas on an equivalent basis.

Anadarko is not alone. Chesapeake Energy, Noble, Encana, and EOG Resources are among the largest acreage holders and the most active drillers of many companies—including numerous small independents—probing the Niobrara. Majors such as Shell and Marathon Oil have significant acreage.

There are more than 50 operators in or near the Wattenberg field alone. Situated north/northeast of the Denver area, Wattenberg is the largest producing field in the Denver-Julesburg (D-J) Basin and one of the largest onshore oil and gas fields in the US. 

Reservoir Rock and Producing Regions

Although the Niobrara is usually referred to as a shale, its reservoir rock consists primarily of limestone or chalk intervals, said Steve Sonnenberg, professor of petroleum geology at Colorado School of Mines in a recent edition of the AAPG Explorer (published by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists). “The formation demonstrates facies changes that range from limestone and chalk in the eastern end to calcareous shale in the middle and eventually transitioning to sandstone farther west,” said Sonnenberg, a past president of AAPG. “Depth and thickness are highly variable.”

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