From Dinosaur Tracks to Oil

Just 25 km west of Denver, the Dakota Hogback at Dinosaur Ridge offers an opportunity to explore striking rock exposures and vistas, ancient dinosaur tracks, and oil seeps at the edge of a major oil and gas producing basin.
This article appeared in Vol. 6, No. 3 - 2009


Constructed in 1971, the I-70 road cut is not only colorful, it allows close examination of Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous formations that dip to the east into the Denver Basin. To the right of the photo are the Precambrian rocks of the Front Range. The Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary is just below (to the right of) first light colored rock band (about a third of the way from the right edge of the photo). The dinosaur-rich Morrison Formation lies below (right) of this rock bank. The primary producing interval for the Denver Basin, the Muddy (J) Sandstone in the Dakota Group, is on the far left of the ridge. Photo: Tom Smith More than 1.0Bbo and 3.70Tcf (650MMboe) of gas have been produced from the Denver Basin that encompasses the area east of the Front Range in Colorado and Wyoming. Of the more than 1,500 oil and gas fields found in the basin, Colorado's Florence field is the oldest, discovered in 1881. It is said to be the longest continuously working field in the United States.  

The Dakota Hogback offers a rare opportunity to peek into the strata that source and produce much of the oil and gas in the Denver and other nearby basins. Dinosaur tracks and fossils, views of Denver and historic Golden, hiking the ridge, and eye-catching rock formations are a few of the by-lines.  

Red Rocks

Oil stained lower Cretaceous Muddy (J) Sandstone in the US 285 road cut at Turkey Creek. Several wells were drilled less than 1.6 km east of this location, encountering the Muddy (J) Sandstones 2,700 m in depth that were too tight to be produced. Photo: Tom Smith In the long, distant past, most of Colorado had been reduced to a plain underlain by one to two billion year old metamorphic and granitic rock. The erosion of these Precambrian and possibly younger rocks left over one billion years of geologic history missing in the Dinosaur Ridge area, nearly a quarter of our planet's age. This gap in the geologic record is known as the Great Unconformity.  

Around 300 million years ago (Late Carboniferous), a continent to continent collision occurred associated with the assembly of the Gondwana supercontinent. This collision formed uplifts from what is now Arkansas to Utah. The two largest ranges formed in Colorado becoming the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. An eastern range was pushed up near where the Front Range stand today was called Frontrangia.  

These mountains were eroded, shedding terrigenous debris in all directions as a complex of shallow braided channels deposited on alluvial fans adjacent to the uplift and directly over the Precambrian basement. The rocks were later uplifted and tilted as a result of the Laramide orogeny starting about 70 million years ago. Subsequent erosion has formed the beautiful landscapes that make Red Rocks Park and the Fountain Formation a major attraction.

Inland seas

The Fountain Formation forms spectacular flatirons and bluffs west of Denver and forms a large amphitheater like few other places in the world. Flanked by two 100 m high monoliths, Ship Rock and Creation Rock, the amphitheater took 12 years to construct. Dedicated in 1941, the acoustics and scenery are unmatched. Photos: Tom Smith Following deposition of the Fountain Formation, Permian and Triassic times were arid with the deposition of desert dune and fluvial sands of the Lyons Formations and muddy coastal plain redbeds of the Lykins and Ralston Creek formations.  

Major climatic change came to the area with the Mid-Jurassic breakup of the Pangea supercontinent. A wet, temperate climate returned to the area of Dinosaur Ridge promoting lush vegetation and supporting a growing population of dinosaurs. During the Jurassic, sandstones, red and gray shales, and thin gray limestones accumulated at the edge of a vast inland sea that covered much of the Midwest and extended north into Canada.  

Dinosaur fossils were found in these rocks near the small, historic town of Morrison in 1877. This location at the south end of Dinosaur Ridge lent the name, Morrison Formation, to this Jurassic strata that covers over 1 million km² in 13 midwestern and western states and equivalents in Canada. Dinosaur wise, the Morrison is some of the most fossiliferous on Earth. Other famous fossil locations include Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, Utah, Como Bluff, Wyoming, and outcrops near Canon City and Grand Junction, Colorado. It is also a major source of uranium with mining occurring on the Colorado Plateau in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.  

