Vitrinite reflectance measurements from surface samples of mudrock and coal show anomalously high values over the Bell Creek oil field. The average vitrinite reflectance (Rm) increases to a maximum of 0.9 percent over the field against background values of about 0.3 percent. The Rm anomaly coincides with a geochemical anomaly indicated by diagenetic magnetite in surface rocks and a geobiologic anomaly indicated by ethane-consuming bacteria. These samples were taken from the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek and Paleocene Fort Union Formations which form an essentially conformable sequence. The depositional environment is similar in both formations, and we expect little variation in the source and composition of the organic matter. The surface R m should be approximately constant because of a uniform thermal history across the field. Temperature studies over local oil fields with similar geology suggest the expected thermal anomaly would be less than 10?C (50?F), which is too small to account for the significantly higher rank over the field. Coal clinkers are rare in the vicinity of Bell Creek and an Rm anomaly caused by burning of the thin, discontinuous coal seams is unlikely. The limited topographic relief, less than 305 m (1,000 ft), over the shallow-dipping homoclinal structure and the poor correlation between Rm and sample locality elevation (r = -0.2) indicate that the Rm anomaly is not due to burial, deformation and subsequent erosion.
We conjecture that activity by petroleum-metabolizing bacteria is a possible explanation of the Rm anomaly. Microseepage from oil reservoirs supports large colonies of these organisms, some of which can produce enzymes that can cleave hydrocarbon side-chains on the kerogen molecule. The loss of these side chains causes condensation of the ring structures (Stach and others, 1982) and consequently increases its reflectance.
These data indicate that vitrinite reflectance may be a useful tool to explore for stratigraphic traps in the Powder River Basin. Further, the large variation of R across the Bell Creek area suggests that vitrinite reflectance data from surface samples should be interpreted with caution.
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A surface vitrinite reflectance anomaly related to Bell Creek oil field, Montana, U.S.A.