Controls on organic matter distributions in Eocene Lake Uinta, Utah and Colorado

Mountain Geologist
By: , and 



The Green River Formation deposited in Eocene Lake Uinta in the Uinta and Piceance Basins, Utah and Colorado, contains the largest oil shale resource in the world with an estimated 1.53 trillion barrels of oil in-place in the Piceance Basin and 1.32 trillion barrels in the Uinta Basin. The Douglas Creek arch, a slowly subsiding hinge-line between the two basins, created separate deep depocenters with shallow water conditions near the crest of the arch. Lake Uinta was a saline lake throughout its history with a lower saline to hypersaline layer (monimolimnion) and an upper less saline layer (mixolimnion). Most of the organic matter in the Green River Formation was derived primarily from algae that lived in the photic zone of the lake and is very hydrogen-rich and oil-prone. In many modern large and deep lakes, rates of organic matter production are highly variable due to differences in nutrient supply. However, cyclonic circulation often leads to winnowing out organic and mineral matter in the mixolimnion leading to organic and fine-grained mineral matter being deposited in increasing amounts toward hydro-dynamically dead zones in the center of the circulation producing concentric bands of increasing organic matter content. Organic matter transport through the dense, hypersaline monimolimnion may have been facilitated by low density organic matter attaching to more dense clay mineral particles. Most of the oil shale intervals deposited in Lake Uinta display similar patterns in their organic matter distributions, increasing in very regular fashion toward the central areas of the lake’s two depocenters. This concentric feature is particularly prominent in the most laminated oil shale zones. Here, we propose that cyclonic circulation was present in Lake Uinta. Each basin appears to have had its own circulation currents, separated by shallow water conditions near the Douglas Creek arch, as well as one hydro-dynamically dead zone. Sediment gravity flow processes were also very active in some strata of Lake Uinta, leading to the reworking and redepositing of sediments. Two general types of sediment gravity flows are recognized: (1) organic-rich sediment gravity flows that reworked and may have concentrated organic-rich material closer to the two deep depocenters, and (2) sandstone and siltstone-rich organic-poor mass movement deposits that originated on marginal shelves. Mass movements could have been triggered by various natural processes and/or possibly by the movement of dense brines that evolved on marginal shelves and moved along the bottom of the water column toward the deep part of the lake. The uppermost, poorly consolidated sediment layer was incorporated in sediment gravity flows as they moved, and in many cases sediment gravity flows scoured down significantly into the more consolidated underlying sediment producing large rip-up clasts of laminated sediments. Truncation of more than 100 ft occurs at the base of a sequence of sediment gravity flows in one well, indicating a significant incised channel. Coarser-grained sediment gravity flows terminated before reaching the lake’s deepest areas, forming thick concentric buildups of organically-lean sediment near the base of the marginal slopes. Intervals dominated by organic-rich fine-grained sediment gravity flows have tightly concentric bands of increasing organic matter toward the deepest parts of the lake and can be organically richer than the richest laminated intervals. There is some evidence that the hydro-dynamically quiet zones did not always correspond closely to the deepest areas of the lake, extending in some cases into shallower areas.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Controls on organic matter distributions in Eocene Lake Uinta, Utah and Colorado
Series title Mountain Geologist
DOI 10.31582/
Volume 55
Issue 1
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists
Contributing office(s) Central Energy Resources Science Center, Energy Resources Program, Southwest Climate Science Center
Description 40 p.
First page 177
Last page 216
Country United States
State Colorado, Utah
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