Covering such a large area, the Morrison landscape was varied. The area north of present day Montana was close to the coast of the Jurassic sea. Coal beds were deposited in this area where the environment was much wetter and the landscape was covered with swamps and abundant vegetation. In areas such as western Colorado, the climate was much dryer and most of the plant and animal fossils are found in river and lake deposits.

The Dakota sandstones

The Red Rocks Park is loctaed due west of Denver in the Rocky Mountains. Red dots are gas wells, green dots are oil wells while black dots denotes dry wells. Cartography: USGS Large sauropod track impressions left in the Morrison bedding at Dinosaur Ridge. Some areas are so heavily trampled they can be called ‘dinoturbated’. Photo: Tom Smith Deposited along the shoreline of the Western Interior Seaway that extended from the present day Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic, Early Cretaceous sandstone units of the Dakota Group form the backbone of the dominate hogback that parallels the Front Range. Sandstones deposited along this seaway are the primary reservoir rocks for the Denver Basin. Most production has been from Muddy (J) Sandstone and the (D) Sandstone. A walk up the trail at Dinosaur Ridge shows many of the depositional features of the Dakota as well as some interesting surprises.  

The Wattenberg field north of Denver is the largest and most continuous-type gas accumulation in the Denver Basin. The primary reservoir is the Muddy (J) Sandstone which can be seen in outcrop along the Dakota Hogback. (Continuous-type accumulations include coal bed gas, low-permeability gas, and fractured shales and are not significantly affected by hydrodynamics like most conventional accumulations.) The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the ultimate recovery from current wells will be 1.27Tcf (230MMboe) of gas with a potential 1.09 Tcf (200MMboe) that could be added over the next 30 years.

Denver Basin petroleum system

The Cretaceous Dakota Group contains many dinosaur track locations like this one on a bed exposed on Dinosaur Ridge. Two different animals walked across the once coastal plain. The most common are the large, broad three-toed tracks left by the hind feet of an ornithopod-like Iquanodon. This herbivore could walk on two or four legs (the front foot prints are the small crescent-shaped tracks). The smaller and thinner three-toed tracks were left by a small, carnivorous theropod like an Ornithomimus or Gallimimus. This animal was about the size of a modern ostrich and only walked on its hind feet. Photo: Tom Smith All petroleum systems need a source for the hydrocarbons and several ‘hot' or very organic-rich zones in shale units are found directly above the reservoir sandstones of the Dakota Group. Exposures can be found in the low-lying hills to the east of the Dakota Hogback.  

The organic-rich layers occur in the Graneros, Greenhorn, Niobrara, and Pierre Formations. Widespread marine condensed sections were deposited in the lower 275 m of the Upper Cretaceous with about 150 m of this interval containing 1 to 6 percent total organic carbon.  

The Denver Basin is a structural basin where, after deposition and burial, the rock units were downwarped into structural lows. This deformation resulted from the Laramide orogeny, occurring between 71 and 50 Ma. The source rocks near the center of the basin generated large volumes of oil and gas where the greatest heat flux was concentrated. Hydrocarbons migrate laterally and updip into a variety of stratigraphic, anticlinal, and fault traps. Oil generation occurred early in the basin's deformation and increasing burial temperatures may have generated the thermogenic gas produced in the Wattenberg field today.  

Now we have gone nearly full circle. From the times ancient seas flooded the region depositing some of the key ingredients found in the Denver Basin petroleum system to the dinosaurs that roamed along the rivers and shorelines. The Rockies would rise in the background, tilting the strata of the basin that would help ‘cook' the carbon-rich source rocks and trap hydrocarbons. Along the western edge of the basin, erosion would eventually leave the impressive landforms near the Front Range and expose the wonders of the Dinosaur Ridge we see today.



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