Saturday, July 29, 2017


I have no trouble with my enemies, I can take care of them. It is my . . . friends that are giving me trouble.
Warren Harding

 I have been missing from my Blog for several weeks as a big travel loop through the heartland occupied much of my time.  I needed to clear my mind and physically rest my body in preparation for an upcoming surgery (completed).  Crap! Five surgeries in the last two years with the current event replacing the other hip.  This is from a guy who avoided most hospitals until a couple of years ago.  But, I suppose that one should be happy joint replacements are available.  And, I certainly buzz the ringers in the security lines at airports.
I now have two of these metal beauties, one in each hip.  The physician cut of the head of the femur, pounded in the metal spike, enlarged the socket in the pelvis and stuck in a plastic cup, screwed the ball onto the spike and WHAM O, all done in two hours.  I left the hospital the following day.  Diagram supplied by 
The travel loop, other than I-25 from Colorado Springs to Cheyenne, was restful while camping, and visiting friends/relatives proved peaceful.  As for rockhounding, mostly I simply observed the physiography and landscapes.  This posting will describe some interesting geological features usually not associated with my Blog.  For example, glowing rocks in the campground.

Location of the PBR in northeastern Wyoming.  Public Domain photo fro U.S. Geological Survey.
The wind was quite fierce, but our spirits high, as we left Colorado Springs heading north on I-25.  Traversing that road is always a challenge and the wind just complicated matters (I pull a fifth-wheel RV), so it was a slow trip.  I had reserved a camp site in Douglas, Wyoming, and after landing was looking at the crushed rock (gravel) that comprised the site.  You know that geologists always walk with their heads down looking for treasures.  To my surprise I spotted a colorful piece of microcrystalline quartz, probably chalcedony, encased in a limy matrix (maybe a calcareous claystone).  I stuck it under my loupe and it remined me of some of those Montana agates with inclusions.  I then started to notice other interesting specimens of chalcedony, brown to reddish-brown jasper, and even a chalcedony nodule with bands on the rim (a poor agate).  So, I collected few small pieces and threw them under my small UV light.  Much to my surprise many of the chunks produced a beautiful florescence, mostly yellows and greens.  Well, that was exciting so I took the UV light outdoors and noted that several (lots) of the gravel pieces glowed.  Of course, walking around with a black light often attracts curious strangers and this was no exception!  I guess the moral of the story is that not all nondescript rocks used for road gravel are leaverites.  On a “normal” day I probably would not have paid much attention to the gravel; however, boredom and wind will sometimes drive an old rockhound to do strange things!

The original find, a void in a calcareous claystone filled by translucent/transparent chalcedony.  The top photo uses daylight while the lower UV light.  Unfortunately my camera is not sophisticated enough to produce good photos.  The void in top photo is ~2.1 cm.

Gray to white druzy quartz.  Length of druze ~2.7 cm.
Microcrystalline quartz under UV light..  Width ~2.3 cm.
The Douglas area has produced, from late Paleozoic rocks, some stray Fairburn-type agates (see Posting 6 October 2013) but my small pieces look like translucent chalcedony nodules coming out of the local Tertiary rocks---White River to Arikaree groups.  The campground manager could not tell me where the crushed road aggregate was mine/quarried.  However, near Douglas is a Moss Agate Road and a Moss Agate School. I suppose more than anything my finds resemble well known Wyoming Sweetwater Agates.

The next day saw a journey across a really lonely road, WY 59 north to Gillette through the Powder River Basin (PRB).  It is imperative to start travel with a full tank of fuel and a large cup of coffee—not much out there except cattle and oil wells.  In fact, most of the road traffic is associated with the energy industry. 

The PRB (not to be confused with PBR from Milwaukee) is situated in northeastern Wyoming situated between the Black Hills on the east and the Big Horn Mountains of the west and is one of the more prolific energy resource/production areas in the United States.  Oil production has been strong since the late 1800s and from 2000-2013 the production in PRB averaged about 20 million barrels per year, even thru the massive downturn in 2008.  In 2014, production peaked at nearly 42 million barrels and the area was booming (such as the years before 2008) ---no motel rooms available, crowded places to eat, and tax revenue fueled new public buildings in towns like Gillette, Casper and Douglas while the private sector provided numerous new homes. The narrow highways were a nightmare to drive due to the constant traffic of the industry. Natural gas production was also high but the peak production was a few years earlier, ~577 billion cubic feet in 2008.  The boom time prior to 2008 generally was due to world emerging economies and their demands for fuel; however, a global recession in 2008 drastically dropped the price of crude by about 66%.  An economic recovery started the next year and crude eventually recovered to $100-$120 for a few years. The price of crude dropped again in 2014 as new supplies begin to hit the market.  The relationship to a reduced need by large emerging economies was in the equation as well as the United States ramping up production from “shale oil” using fracking techniques while Canada continued production from heavy oil sands.  Drilling in the PRB slowed again and today one can observed rigs “laid down” and other equipment stored in yards.  Commodity reports seem to indicate the producers are “bullish” on the future of the PRB but other reports note prospective operators leaving the area.  In late July 2017, 12 spudded and active rigs were listed in commodity reports and crude (West Texas International; WTI) hovered around $48 barrel.  That price has sort of moved between $40-$50 since late 2014.  

