From Utah to Oklahoma and back: Well samples provide valuable insight

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Core samples taken from Utah, sent to Oklahoma, and returned to the Beehive State are photographed in their boxes at the Utah Core Research Center. (Courtesy of Utah Geological Survey)

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Last summer, a dozen or so boxes containing priceless research material were returned to Utah, giving scientists valuable information on the state’s geology.

The weird thing is, those boxes were nearly forgotten after spending more than two decades thousands of miles away in Oklahoma.

“Whenever we get a core donation, we go box by box and do a detailed inventory of the material,” Michael Vanden Berg, the Utah Core Research Center’s energy and minerals program manager tells ABC4 about this particular delivery last summer. “We looked up where the well is, and we’re like ‘Oh my god, it’s in the middle of the lake.’”

The boxes received from oil and gas company Amoco, headquartered in Oklahoma, contained dozens of feet of core material extracted in the 70s and 80s from a “wildcat well,” dug 12,000 feet in the center of the Great Salt Lake. Vanden Berg considers this material to be “priceless.”

“You can probably imagine today, if an oil and gas company wanted to drill a well in the Great Salt Lake there’d be quite a bit of pushback, surely wouldn’t be allowed to do it at all,” he says.

A group of interested folks check out the samples at the Utah Core Research Center. (Courtesy of Utah Geological Survey)

Other samples returned to the State of Utah after a lengthy stay in Oklahoma include core material from the area in Grand Escalante National Park, a place unlikely to ever see that kind of well exploration again. Materials like these provide valuable academic fodder for a better understanding of the earth processes in some of Utah’s most treasured lands.

A lot of the stuff in Vanden Berg’s stewardship isn’t priceless, however, they’re worth big bucks. He estimates that the inventory available in the Utah Core Research Center represents $5 to $10 billion worth of material and information. It’s hard to believe that a warehouse essentially full of rocks could be so valuable, but Vanden Berg explains that the data from cores can provide guidance to oil, gas, and mining companies as they make decisions worth astronomical sums of money.

“So, if a company wants to come in and say, ‘Okay, does this mining district have enough potential for us to move forward,’ looking for copper looking for silver, gold, or whatever, whatever the commodity is, a lot of times we have core in our collection from the subsurface,” Vanden Berg describes that by looking at the core samples in the state’s collection, companies can save millions of dollars on exploration costs.

Not only are the cores a valuable industry resource in themselves, they are also used for academic and scientific purposes, attracting geologists from around the world to visit the facility and tour the materials.

A look at the vast storage system at the Utah Core Research Center. (Courtesy of Utah Geological Survey)

Getting these samples stored and then brought out for inspection by inquiring geologists and titans of industry, however, is less brain and more brawn, according to Vanden Berg. The samples can vary from 30 feet of core to hundreds of continuous feet of rock and earth. These extractions are cut down into “manageable” sizes and put into boxes and sent to the warehouse. Some samples, especially those sent by oil companies when they clear their in-house supplies to save on storage fees, can come in dozens of heavy boxes.

“We have some strong people that work here,” he says, describing the process of finding the boxes on a shelf, bringing them down, and laying the cores out on a table.

While it may be a lot of hard work, combined with a lot of brainpower needed to run the scientifically and physically heavy operation, Vanden Berg knows the value of a surprisingly important building full of rocks.

“We get ownership of these cores, which can then be in the public domain and can be used for research, to help further our understanding of Utah’s natural resources.”

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