Expert explains the San Juan Basin - past and present

The San Juan Basin used to be on the edge of an ancient Cretaceous seaway, and deposits of organic material would, over millions of years, become oil, gas and coal

Leigh Black Irvin
John Byrom talks about his presentation on the San Juan Basin at his PESCO office in Farmington earlier this month.
  • Mountain pressures transformed the San Juan Basin into a giant bowl or "oyster shell"
  • In addition to the geology of the Basin, Byrom's presentation covers the history of 100 years of oil and gas production
  • Byrom said it's up to those who live in the Basin to defend the industry

FARMINGTON – In an oil and gas community like the one in San Juan County, it's not hard to find industry experts who can explain individual aspects of San Juan Basin geology, and history, and its economic impact. Not so easy, however, is finding a knowledgeable person who can provide an understandable and comprehensive picture of all aspects of the basin.

John Byrom is one such expert.

Byrom, who currently serves as business development manager for PESCO in Farmington, has created a one-hour presentation entitled "The past, present and future of the San Juan Basin," which he shows to groups locally and in the statewide. Last year, Byrom was one of the guest speakers for San Juan College's Broadening Horizons Lecture Series, and he also routinely gives the presentation to groups such as Leadership San Juan and Leadership New Mexico.

During his lecture, Byrom provides an overview of the geology of the San Juan Basin, a history of basin exploration and production, as well as predictions about the future of exploration in the area.

"When I gave the presentation to the college last year, it was a little bit different," Byrom said, speaking to The Daily Times earlier this month. "I focused on how we go into the basin on the oil and gas side. With Leadership New Mexico, I was trying to explain to leaders throughout the state who work in areas like healthcare, government and tourism about how critical oil and gas is to New Mexico. It's important for people to know (about the industry). It's ironic that in a state so heavily dependent on oil and gas, there are many people who are uninformed or misinformed by half-truths and outright lies."

Byrom explains that his presentation starts millions of years ago with the unique geological makeup of the San Juan Basin.

"Farmington is located near the middle of the Basin, which is shaped like a bowl or oyster shell," he said. "About 70 to 80 million years ago, the Western Interior Seaway cut directly across what is now Northern Canada, all the way down to the Texas gulf coast. That's why this is such an organically-rich area with a lot of oil and gas – the shale play spans from lower Texas through New Mexico, Northern Colorado, Wyoming and up to Canada. We were on the western coastline of this inland sea."

John Byrom describes an "oyster shell," which includes dry gas at the top, or north end, of the diagram, gradually changing to wet gas in the middle and then oil at the bottom, or south end of the diagram.

Byrom said the material in this Cretaceous seaway that — over the course of millions of years — would be transformed into oil and gas was a goopy, dense organic material that collected in deep sea water.

"It's wasn't material from dinosaurs, but rather was composed of organic sea creatures — many of them microscopic — that fell to the bottom of the sea. The material didn't decay, but was sealed in by clay."

Cycles of the sea level rising and falling led to the various geologic strata that are seen during a drilling operation: layers of sand (that would later become sandstone) composing the ancient beaches would be covered by encroaching layers of organic sea material (that would later become shale). The seaway regressed as the sea level fell, and another layer of sand would be deposited on top of the organic sea material as a new beach formed where the former sea had been — all of this taking place over millions of years, stacking up layers of shale, sandstone and limestone.

One of the slides showing a cross-section of the San Juan Basin used by John Byrom during his presentations.

"Things were very different in the basin 81 million years ago because at that time it was underwater or was swampland," said Byrom. "That's why you can walk out to the badlands and find fossilized tropical tree trunks — that area was once a swampy, tropical area."

Our coal formations, Byrom said, were actually peat bogs millions of years ago that were left after the sea had receded from the basin.

"That's why we have a lot of coal in the basin — this was really a tropical place," he said.

