Marfa basin

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The Marfa Basin is located on the southernmost segment of the Permian Basin, tucked along the great Ouachita Thrust trend, which stretches 1,500 miles from Mexico, through Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas and into Mississippi The Marfa is a deep, tectonically complicated basin that's largely covered in Tertiary volcanic sediments. But, it contains some 15,000 feet of Paleozoic sediments, and is a little brother to the prolific Delaware Basin of West Texas.


Ouachita Thrusts [1]

During the early 1900’s during the initial exploration boom in Texas, the region was viewed as a “graveyard”. The area of the country where the Delaware and Permian Basin is located is arid and sparsely populated. During the early 1920’s there was not a single producing well within 100 miles of the basin. In 1923 the Santa Rita #1 was drilled in the Delaware Basin located to the north of the Marfa, and struck oil, producing 150 barrels of oil a day.[2] The first wells in the Marfa Basin were attempted in the 1940's by wildcatters attempting to find fields like those in the mighty Delaware, unfortunately were met with disappointing results. Finding there were lots of structures, but fresh-to-brackish water and dead oil were pervasive in the potential reservoir rocks.In the mid-1990s, independent Alpine Inc., doing business as Steve Knox Oil Co., drilled a 5,120-foot well that ignited a flame of interest. The #1-480 Barrett, about 14 miles south of the town of Marfa.[3] The #1-480 Barret would become the first commercial success for the basin it made marginal volumes of oil from a small drainage area.[4]

Geologic Structure

Bordered by the Davis Mountains on the north and east, the cretaceous flats on the southeast, to the west lay the Van Horn mountains. Formed by Laramide tectonic forces, this area has experienced several major tectonic events, extending from the Precambrian (Grenville orogeny) into the late Cenozoic (Laramide orogeny, and Basin and Range/Rio Grande rift extension).[5] The gravity field in this region is a product of both Phanerozoic features and the heterogeneity of the Precambrian basin. It is surrounded by uranium rich source rocks.In each layer, thickness variations of Phanerozoic sedimentary rocks explain a major portion of the observed gravity anomalies.[6]

Marfa Basin Stratigraphy [7]

Geologic Risks and Uncertainties

This formation has many challenges. The volcanic cover can disrupt seismic imaging and it is incredibly difficult to drill through. Like many other basins in the area; hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is key to development of the unconventional wells in this basin. Also, this being located in an arid and desert like location, locating and sourcing enough water for a frack job will come with its own complications and costs. In addition, with unconventional wells the need to transport millions of pounds of proppant from the trains that bring them in to the well site is another logistical problem that adds significant cost to the wells. H2S or Hydrogen Sulfide is another potential risk, H2S can corrodes pipes and can be deadly if proper precautions aren't taken.[8] Prairie chickens are an endangered bird that happen to live throughout areas West Texas. Well producers must abide by regulations as to not disturb the birds unnecessarily. Drillers need to file a plan that shows how they will prevent environmental harm coming to the birds. This includes limiting unnecessary travel through their habitat and not drilling during certain times of the day when the birds are active.[9]

Petroleum System


A seal is a relatively impermeable, a seal is a layer of rock that forms a barrier or cap above and around a reservoir rock. Commonly composed of shale, chalks, clays, anhydrite or salt, a seal helps prevent fluids from migrating beyond the reservoir. It is sometimes also referred to as a cap rock. The seals in this basin are primarily dolomite and organic to inorganic limestones, together sand and silty elastics. These fluids migrated into traps both within the basin and into peripheral shelf carbonate rocks surrounding it. Thick evaporite deposits developed during the late Permian formed an effective reservoir seal. With progressively deeper burial in the basin, the heavier hydrocarbons were converted into gas.[10]

Marfa Stratigraphic Column [11]

Source Rock and Migration

Late Devonian through early Mississippian time, a widespread dormancy, changing facies conditions, marine environment covered the whole area and promoted the extensive deposition of black mud and siliceous ooze.[12] As the facies shifted over geologic time, they left behind various layers of alternating shales as the depositional environment shifted with the water level. In unconventional plays, the source rock and the reservoir is the same. In the Carboniferous system, organic rich shales and limestones are considered to be important hydrocarbon source beds. In the Permian system organic rich shales and shaly limestones are considered to be primary and important indigenous hydrocarbon source beds.

Paleographic time sequence, from youngest to oldest, of the evolution of the Greater Permian Basin, Source: DI 2.0 Paleo Layer[13]


Older Paleozoic oil and natural gas are not evenly distributed throughout the Permian basin. The Central Basin Platform accounts or 60 percent of the discovered oil in-place, followed by the Midland Basin with 24 percent. In contrast, the Delaware-Val Verde Basin accounts for about 80 percent of the discovered non-associated gas in-place, Most of the discovered oil and dissolved/associated gas are found at depths between 8,000 and 14,000ft.[14] Non-associated gas is concentrated between depths of 9,000 and 22,000ft.


