Oil and Gas

Oil and Gas | Unconventional Resources

Unconventional Resources: The Main Oil Systems (Colorado, USA)

Course Code: N184
Instructors:  Steve Sonnenberg
Course Outline:  Download
Format and Duration:
5 days


Industry success in unconventional oil petroleum systems has completely changed the landscape of the industry. That success has been driven by the need for oil in North America (to reduce imports) and new technology. This survey course will look at diverse unconventional oil petroleum systems, with an emphasis on the tight rocks (the source rock itself and pervasive tight reservoirs), as these are the focus of many successful recent and current plays in the United States and Canada. The course will summarize many of these exciting new resource fields, which of course we now use as analogues for future plays.

Business Impact: Participants attending this course will attain a comprehensive overview of unconventional oil petroleum systems and their current working models and technologies, which are important in trying to evaluate and predict these plays. 


This course gave me a good understanding of what an unconventional resource is and what makes them work as a possible hydrocarbon

Duration and Training Method

The course comprises three days of classroom lectures, one day of core examination, and one day in the field. The core workshop will be held at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado.

Course Overview

Participants will learn to:

  1. Develop the current working model for the tight reservoir plays (our most active).
  2. Appraise oil resource plays, their worldwide occurrences and how our understanding of them has evolved over time.
  3. Contrast these large accumulations with conventional oil fields.
  4. Compare the major characteristics of each accumulation type.
  5. Characterize how each accumulation type can vary from accumulation to accumulation.
  6. Examine cores to determine both the lithologic and petrophysical characteristics of these types of plays.
  7. Review production and resource numbers for each play type.
  8. Discuss the technology required to produce or develop these plays.
  9. Assess the environmental challenges for developing these resources.  

Finding reserves in conventional oil plays is becoming increasingly challenging around the world, however improved technologies have led to a resurgence of interest in unconventional oil plays, also known as pervasive tight oil plays. These include pervasive tight oil sands, mature oil source rocks, tar sands / heavy oil and oil shales, each of which is covered. Coal to liquids projects (CTL) are active in other parts of the world and are also examined in the course.

1. Overview

  • Definitions
  • Objectives
  • Some useful concepts
  • Basic reserve / production numbers
  • Systems we will examine

2. Our Current Working Model

  • For Mature Oil Source Rock Plays
  • For Pervasive Tight Reservoir Plays
  • Adjustments Required in Our Thinking
  • Forces of Expulsion (Rather Than Forces of Buoyancy)
  • The Systems are Dynamic
  • Nanoporosity Develops in the Kerogen

3. Source Rocks

  • Types
  • Organic Richness
  • Maturity
  • Products

4. Mature Oil Source Rocks

  • Main characteristics
  • Examples of current plays: Bakken, Niobrara, Eagle Ford, Greenhorn, Graneros, Vaca Muerta (Argentina)
  • Other key considerations
  • Critical elements for play


5. Pervasive Tight Reservoir Systems

  • Historical Perspective
  • Importance
  • Examples
    - Austin Chalk (a type locality)
    - Cardium (Canada) (the new halo plays)
    - Wolfberry (new oil in old places)

6. Heavy Oil – Tar Sands

  • Names they go by and definitions
  • Examples of active plays: Southern California Heavy Oil Fields, Athabasca Tar Sands.
  • Technological challenges
  • Environmental considerations
  • Some production and resource numbers

7. Oil Shales

  • What are they?
  • The world’s largest: Green River oil shale, CO
  • Other examples: Brazil, Estonia, China
  • Technology being considered / developed
  • Environmental considerations
  • Reserves / resource numbers

8. Coal to Liquids

  • Origin of technology
  • What is currently being done
  • Technical problems
  • Environmental issues
  • What is on the horizon

9. Core Examination (Day 4)     

  1. Bakken oil play, Williston Basin, ND and MT
  2. Niobrara mature source rock, Denver Basin, CO
  3. Codell sandstone, Denver Basin, CO
  4. J Sand, Wattenberg field, CO
  5. Athabasca tar sand, Alberta Basin, Canada
  6. Green River oil shale, Piceance Basin, CO


10. Field Trip to the Denver Basin (Day 5)

  1. Pervasive tight oil play (Codell, J-sand)
  2. Mature oil source rock (Niobrara)
  3. Tar sand (Dakota)

The course is intended for sub-surface professionals who are exploring for or developing these unconventional systems and for managers and others who want a concise overview of the critical subsurface characteristics of these pervasive accumulations.

Steve Sonnenberg

Steve's research interests are in sequence stratigraphy, tectonic influence on sedimentation, reservoir characterization, unconventional resources and all aspects petroleum traps (e.g., reservoir, trap, seal, migration, source rocks). A complete understanding of a petroleum accumulation can provide an analog to discovering additional oil and gas fields. Much of the world’s future resource lies in unconventional reservoirs (tight sands, CBM, and oil and gas shales).

Work Experience
• Exxon Company USA
• Bass Enterprises Production Company
• North America Resources (sold to Pan Canadian)
• Pan Canadian Energy Resources (merged with Alberta Energy to form EnCana)
• EnCana Energy Resources
• Westport Oil and Gas (merged with Kerr McGee)
• Kerr McGee Oil and Gas (merged with Anadarko)
• Anadarko Petroleum

Affiliations and Accreditation
PhD Colorado School of Mines
MS  Texas A&M University
BS  Texas A&M University

Courses Taught
N184: Unconventional Resources: The Main Oil Systems (Colorado, USA) 
N289: The Niobrara Formation as a Resource Play (Colorado, USA)
N271: The Bakken Petroleum System as a Resource Play (Montana & Wyoming, USA)

CEU: 4 Continuing Education Units
PDH: 40 Professional Development Hours
Certificate: Certificate Issued Upon Completion
RPS is accredited by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) and is authorized to issue the IACET CEU. We comply with the ANSI/IACET Standard, which is recognised internationally as a standard of excellence in instructional practices.
We issue a Certificate of Attendance which verifies the number of training hours attended. Our courses are generally accepted by most professional licensing boards/associations towards continuing education credits. Please check with your licensing board to determine if the courses and certificate of attendance meet their specific criteria.