I first encountered this wild area of the PRB in summer 1968 when I worked for an oil company outfitted out of Casper.   A major play was developing in the “Muddy Formation” and my unnamed company came up with a dry hole.  The geologist in charge lost his job and a geologist and I were sent up to the rig for observations on “what went wrong.”   Man, that was scary and we looked at logs and drillings and talked to the driller and sort of decided that the company drilled in the wrong location and missed the sand.  But remember, in those days geologists had logs of past drilled wells and little else to guide them.  I don’t remember any seismic being available for our company but my memory may be fuzzy after 50 years.  The Muddy play was looking for stratigraphic traps in point bar sand deposits in a meandering stream.  Point bars accumulate on the inside of a stream meander and you were probably out of luck if your aim hit the outside of a meander.  The location of these deposits was not an easy job and I was very happy that fall upon returning to the less chaotic world of academe.
A meandering stream with sand point bar deposits forming on the inside of meanders.  Courtesy of U.S Geological Survey.
Petroleum and natural gas are produced from a wide variety of formations in the PRB, almost all of them Cretaceous in age with well depth averaging 8000-11,000+ feet.  Geologists seem to believe the PRB has millions of barrels of oil available for production when the “price is right.” What is that price?  I am way out of my comfort zone acting as an economist!  But here goes.  PRB crude generally sells for about $4 less that WTI (now $48).  So, a couple of active prognosticators have said the break-even price might be $40; however, $44 crude might be profitable but will not make a company rich. Other speculators believe the break-even point is closer to $70-80.  Glad it is not my call.

A more interesting aspect of the PRB, at least in my opinion, was something I studied in 7th grade history class---the Teapot Dome Scandal.  Readers of a certain age might remember this scandal, which until Watergate, was our county’s largest scandal, and one that forever sullied the reputation of President Warren Harding and his administration.
A 1924 cartoon depicting Washington officials racing down an oil-slicked road to the White House, trying to outpace the Teapot Dome Scandal. Photo courtesy of The Granger Collection, New York.
In the early part of the 1900s, especially the teens, the US started conversion from a coal economy to one dominated by petroleum---it was hard to run your autos and tanks on coal.  President William Howard Taft, you know the big guy with the huge mustache, in 1912 decided to name areas in California as Naval Oil Reserves 1 and 2 (to make certain the Navy had fuel in case of a conflict). President Woodrow Wilson followed in 1915 by designating Teapot Dome ( a local landmark) in the PRB as #3. Warren Harding succeeded Wilson and appointed Mr. Albert Fall (rumors were that Fall was Wilson’s poker buddy).  After being rebuffed in his efforts to open Alaska’s resources to private developers, and to transfer federal timber rights (the forest service) to Interior, Fall saw opportunity in the federal oil reserves.  Come 1922 Fall convinced the Secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, to transfer control of the Teapot Dome and California reserves to Interior.  Fall then leased the oil reserves to private companies, Mammoth Oil/Sinclair and Pan American.  The non-competitive lease bids (legal) were a real bargain for the oil companies and the plot thickens.  It seems Secretary Fall was suddenly showing signs of wealth;
Q: When you got to Mr. Sinclair's private car, what if anything, did Mr. Sinclair give you?
A: He gave me a package of bonds.
Q: A package of bonds.
A: Yes.
Q: What kind of bonds?
A: They were three and one half percent Liberty Bonds.
Q: Were they counted there in your presence, in his car?
A: No, sir.
Q: Did you open them?
A: No, sir.
Q: Where did you take them?
A: I took them to the Wardman Park Hotel.
Q: Who lived there?
A: Secretary Fall.
Q: To whom did you deliver them?
A: To him.
Trial Transcript, U.S. v. Fall, October 15, 1929.