Whether organic material turned into gaseous, liquid or solid form, said Byrom, was determined by how much compression and heat it was exposed to. More highly-compressed — and thus more highly-heated — material was more likely to turn into gas because the combination of pressure and heat caused the molecules to break down, creating gases such as propane and methane.

Pressure created by the mass of nearby mountains transformed the San Juan Basin into its giant bowl or "oyster shell” shape, Byrom said, with the deeper, more compressed layers located near the Colorado border and shallower layers located in the southern part of the basin, nearer to Gallup. That's why the northern part of the basin yields dry gas and the center liquid gas. The southern, more shallow, parts of the basin is where most of the oil is located.

"The product flows out into the sandstone layers surrounding it, and that's why drilling used to be done into the sandstone," said Byrom. "In the 1950s, we started doing hydraulic fracking, but the shale was too tight to go into, so fracking was taking place in surrounding layers."

A big breakthrough took place in the 1990's, said Byrom, when scientists learned how to extract natural gas out of coal bed methane formations, such as the Fruitland Coal formation. Drilling for gas in this area exploded after this time.

In addition to the geology of the area and the differences between the various producing formations, Byrom's presentation covers the history of 100 years of oil and gas production within the San Juan Basin and the many booms and busts that have occurred over the years. Over 40,000 wells have been drilled within the basin since the first oil well was drilled here in 1911, he said.

"Times were good in the basin from the late 1990's to 2008," he said. "In 2007, we were drilling away and had over 40 rigs. Then multi-stage fracking into the shale source rock itself started taking place, and that was revolutionary because we were able to access many square miles from just one well pad, and with much less surface disturbance."

Development and intensive production of the Marcellus formation in the Appalachian Basin (in the northeastern part of the U.S.) made it the “king" of shale natural gas, said Byrom, and changed prospects for the San Juan Basin.

"That, more than anything, killed the basin because it flooded the market with gas," he said. "Also, once oil prices dropped, gas prices dropped too. That's been especially painful for producers in the basin."

The bubble finally burst in 2007, and it's never recovered, he said.

"In 2009, we were down to 10 to 15 rigs, and in 2012, there were less than five rigs (the latest San Juan Basin rig report as of April 4 lists four working rigs operated by BP America, Encana Corp. and WPX Energy). We have lost around 5,000 jobs, with people moving away to find work or choosing to still live here but work elsewhere."

OPEC adjustments in 2008 and 2009 helped oil prices begin to recover, Byrom said, causing U.S. producers to focus on horizontal drilling for oil, most recently within the Permian Basin.

John Byrom talks about the San Juan Basin at his PESCO office earlier this month.

Byrom said he feels the outlook for the San Juan Basin doesn’t have to be bleak, so long as people who live within the basin recognize what needs to be done.

"While gas prices haven't recovered, oil (prices are) starting to creep up, and that's encouraging," he said. "Where do we go from here? We need to find a way to be more competitive and that's what we're trying to do, but federal agencies are going to have to work with oil and gas companies — we need a more cooperative environment."

There are more than 200 active wells within the city limits of Farmington, Byrom said, and it’s important to realize thanks to natural gas production, carbon dioxide emissions are down.

Byrom, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, gained his extensive knowledge of the basin over many years working in the extractive industries. He worked for 22 years with the local independent oil and gas company D.J. Simmons serving as its president, coordinating with geologists on numerous drilling projects and attending industry training seminars. He has also served on various industry-related boards such as the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, and has represented the oil and gas industry in front of state legislators.

Byrom said his involvement with local economic groups over the past seven years, first as a founding member of the E>P economic think tank and currently as a board member for Four Corners Economic Development, has helped to educate him on the need to maintain a strong economic base within the county.

"Gas helps foster green energy goals, and as a community, we need to look at how we can increase jobs. But we also need to find ways to diversify,” he said. “The pearl within the ‘oyster shell’ of the Basin is still ours for decades to come, so it's up to the people who live here to defend our industry. We need to fight for what's right, and we should not look back."

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.