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An aerial view of the Jonah Field.  (Collection of Bill Lanning)
Wells in the Jonah Field.  (BLM)

The Jonah Story:  Transformation, Innovation, and Success

By Bill Lanning

The Jonah Field is a 30,000-acre, 6-mile-long, wedge-shaped area nestled in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin between the Wind River and Wyoming Mountain Ranges.  The area is named after the Jonah Gulch, an intermittent drainage that meanders nearby.  Wildlife in the area is abundant, including birds of prey and large and small game mixed with domestic cattle and wild horses.  Over three-plus decades, the Jonah has grown from a scattering of wells to one of the highest production natural gas fields in the country.

My first visit to the “Jonah Field” was in the summer of 1980.  Bob Nelson, a supervisory range conservationist, and I were new to the resource area.  Our path on that first visit led us up Reardon Draw from the west.  We were checking on a report of dead sheep.

Even back then, the Jonah was dotted with wells, but in contrast to today, they consisted of an occasional livestock water well with a windmill or submersible pump.  It was at one of the windmills, the Log Well, that Bob and I found the dead sheep.  Apparently, they had been drinking from the metal trough at the foot of the windmill tower when lightning hit. 

Natural gas development began in the Jonah Field in the 1970s.  In 1975, the Davis Oil Company, owned by Marvin Davis, drilled a well about a mile southeast of the Log Well windmill and encountered “tight sands.”  Imagine trying to extract gas or fluid from a concrete driveway or sidewalk.  The tight sands in the Lance Formation are even more dense than that. 

The next two decades would prove frustrating for operators in the burgeoning field.  The tightness of the formation led Davis’ company to sell its assets in 1981 to Home Petroleum Corporation.  Home drilled a pair of wells in 1986 and 1987, but the less-than-desirable geology and lack of a pipeline moved the firm to unload the assets to Presidio Oil Company in 1989.  Rather than sink more money into the Jonah, Presidio concentrated its efforts to the southwest of the Jonah and soon placed its holdings in the field on the market.

In 1991, the McMurry Oil Company decided to purchase the Jonah assets with other partners.  The McMurry partners installed the first pipeline in 1992 to produce gas from the three existing wells.  They quickly discovered that their new property was stingy with its release of natural gas.  Needing a better mousetrap, they enlisted the help of petroleum engineer James Shaw.  In 1995, Shaw arrived at a solution that used a nitrogen-foam-based fracturing fluid to pry apart the tight rock formation.  Production in the field quickly skyrocketed from less than 1 million cubic feet per day to 4 million cubic feet daily.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In June 2000, Alberta Energy Company, now Encana Natural Gas, acquired McMurry’s Jonah holdings and is currently the major interest holder in the Jonah Field.  Companies operating today have brought the field from that first well in1975 to one of the top ten natural gas fields in the United States, with an annual production of approximately 3.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas from 2,582 federal and 218 state wells. 

The BLM has been involved in the development of the Jonah Field since the early 1980s and has prepared five environmental assessments and environmental impact statements (EISs) on drilling in the area.  The BLM completed the Jonah Infill Drilling Project EIS in 2006 to provide for the drilling of 3,200 additional wells. 

Like many BLM projects, the development of the Jonah Field has been ensnared in its share of public controversy.  The field sits within part of the longest big game migration route in the continental United States.  The pronghorn migration route runs from Grand Teton National Park, about 90 miles north of Jonah, to the Rock Springs area 60 miles to south.  In the Jonah area, the route is 15 to 20 miles wide, and the pronghorn continue to travel through and around the field.

Natural gas production in the Jonah likely also contributed to recent wintertime ozone occurrences in the Upper Green River Basin.  Just as the tight sands triggered advances in petroleum engineering, the ozone problem has also triggered innovation.  Encana has converted its entire drill rig fleet from diesel to natural-gas-fired engines.  The company has also consolidated production facilities to reduce the number of potential emission sources, employed a full-time person to monitor and control emission leaks, and installed more efficient combustors at production facilities. 

The story of the Jonah Field is still being written, and the BLM continues to play a crucial role in it.

Bill Lanning has been the minerals and lands resource advisor for the High Desert District, Wyoming, since 2009, and is nearing 40 years of federal service.  During his 32 years at Pinedale, Bill has also been the associate field manager, a supervisory natural resource specialist, and a forester.