Like today, someone stated “let’s form a congressional committee to investigate” and so they did (Committee of Public Lands and Surveys, Senate resolution 282, 67th Congress).  Poor ole Harding died in 1923 as the investigation was heating up and several of his cronies were being investigated for taking bribes and otherwise involving themselves in scandalous things.  Succeeding Harding, Calvin Coolidge appointed two special prosecutors and the public clamored for news.  After a lengthy investigation and some superb sleuthing, Fall lost his ranch and essentially his “life” and was sentenced to the spend time in the Big House. On the other hand, Harry Sinclair spent a few months in the District of Columbia Jail, was released and returned as president of Sinclair Oil and lived a long (d. 1956) and good a life as lots of money can bring.  The other alleged money gifter, Edward Doheny (a close friend of Falls), was acquitted of bribery charges.  As for the oil, the U.S. Courts, in 1927, invalidated the leases to Sinclair and Pan American and Teapot Dome was returned to the Navy and later managed by the Department of the Energy.

As usual, I have a couple of corollary points about the scandal.  Harry Sinclair decided that he did not want to answer some of the committee’s questions on the grounds that Congress had no jurisdiction in asking.  In 1929 the Supreme Court (Sinclair v. United States) ruled that the Senate had every right to investigate the effects of laws it had passed.  About the same time, the Court ruled in 1927 (McGrain v. Daughtery) that congress had the power to investigate the lives and activities of private citizens as it carried out its constitutional duty to legislate (Daughtery had refused to appear before a Senate Committee) (Cherny, unknown date).  So, when you watch the Congressional hearings populating the air today and wonder how Congress can compel a person to testify, just remember the Teapot Dome Scandal!

I like to read books and articles describing life in the late 19th century southwest.  Of course, tales about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War (New Mexico) seem everywhere.  One episode involved the Kid being chased around New Mexico by posses often commanded by his nemesis Pat Garrett.  The Kid was wanted for murder.  Finally, the now-captured Kid, and others, went to trial in Mesilla, New Mexico.  Convicted in April 1881, the Kid was sentenced to hang (some pundits believe the Judge said hang, hang, hang).  The Kid’s attorney for the trial was Albert Jennings Fountain.
Fountain was a leading Republican in New Mexico and was elected to the New Mexico Territorial Legislature in 1888.  Fountain’s opponent was a man named (wait for it) Albert B. Fall.  In 1896 Fountain was helping prosecute suspected cattle rustlers, including Oliver Lee.  Their attorney, Albert B. Fall, was a close friend of Lee and defended him at the trial.  So, it was Fountain vs. Lee and Fall for the position and power of top political boss.  On February 1, 1896, Fountain and his nine-year-old son were ambushed and killed near White Sands, New Mexico.  Suspicion for the murders centered on Oliver Lee and in the trial, he again was defended by Fall.  In fact, many citizens thought Fall played a substantial part in the murders; however, no one was convicted of the crimes. Later, through some political chicanery, Albert B. Fall became the first U.S. Senator from New Mexico and ultimately became Secretary of the Interior.  So now you know, that is the relationship between the Teapot Dome Scandal and Billy the Kid!

Near the north center part of the PRB is Gillette, the center of a massive coal mining district situated along I 90.  The coals of the eastern PRB are near surface veins that were deposited/formed in the very early Tertiary (Paleocene Epoch ~65--55Ma).  Specifically, the seams generally belong to the Tongue River Member of the Fort Union Formation (upper part of formation) and some veins reach 200 feet in thickness.  The Paleocene was hot, humid and wet in the PRB and coal precursor peat beds formed in low-lying swamps, higher level swamps, stream flood plains, abandoned stream channels and interchannel environments (Flores, 1986; Flores and others, 1985).  The massive open pit mines near Gillette are impressive and the Wyoming Geological Survey noted that in peak production the coal is mined at a rate of 12 tons per second, filling 50-70 coal trains per day.  However, in recent years coal has taken a hit due to many power plants switching to natural gas.  History is always repeating itself in the fossil fuel industry—boom to bust then to boom, etc. On March 31, 2016, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal terminated over 500 workers. Peabody, Arch and Alpha Coal have undergone bankruptcies and by 2017 perhaps 2500-3000 workers had been laid off.  Today, in a bust time, energy industries are developing ways to bring manufacturing jobs to the coal rather than shipping the coal to them.  They also are working on ways to capture coal bed methane gas.  The President has promised to loosen environmental regulations that many residents view as the major source of job loss.  However, one statistic stands out: ten years ago coal produced 50% of the nation's power while natural gas produced 20%.  Today, both coal and natural gas each produce about 32% of the nation's power.  And, the price  of natural gas is decreasing even as numerous power plants are switching over.
The Dry Fork Mine near Gillette is managed by Western Fuels.
There are also massive coal seams in the central and western part of the PRB; however, those deposits are fresh water swamp deposits of the Eocene (Tertiary) Wasatch Formation (younger than the Fort Union Formation).  These two formations also contain substantial amounts of uranium that was first mined in the 1950s along the western edge of the PRB.  Today any production of uranium will be/is from in situ leaching (pumping hot water down a pipe to the enriched bed, dissolving the selected minerals, and then pumping the pregnant solution back to the surface for mineral recovery). There seems a good possibility that the uranium was leached downward from Tertiary colcanic tuffs and ash falls (see Posting August, 22, 2013).