The traps in the Marfa are stratigraphic and anticline, they include reef mounds, atolls, and sandstone bodies deposited. Local porosity has developed in weathered cherty limestone beds of Mississippian age. The seals for all Carboniferous traps are either shales or impervious limestone beds.[15]

Future Potential

The lack of production in the Marfa basin remains an enigma. Although covered with approximately 3,000 ft of thick volcanics, the basin has Paleozoic stratigraphy and lithologies similar to the prolific Delaware basin to the east. But, unlike its bigger brother it has seen far less success. As recently as 2016 Apache Corporation, pulled the plug on an area called the "Alpine High Play" which was once a great hope turned to a disaster in relatively short time. In series involving multiple factors the company reported a loss of $3 billion in 2019 Q4 financial report.[16] The future is undetermined for the little basin, the shales are present, and they are prospective. The driver is figuring out the correct drilling and completion technologies needed to be more successful.

Petroleum and Facility Engineering

CO2 injection has been an increasingly effective method of enhanced oil recovery for unconventional wells within the Delaware Basin. However, the marginal increase in production has been less than other wells that used CO2 injection. Researchers speculate this is due to the turbidity channel depositional environment for targets in the Delaware Basin.[17] Mud logs, porosity analysis and other logging techniques are extremely important in confirming the mineralogy and lithology of the target formation in order to have the right information for the frack job.[18]

See Also

Permian Basin; Delaware Basin


If you have used <ref> tags in the text, you need a References section. Use {{reflist}} as a prettier and more flexible alternative to the more esoteric <references /> tag

  1. Williams, Peggy. “Marfa Basin.” Hart Energy, 1 Oct. 2006,
  2. Darcy, Joseph R. “From the Drake Well to the Santa Rita #1: TheHistory of the U.S. Permian Basin: A Miracle OfTechnological Innovation.” Oil and Gas, Natural Resources, and Energy Journal 3, no. 5 (January 1, 2018).
  3. Williams, Peggy. “Marfa Basin.” Hart Energy, 1 Oct. 2006,
  4. Williams, Peggy. “Marfa Basin.” Hart Energy, 1 Oct. 2006,
  5. Shurbet, D. H., and C. C. Reeves. “The Fill in Marfa Basin, Texas: Geologic Notes.” AAPG Bulletin, GeoScienceWorld, 1 Apr. 1977,
  6. Oueity, J., et al. “Structure of the Marfa Basin, Trans-Pecos Texas: An Integrated Geophysical Study.” NASA/ADS, American Geophysical Union, Dec. 2002,
  7. Williams, Peggy. “Marfa Basin.” Hart Energy, 1 Oct. 2006,
  8. Xia, Daniel “Hydrogen Sulfide in the Permian Basin” AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition (April 4, 2017).
  9. Jankowitz, R., 2007. Oil And Gas Development Guidelinesconserving New Mexico’S Wildlife Habitats And Wildlife. [online] Available at: <
  10. United States, Congress, U.S. Geological Survey, and Keith Robinson. PETROLEUM GEOLOGY AND HYDROCARBON PLAYS OF THE PERMIAN BASIN PETROLEUM PROVINCE WEST TEXAS AND SOUTHEAST NEW MEXICO, pp. 1–56. Open-File Report 88-450Z.
  11. Williams, Peggy. “Marfa Basin.” Hart Energy, 1 Oct. 2006,
  12. United States, Congress, U.S. Geological Survey, and Keith Robinson. PETROLEUM GEOLOGY AND HYDROCARBON PLAYS OF THE PERMIAN BASIN PETROLEUM PROVINCE WEST TEXAS AND SOUTHEAST NEW MEXICO, pp. 1–56. Open-File Report 88-450Z.
  13. Sutton, Leslie, et al. “The Midland Basin vs. the Delaware Basin – Understanding the Permian.” Enverus, 2 Aug. 2021,
  14. United States, Congress, U.S. Geological Survey, and Keith Robinson. PETROLEUM GEOLOGY AND HYDROCARBON PLAYS OF THE PERMIAN BASIN PETROLEUM PROVINCE WEST TEXAS AND SOUTHEAST NEW MEXICO, pp. 1–56. Open-File Report 88-450Z.
  15. United States, Congress, U.S. Geological Survey, and Keith Robinson. PETROLEUM GEOLOGY AND HYDROCARBON PLAYS OF THE PERMIAN BASIN PETROLEUM PROVINCE WEST TEXAS AND SOUTHEAST NEW MEXICO, pp. 1–56. Open-File Report 88-450Z.
  16. Borden, Mitch. “Apache Gives up on Alpine High Play after Losing Billions.” KRTS 93.5 FM Marfa Public Radio, Marfa Public Radio, 14 Mar. 2020,
  17. Shirley P. Dutton, William A. Flanders, Mark D. Barton; Reservoir characterization of a Permian deep-water sandstone, East Ford field, Delaware basin, Texas. AAPG Bulletin ; 87 (4): 609–627. doi:
  18. Malik, Mayank, Christopher Schmidt, Ed Joseph Stockhausen, Nathan Kyle Vrubel, and Ken Schwartz. “Integrated Petrophysical Evaluation of Unconventional Reservoirs in the Delaware Basin.” SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, 2013.