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Photo of Solange Angulo (Photo courtesy of Michelle Berg)
October 27, 2008

Student's detective work helps map oil-rich formation

October 27, 2008

By By Anne-Marie Hickey

An estimated 500 billion barrels of oil lies within the Bakken Formation, a vast underground layer of rock covering Saskatchewan, Manitoba, North Dakota, and Montana.

Since about a quarter of it lies within southern Saskatchewan, 25 billion to 100 billion barrels of oil could be under our feet.

A challenge facing investors and drillers is that no one knows exactly how much oil the formation holds and where all the key drilling areas are.

A University of Saskatchewan geology graduate student will help answer those questions. She has been cutting and examining rock samples formed 350 million years ago and using her findings to create a 3D map of the area to show the shape and depth of the formation.

"Geology is like detective work in nature," says Solange Angulo who received her undergraduate degree in Venezuela, worked in the oil and mining industry for five years, and was recruited by her supervisor, Luis Buatois, to work on the project.

Angulo's work, funded by Saskatchewan Industry and Resources, is quickly gaining attention. She has published several papers on her research, and will publish another this fall. She presented her work at the annual meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in Texas, and at conferences in North Dakota and Poland.

"The results of what we are doing are going to directly impact the kind of activity being done in the Bakken by companies," says Buatois, associate professor of geological science. "They will be using the results of our research to expand and explore."

Angulo travels to the Regina Core Laboratory where she examines subsurface rock samples from oil companies. She describes it as a library with rocks instead of books. Since the samples are cylindrical, she cannot see the details inside, so she cuts the rocks open with a saw and notes what she sees.

The Bakken is formed of siltstone and sandstone, making petroleum retrieval different from oil sands mining for a key reason -- the oil is light, fluid, and much easier and less expensive to filter."

"Trying to understand the formation of Saskatchewan resources and finding out how we can exploit them is a big thing in terms of economics in the province," Buatois says.

Angulo says she is making "maps in time" because she is making a map of the evolution of the land as well as the position of the rocks. While geologists generally look at physical marks in the rocks -- those made by wind and water, Angulo examines fossil burrows produced by animals within the rocks, which helps her to better understand the 350-million-year history of the land.

"This gives her much more evidence to integrate," says Buatois. "Looking at trace fossils from animals is something that is quite original and has never been done here in Saskatchewan."

Angulo's method has brought about new findings. Geologists previously thought the Bakken was completely formed in an open marine environment, but her findings suggest this was not always the case.

She has also discovered there were oxygen and salinity problems in the sediment that made the rock formations more varied than originally thought. This may have implications for exploration.

Her research has provided clues to the past, such as the fact that the Bakken was formed after a major extinction of animals and little is known of the aftermath. Her research may help uncover how the seas were repopulated after the extinction.

"Geology is really beautiful because you have to imagine things and many times you have four or five explanations for this rock, and you don't really know which one is true," she said.

"You have to try to find a model that fits all the clues you have. The better your model fits the clues, the more accurate you are. It's a science, but to me it's also an art."

Anne-Marie Hickey is a student intern for the U of- research communications office. Visit www.usask/research for more stories of student research.

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