Brown Dense: Is it Arkansas' next oil boom?

    11:03 PM, Mar 1, 2012   |    comments
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    LITTLE ROCK (KTHV) -- We all know Arkansas is known as the Natural State. It's a designation honoring our beauty and resources, including oil thousands of feet underground. 

    And right now, we're seeing new exploration in the southern part of the state hoping to tap what's known as the Brown Dense formation, and help lower our country's dependence on foreign oil.

    THV's Max Seigle shows us what this formation looks like and the debate over its future potential for a boom or bust in Arkansas.

    It's a snapshot of South Arkansas' oil boom times: The S.T. Busey well in El Dorado in 1921. Twenty years later, we find another shot from Columbia County, riding a wave flattening in the years to come as Arkansas oil production dwindled away.

    But now, more than half a century later, there's renewed interest from energy companies in South Arkansas oil fields. This map (PDF) here shows some of the latest areas of exploration in Columbia and Union counties. They want to tap a rock formation far below the oil fields of our boom times called the Brown Dense. 

    "This would be an opportunity for a boom in South Arkansas," Rep. Garry Smith said.

    State Representative Garry Smith from Camden is feeling optimistic about Brown Dense.

    "We want the investors to stay in Arkansas, bring their money and develop their resources with the opportunity for job creation and energy independence," Smith said.

    There's some potential gain for Arkansas but how does this all happen?

    Well some clues here from this diagram showing different levels of a geological formation. Throughout geological history, oil has migrated upwards from the source rock to the upper reservoir rocks where it collects in pools of crude oil and natural gas. And now with better technologies, like fracking and horizontal drilling, energy companies want to drill down into that source rock and get oil directly from there, a place that experts refer to as that Brown Dense formation.

    "This is considered the source rock of all the oil in the Gulf Coastal region in the United States," Ed Ratchford said.   

    Ed Ratchford, with the Arkansas Geological Survey, shows a piece of the Brown Dense rock. He says given its dense nature, there's only one way to attack it. 

    "It will have to be hydraulically "fracked" in order to get the oil from the rock," Ratchford said.

    It's a process we've seen in other parts of the state like the Fayetteville Shale to harvest natural gas. 

    "The oil is a valuable product, it remains to be seen whether the oil can be commercially extracted from the Brown Dense zone," Ratchford said.

    Other parts of the country have found huge success with Brown Dense, like the Bakken formation in Montana and North Dakota.

    "I'm listening to what's happening in North Dakota and students graduate from high school on Friday night and go to work in the oil industry on Monday and make an excess of $60,000 a year right out of high school," Rep. Smith said.

    "And you think we could see something like that here?" THV's Max Seigle asks.

    "I definitely do," Rep. Smith said.

    Smith adds companies like Southwestern Energy wouldn't be buying up mineral rights and building a test well if there was no promise. 

    "I know they are not spending their money foolishly and so from that I will tell you before year's end we're going to see something definitely if not sooner," Rep. Smith said.

    But Ratchford is holding back on a timeline, feeling more testing must come. 

    "We just don't have enough data at this point to make an assessment to see if it's going to be commercially-viable or not," Ratchford said.

    It's a debate over a second chance at those "boom times."

    In a financial report out earlier this week, Southwestern Energy reports buying the mineral rights to about 520,000 acres of land in both southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. They've already started testing one well site and posted a high of 103 barrels of oil a day.

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