CASPER, Wyo. — While the hunt for oil in the Niobrara Shale play is getting all the attention, other areas in eastern Wyoming are getting a new look from energy companies for the first time in decades.
In recent months, companies including Chesapeake Energy Corp. and EOG Resources Inc. are pursuing new permits to drill in Converse County, southern Campbell County and Natrona County. And while some of that activity is related to the Niobrara Shale, other drilling targets new formations and the edges of old oil fields.
“That’s kind of an untold story,” said Tom Doll, superintendent of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
The commission has issued 124 permits for Converse, Campbell and Natrona counties so far in 2011, compared to 87 for Platte, Laramie and Goshen counties.
The difference in permitting is likely partly due to a slowdown in applications in the southeast as a number of companies conduct seismic testing to see what lies underneath the area’s surface before drilling.
Permits to drill are being issued for several old oil fields and geologic formations known as tight oil sands, or somewhat porous sandstone that contains oil. Those formations, whose swaths cross the area both above and under the Niobrara formation, include the Parkman, Sussex, Shannon, Teapot, Frontier and Turner sandstone formations, among others.
It’s all fairly new work by the companies, and that means there’s not a lot of desire by those involved to talk about the exploratory stage of what they’re doing.
“We are actively evaluating several geologic formations in the area,” said Kelsey Campbell of Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy.
As in the Niobrara Shale play, it’s technology that’s driving the new exploration, including newly refined ways to drill deep, then turn the corner to drill sideways.
“Some of these are old fields and some of them never got drilled as deep as they have before, and some of the formations haven’t gotten looked at before,” said Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
While drilling down and then laterally isn’t a new concept, drillers are drilling deeper and farther than ever — and faster, says Jimmy Goolsby, geologist for Casper-based Goolsby, Finley & Associates.
He said the development of the technology will make the Powder River Basin a big player in the future of Wyoming oil.
“We have so many potential targets there because of this new technology,” he said.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has gotten credit for opening up shale plays across the U.S. With fracking, energy companies pump water, sand and chemical additives underground under pressure, which fractures barriers that hinder the flow of oil and gas.
The new drillings may use fracking, but won’t necessarily, depending on the underlying geology, Doll said.
While fracking has recently made its name in natural gas plays, the same practice — aided by the advances in drilling — is breathing new life into otherwise marginal sources of oil, Goolsby said.
“You can go back into these fields and extend them quite a lot,” he said.
The potential of the areas under consideration may not be as attention-grabbing as the Niobrara at the moment, but that doesn’t mean companies are shying away from a chance to make money from oil fields with marginally producing wells as the price of oil continues to climb.
They’re “not as prolific a well as the potential for oil production in the Niobrara, but they’re commercial wells,” Doll said.
For now, the new drilling in old and new areas is just getting started.
“We’ll know more in a few months, as we start drilling,” Hinchey said.