Origins of Gulf’s ‘Super Basin’ Success

Gulf of Mexico from space.
The Sun lights up the Texas and Louisiana coast. According to researchers at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, the unique geology of the Gulf of Mexico has helped contribute to its success as an oil and gas producing ‘super basin’. Credit: NASA

The geologic processes that shaped the Gulf of Mexico basin also deposited and preserved vast reserves of oil and gas, of which only a fraction has been extracted.

That’s the assessment of researchers at the Jackson School of Geosciences who reviewed decades of geological research and current production figures to understand the secret behind the basin’s success.

The research was featured in a December 2020 special volume of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin focused on the world’s super basins: a small number of prolific basins that supply the bulk of the world’s oil and gas.

The Gulf of Mexico remains one of the richest petroleum basins in the world despite 60 years of continuous exploration and development, said lead author John Snedden, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG). He said that the basin’s ability to deliver new hydrocarbon reserves means it will remain a significant resource for Texas and the nation for years to come.

“When we looked at the geologic elements that power a super basin — its reservoirs, source rocks, seals and traps — it turns out that in the Gulf of Mexico, many of those are pretty unique,” he said.

According to the paper, the geologic elements that have made the Gulf of Mexico such a formidable petroleum resource include a steady supply of fine- and coarse-grained sediments, and salt.

In fact, the bulk of the northern offshore basin’s potential remains in giant, deep-water oil fields beneath the salt blanket.

Snedden said there is still much to learn about hydrocarbons beneath the Gulf of Mexico. This is especially true in the southern Gulf of Mexico, which was closed to international exploration until 2014. One of the few publicly available datasets was a series of UTIG seismic surveys conducted during the 1970s. Now, a wealth of prospects is emerging from new seismic imaging of the southern basin’s deep-water region.

Snedden’s research is part of the Gulf Basin Depositional Synthesis project, which he directs. The project has been continuously funded by an industry consortium since 1995.

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