Introductory geology textbooks inform students that coal is divided into four different groups based upon the heat produced, fixed carbon, and volatile material: classification ranks are often gradational.   Lignite produces the least amount of heat, has a high moisture content, and is sort of a lithified peat (the parent decayed plant material) but is used in some power plants.  Wyoming’s coal is a rank higher and termed sub-bituminous.  It is used extensively in the production of power in many western and mid-western states. Bituminous coal is also a desired coal for use in power generation and is the major coal rank found in Appalachia.  Anthracite is a very hard metamorphic rock with a high heat content, high carbon content and was often used in the past to heat homes.  In fact, one can still purchase bags of anthracite coal for home heating.  Perhaps coal trucks still deliver anthracite to rural home locations and dump it down the chute into the basement of the home.  I have seen numerous older homes with the chute but am unaware of trucks still delivering coal.  Of course, my knowledge about such is restricted to the Plains and western states.  Anthracite is an uncommon coal today, is expensive (too prohibitive for use in power plants), and mining is generally restricted to small parts of Pennsylvania.  The latest production figures I could locate from the U.S. Energy Information Administration ( indicated that in 2015 anthracite production in the U.S (all from Pennsylvania) was 1953 thousand short tons (TST) compared to 419,515 (TST) of sub-bituminous rank coal.

Wyoming coals are valued for many reasons, not the least of which is their low sulfur content.  Generally speaking, low sulfur coal was formed in areas where fresh water dominated, such as the PRB swamps described above.  High sulfur coal forms in marine water swamps and contains high amounts of SO2 that needs removal by treatment of exhaust gasses (usually scrubbers) in order to not pollute the environment. 

So, I have wandered all over the place in this posting.  In summary, the Powder River Basin is a storehouse of energy products—crude oil, methane coal gas, natural gas, uranium and coal.  It is also a beautiful area when the grasses are green, wild flowers are blooming and animals are roaming.  The open pit coal mine near Gillette deserves a looky for anyone traveling in the area.  So now I am off to South Dakota and the postings will continue.

Bits of trivia:

  • How much is a short ton: the standard ton terminology used in the U.S., that is 2000 pounds.
  • How man gallons in a barrel of crude oil: 42 gallons of crude compared to 31 gallons of beer in a barrel.
  • As a youngster working in my father’s gasoline station (a filling station), I sold “coal oil.”  What is that substance:  Coal oil is a liquid extracted from cannal or candle coal, a high bitumen but soft coal.  What I sold was kerosene, a liquid extracted from petroleum.  Both were used in lanterns and in the “olden days” the terms seemed interchangeable.
  • What about coal oil that I read about today:  today’s coal oil is a fuel extracted from harder coal via chemical wizardry. 
  • Which states are the biggest users of Wyoming:  Illinois and Texas; however, 30 states use Wyoming coal. 
  • How much coal does Wyoming produce:  about 40% of U.S. coal production comes from Wyoming.  Eight of the ten largest coal mines in the U.S. are in the PRB.
  • Does Wyoming produce electricity:  Wyoming is a big producer of electricity and exports about 67% of production and most is from coal or gas fueled plant; however, the number of wind turbines is increasing. .   

Cherney, R.W., date unknown, Graft and oil: How Teapot Dome became the greatest political scandal of its time: History Now; The Journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

Flores, R.M., 1986, Styles of coal deposition in Tertiary alluvial deposits, Powder River Basin, Montana and Wyoming, in Lyons, P.C., and C.L. Rice, eds., Paleoenvironmental and Tectonic Controls in Coal-forming Basins of the United States:  Geological Society of America, Special Paper 210.

Flores, R.M., and F.G. Ethridge, l985, Evolution of intermontane fluvial systems of Tertiary Powder River Basin, Montana and Wyoming, in Flores, R.M., and S.S. Kaplan, eds., Cenozoic Paleogeography of the West-Central United States:  Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Rocky Mountain Section, Symposium 3.