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AAPG Bulletin


AAPG Bulletin, V. 83 (1999), No. 3 (March 1999), P. 467-495.

The Search for a Source Rock for the Giant Tar Sand Triangle Accumulation, Southeastern Utah1

J. E. Huntoon,2 P. L. Hansley,3 and N. D. Naeser4

©Copyright 1999.  The American Association of Petroleum Geologists.  All Rights Reserved

1Manuscript received January 17, 1996; revised manuscript received October 10, 1997; final acceptance August 25, 1998.
2Department of Geological Engineering and Sciences, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan 49931; e-mail: [email protected]
3Petrographic Consultants International, Inc., 34226 Gap Road, Golden, Colorado 80403.
4U.S. Geological Survey, 926A National Center, Reston, Virginia 20192.


A large proportion (about 36%) of the world’s oil resource is contained in accumulations of heavy oil or tar. In these large deposits of degraded oil, the oil in place represents only a fraction of what was present at the time of accumulation. In many of these deposits, the source of the oil is unknown, and the oil is thought to have migrated over long distances to the reservoirs. The Tar Sand triangle in southeastern Utah contains the largest tar sand accumulation in the United States, with 6.3 billion bbl of heavy oil estimated to be in place. The deposit is thought to have originally contained 13-16 billion bbl prior to the biodegradation, water washing, and erosion that have taken place since the middle-late Tertiary. The source of the oil is unknown.

The tar is primarily contained within the Lower Permian White Rim Sandstone, but extends into permeable parts of overlying and underlying beds. Oil is interpreted to have migrated into the White Rim sometime during the Tertiary when the formation was at a depth of approximately 3500 m. This conclusion is based on integration of fluid inclusion analysis, time-temperature reconstruction, and apatite fission-track modeling for the White Rim Sandstone. Homogenization temperatures cluster around 85-90°C for primary fluid inclusions in authigenic, nonferroan dolomite in the White Rim. The fluid inclusions are associated with fluorescent oil-bearing inclusions, indicating that dolomite precipitation was coeval with oil migration. Burial reconstruction suggests that the White Rim Sand stone reached its maximum burial depth from 60 to 24 Ma, and that maximum burial was followed by unroofing from 24 to 0 Ma. Time-temperature modeling indicates that the formation experienced temperatures of 85-90°C from about 35 to 40 Ma during maximum burial. Maximum formation temperatures of about 105-110°C were reached at about 24 Ma, just prior to unroofing.

Thermal modeling is used to examine the history of potential source rocks for the White Rim oil. The most attractive potential sources for White Rim oil include beds within one or more of the following formations: the Proterozoic Chuar Group, which is present in the subsurface southwest of the Tar Sand triangle; the Mississippian Delle Phosphatic Member of the Deseret Limestone and equivalent formations, the Permian Kaibab Limestone, the Sinbad Limestone Member of the Triassic Moenkopi Formation, and the Jurassic Arapien Shale, Twin Creek Limestone, and Carmel Formation, which are present west of the Tar Sand triangle; the Pennsylvanian Paradox Formation in the Paradox basin east of the Tar Sand triangle; and the Permian Park City Formation northwest of the Tar Sand triangle. Each formation has a high total organic carbon content and is distributed over a wide enough geographic area to have provided a huge volume of oil. Source beds in all of the formations reached thermal maturity at times prior to or during the time that migration into the White Rim is interpreted to have occurred. Based on all available data, the most likely source for the Tar Sand triangle appears to be the Mississippian Delle Phosphatic Member of the Deseret Limestone. Secondary migration out of the Delle is interpreted to have occurred during the Cretaceous, during Sevier thrusting. Subsequent tertiary migration into the Tar Sand triangle reservoir is interpreted to have occurred later, during middle Tertiary Laramide deformation. 

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